After his parents moved into a retirement community, Jay DeChesere, AIA nearly sold their Wilmington, N.C., home of 20 years. Instead, he opted to transform the shed-roof house into a living laboratory for green building, and in doing so recorded 113.5 points in the LEED for Homes program, one of the highest ever achieved by a remodel.

The gut rehab expanded the 1,230-square-foot ’80s-era structure to 1,648 square feet, largely by converting the garage into living space and then adding a carport. To make the home a true demonstration project, DeChesere approached vendors for discounts and formed a design team to pre-plan various scenarios and determine the most sustainable options.

The charrettes included an eco broker from Suntrust bank who provided advice on how certain decisions might impact the opinions of buyers and the dwelling’s resale value, including how to help outsiders understand the purpose of the property’s limited turf area, whether a green roof would be well-received, how to best orient the new open floorplan, and what was the most marketable number of bedrooms for the size (three).

A key concern of the broker, for instance, was that the garage-turned-home-office in no way resemble its former self. One area where the team ignored resale rules was converting the fireplace into a skylight shaft with an entertainment center below. The risk paid off, as DeChesere says it’s been one of visitors’ most talked-about features.

Once overall design decisions were made, the team went all out, jumping at every opportunity to make sustainable selections, including a 3-kW 14-panel solar array (ground-mounted in the backyard because the existing roof did not offer optimal positioning). Excess power is sold at one-and-a-half times cost to NC GreenPower, a non-profit that uses the energy to supplement the state’s existing power supply; power is also sold to local utility, Progress Energy. Selling the excess kilowatts eliminated the need for storage, DeChesere says, and should help pay the PV system off in six years.

“The whole issue was to make it a demonstration project to show to the public all the strategies available,” explains the architect, who says the team viewed it like taking a dinner menu and sampling each dish.

With that in mind, the house also includes a geothermal system, solar water heating, a green roof, and water reuse for toilet flushing.

But it wasn’t all about flashy products—greening the home started with evaluating the existing envelope. After the crew stripped the house down to the studs, they found that the original builder had used, in addition to fiberglass batts, a 3/4-inch foam insulation board with a vinyl vapor barrier on the outside of the wood studs, creating a thermal break that reduced or eliminated heat/cold transfer through the studs and also provided a natural air seal and some additional R-value. When compared to a foamed-in-place insulation, the wall was almost comparable and with the additional cost considered, it made more sense to leave the batt insulation in place.

The attic's existing blown-in insulation had settled to R-5.  The Energy Rater modeled the home with an R-30 blown-in attic insulation and a radiant barrier versus a foamed-in-place insulation at the roof and found that there was very little difference in the required HVAC system, so little that the additional cost of foam, again, did not make sense.

The remodeled house achieved a HERS rating of 28. Per a blower-door test, the final leakage ratio was 0.21; the final leakage ratio for the duct-blaster test was 0.23.

The crew diverted 91% of waste, including reusing wood studs, donating and recycling materials, and diverting drywall and wood scraps into lawn supplement or mulch. The design team had planned to keep the five-year-old insulated vinyl siding, but when some of the material got stripped off during construction, the remaining panels were sold on Craigslist and replaced with pre-painted fiber-cement from James Hardie.

Among the home’s other conservation-minded features:

  • Occupancy sensors

  • LED and CFL lighting 

  • Energy Star-rated fiberglass Pella windows with Low-E4 glass 

  • Energy Star-rated Whirlpool appliances 

  • 85% of rain falling on the roof is collected for irrigation and toilet flushing

  • Zone-controlled and rain-delay-controlled irrigation 

  • American Standard low-flow showerheads and lav faucets 

  • Toto 1.28-gpf toilet; American Standard dual-flush toilet 

  • Icestone recycled-content bathroom countertops 

  • Reuse of all studs from demolition 

  • Locally harvested and manufactured wood products; FSC-certified lumber where appropriate 

  • Concrete driveway reused as sidewalk pavers 
  • Fresh-air system 

  • MERV-13 filters 

  • Low- and no-VOC finishes 

  • Non-toxic pest control 

  • Concrete countertops made with 40% recycled content

Though he admits the house features more elements than some clients are willing to pay for (after all, the goal was to experience and showcase as many sustainable features as was  practical), DeChesere sees opportunity in showcasing the possibilities and appreciates the lessons that owning the decked-out dwelling provide him as an architect.
“This whole thing is a demonstration in the fact that we can live here and make recommendations for the client,” he says. Experiencing the products first hand helps him spot durability issues for new materials or learn nuances of technologies like the solar hot water system, advice he can pass along to future clients installing the systems.

As part of the demonstration goal, the home was (and continues to be) featured on solar and green-home tours, a tactic that is helping generate new business, DeChesere says. “People are pretty quick to understand and be impressed.” 
Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.