Talk about a learning curve. Not one of the main characters in this story had ever designed and built a sustainable green house, let alone a LEED-certified one. But there’s a first time for everything, and this collaborative first-time effort resulted in a winner. Not just LEED-certified (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a division of the U.S. Green Building Council) but the second-highest designation.
The project started four years ago, when homeowner Matt Sheeleigh had a whim. “Matt came home one day and said we ought to build a LEED house and I said, ‘a what?’” says his wife, Katherine. Matt, an HVAC distributor, is passionate about products that reduce one’s carbon footprint, says Katherine, and he was curious how far they could take that principle with their home-building project.
The Sheeleighs had purchased an existing teardown property in Harding Township, (a stone’s-throw away from Mendham, where they had lived for 15 years) on 7.6 acres of rural land with wildflowers and mature trees. “We’ve always liked the outdoors and been interested in the environment,” says Matt. They were ready for a challenge. “Our goal was to build a traditional home that achieved LEED-certification,” says Matt. “We wanted to prove that [green] doesn’t have to be modern in design.”
During the process, the Sheeleighs, both 52, monitored the nearly four-year project while living on the property with their three children (now 24, 22, and 18).
The Sheeleighs started by hiring architect Matt Porraro to design the house, and his brother, builder Greg Porraro, to build it. “We didn’t try to find a general contractor who had done a LEED building before. We all had to be educated,” says Matt Sheeleigh.
To achieve LEED certification, projects earn points based on the green strategies embraced, such as using energy-saving and sustainable products—including geothermal heating and air conditioning, energy-efficient windows and recycled materials—and energy-conscious building strategies.
For example, waste from a typical project of this size can fill up to 15 dumpsters, says Greg Porraro. For this project, Greg and his team filled only four, “and 95 percent of what went into those containers was recycled. Drywall, cardboard, cans, wood scraps.”
“We were minimizing waste on the front end and the back end,” says Katherine, who personally carted “boxes and boxes” of scrap building supplies to the Pingry School art department. All told, the Sheeleighs delivered 329 pounds of scrap supplies to Pingry, where students use it for sculpture projects.
Surprisingly, recycling didn’t slow the process. “It actually made it a little more streamlined. Everybody knew they had to pay more attention so it moved the project along pretty well,” says Greg.
Proper insulation is an important factor in achieving energy efficiency. “You can buy the most efficient system out there but if your home isn’t insulated properly it won’t work well. I was surprised to learn that,” says Matt Sheeleigh. The Sheeleigh home uses innovative insulation products, including a soy-based Heatlok Soy and blown-in cellulose recycled newspaper insulation.
Energy-efficient windows throughout the house help regulate heat and cold as well. “The doors and windows are air tight,” says Katherine. “The insulation is something like the design of your standard refrigerator—foam insulation and extremely well-sealed.”
More energy savings come from a geothermal heating and cooling unit that taps into the Earth’s constant interior about 10 feet below the ground’s surface. It’s essentially air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.
An outcome of these combined efforts—and the point of energy saving products and building—is evidenced by the Sheeleighs’ monthly electric bill, which runs as low as $89. Katherine admits the electric bill runs higher during winter—the highest one yet was $330—since the geothermal heating system uses an electric heat pump. Still, Matt Porraro estimates a house of this size would typically be racking up a $600 to $1,000 monthly heating bill in colder months. (There is no solar power.)
As building progressed, the Sheeleighs focused on the interiors. They had a long-standing relationship with Oldwick-based interior designer Pam Hillner, so there was no hesitation in collaborating with her. “This was my first big green project,” says Hillner. “It was an incredible education.”
Hillner says the Sheeleighs were already thinking green, without even consciously doing so. “They were always interested in buying antiques over buying something new, so that was the start of it,” she says. This re-purposing/re-using extended to other items as well—much of the existing furniture was reupholstered. What was bought new, says Hillner, was manufactured in the U.S. “We didn’t order anything that had to be shipped from outside the United States,” she says.
For the landscaping, the Sheeleighs turned to a pro, Anthony Sblendorio of Back to Nature Home and Garden in Basking Ridge, who has considerable experience in sustainable garden design.
“This kind of project doesn’t happen unless you have a client who wants to take a drastic, progressive approach,” says Sblendorio. “The Sheeleighs were very forward thinking.” Sblendorio says his firm has a lot of experience in what he calls a regenerative approach to natural resources. “Sustainability isn’t a thing, it’s a process. We don’t want to just check boxes, we want to understand the place and the site and make it regenerative.”
Sblendorio incorporated wildflowers, native plants and locally sourced fieldstone terraces. He’s most proud of the rain garden, which naturally irrigates the entire area. “It’s not just beautiful but functional,” he says. “We want to keep the water within the garden and use it to soak back into the grounds. Certain plants thrive in these conditions.”
Finally completed, the main characters all look upon the project as a lesson well-learned. “We wanted to educate ourselves, and so did our team,” says Matt. “It was a big test.” And one they clearly passed.
The Green Team
Architect: Matt Porraro, 908-229-2159
Builder: Greg Porraro, Porraro Homes, 908-229-2155
Interior Designer: Pam Hillner, Houndstooth Interior Design, houndstoothinteriors.com
Landscape Design: Anthony Sblendorio, Back to Nature Home & Garden, backtonature.net
Lighting Design: Michael Deo, NatureScape Lighting, naturescapelighting.com
Green Products and Services
Audio video, JS Audio Video, jsaudiovideo.com; appliances, Karl’s Appliance, karlsappliance.com; beams, Conklin’s, conklinbarnwood.com; brick, Morris Brick Company, morrisbrick.com; cabinetry, Designs by Delores, 201-906-8777; cabinetry and wood counter, Woodtech Designs, woodtechdesigns.net; carpeting, Green Label Plus flooring, J&S Designer Flooring, 973-605-5225; closets, TerraCabinets, terracabinets.com; countertops, Trueform Concrete, trueformconcrete.com; exercise room flooring, dinoflex.com; fireplace enclosures, Summit Fireplace Centre, summitfireplacecentre.com; HVAC system, Perfection Contracting, perfectioncontracting.com; LEED home certifier, MaGrann Associates, magrann.com; interior lighting, LumenEco Design, 908-647-8004; exterior lighting, NatureScape Lighting, naturescapelighting.com; plumbing fixtures, tile flooring, bath accessories, Waterworks, waterworks.com; rain garden engineering, Schommer Engineering, schommereng.com; toilets, Caroma, caromausa.com; solar lighting tubes, Solatube, solatube.com; tankless hot water heaters, Noritz, noritz.com; water harvesting cisterns, Rainwater Management Solutions, rainwatermanagement.com; wood flooring, Carlisle, wideplankflooring.com.
[CLARIFICATION: PAI Architect, comprised of Greg Porraro, Matt Porraro and Dean Andricsak, designed the Sheeleigh home; PAI Associates was the builder for the project.]
The Gold Standard
The Sheeleighs set out to build a substantial traditional house that nonetheless would still be considered not just green but gold.
The U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that sets standards for energy-efficient, healthy buildings, has developed a ratings system designating levels of greenness. Gold is the second highest distinction.
Here are some of the key features that helped the Sheeleighs go gold:
✱ Heating and air conditioning are provided by three geothermal heat pumps—a surprisingly simple system that produces heating and cooling by using the constant temperature of the Earth; fluid is pumped into the ground, where it is either cooled or heated, then returned to the home to regulate its temperature.
✱ Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) bring in outside air and expel stale inside air, significantly increasing air quality.
✱ Trane air cleaners remove dirt particles and kill various strains of flu viruses far better than the best HEPA room filters.
✱ Tankless water heaters only heat the water that flows through them. Water is not constantly heated and stored.
✱ Toilets have full- or half-flush options with low-flow-rate fixtures.
✱ Rainwater is captured from the roof and used in toilets, hose bibs and to irrigate the property.
✱ Insulation is a combination of soy-based foam, cellulose and recycled blue jeans.
✱ Wood floors and the entire library are reclaimed wood. Exercise-room flooring is recycled tires.
✱ Sheetrock is recycled; barn beams and brick are both reclaimed.
✱ Windows are dual-pane Low E glass, which reflects indoor heat in the winter and rejects outdoor heat in the summer.
✱ Local products were used whenever possible, including concrete counters, wood cabinetry and exterior fieldstone.
✱ All appliances are Energy Star rated.
✱ Lighting uses LED technology.
SIDEBAR: Rescue Effort
Mindful of waste, the Sheeleighs didn’t actually knock down their old house, they deconstructed it. Think construction in reverse—de-construction is the act of carefully taking apart a structure, and setting aside anything reusable. It’s a practice that has gained momentum with the increased focus on not filling our landfills. Consider this: According to Earth911, building debris accounts for nearly one-third of all solid waste in the United States—more than 100 million tons each year.
The Sheeleighs say deconstruction was a no-brainer for them. They contracted with the aptly-named, Baltimore-based Second Chance, a non-profit organization that abides by the policy, “Retrain, Reclaim, Renew.” Simply put, the organization creates “green-collar jobs”—it trains workers to take apart buildings that would otherwise be demolished and dumped in a landfill. The rescued materials are sold in four giant warehouses open to the public. Proceeds fund the jobs program, completing the circle. The organization claims its program has created more than 35,000 hours of labor and diverted more than 7 million pounds of landfill waste in 2011 alone.
“Even if you’re just renovating your kitchen, call someone to take out your cabinets. Don’t send it all to landfill,” says Katherine Sheeleigh.” It may not be what you want in your home but it may be for someone else.”
For more information, check out Second Chance at secondchanceinc.org.
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