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Interview with Peter Lytle, Executive Director and Founder of Live Green, Live Smart’s™ The Sustainable House™ Project

  • December 2007

    Dec 10 2007, 01:16 PM

    What is the mission of Live Green, Live Smart?

    We are an environmental educational organization dedicated to promoting a sustainable planet through education, linking of resources, and fostering a global green community. Our primary focus is the creation of sustainable shelters. Because the concept of sustainable and green construction has only recently received such widespread popular attention, there is a lot of catching up with respects to best green building and landscaping practices, resource for materials, and actual testing of concepts. We focus on first party research – as with the Sustainable House – and on review and testing of third party research.

    When and why did you become interested in building a home that was sustainable or "green"?

    I have been involved in environmental activities and volunteerism since my college days. Having grown up having holidays in the shadow of Taliesin on the riverbanks of Spring Green, Wisconsin, I learned early on about the beauty of architecture and how the Wright fellowship valued sustainability. I have always loved good architecture and been intrigued by ways shelters impact their environment. In 1999 my family built our first home that focused on passive solar technology and super-efficient energy management. In 2005 we had a chance to live in a Sara Susanka-designed sustainable home, and when the opportunity came along to be part of the USGBC™ LEED pilot project in 2006 we were already committed to taking the next step toward building as “green” a house as possible. For my wife and I, that meant doing a green remodel of an existing home on an already developed site.

    Why did you found the Live Green, Live Smart organization?

    My wife Vivian and I founded the organization. We believe and live by that Native American proverb: You do not inherit the earth from you ancestors you borrow it from your children.

    The UN Report, Our Common Future, defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” A significant body of scientific evidence predicts that global warming will have a rapid, long-term and devastating effect on all species of life on this planet. We need people who know how to get things done to get to work for a sustainable planet.
    There are a lot of green organizations out there, with only a handful focused on residential shelter’s environmental impact – and it’s a very big impact, since more than six billion people must daily find shelter. So I found myself committed to combining what I love about houses and what I know about getting things done to help people make their homes more environmentally and socially sustainable.

    I am gratified to have the support of children, friends and associates who also believe being better stewards of the environment is critical for the survival of the planet for generations to come. We have put our family resources into this organization and work to walk the talk every day.

    Does sustainable housing contribute to a more sustainable planet?

    Absolutely. Conservation, education, research and adaptation are going to be critical factors in mankind’s survival. Just energy needs and energy-related pollution alone can be changed to mitigate the rate and damage from global warming.

    We no longer have the resources necessary to feed and shelter this large a population if we continue our conventional practices of building and furnishing and operating our homes – and what we do here in America has a huge impact on the sustainability of more vulnerable locations and populations.

    Do you have any statistics on the impact of buildings on world resources?

    According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings use 40% of the total energy produced, 71% of all electricity consumed, 38% of carbon dioxide emissions are created by our homes and the energy they use, 36% of the greenhouse gas, 30% of the raw materials used in the world, 30% of the total waste output of our society, and our homes consume 12% of the portable water consumption.

    Why did the organization choose to emphasize green remodeling rather than new building with your first major project?

    Our shelters use up to 40% or more of the world’s resources. Over the next decade Americans will tear down several million existing homes only to replace them with new ones. The materials that were harvested to build most of these homes will go directly to landfill. And then new materials are harvested and manufactured to build new replacements.

    With world forests being rapidly depleted, oil reserves estimated to last only forty years more, water for human consumption disappearing, and landfills in most metro areas calculated to be at capacity in several years, we need to think differently about our past and present shelters.

    Reuse, recycle and reduce is the key to sustainable shelters. A successful – sustainable - remodel reduces a house’s impact on water, forests, energy and land. A right-sized remodel that uses renewable energy and conserves land, water, and materials can be the greenest shelter choice.

    How did you go about finding the house for this remodel?

    We looked at properties in a number of states, and at well over 100 houses. Our goal was to find a tear-down, single level home, on a corner lot so that it had easy access for disabled individuals, could easily be viewed from the street and had easy access to public transportation, shopping, parks and bike trails and medical facilities. We also wanted a community that wanted us and a community that was environmentally focused. We found our home on Craigslist, and it was located in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The only downside to our location was that the land in the Minneapolis market is extremely costly.

    Why did you select this house, and what problems did it present for rehabilitation?

    We wanted a large corner lot so we could demonstrate rain and permaculture gardens, we need space to show off a permeable driveway system and a space to demonstrate geothermal systems, photo voltaic systems and solar water heating systems. We also wanted to have a home that was a need for TLC or teardown.

    The house looked good and was a make over; it did have lots of issue however. The lower level had radon, sub standard wiring, old furnace, broken water main. The walls had some mold, the windows and doors leaked, the attic and walls had marginal insulation, the trim had lead paint, the lighting poor, parts of the foundation had rotted away, the stucco was falling off other sections of the house. No appliance was Energy Star rated and there was no water management system. Water from the sloping yard went straight into the street, heat from the house went straight up the flu of the fireplace and the vents had so much dirt, hair and dead mice in them that only an inch of free ventilation space existed for airflow. The cabinets, paint and carpets were all low quality and high in VOCs.

    The house was perfect for our needs.

    What does "green" mean, how does it differ from "sustainable", you seem to use both when talking about the house?

    Green and sustainable can be talked about the same way. I refer to green when I think people will connect better with it. Sometimes when I say we are building a green house I find individuals get confused with a “greenhouse” for plants or say they something like my wife never liked that color, what are you doing on the trim paint”?

    It is often easier to say sustainable. A sustainable home uses fewer resources from the environment, it has a smaller footprint, produces less carbon emissions in its construction, remodeling and in its use, it uses water wisely and fosters indoor health and recycling. A sustainable house will like last longer than the 30 years a typical home lasts, it is more durable requiring few resources to maintain in the future and it will serve a variety of occupants from very health individuals to those with disabilities. A sustainable house also respects the environment with better use of the land around it, better management of water and fewer requirements for chemical management and requires less lawn care.

    You have a philosophy of use it twice, what does that mean?

    Many people will tell you to think about consumption in terms of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle and part of the reuse and recycling component are thinking about how resources can be conveniently used twice. In our sustainable home when we trim our trees we then mulch the wood for our gardens rather than take them to a landfill. We take the water from some of our sinks, showers and washer, clean it up in a grey water recycler and use it in our toilets, we trap the hot air from the back of our refrigerator in a vent behind the frig and use it in the winter to help warm our house, we take the natural gas that normally would be used to heat our house and first put it into an electric generator, then we take the heat that is created and put that into our house for heat in the winter. We use sunlight to create power and heat in photovoltaic and solar heating units and of course we do a lot of basic recycling.

    How big is the remodeled Sustainable House, and what green elements does it include?

    The original house, a rambler built in 1948, had two bathrooms and three very small bedrooms. The lower level wasn’t to code and wasn’t very comfortable. We wanted to improve liveability as well as sustainability, without expanding the footprint of the house as has been common in our area, where similar houses are torn down and much larger – but no greener – houses replace them. With a good architect and lots of consideration to space planning you can work magic with space needs.

    The remodeled house has conditioned space (space that is heated, which includes crawl spaces) of a little more than 2,400 sq. feet. The living space is just under 2,300 sq. feet. There are four bedrooms, one which is accessible and one being used as a office; three bathrooms - one which is accessible; a combined kitchen/family room/dining area; a media room on the lower level; two walk-in closets, a studio space, a laundry room, entry area that is also the access to the lower level, a mudroom and technology room (utility room) and a double car garage outfitted with a ramp.

    The remodeled house has two small additions, the entry way and a laundry room and garage – these changes all provided greener operations as well as a little elbow room.

    What are the R-Values for the house?

    The R-values (used to measure energy efficiency in solid walls and doors) is between an actual R 25 and 29 for the walls, R-13 for the garage and front doors, R-50 for the lid (ceiling). An R-value conversion on our windows from U values (used to measure windows) with window treatments is an average of R 5. By using a closed, spray cell foam for insulation we achieved a higher R value and need not worry about the collapse of the insulation over time, the problem of moisture penetration and mold growth and the loss of R value from wind often found in other insulation methods. We also used a recycled cellulose material over the foam in the attic area and in a crawl space.

    What are the sustainable energy systems in and around the house?

    We can heat and cool the house using our geothermal system; in our front yard under the walk are four closed loop wells that are 135 feet deep giving us both cold and hot air. We have a photovoltaic system in the back of the house on a poll that give us up to 500 Watts of free electricity, enough to power our house lights and any phantom power and low voltage power. We have solar hot water panels on our garage roof that provides us with 90% of our hot water. We have a number of solar tubes that run from our roof to our first floor and basement giving us lots of free light. We have increased our window capacity by 30% using triple-glazed, argon-filled glass for better insulation, increasing natural light, and giving us during the winter months some passive heating. Outside we have increased the roof overhang for summer shade and planted additional trees. We also have a rainwater collection system with two cisterns that collect over 3,000 gallons of water and then use this water in a drip tube irrigation system. We recycle all of our waste food and any lawn trimmings into composting for our gardens and use a cloths line in the summer for drying clothes.

    Does the technology used in the Live Green, Live Smart, The Sustainable House apply to anyone in any climate?

    The house that we remodeled was in Minnetonka, Minnesota where the summer temperatures can be over 100 degrees F with high humidity or as cold as –30 below F with three to four feet of snow. The rain can come in tropical downpours with up to 8 inches in a matter of a day or there can be months of drought. Although there are no terminates, there are plenty of carpenter ants, rodents and insects that look for ways to get indoors.

    This outlook certainly doesn’t make the state sound welcoming does it? Minnesota has lots of weather variation, but it is still a wonderful place to live and yes it does mimic most of the kinds of weather found in much of the USA. Therefore the technology and systems used in this house can apply to most of the country. Not everyone will need a high efficiency heating system, but they may need air conditioning so geothermal is a nice solution, we all use hot water so solar heat collectors work well just about everywhere as do PV system to generate electricity and water collection and water recycling systems and spray foam insulation and permeable pavers for drives and sidewalks and patios.

    Each climate will have some variations that need special consideration, at the end of the day however we are still looking at how we reduce our carbon footprint and still have a health living environment.

    Do you have any estimates on the energy cost of the house per day?

    We are testing lots of different heating, cooling, water management and power productions in this house. It will be some time before we know how each performs and what works best for this particular home. Our engineers believe that the cost per day will be at current gas and electric costs for the Minnesota market will be around $3 per day. With all of the tours and demonstrations our first several years we will likely be using more resources than a normal family would use.

    You chose to use shingles instead of a metal roof, which is encouraged by several programs and schools of thought.

    Steel is a great solution for a roof, especially if you plan to collect rainwater and use it on vegetable gardens. We selected a long lasting shingle roof because we know it can be recycled when its life is over, it is manufactured locally reducing the cost of shipping and has less embodied energy than a steel roof. There are good reasons to use both and there are lots of alternatives like cement tiles and green roofs to evaluate as well. When you pick a material look for something that is locally produced if possible will last at least 40 years, reduces the uptake of heat when possible, can direct water to a citrine now or in the future and can be recycled when done.

    You use PVC in some water applications, rather than ABS plastic pipes.

    That was a big deal for us. PVC pipes have some dioxins in them and when water that is full of hard minerals and a really low or high PH is run through them the dioxins can end up in the water supply. We considered metal pipes (which are high embodied energy) and ABS plastic pipes (which are brittle and burn easily) and decided to use as little PVC as possible and use a Culligan system to reduce the hardness and modify the PH to limit the dioxins. Our Culligan system is a new model and does not have the back flush concerns and also helps us protect the water pipes and reduce the amount of detergents we use.

    Live Green, Live Smart pays a lot of attention to a “healthy house” – how is that part of sustainability?

    Our homes have become hazardous to our health over the years. As we seek to make them more energy efficient we have sealed in toxic chemicals, animal dander, fumes from cooking and cleaning, smoke, mold, moisture, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) used in our carpets, furniture and paint and numerous other substances that our bodies don’t manage well. As a house becomes tighter we need to think about reducing the substances that cause indoor pollution and we need to filter our air differently and have systems in place that exchange the air frequently without causing a loss of heat or cold air that our home is manufacturing. Living green is also about staying healthy.

    What certifications and design criteria does the house have, what is the pedigree?

    The house is designed to become a platinum level LEED For Homes™ certified house by the USGBC™, that is the highest level of certification and it will likely be the world’s first platinum remodel. It is also a Minnesota Green Star Home designed for the gold level or highest level of certification in the state, the design criteria were also focused on the American Lung Association healthy house codes, Universal Living criteria (designed for individuals with disabilities), home automation making it energy, security and water management smart, and what we call Century Construction or designed for durability and longevity. The final design features were focused on the landscaping with the use of permaculture and rain garden designs.

    Did you find the LEED for Homes process or Minnesota Green Star process complex?

    Both processes are designed to take a builder from planning to design to completion and final evaluation of a project. No question the first time around using one of the certifications and tracking the project seems complex more complex than a conventional design/build. The process is more than just forms to fill out, both programs provide thoughtful learning opportunities for participants, and the forms – which seem to hang up a lot of people unnecessarily - act as a checklist for good green building practices.

    Though I don’t know of an easy way to get through these certifications, it does seem easier each time and a builder should find it less complicated once they have taken a training class on green construction. In the future these systems will all be mainstream and as second nature as building codes are.

    I think you will find homebuyers looking for certifications in the future when they buy a home, just as they look for a homebuyer warranty now, so there is good reason to do a certification by some organization when you build or remodel green.

    What lifestyle changes are individuals likely to make with the move into a sustainable or green home?

    I would guess it is dependent on the kind of home and lifestyle they’re coming from. Wisely using resources and controlling waste is part of a green lifestyle, but it is also commonsense.

    Recycling is pretty common for many Americans so I don’t think doing a bit more, perhaps composting, is going to be that big an issue. Using more efficient lighting can be an adjustment if you don’t select the right color of compact fluorescents or LED’s.

    Getting used to using less water and sometimes less hot water for washing your face, or recycling water might be the biggest issue for most people, but you get used to that in a few weeks. For people in some parts of the country switching to fans and open windows might be an issue that can be mitigated by using geothermal cooling, if you want the windows closed. Drying clothing on a clothesline may be less convenient than a dryer, but the clothes sure smell and feel better.

    I think that the lifestyle changes are minimal. It does mean less consumption or a lot more recycling and it does mean looking at the yard differently - less grass, more sustainable landscaping and maybe a little permaculture or a garden. And sustainability does require conscious thought about the distance products travel to get to your home, thereby reducing the amount of oil consumed in shipping, or examining the content of the product: is that new chair full of foam loaded with VOCs? If your house is tight is that going to cause issues with indoor air quality?

    Over the next several decades we will all find these lifestyle changes common place. If you were born after WWII your parents and their parents already practiced many of these conservation techniques and it sure didn’t cause them any problems, I think we are just going back to a more logical time when waste was not practical and waste cost money.

    This was an extensive remodel. Is it worth the time to go to this extent? Where can a person live during deconstruction and recycling and remodeling?

    A remodel can be done at a lot of different levels and on a project bases or all at once. This home need a lot of work and the only way to get there was by gutting much of the interior and starting over. We were able to reuse many of the woods in the house, the exterior walls, foundation and much of the roof, and ended up with a house of a similar footprint that for all appearances is like new. We could not stay in the house and rented an apartment during the period of construction.

    If the house had been remodeled in projects, phased by space and function, staying in the house could have been an option.

    What are the top ten most critical things to do in a green remodel?

    The first thing is an energy audit. You need a base line to understand what it takes to make you energy efficient. Most states and utilities offer energy audits.

    The second thing is insulation that keeps out the cold or heat.

    The third thing is windows and doors that seal out the cold or heat.

    The fourth thing are highly efficient heating and cooling systems and an easy thing is asking your utility company to connect you up to their wind power program.

    The fifth thing is a good air exchange system to make sure your home has healthy air

    The sixth thing is making sure your paint, carpets, furniture; wood is made of sustainable materials and free of VOC’s.

    The seventh thing would be a landscape plan the reduces grass, has rain gardens and requires minimal water.

    Number eight is anything that reduces or recycles water, like flow restrictors on faucets.

    The ninth thing would be a good recycling system for you home.

    The tenth thing would be working with a professional or organization that has experience in green remodeling, it keeps the costs down and gives you a product that works in the end.

    How many green homes are being built or remodeled in the U.S.?

    I don’t have exact counts but according to McGraw Hill Construction there was a 20% increase of those builders dedicated to green building issues between 2005 thru 2006 and that number was expected to raise another 30% in 2007. That number is still only in the hundreds of builder across the country however. The current green home market is about $1.8 billion and impacts about 0.3% of all homes in the U.S. We do know from studies that most individuals learned about green homes through word of mouth and these owners had a very high level of owner satisfaction.

    Do we know who is buying green homes?

    The studies I have seen indicate that the women and married couples with an average age of 45 are the largest group deliberately buying green; 79% are college-educated, located in the South and West, and have annual incomes over $50,000. A survey by McGraw Hill Construction found 63% of the surveyed group went green to lower utility, maintenance and operating costs. It does seem apparent, however, that more interest in green construction is occurring with a concern over global warming - and simply doing what is right and ethical.

    In another, later study by the same organization respondents said the desire to purchase a green home was driven 58% by operational savings; 53% by environmental concerns; 56% by health concerns; and 39% by the potential for greater resale value.

    Unfortunately, many buyers say that builders respond to inquiries about greener building practices and materials by discouraging what they saw as significantly more expensive for the benefits.

    At this point, green building is at or near a critical mass or tipping point, and moving past early adopters. A survey for the NAHB National Green Builders Conference indicated that 37% of the surveyed group was very aware of green buildings and only 3% had no knowledge of them. The most-used green products in remodeling were in order of use: windows, HVAC units, window equipment and hardware, doors, plumbing, siding, roofing, flooring and cabinets and countertops.

    What is the cost to build green?

    Green construction is likely not any more expensive than normal construction costs unless you are building on the extreme side of low cost or under $75 per sq. foot. There is a myth that it cost more. I would need to say that depends on the project. If you are building new and the cost is spread over 30 years you will never see a cost increase and will see a very fast payback. If you are remodeling and using your cash flow or an equity line you selection of materials or systems could be higher by up to 10% but have a much better ROI. When you sell that green house it will sell faster and yield that investment plus back quicker than a conventional home. Over the life of the home it will pay for itself. In our power point we have this formula to define payback and costs of green building:

    • Using the income-capitalization method: asset value = net operating income (NOI) divided by the capitalization rate (return). If the cap rate is 7%, divide the reduction in annual operating costs by 7% to calculate the increase in the building’s asset value.
    • Quantifying financial benefit in terms of Return On Investment (ROI) instead of payback time, demonstrates the true financial advantage.

    Why were you willing to spend more than a million dollars on this one project?

    This is a frequent question, you can build a very sustainable home for only a fraction of the cost and we are well aware of this. This house is a living lab. It was researched, created and built by over 7 teams of 250 individuals all focused on learning what it would take to make a remodeled home as energy efficient as a new home and how new technologies could be applied to an existing structure. We had engineers, chemists, architects, scientists and contractors and suppliers working to evaluate and experiment with systems and materials, document ideas and information learned and to design a house that was more sustainable than anything we were aware of at the time.

    The cost to trial new technologies is expensive especially when you have multiple heating and cooling and energy production systems. It is less expensive however than remodeling four or homes and doing a comparison. Like any new idea, a hybrid car, a wind turbine or bio diesel plant the first one is more costly. Today we could take our knowledge of this remodel and replicate the house for a fraction of the original cost.

    To date there is not a lot of first party research on green remodels and this project was an attempt to gain some significant information about a number of different concepts. First party research tends to be more costly but also yield more valuable data going forward.

    Are there tax credits for green remodeling?

    There are state and federal credits for all kinds of green remodeling, energy saving devices, renewable energy systems and green construction. Every state will have different plans. Some utilities also offer rebates for new energy star appliances and insulation programs.

    What are some of the things you learned from this project?

    There are so many things we have learned that we put them on our web site and are now working with a Minnesota college to provide a certification and training program to share them all. Some of the top things are:

    You can still build in a cold climate with 2 X 4, 24 inches on center and you do not need to do exterior sheeting with strand board or plywood, you can use an insulating foam board.

    If you are going to remodel and recycle the home materials you remove, create recycling piles and start a lumberyard pile for reuse of the materials. Forget the roll-off until you know what you can reuse and what needs to be sent to a transfer station for recycling or responsible disposal.

    If you have sub-contractors working for you don’t let them on the site until you have shared the concept of green remodeling or building with them. Have recycling bins for pop cans and paper. Discuss with them ways to recycling and reduce materials used on the site. Look at all materials that are on the site and make sure they meet your criteria for green (do the paints have VOC’s, is the carpet pad made of PVC based foam, etc.).

    The cost of renewable energy systems are not as expensive as we were led to believe and their ROI makes them worth the investment.

    Always start out with an energy audit and end with an energy audit it helps identify the places you should invest in for energy savings

    Energy start appliances are fast in payback and usually high in quality.

    Building a house for durability is critical.

    Remodeling and building thinking about Universal living is going to be key to making houses more flexible for an aging population

    Landscaping for better water management is critical to all homes.

    What do the neighbors think of this project?

    Our neighbors are great, they have put up with the filming, tours, construction and recycling piles. Many of the neighbors have children that are in school as environmentalists and others are older and tell us this is what it should be about, no waste and saving the planet for the next generation. We are in a neighborhood of walkers and have become the local stop and view the progress spot.

    Is anyone living in the house at this time?

    My wife and I are living in the house to aid in capturing the energy usage data and life style date necessary to see how it performs and to make tours easier.

    Where can a homeowner learn more about green building and remodeling?

    There are some great organizations around the country devoted to green building. In Minnesota we have the Green Institute and Mn. Green Star in Wisconsin you have focus on Energy, most state now have some kind of organization that will give you a list of resources. On a national level you have the U S Green Building Council (USGBC) and of course our organization Live Green, Live Smart (www.livegreenlivesmart.org) for resources. The country is still a long way from having more than a few hundred contractors, installers and designers that are knowledgeable about green construction and renewable energy systems. If a homeowner wants to find someone they should ask it that contract is certified by any green organization and what training they have taken.

    How can visitors tour the house?

    The web site www.livegreenlivesmart.org is a great on-line tour. Go to the construction diary under the Sustainable home category. Tours are also help for groups on a regular basis and can be arranged by e-mailing Live Green, Live Smart at media@livegreenlivesmart.org. We have already had over a thousand people tour the home while under construction and we expect that number to triple over the next year.

    Do you plan to build another green or sustainable house in the future?

    We have an initiative to build 50,000 green homes with the help of many builders and organizations over the next five years. Our next house will be a green affordable home with a smaller footprint.

    About Peter Lytle

    Peter Lytle is 58, the Executive Director and Founder of Live Green, Live Smart and the Managing Partner of BDG Partners, Inc. of Wayzata, Minnesota, a consulting firm. He lives with his wife, daughter and two small dogs in the Live Green, Live Smart, Sustainable House.

    Additional information about Peter can be found at: www.bdgpartners.com additional information about the house can be found at: www.livegreenlivesmart.org

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Project Energy: A Tour Of This Old 'Green' House (The Sustainable House)  as covered by Don Shelby and featured on WCCO-TV.

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