Green on the Greens: Sustainable Suburban Living in the Texas Hill Country

Natural Home's Show House in Boerne, Texas, is a shining example of just how sustainable suburban housing can be.

| July/August 2010

Karen and Griz Adams’ Craftsman-inspired stucco and limestone home fits right into its golf-course community outside San Antonio—with a few exceptions. Designed by Boerne, Texas, architect Ben Adam, the 3,526-square-foot home takes full advantage of its site, with natural ventilation and south-facing windows overlooking long Hill Country views.

The roof sports a solar hot water heater, and a detached three-car garage is equipped for future photovoltaic panels. Hidden underground, a vertical, closed-loop geothermal system quietly heats and cools the home, while two buried 20,000-gallon rainwater harvesting tanks keep it completely off the water grid.

The home’s many forward-thinking features have it on track to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification, the highest award given—a first for this Texas town. “It’s not the place where you would look for something like this,” Adam says of the home’s very traditional surroundings. “But we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we did this another way?’”

Putting the pieces together

Living in a small town made finding talented local contractors easy. “There is a great cabinet maker, a standout concrete guy, and many local craftspeople,” Karen says. Once they assembled their team, Adam and the Adamses conducted a pre-construction charrette—an intense period of design collaboration—to devise an efficient homebuilding plan that considered every discipline involved. “The most important lesson we learned was that collaborating with other professionals during the planning phase is essential,” Karen says.

The Adamses’ builders used advanced-framing techniques, such as two-stud corners and wider spacing for studs and rafters, which saved wood and allowed for additional insulation. Instead of traditional plywood, the Adamses chose commercial-grade exterior gypsum and fiberglass sheathing. “It’s a wood-sparing approach and is used extensively in commercial buildings,” Griz says. They chose native reclaimed limestone from a nearby quarry for the house’s façade, backyard retaining walls and indoor fireplace.

When their budget allows, the Adamses plan to install photovoltaic panels over the pre-wired garage. For now, their solar water heater and ground source heat pump, which warms and cools the house efficiently, keep their utility bills low. “The electric bill here consistently runs around $200 per month, so it’s significantly cheaper to operate,” says Griz, who was paying $450 per month for utilities at a much smaller rental before he and his family moved in. “It’s one of the huge advantages of green construction.”

Sharing the dream

A key part of the Adamses’ vision was to demonstrate good green building practices. For Griz, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster, building the home was an opportunity to teach his sons about resource stewardship, a Scouting principle. As she learned more about green building, Karen shared her knowledge in her blog on the Natural Home website and through workshops at the local nature center.

In August 2009, the Adamses opened their home for 10 days of public tours, and more than 900 people walked through. “When people visited, they immediately latched on to something,” Karen says. “So many people were interested in geothermal. Others were interested in solar hot water and insulation techniques. If they can incorporate just one green element into their new construction or renovation, then we feel like we had some impact.”

After the public tours, architects and builders eager to learn more asked for private tours so they could have the opportunity to design and build green houses in their respective communities. “The project continues to teach us,” Griz says. “We will continue to share what we learn with other people to spread the message about stewardship and how building green can have a positive impact.”

Tracking asthma symptoms

Griz and Karen Adams’ 12-year-old son, Jack, was diagnosed with moderate asthma at age 6. Before they moved into their new home, the Adamses lived in two homes that were “poster children for dirty houses,” Griz says. “They had carpet, traditional air-handling systems, were leaky and letting in lots of dust.”

Convinced that living in a healthy, green-built house would make a difference, Griz began tracking Jack’s asthma symptoms before they moved into their new home. Jack, who is sensitive to mold, grass, weeds and dust mites, was tested at baseline while living in the previous house. Now allergist David Fuentes of Boerne, Texas, tests Jack’s blood levels for allergens every quarter.

Once Jack’s case study is complete, the Adamses hope to have a set of data that could help researchers study the correlation between asthma symptoms and living in a green home. “We’ve seen improvement, but it is only a one-person study,” Griz says. “We are doing this as a case study to throw the research question out there and hope that someone will conduct a larger study.”

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