Mission Accomplished: A Superefficient Texas Home

With little money, recent college graduate Heather Ferrier wasn’t the likeliest candidate to build the greenest house in Texas.

| January/February 2010

  • The bathrooms have Delta Brizo low-flow fixtures and dual-flush Toto toilets.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Heather's bedroom is filled with natural light.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Leaves incorporated into the concrete floor connect it to the outdoors.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • A double-sided fireplace and bookshelves under the stairs save space.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Heather controls sunlight in her bedroom with off-the-shelf multicolored Ikea fabric panels. The master shower features recycled glass tiles.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Heather's home is sited to catch maximum sun from the south and east. A metal Galvalume roof reflects back 75 percent of the sun's heat.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • The home was built using structural insulated panels. Glass block windows on the north wall bring in diffused light but don't let heat out.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Architect Gary Olp (far right) and contractor Don Ferrier (left) helped Heather Ferrier (center) build a green home.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Cooling breezes pass through carefully placed windows and up through tall spaces, creating a chimney effect. Stained concrete floors collect the sun's heat by day and release it when it cools down at night.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Floor plans for the loft in Heather's home.
    Illustration by Andrej Galins
  • Floor plans for the first floor of Heather's home.
    Illustration By Andrej Galins
  • Floor plans for the second floor of Heather's home.
    Illustration by Andrej Galins
  • Heather gave her home character with thoughtful details such as this powder room nook.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Heather's kitchen features regionally produced cabinetry made of sustainably harvested white ash and GreenGuard-certified countertops.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy
  • Porches and overhangs provide shade in summer, and canvas awnings retract for natural daylighting.
    Photo By Paul Bardagjy

Heather Ferrier grew up around green building. Her father, Don Ferrier, was crafting earth-sheltered homes in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in 1982. Heather began helping out around the construction company’s offices at age 9. When she graduated from college and later became general manager of Ferrier Construction, Heather wanted to build a deep green house. Not only did she crave a sunny, healthy place to live, but she was determined to show the world it could be done on a budget.

Because of mortgage stipulations and real estate minimum size requirements, Heather found she would have to build a roughly 2,000-square-foot house. That left her with a modest budget of $115 per square foot—and she wanted a house with some flair. “Most clients have much larger budgets, needless to say,” she says.

Her accomplishment is astounding. Her 2,028-square-foot passive solar home, built for $235,000, is the first home in Texas (the third in the United States) to get the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest Platinum ranking. It’s a prototype for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program; was named the 2007 Dallas Builders’ Best Green Home; and won the Gold Energy Value Housing Award, which honors the nation’s energy-efficient elite. Nearly 4,000 people have toured the home.

“Heather wanted to dispel people’s grumblings that only the elite can afford a green home,” Don Ferrier says. Her goal of using the home as an educational tool has worked. “This house has really hit a nerve locally and nationally,” Heather says. “It’s caught the attention of a lot of people.”

Of no less importance, Heather has a bright, natural home to share with her sister, Lacey. She’s created a nontoxic, light-filled environment that doesn’t trigger her asthma or allergies, and she’s spending about $200 less per month on utilities than her neighbors.

“When people visit, the first thing they say is that this place feels happy,” Heather says. “I believe there’s a psychological impact from living in a green home. Having this experience, I wouldn’t live in any other type of house.”

Finding the right site

Heather set out to build a small home, which isn’t easy in the Fort Worth suburbs. She spent a year and a half looking for the perfect lot, but most subdivisions required her to build a 3,000-square-foot or larger home. An urban infill lot in Lake Weatherford, an architecturally significant lake community 15 miles west of Fort Worth, proved to be exactly what she wanted. The parklike 1-acre lot accommodates a south-facing home and offers several large oaks to provide summer shade.

Because Heather didn’t have cash for expensive green features, good design was crucial to her vision. She turned to Dallas architect Gary Gene Olp, who specializes in passive solar design, to take advantage of her site’s natural bounty. Ferrier Custom Homes was building Olp’s home at the time, and Heather requested a smaller version. “This is really a Mini Me—a smaller, more-efficient version of my home,” Olp says. “We wanted to show you can build responsibly for your region using passive solar, good design and efficient use of space. And it’s affordable—that’s the key.”

Performance on a budget

“You can build cheap, or you can build affordable,” Olp says. “In this house, we had a lot of fun playing with materials and using them on the raw side.”

Heather opted for energy-efficient, easy-to-assemble structural insulated panels (SIPs), and Olp clad the exterior in James Hardie fiber-cement siding and stucco for low maintenance. Heather’s budget wouldn’t accommodate solar panels (although the home is hardwired to hook them up when she can afford them), but she was able to install solar water-heating panels with help from a federal tax credit. “Solar hot water in our climate is a no-brainer,” Olp says. “It pays back so fast.”

Heather, her father and Olp worked to make sure everything in the house would have a five- to seven-year payback. That ruled out renewable energy systems such as geothermal and wind, but energy-saving design techniques such as well-placed overhangs, a thermally effective building envelope and whole-house ventilation fans keep her utility bills way below average. Heather’s home is nearly zero-energy; her utilities average $75 per month. She’s also become more conscious of energy use since she began reporting her monthly consumption to Building Science, a Boston consultancy that uses her home as an energy-efficient prototype. “It’s not like I live in a laboratory,” she says, “but I’m much more aware now of how my behaviors affect energy consumption.”

She’s also more water-conscious now that she irrigates and flushes her toilets from the roof’s 3,000-gallon rainwater cistern. Along with drought-tolerant landscaping, Olp says water catchment  is “another no-brainer.” He adds:  “Why would we draw off drinkable water from the purification plant to flush down the toilet or water the lawn? It doesn’t make any financial or common sense.”

No going back

Heather loves country suburban life. She’s surrounded by tall trees, and deer come to visit at dawn and at dusk. Her home is light-filled and peaceful, and it works.
The only thing she’d change? “I’d make it smaller,” Heather says. “I would just try to squeeze it down a bit more.”

Seeing green

Don Ferrier serves on the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) Green Building Subcommittee. He was named NAHB’s Green Builder Advocate of the Year in 2007 and Texas Green Builder Advocate of the Year in 2009. He’s most excited, though, about bringing sustainable design and construction home to Texas. “A lot of folks say, ‘But you’re from Fort Worth—how can you build green?’” he says. “I’m a round peg in a square hole.”

Slowly, he’s rounding the corners. Following the area’s enthusiastic response to Heather’s home, he’s built three replicas—all of which exceed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star standards—and is in planning stages for an entire subdivision of “Heather’s houses.” 

A chat with the homeowner

What books are on your nightstand?

Heather Ferrier: Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, 2007) and YOU: Being Beautiful: the Owner’s Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz (Free Press, 2008).

What’s always in your fridge or pantry?

Heather: A bottle of red wine to help me unwind.

What’s great about where you live?

Heather: The connection to nature, like being greeted by a doe and her two fawns every day at sunrise and sunset.

7/3/2014 10:00:26 AM

I personally like the home for one reason it's solar powered which is the best thing for the environment and that's better for the earth Period!!

6/17/2014 3:48:07 PM

I suspect the cost information shown in this article is a little disingenuous. I live in Texas and was a builder here for many years. The listed $115/sf cost is at the very bottom of what a production home can be built for around here - let alone a custom-designed, custom-built energy efficient home using SIPs and other green technologies. It is likely - highly likely, in fact - that the architect who designed the home did so at a substantially reduced rate since his own home was under construction by Ferrier's company at the time, and because it was a smaller version of a plan he'd already designed. It is also highly likely that the Ferriers called in favors and/or got discounted pricing from vendors and subcontractors - standard practice when builders are building a home for themselves. None of this is meant to cast doubt on the success of the project - I simply want to point out to other readers that, unless they're a custom builder currently working on a home for an architect, they're not likely to be able to reproduce these results for the costs shown.

Paula Montgomery
9/19/2013 12:33:56 AM

I'm a little jealous when I see a houses with staircase because there's something about stairs that makes a place seem larger to me. :) http://www.ayalalandpremier.com/



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