Dave Brach is passionate about two things: designing homes and protecting the environment.
The Salt Lake City architect's vision of homes the way they ought to be contemporary but energy efficient can be seen in a new house he designed and built in the Salt Lake City Avenues neighborhood. It's a structure so efficient, in fact, it's one of only two in the state and about 70 in the country that meet a rigorous certification for "passive homes." It's also been the subject of articles in several architectural journals and EcoHome magazine.
"Do you want to design a 1974 Ford station wagon, or a new Prius?" Brach of Brach Design said about why he's serious about making energy-efficient homes. "I provide the highest level of design possible, plus I want to make sure my grandkids have natural gas, too. It's my passion."
The Ruby Home, named after the owner's dog, is a three-bedroom, two-story, 3,500-square-foot structure that meets the certification of the Passive House Institute US, a nonprofit organization in Urbana, Ill., that pushes for strict energy efficiency in architectural design. The house was built by Salt Lake City custom-home builders, Benchmark Modern Inc.
The home's co-owner, an emergency-room doctor who did not want to be identified or have his exact address listed because of the nature of his work, said he and his wife were adamant about building a home that did not leave a huge carbon footprint.
"It's important to me because you want to save as much energy as possible," said the 43-year-old man. "It's the same question of, 'Why do you want a hybrid car?' "
To make the home as energy-efficient as possible, Brach had to implement five main construction points when it was built in late 2011 and early 2012:
Insulation • The actual shell had to be created with the most insulation in mind. But also, it had to be designed so that there were no "thermal bridges," or areas where heat or cold air could pass through the walls. The result is walls that are a foot thick, packed with insulation.
Airtight • The house is also sealed with a special latex sealant, and the windows and doors have special frames to make the home as airtight as possible. Brach performed a "blow door" test to determine the pressure in the home. "It's basically like blowing up the house like a balloon to test how airtight the house is," Brach said. "This ended up being the most airtight house I've ever made."
Orientation • Care was taken on orienting the home with the sun. Most of the windows are built on the south side and a few on the west so the morning sun doesn't overheat the house. The windows also have special awnings or overhangs to help block the light.
Windows • The windows are expensive because they're made of three panes with argon gas in between for better insulation. The frames also have special seals to block the air.
Fresh air • The home uses a fresh-air exchange system that circulates it through the house without it losing or gaining heat. Because the home is airtight, fresh air otherwise can't get in without help, and moisture could build up in the kitchen and bathrooms. The system pumps fresh air into the home without changing the temperature inside.
The house doesn't use a furnace to heat the rooms or central air or a swamp cooler for the summers. Instead, it uses a special heat pump system that uses little electricity to heat and cool by exchanging the heat in the air in a process similar to a refrigerator. The result is a home in which every room is a steady 70 degrees every day of the year, and the temperature varies only 1 or 2 degrees.
Although owners in a similarly sized home may pay $200 to $300 per month to heat or cool it, the Ruby House requires no more than about $75 per month at the height of either the winter or summer.
"It's a beautiful house, and it's a perfect project," said Passive House Institute program director Mike Kernagis.
The institute trains architects to think green when designing homes, as it did with Brach. More architects are learning how to design them, Kernagis said.
"In a tight construction market, builders are looking for a market advantage, something they can point to that others are not doing," he said. "They find an honest one in energy efficiency."
Although more architects and homeowners are considering the advantages, it's still costly to design such a home. Brach, who designed a second passive home in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake County, said it can boost the cost of a house an extra 5 percent to 10 percent to make it as green as the Ruby Home, which is worth $657,000.
But the owners of the Ruby Home didn't care about that, Brach said. "They're typical of a lot of people building these homes in that they just want to do the right thing and do the right thing for the future."
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