‘Active’ house blends old- and new-style energy efficiency

Blissfield, Mich., firm produced made some custom, energy-efficient features

The exterior of the Smith residence has been billed as the nation's first
The exterior of the Smith residence has been billed as the nation's first "active" house designed on Scandinavian principles of efficiency.

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. — David and Thuy Smith’s new house blends well with its neighbors, some more than a century old.

From its clapboard siding and stone-trimmed foundation to its wraparound porch with tapered Craftsman-style columns, the Smiths’ house appears at home, so to speak.

But behind the old-time appearance is the latest in residential energy efficiency and low maintenance. Going green was the Smiths’ goal when they decided in 2011 to leave their 1940s bungalow in Brentwood, Mo.

What they are getting is the first “active” house in North America, according to those involved in the project as well as specialty trade magazines.

“Active” construction combines energy efficiency, healthy indoor air, and designs that take advantage of sun, shade, and breezes. To compare, “active” house techniques are similar to those in LEED houses in the United States.

The Smiths and their daughter, Cameron, 6, plan to move in next month.

In his design for the house, architect Jeff Day of St. Louis included numerous skylights to brighten the interior and, when open, to provide ventilation. The broad porch — something common before air-conditioning — shades first-floor rooms and protects part of the home’s fiber cement siding.

The durable siding is attached to the home’s structural insulated panels. That, in builder talk, is a term for energy-efficient exterior walls. SIPs, as they’re called, have a foam insulation core that’s sandwiched between sheets of high-strength oriented strand board.

Matt Belcher, a specialist in “green” construction, said SIPs have advantages over traditional building methods. One is quick construction because SIPs arrive at building sites ready for use. Belcher, manager of the Smith project, said the home’s walls went up in a week. InsulSpan of Blissfield, Mich., provided custom-made SIPs shipped by truck.

Belcher works with Velux Group, a Danish manufacturer of skylights and solar panels that helped form the Active House Alliance in 2010 in Copenhagen.

The group has promoted construction in Europe of about two dozen “active” houses, many of starkly modern design.

Kim Hibbs, whose Hibbs Homes is building the Smiths’ house, said last year that “active” construction is a Danish version of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) construction without the detailed documentation of efficiencies required for LEED certification.

He said last week that the traditional design for the Smiths’ house shows that “active” homes don’t have to look like “a spaceship,” an appearance the owners wanted to avoid.

“You can build a deep green house in a St. Louis neighborhood, and it will look like it has been here for decades,” he said.

The Smiths’ house is the deepest of greens. In addition to SIPs, the house has two arrays of rooftop solar panels — one to heat water and another to provide much of the home’s electrical needs. Electricity-sipping LED lighting exits throughout. Grains of quartz in the roof shingles will reflect summer heat and help keep the home’s interior cool.

All of the upstairs bedrooms have skylights. Two more at the top of the stairwell can be opened to allow breezes to circulate through the house and vent unwanted heat.

The Smiths’ detached garage is wired for a car charger if they opt for battery-powered transportation. The garage also has space to store compressed natural gas in case the family chooses a vehicle that runs on CNG.

David Smith, 38, said he and Thuy, also 38, got involved in every facet of the house project, especially after learning from Belcher, Day and Hibbs that “active” construction can be adapted to any location.

“The great thing about what they’re doing is that it’s a building standard that can be done anywhere,” he said.

Belcher said “active” design emphasizes comfort.

“It all starts with a good design with a good envelope,” he said. “Then it’s creating a home that won’t take a lot of energy to operate.”

While the Smiths’ home cost about $500,000 to build, its energy bills will be negligible, Belcher said. The University of Missouri’s Center for Sustainable Energy will monitor and document the home’s energy statistics for a year.

Smith, an accountant, said the figures should be valuable in promoting the spread of “active” construction.

The Smiths’ house replaced a stucco dwelling built in 1921. Instead of simply flattening the one-story house, workers hauled two truckloads of its windows, cabinets, casework and other items to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. Craftsmen took pine lumber used to pack the SIPs for shipping to build the butcher-block top of the Smiths’ kitchen island. Belcher said shingles from the old house were ground up to use in new asphalt.

Roy Ruckdeschel, who lives next door, said he is looking forward to having new neighbors.

“I’m pro-environment,” said Ruckdeschel, a retired professor of social work at St. Louis University. “I’m glad they’re doing something like this.”