When Terri Parodi and her architect husband Jeff Ribnik decided to build a new home, they wanted it to be eco-friendly. In addition to lessening their impact on the environment, it also lowers their utility bills.
"We're not getting any younger," said Jeff. "It'll keep the bills down for the rest of our lives, really."
The subdivision in Harris County where they live requires energy efficiency and homes there must be built to certain environmentally-friendly standards.
And while Jeff and Terri, who is the director for the United Way volunteer center, wish more people were interested in the trend, the fact that only three of the 27 available lots are occupied speaks volumes, they said.
Jeff said the home is "built like a thermos bottle," with six-inch thick exterior walls (standard homes are four-inch) filled with foam insulation all the way to the roof and has a steel frame.
Part of the "green" aspect of the home is in its maintainability -- the outside of the home, as well as some interior walls, are constructed of locally produced synthetic stone and the interior walls are coated with a liquid wax that is easy to clean.
"There is very little here that would ever need painting over out lifetime here," said Jeff. "And that goes for both outside and inside."
There is a second floor to the home, but it's not heated or cooled because neither Terri nor Jeff use the space -- the master bedroom is on the first floor.
The home is built on a two-foot grid -- a system that Jeff said reduces waste -- and has an open floor plan that allows for better air flow.
To conserve water, Terri and Jeff installed low-flow shower heads (no bath tubs) and dual-flush toilets. This helps their water bill stay around $12 a month.
A magnetic induction stove, which uses little electricity by relying on the friction between high-powered magnets and either cast-iron or stainless steel cookware to produce heat, and a high-efficiency clothes washer and drying also increase the home's energy efficiency.
"Another thing, too, is we kept the trees closer to the house," said Terri. "And in the summer especially -- unbelievable -- it blocks the sun and keeps the utility bills significantly lower."
But despite all the impressive eco-friendly features, a good portion of the home's "green"-ness comes from the people who live in it.
Terri and Jeff recycle as much material as they can, compost food scraps and throw away the rest -- which generally leaves them with one bag of trash per week, Terri said.
"All our dogs are recycled, too," joked Jeff. "They're all from the pound."
They also didn't buy new furniture or decor when they moved into the house three years ago.
"When we moved we decided we were going to bring everything with us and we weren't going to go out and buy new furniture," said Terri. "We were going to reuse everything that we had."
In order to make their old furniture fit into their new home, which has a more "rustic" style, they got creative.
A once-white kitchen table was sanded down and repainted black with a wood-stained top. An old porch swing got legs and now serves as a bench at the table. A double curtain was split in two to fit two smaller windows in the dining room area, while a bedsheet was repurposed into bedroom curtains.
Terri admitted that it's not for everyone, but what she and Jeff like so much about the house is how different it is and how well it suits them.
"It's very conducive to our lifestyle which is very informal, laid back and animals and whatever," said Terri. "So when I leave downtown Columbus from work and come out here, I feel like I've gone to a completely different world."
A few more tips
The style of the house was inspired by a trip Terri and Jeff took to France, where they stayed in an old grist mill.
The flooring throughout the homes is made of renewable resources -- bamboo on the main floor and cork on the second.
There are no closet doors and an old dresser serves as their linen closet. "Every time you buy a door and build a closet it's $400 or $500. So this (dresser) is actually our linen closet. We already had the furniture, so we saved a little there," said Jeff.
They have a roof garden where they grow plants "and the deer and rabbits can't get to it," said Terri.
Jeff's favorite bathroom is over the garage. It's lined with cedar and features an open shower. They also store their plants there during the winter and call it their "green room."
Earth Day tips
Earth Day is April 22. While it's not practical for everyone to build a new "green" house (though Jeff, the architect, encourages it!), there are things you can do to improve your home's energy efficiency. Many of these tips are not only kinder to the environment, they'll also help you save on utility bills.
Make sure your walls and attic are well insulated. This will slows the rate that heat flows out of the house in winter or into the house in summer, so less energy is required to heat or cool the house.
Upgrade or replace windows. It is almost never cost-effective to replace windows just to save energy; however, if you are replacing windows for other reasons anyway, the additional cost of Energy Star-rated replacement windows is very modest.
Plant shade trees and shrubs around your house. In summer, the foliage blocks infrared radiation that would warm the house, while in winter the bare branches let this radiation come through.
Replace an older furnace with a high-efficiency system. If your furnace was built before 1992 and has a standing pilot, it probably wastes 35 percent of the fuel it uses, and it is probably near the end of its service life. In this case, in all but the warmest climates, ACEEE recommends early replacement with a condensing furnace with annual efficiency of at least 90 percent.
Improve the efficiency of your hot water system. First, turn down the temperature of your water heater to the warm setting (120°F). Second, insulate your hot water lines so they don't cool off as quickly between uses. Third, use low-flow fixtures for showers and baths.
Replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). CFLs can save three-quarters of the electricity used by incandescents.
If you buy a new refrigerator, don't leave the old one plugged in. Avoid the temptation to use the old fridge as a backup for party supplies and liquid refreshment. The extra storage space will cost you: figure an extra $50-150 per year in electricity to keep that older fridge running.
Take advantage of new tax incentives to improve your home. Energy efficiency incentives for upgrades to existing homes now cover up to $1,500 (from $500), based on 30 percent of the cost of the improvement. Improvements can include building-envelope improvements (windows, insulation) and heating/air-conditioning upgrades. There are also 30-percent credits, without a cap, for on-site renewables (solar photovoltaic and solar hot-water systems, small wind systems, and geothermal heat pumps).
Schedule an energy audit for more expert advice on your home as a whole. Energy auditors and raters use specialized tools and skills to evaluate your home and recommend the most cost-effective measures to improve its comfort and efficiency, as well as the best sequence for doing them to take advantage of interactions.
Source: The U.S. Green Home Council's Green Home Guide