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Old Phoenix-area Homes Get Better Going Greener
By David M. Brown
TNAZ Regional Correspondent
Dillon Open
Use of rock, metal roof, and white stone water features affirm the Dillon House link to nature, while multiple points of vantage give pace and scale to the merger of home and surround.
Credit: Dillon House, Bill Timmerman for Urban Earth Design (UED)
Editor's note: The following story is one in an occasional series focusing on energy and other savings to be experienced with contemporary retrofitting for AZ's building stock.
In ‘50s and ‘60s, keeping up with the mythical Joneses was a cultural assumption for middle-class America; in the new century, keeping up with the Greens is.
With the White House announcement in early March of the HOMESTAR initiatives, homeowners could soon have new doors opening for retrofitting green which could also put small business in construction and design to work.
"It's a very good time to take stock of the opportunities in green renovation for existing properties," says Michael Dollin, RLA, ASLA, principal of 20-year-old Phoenix-based Urban Earth Design, which provides landscape architecture, urban design, environmental technology and innovates green products. "Recycling our homes and buildings is fundamentally a good thing by extending the life and efficiency of our dwellings, structures and sites."
Dollin's company has worked on a number of green projects, in the commercial, public sector and single-owner residential projects throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. The firm has experience in new and retrofit design and construction.
"Following some basic guidelines, you can cut your energy and water usage by 50 percent," adds Nick Tsontakis, AIA, whose 15-year-old Nick Tsontakis Architecture & Interiors also offers new and retrofit design. "Today, there are more and more government subsidies at both the local and federal levels. And, heightened public awareness will lead to more people requesting these retrofits as well as higher value for projects designed using green practices."
Tsontakis Klein Lugosi
A nonrectangular barrel-vaulted ceiling creates height while reducing energy costs in this Valley home designed by Nick Tsontakis.
Credit: Klein-Lugosi House, Scott Sandler for Tsontakis Architecture & Interiors
The first step for any home-renovation project: Get a thorough technical analysis, called a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) from a credentialed company. This can cost a few thousand dollars, Dollin notes, but as most homes are probably well below optimal efficiency, improvements accrue benefits immediately and increase over time. "In many cases, the worse the existing conditions are in terms of energy and water inefficiency, the better the return on investment is with results showing up in the form of reduced utility bills," he says.
Coordinating with a design professional who is environmentally sensitive could also provide good returns, Tsontakis says. "He or she will help you maximize the efficiency of your existing space with smarter layouts."
"We like to look at the whole site," says Dollin. "A well-designed site landscape can help a home reduce electricity and gas use for heating and cooling by creating proper micro climates, shading south and west exposures, using proper paving and other materials that can utility cut costs by 15 percent or more." Water-conservation measures include drought-tolerant and low-water-demand plants, water harvesting, waste water reuse and proper grading and drainage.
In the beginning was the Garden: Plant one in our desert paradise, suggests Dollin, who grows pomegranates, grapefruit, artichoke, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant and other varieties in his suburban backyard. "A garden can attune the homeowner with his or her site, the cycles of the seasons and the importance of soil fertility and correct plant maintenance," he explains.
"Popular landscape plantings do double duty, from providing functional results and aesthetic beauty in addition to providing fresh produce at the dinner table. The benefits go well beyond monetary savings by offering some peace of mind and a healthy participation in your diet and nature."
Dollin adds, "The more we can make our sites and homes into integrated ‘living places' and not simply dwelling units with yards, the greener we will become as a community and as a nation."
Turf Tube
An innovative way to bring a touch of green to your living space is the use of Turf Tubes, a product developed by Urban Earth Design of Phoenix, which provide cool and comfortable seating for casual summer evenings in a Tucson-area home featured on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." More info at
Credit: Bell House, UED for Turf Tube
Toward that end in our desert ecosystem, Tsontakis says to limit turf (grass) to 20 percent of the lot area and xeriscape and hardscape elsewhere. Plant trees in front of windows to provide shading where there are no overhangs, he suggests. And, create "living walls" with plants instead of using concrete block. For your drip-irrigation system, use satellite-controlled lawn sprinklers* (which react to weather conditions) to save water, he recommends. Design for erosion control and create swales to manage water runoff and increase rainwater infiltration. Inside, use dual flush toilets and low-flow fixtures.
So, too, a greywater conservation system may be able to replace a subsurface irrigation system, depending on your needs. Greywater is waste water from bathtubs, showers, bathroom sinks, washing machines, dishwashers and kitchen sinks — any home source other than toilets.
To reduce costs and cut landfill additions, try to leave as much of the exterior envelope of the building intact, Tsontakis says, noting that, when removing interior walls, keep the wood studs, remove all nails and reuse them in the new interior wall locations. He adds that organizations will pick up discard materials at no charge.
Other green suggestions when planning your retrofit: Replace driveways and hardscape with pervious material such as pavers. In addition, cut up the exterior concrete driveways in 36"x 36" or 48 x 48" pieces and reuse them for hardscape in pathways. Select light colors (high albedo, or high reflection of light from sources such as the Sun) for reflectivity in the hardscape as well as on the roof.
On the structure, build a vapor barrier to the roof between the garages and the home to prevent automobile fumes from entering the attic space.
Seal all exterior holes in block walls with mortar, paint block walls and caulk around all existing windows and door frames. Also, seal all perimeters of recessed ceiling fixtures and diffusers to limit air infiltration from the attic space. In the attic, seal the sill plates and insulate all ductwork and seal the perimeters where fireplaces pierce the roof surface. Cover those diffusers before starting remodeling work to prevent dust from settling inside during construction. "Preferably, use enhanced insulation such as spray foam on interiors of the west and east walls and the vaulted part of the attic," Tsontakis says, noting to avoid insulation gaps.
Dillon Courtyard End
Gabion walls with local river rock and Zen-fully-gardened plantings make precincts of calm in peaceable evenings.
Credit: Dillon House, Bill Timmerman for UED
Use double-glazed with low-e glass windows if you replace the windows. The payback in the desert is long, but you will reduce noise and glare, Tsontakis says. Solatubes are easy to install and bring in natural light without creating energy-draining openings in exterior walls.
Water heaters are approximately 12 percent of you electric bill, he notes. Solar hot water heaters are more affordable now — about $1,500 after rebates. Combine a 14–16 SEER HVAC unit with a programmable thermostat and variable-speed furnace. Here, again, the utilities provide incentives. "Consult with a mechanical engineer to ensure you are buying the right sized unit," Tsontakis says.
Even small changes make your home more environmentally sound. Use "Energy Star" appliances and CFL (compact fluorescent light bulbs) or LED (Light-emitting diode) bulbs in light fixtures.
"Being green is not terribly sexy or complicated," says Dollin, who grew up in the ‘70s when Earth-consciousness emerged. "It simply takes a thoughtful approach to what you have and determining how you can make incremental improvements that layer together to provide a more sustainable way of dwelling. The future looks green."

Editor's Note:

HOMESTAR is designed to do the following, and awaits Congressional appropriations:
  • Provide rebates to homeowners for energy efficiency retrofits. Up to $3,000 rebate for insulation and other measures. Up to $8,000 rebate for full home retrofits.
  • Create 168,000 jobs in skilled construction and manufacturing, two of the hardest hit sectors during the U.S. economic downturn.
  • Invest $6 billion in the form of consumer rebates to be matched by private investment.
  • Help over three million American families to retrofit their homes to increase energy efficiency and save them as much as $9.5 billion in energy costs over 10 years.
  • Remove the equivalent of 615,000 cars from the road, or four 300 megawatt power plants from operation.
  • Dedicate $200 million to provide access to low interest financing.
  • Use a majority of manufactured goods made in the U.S., averaging well over 90 percent domestic production.

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