February 9, 2009

Up to the challenge

Local house to lead nation into new energy frontiers



For more information, contact Chris Fennell at the Institute for Building Technology and Safety, a national organization that promotes leading-edge construction and building code compliance, at 1 (703) 481-2000 or check the Web site

The institute has teamed with Oakridge National Laboratory, among others, to provide the highest level of technical support to builders involved in the High-Performance Residential Challenge.

TUPPER LAKE — A new, energy-efficient house being built near Fish Creek will be the first of its kind in the nation.

Rich Kraft, a builder from Tupper Lake, has partnered with research engineers and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in a unique scientific/economic construction experiment, of sorts.

The 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom finished house will eventually become Kraft's home, situated back from Route 30 in a young forest not far from Upper Saranac Lake.

Standing beside a row of gray-speckled concrete forms made of high-tech Neopor, Kraft described the house, one of four around New York that's part of the NYSERDA-generated High-Performance Residential Challenge.

"I wanted to make it energy efficient, and I also wanted it to last as long as possible," he said.

On two floors, the house will have no stairs, but walkways will connect levels.

The frame will be a lattice of concrete poured into the insulated forms. Stacked outside the work site, they looked like giant, grown-up Legos.

But the lightweight foam on either side of the concrete will form a complete block from the weather and wind outside, which can dip to 30 and 40 below in winter.

Kraft said the insulated "legos," called Logix, will work with any ordinary house design, from timber frame to sheetrock.

"It is not that huge of a difference in construction. In some respects, the building is simpler."

Kraft has worked with similar building materials before.

One of the critical steps is in planning precisely where wiring and water lines for radiant heat or channels for solar-panel shafts will go before pouring concrete.

"A lot more attention is needed in the beginning," he said. "You need to plan around where all the utilities are and how the structure is going together. I've spent a lot of time looking at how the building envelope works with all the mechanical systems in the house."

The roof will be covered with structural insulated panels, while the walls will be built against the Neopor, a gray polystyrene foam flecked with graphite. The mineral is added to reflect heat and reduce the insulation's thermal conductivity.

The width of the wall will make for wide window sills.

Chris Fennell, an engineer with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety in Virginia who is working with Kraft, said the four "laboratory" projects around New York are each very different.

The others are:

•  An "urban infill" home being built in a vacant lot in Ithaca by the non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services.

•  A Habitat for Humanity home in Westchester County as a "zero-energy" home that will produce as much power as it requires.

•  A test home for a planned 41-lot energy-smart housing development in Newburgh.

Kraft's house was planned so engineers can monitor energy use in a cold environment.

The Institute for Building Technology and NYSERDA will monitor heating, cooling and energy costs for one year after each lab house is complete.

Kraft's initial cost estimate suggests it will cost about $200 per year in propane to heat water and run the radiant system in the house. Eventually, he plans to include solar panels on the roof.

Building efficiency into the design is fast becoming a major concern for all new construction projects.

"Progress is in thinking through and doing things in home building because they make sense," Fennell said.

"Improving energy efficiency is an important part of a green and sustainable future. It's kind of like teaching a man to fish. Once we learn to do this the high-performance way, why would you do it any other way?"

Fennell said NYSERDA will host workshops on construction techniques for each of the lab houses.

Kraft said the program is looking to set dates for a culminating training here.

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