Vergennes home’s energy-efficiency features keep operating costs down

VERGENNES — When building a new home it is important that it is energy-efficient and has a light carbon footprint, said builder Ken Ruddy — but not because of the awards it can win (although Ruddy’s new home in Vergennes has been honored).
“It’s simple economics,” said the founder and owner of the North Ferrisburgh design/build company Fiddlehead Construction. “It pays for itself from day one.”
The three-story, 1,900-square-foot home at 39 School St. in Vergennes features a number of high-tech and common sense features that result in it having an annual heating cost of just $271 per year.
“I intended to build this house for a buyer whether they care about the environment or not,” Ruddy explained. ”It’s all economic.”
The three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, completed late last summer and on the market, recently received a “Best of the Best” award for energy efficient building design from Efficiency Vermont.
With an ultra-tight shell, efficient windows, and a heat-recovery ventilation system, the house is kept warm with a relatively small heating system. Heating, cooling, and hot water are provided by efficient heat pumps. Energy saving appliances and lighting are part of the design, along with water conserving faucets.
The house has earned the highest home-energy rating of 5+ stars and certification as an Energy Star new home.
Ruddy said the home would not only save money on heating and cooling in the short term, but the energy-efficiency measures would pay off in the long run.
“Besides saving money, building energy-efficiencywise really increases the durability of the buildings and it increases the indoor comfort,” he said.
Ruddy explained that a super-insulated house such as the one he built requires a system to bring in fresh air in the winter without letting the heat escape into the great outdoors. Not only is it important for the people living in the home, but also for the health of the building itself.
“You need to make sure there is not moisture in walls (which could foster the growth of mold), and indoor air quality is important,” he said.
To achieve the most energy-efficient air exchange, the School Street house uses a heat-recovery system that captures 90 percent of the heat in the indoor air before sending it outside and bringing in fresh air.
The home gets a score of 30 on the High Efficiency Rating System index, known in the business as HERS — the lower the number the more energy efficient the home. A home built in a traditional way would get a HERS of 100; a “net-zero” home (one that uses no energy from a utility) would rate a zero.
“With a house that is 30, you are saving 70 percent of the energy compared to a house built to code,” Ruddy said.
To achieve such a good rating, Ruddy had to take great care in designing and building the home. It starts with siting it on the lot in such a way that a bank of windows on the south side gets a great amount of sun in the winter; the deep window casings also mean that there is less direct sunlight to overheat the house in the summer.
But to get a HERS of 30, it goes way beyond that.
“This house is a different breed, every component matches everything else,” Ruddy said.
The double-wall assembly creates a tightly sealed, highly insulated blanket on the outside that has a second wall on the inside that is painted and finished. The benefit here is that if the homeowner later wants to add an electrical conduit or even hang a picture, changes to the inner wall won’t compromise the tight seal of the outer wall.
The 11-inch outer walls feature high-tech Roxul mineral batts insulation that boast an R-59 insulation value. The loose-fill cellulose insulation in the attic has an R-value of 80. A venting system draws fresh air through the bottom of the walls to guard against vapor build up.
“This is a really, really tight house, that’s why I put that air barrier in the house,” Ruddy said. “A secondary purpose is that it limits water diffusion through walls.
The triple-pane windows not only have a high R-value, but the casings are super-sealed (“In most houses, most of the heat lost is here, through the casings,” Ruddy said.) and the glass is treated for a high solar-heat gain.
“These windows gain more heat than they lose,” he added.
When it came to energy-efficient lighting, Ruddy chose LED models over CFL in many cases.
“When you get them on sale they cost same as CFL, and they last a lot longer,” he said.
Ruddy acknowledged that all the super-efficient detailing can add to the upfront cost of a home by as much as 10 to 15 percent. But by keeping that in mind and knowing that the market he was building in would not pay much of a premium, he managed to keep the cost per square foot in line with what he thought other new homes in the neighborhood might go for.
“This is a demonstration home, and you can only charge so much,” Ruddy said.
He’s asking $307,000 for the home. But he figures that because the home uses 66 percent less energy compared with a new home simply built to code, it will actually cost less to own and thus have a lighter effect on the buyer’s monthly outlay.
“Saving $300 a month (on energy expenditures) is like buying a house for $250,000,” Ruddy said. “This is a fantastic value for that neighborhood.”
The house was designed to meet the Passive House high-efficiency building standards that were created in Germany, though it hasn’t been officially certified. Ruddy figures it could meet the Passive House standards pretty easily, but actually going through the certification process would cost a couple thousand dollars, which he didn’t want to pass on to the buyer.
The yellow house at 39 School has many features that enable it use energy more efficiently, but when it came to adding features that produce electricity for the home, Ruddy held off, though he envisions a way to add renewable electricity production.
“I decided not to do renewables,” he said. “You could go net-zero for $8,000 with solar panels on back.
“Some say you should put as much PV (photo voltaic energy-producing panels) on the roof as possible, I say conservation measures should come first.
“PV is dropping in price, I like to set my houses up to do PV if homeowners want to do it.”
Ruddy, 48, founded Fiddlehead Construction eight years ago, but he says he began working in construction years before that, as his family business was in the building trades.
“I’ve been building since I could swing a hammer,” he said.
He’s built other spec houses —  ones that don’t have an up-front buyer — in the past, but he feels that for the first time he really got to include all the energy-efficiency features he wanted to in this house. As the designer, he also included nice details — like a limestone countertop, custom cherry cabinets, tilt windows and an attractive main stairway — that make the home truly beautiful.
Some who have seen his work agree.
“I’ve been building for a long time and this is the first house my wife has said we should move into it,” Ruddy said.
Ken Ruddy of Fiddlehead Construction is at 802-425-7019 or 802-233-8642 or [email protected]. He will provide tours of the home at 39 School St. in Vergennes and explain the many energy-efficiency features on March 30 as part of the Sustainable Living Expo organized by the Addison County Relocalization Network. For more information on the expo visit http://acornvt.org/sle2014.

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