HG: SustainAbility Column February 14, 2009
Sam Williams builds homes, but he will be the first to tell you that building a home is essentially not a green process.
Nevertheless, he has made it his mission to take advantage of advances in building science and build sustainable homes.
Williams, a Fruita Monument High School graduate and former U.S. Marine, credits his wife, Kim, with igniting his interest in green building. He started attending conferences and classes and realized building green is smart. “It’s just a better home,” he said.
During high school, Williams framed houses and worked different aspects of construction as a summer job. Years later, he came full circle, living in Grand Junction and framing houses, before starting WB Builders in 2000.
Williams considers himself a building scientist and spends time on research to keep on top of the “latest and greatest” in the field. WB’s Web site touts “the science of superior high efficiency construction.”
WB is primarily a residential contractor. The company designs most of its projects in-house, working with a drafting service.
The Grand Valley’s weather presents special challenges for producing sustainable buildings. A home must be able to accommodate “six weeks of extreme heat in the summer and six weeks of extreme cold in the winter,” Williams said.
“A home is a system with lots of smaller systems that must work together,” he said.
Site orientation on a lot is an important first step to support visual appeal and performance of the home. Williams must meet a client’s needs while incorporating the elements he considers essential to building a sustainable home.
Williams likes to use insulated concrete forms (ICF) for all below grade, or underground, walls. ICFs look like oversized Styrofoam Legos that are reinforced with rebar and filled with concrete.
Exterior walls and the roof are constructed with structural insulated panels (SIPs). These premanufactured panels are a sandwich of two sheets of oriented strand board or plywood with an insulating polystyrene foam core that is 4 or more inches thick.
Williams explained that while the panels cost more per unit, total construction costs are often lower than conventional construction because of reduced labor and faster completion.
SIPs also reduce construction waste.
The pairing of ICFs and SIPs is the cornerstone of the company’s energy efficient homes, creating a tight thermal envelope that allows very little heat loss.
Because the thermal envelope is so tight, it is necessary to provide adequate ventilation.
Williams likes to use an energy recovery ventilator (ERV), a mechanical ventilation system especially suited to the Grand Valley since it does a good job of recovering cool air.
The ventilator filters the air, ensuring superior indoor air quality, and helps regulate humidity.
Ideally, a home would have one air exchange an hour, meaning each hour the entire volume of air is replaced with fresh air from outside, Williams said.
High efficiency heating and cooling systems are needed to keep the indoor temperature comfortable and Williams prefers self-modulating units. This type of system has a built-in sensor to determine what capacity level is needed to maintain comfort.
In the most efficient models, the unit will select a capacity level of 25, 50, 75 or 100 percent.
Self-modulated units are designed to run steadily, but use less energy. Williams said this system actually runs better without a programmable thermostat, which may undermine optimum function.
Williams admitted he could “talk forever about every aspect of building science.”
His homes have other environmentally friendly features, including photovoltaics, water-saving measures and xeriscaping.
WB Builders likes to use the Built Green standards, which require Energy Star for Homes as a baseline. Williams is working with Sam Rashkin, national director for Energy Star for Homes, on developing modeling and testing for Energy Star’s Advanced New Home
Construction program, which is scheduled to roll out in the next couple of years.
Focusing on building better, sustainable houses has rejuvenated William’s enthusiasm for building. At this point, WB is only working with clients who want to use the ICF and SIP combination Williams favors. The company builds two or three homes a year.
What amazes Williams is that more builders haven’t seen the light about green building.
Many are reluctant to change. In the future, younger homebuyers will be demanding the best technology can offer: comfortable homes with low energy needs that will last for a very long time.
To learn more about WB Builders and a sustainable approach to building houses, go to http://www.wb-builders.com or call 640-0758.
Williams is planning to display the tricks of his trade and share insights into building science at the Earth Day festivities on April 18.