Five or 10 years ago, the purpose of going on a house tour in an upscale suburb like Concord was to be wowed.
Whether it was new construction offering astounding square footage that might encompass a butler’s pantry, a media room, a children’s library, a wrapping station, and a soaring atrium, or masterful restorations in which antique structures were gorgeously burnished and updated, people paid to go on house tours because they wanted to be dazzled.
But standards and priorities have changed in some communities, as both the recession and an increasing focus on carbon footprints and other environmental issues have left their marks.
And so this spring’s seven-home tour offered by the League of Women Voters of Concord-Carlisle has a different theme.
The April 6 fund-raising event is entitled “What’s New!” and its focus, according to tour chairwoman Diana Clymer, is on innovations in energy efficiency, “green” construction, and issues of accessibility as they relate to house design.
One of the homes that participants will visit is that of Brian and Pam Foulds. The couple started thinking about how to build an energy-efficient house in 2008, after realizing that the purchase and operating costs of the large new homes being built in the neighborhood of their choice, as well as the cost of renovating a smaller one, were full of unknowns and potential pitfalls.
Eventually, they came to believe that the most affordable way for them to realize their dream of moving to Concord was building a new home designed with energy efficiency as its priority.
“We were pretty sure we’d want to live in the house forever and would therefore be paying the house’s operating costs long-term, so it made sense to make sure the house was efficient,” Brian Foulds said.
A National Grid representative whom Foulds had met at an energy-efficiency fair in Westford, where the couple lived at the time, put him in touch with an architect known for her special interest in green construction.
“We looked at air sealing, ventilation, high-performance windows, all with a focus on making the best building envelope we could,” Foulds said. “Our architect knew quite a lot about how to work with insulation and air sealing, which resulted in tremendous savings.”
They moved into their new home in the summer of 2010.
For the lay person, solar panels are often the first feature that comes to mind when the topic of energy efficiency arises, and the Foulds family benefits amply from sunlight.
“Our solar panels generated 168 percent of the energy required for our home’s electrical needs last year — electricity that heats, cools, and lights the house, and runs the laundry, and everything else — so more than half beyond what we actually needed,” said Foulds.
If 168 percent seems like a strangely exact number for him to know, there’s a reason: Among the features of his home is a monitoring system that, as Foulds explains, goes far beyond the electric bill in showing how the house is using power.
“On your electric bill, you can see the total energy used, 500 kilowatts or whatever, but you don’t know exactly how that energy was deployed within the house. The e-monitor is a system that actually tracks energy flow. I can see, for example, whether it was the air conditioning or the sump pump that used the bulk of our electricity in any given month.”
Other energy-saving measures in the Foulds home include a heat recovery system that adds 10 degrees to the temperature of water brought into the house before it even reaches the water heater, and a lot that keeps rainwater in the yard rather than running down to the nearby Concord River.
Their home has the rare distinction of platinum certification from the US Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes program, which promotes construction that meets stringent requirements for energy efficiency, resource efficiency, and promoting the health of a home’s occupants.
Each of the seven homes on the Concord-Carlisle tour will provide information on its energy-saving options, green construction, and accessibility innovations, but not all of them are as technical as the e-monitor or heat-recovery system in the Foulds’ home. Some feature a priority on environmental aspects of landscaping, with no nonnative plant species on the property.
Jeff Adams, a builder whose company constructed two of the houses on the tour, said much of his process for increasing energy efficiency simply involves a more holistic approach than the one that led to the huge McMansions of past years.
Both of his houses on the tour “were for clients who were downsizing, and contacted us to see if we could do something that was not only smaller but also more energy-efficient,” Adams said.
One strategy he employs is to think in terms of multipurpose spaces.
“The giant homes popular a few years ago would have a home office, a guest room, a family room, a full bath, and a half bath all on the first floor,” he said. “Now our clients are looking for ways to combine spaces, to make a home office that also works as a guest room, to have just one full bath rather than a full and a half bath on the main floor. Our clients want space used most efficiently. New compact construction is really the trend.
“Even when it’s not strictly a cost issue and clients may be able to afford a larger structure, we are seeing people whose preferences are for a smaller and more efficient space.”
Tour chairwoman Clymer says League of Women Voters member Dan Proctor came up with this year’s theme, although Proctor insists that energy efficiency is an important enough topic that someone else would have suggested it if he hadn’t.
“The town of Concord has recently implemented new programs for electricity conservation and has a large solar array in the works,” he said. “There are so many tax incentives for making energy-saving changes to your home. With regular savings accounts earning so little interest these days, investments in things like solar panels and other forms of green energy are among the best investments you can make.”
According to Clymer, there’s no question that the time is right for this kind of tour.
“In past years, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with enough homes that matched this theme,” she said. “But now it’s easy enough for us to find seven different examples right in one town. And many people really want to take advantage of the tax credits offered by energy efficiency.
“There’s a whole community of homeowners out there whose priority is over-the-top energy efficiency, and this is one of their favorite topics. On the tour, the owners of the homes will be present to talk about each house’s special features, and we will also have experts available to answer questions about some of the more technical equipment and mechanics involved in this.”
And even those who don’t consider themselves especially interested in solar panels or passive water heaters might relate to Brian Foulds’ plans for teaching his 6-year-old twins about saving energy.
“For now, like most parents, I just try to remind them to turn off lights,” he said. “But as they get older and use more electronics that consume electricity, my wife and I can put them on an energy budget. With the e-monitor system, we can show them exactly how much electricity their devices consume and what they’ve wasted by leaving lights on. They’ll be able to learn exactly how much they’re spending or saving in terms of electricity. And if they’re up in the middle of the night playing video games, we’ll be able to tell that from their energy use as well.”
Still, as enthusiastic as he and his wife may be about conscious energy use, Foulds said, he hopes one thing visitors on the tour learn is that the family’s lifestyle is not one of self-deprivation or abstention.
“We do not feel that we’ve had to compromise on living the way we might like just to be more environmentally conscious,” he said. “We live in a beautiful, spacious home. It just happens to be one that, through careful design and planning, makes a much lower impact on the environment than other homes.”