FOUR YEARS AGO, Amherst architect Sigrid Miller Pollin felt frustrated by the lack of reasonably priced, energy-efficient housing in her area. So she decided to do something about it. “My goal was to see if it was possible to design an affordable green house,” says Pollin, who is also a professor of architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In 2009, Pollin optioned to buy four lots in a wooded setting in Amherst bordered by wetlands and within walking distance of a bus stop and bike trails. Then she put the word out to entry-level professors at her university. Within a few months, she’d found two families that were interested in her concept.
Heidi Garrett-Peltier, an assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute, committed to buying one of the homes with her partner, Graysen. The couple, who now have an 11-month-old, had been living in an older home and spending a fortune on oil heat. Not only did they like the idea of a green home, says Heidi, they “were excited to live in a house with a modern, clean-lined look.” A colleague of Heidi’s, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, an assistant research professor at the same institute, also chose to buy. She and her partner, Ali, have two children.
From the outside, the two homes look completely different.
“Since the Garrett-Peltiers’ house is located on a sloped site with limited buildable area, their home has a small, square footprint,” says Pollin. Sided bright red, it has a tall, narrow feel and a cantilevered deck on the south side with a carport tucked underneath it. “The Wicks-Lims’ had more buildable space to spread out on,” says Pollin. Their pale-yellow house is wider and has a two-story screened-in porch at one end.
Pollin worked with the families to design layouts that suited their particular needs. The three-bedroom, two-bath homes were kept to modest sizes. The Wicks-Lims’ home is just over 1,400 square feet; the Garrett-Peltiers’ is 1,320. “Finally, there is a growing movement to build smaller homes,” says Pollin. “Space can be conserved in a lot of ways: Bedrooms don’t need to be big; hallways should be kept to a minimum.”
Both houses have open floor plans on the main levels, where the kitchen, living, and dining areas flow together. “By combining these rooms, you create a sense of openness,” says Pollin. The Wicks-Lims’ living area is double height to allow air to circulate through the home with the help of ceiling fans. The Garrett-Peltiers’ has a double-height area on the south side that allows air to circulate through interior windows in the master bedroom, she says. Pollin also worked with the families to select paint low in volatile organic compounds and LED light fixtures. For the living areas, she designed compact fluorescent light sconces and had them fabricated by a local metalsmith.
Both homes were constructed for $169 per square foot and earned the building industry’s green LEED Gold certification. Pollin used a few tricks to keep costs down. She saved on sustainable bamboo flooring because she bought enough for both houses at the same time. She also used some off-the-shelf materials, outfitting kitchens with IKEA products, for example. Low-maintenance pre-painted cement fiberboard siding sheaths the exteriors of both houses.
“We were conservative, so we could spend in areas where it would help save energy,” says Pollin, who points out that all of the exterior walls are extra thick and packed with super-efficient cellulose insulation, a green material. The houses are equipped with energy recovery ventilators, which draw fresh air in and send stale air out. In summer, the ventilators help cool and dehumidify the space; in cooler weather, they help make heating more efficient.
Heating is provided by pellet stoves and mini high-efficiency boilers fired by propane stored in tanks buried outside. Solar collectors on the Garrett-Peltiers’ south-facing roof provide supplemental energy for heating water. Last winter, their first in the house, Heidi estimates that their heat and hot water costs were a third to a half lower than at their former home.
Since the Wicks-Lims’ house is on a lot with maximum southern exposure, there’s even greater potential to harness solar power, so they opted to install photovoltaic panels on the roof to generate electricity. They’re able to track the panels’ use and performance online. “This past summer the majority of electricity we used was generated by the panels, which is pretty impressive,” says Jeannette.
Because the homes are close to a bus stop, the Wicks-Lims are now a one-car household, so they save on transportation, too. And if Jeannette misses the bus to work, she can hitch a ride with Heidi. “To know our neighbors is really great,” Jeannette says.
Heidi agrees. “We have a nice quality of life here. The setting is tranquil and convenient, and our house is incredibly well built,” she says. “When the earthquake tremors and Hurricane Irene came through here last summer, we didn’t feel a thing.”
Jaci Conry is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.