LAS VEGAS — The New American Home — a working lab of best construction practices since 1984 — has reached its greenest goal yet with plastic pushing the envelope to achieve net-zero energy.
“We finally hit it. This home will produce more electricity than it needs to operate,” Drew Smith, chief operating officer of Two Trails Inc. in Sarasota, Fla., said of the showcase home of the International Builders Show.
Thirteen miles from the strip, where 1,700 exhibitors and 75,000 show-goers have gathered, busloads of visitors will arrive every 30 minutes from Tuesday through Thursday to the suburb of Henderson to see how such energy efficiency is not only achieved but can be replicated across the country.
Smith, a sustainability consultant, said solar panels got the 5,891-square foot house to an impressive — 13 spot on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index. (A typical home scores 70 to 80 and this home would be at 51 without the solar power.)
However, Smith also said that proper design and orientation followed by choosing the best windows and using spray polyurethane foam (SPF) put the home on the greenest of paths. The 2015 New American Home has Sierra Pacific direct glaze windows and closed-cell SPF on the roof and open-cell SPF on the walls — the Bayseal brand by Bayer MaterialScience LLC.
“Spray foam comes into play as being a huge contributor of the tight envelope,” Smith said. “We have very little air leakage and air transfer to the outside, which reduces the amount of air conditioning needed in the home and gives us phenomenal testing numbers.”
This year's house also attained emerald status under the National Green Building Standard and is under review for platinum certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which is the highest level for the program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Fans of foam
Smith said plastic is a friend of the green building industry, which is poised to generate $529 billion by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts. And, of the all plastics open-cell SPF tops his list.
“The whole entire green building sustainability industry is a huge advocate of open-cell foam for insulation because of its ability to literally seal every nook and cranny and create a very tight envelope,” Smith said.
“It's the item we advise all of our builders and home-owner clients: If you're going to spend money anywhere, spend it on open-cell foam. You can do a granite countertop later. If you want to do something that means a lot to the construction of the home, get the spray foam insulation.”
Smith rattled off a list of benefits: It's permanent. It reduces tonnage on air-conditioning loads. It keeps a more consistent temperature year round in the home. It keeps out moisture. It has no particulates to bother anyone with allergies. It helps keep dust outside.
“You're creating a semi-sterile environment just by using that product,” Smith said.
On the roof, closed-cell SPF (Bayseal 2.7 foam with a coating called Bayblock) was used because it creates an air-tight and water-tight barrier. Although waterproofing isn't a big issue in Las Vegas, the SPF's ability to fill every crevice is important considering all the penetrations made for the dozens of panels in the 15 kw photovoltaic array.
Tyler Jones, owner and co-founder of Blue Heron Construction, likens the foam, which is 3½-inches thick on the roof and 5½-inches thick in the walls, to a cocoon.
“This is probably the single most effective thing we did at this home,” Tyler said of the third new American home his firm has taken on.
The solar panels will provide about 83 percent of the home's annual energy needs. The array is the critical component to the sub-zero HERS rating, which measures all energy used for lighting, cooling and appliances.
“There are a lot of contributing factors in getting to that number but you can't get there without solar,” Smith said.
The installation of solar photovoltaic arrays has increased more than 400 percent in the United States from 2010-14, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But Smith said he thinks the day when solar power is the norm for production housing is a ways off in the future.
“It's a slow-evolving process just to get builders up to speed and to get the manufacturers to produce enough panels at a low enough price to make it affordable for everyone,” he said.
He thinks the next best practice to be adopted on a wide scale will be SPF.
“It's trending upwards to where we're seeing now 50 percent of the green building market using spray foam,” Smith said. “We're seeing a constant improvement or increase in the stringency of energy codes and it is one of the easiest and best ways to comply. You can switch one product to spray foam and increase efficiency dramatically. Yes, it costs a little more but they're delivering a much better product.”
Plenty of polymers
Other kinds of plastics used at the New American Home include GreenGuard RainDrop 3D — a cross-woven polyolefin building wrap by Kingspan Insulation that acts as another air and water barrier — and PVC, chlorinated PVC and cross-link polyethylene pipes for supply lines, sewerage lines and waste lines.
“A lot of it is behind the scenes as opposed to screaming out there,” Smith said.
One home feature with a bit of plastic that did literally shine were the DuPont Zodiaq countertops used at the wine bar. In a loft with four big screen TVs, the counters made of 93 percent quartz and 7 percent resin glowed from lights underneath.
Also, casting light and warmth were natural gas fireplaces inside and out; automated wall-size sliding glass doors; and his-and-hers TVs installed behind mirrors in the master bathroom, which also has a freestanding tub that is filled from a faucet in the ceiling.
Energy Star-rated appliances, natural gas and electric car charging stations, a tankless water heater, and drip irrigation system are other energy-saving features.
Smith said he hopes visitors see that green building practices are for production homes in addition to custom homes.
“They're building the same house in this subdivision numerous times,” he said of the Sky Terrace community of $750,000-and-up houses. “It's a production-type floor plan. They really didn't do that much different than they do on every single one of their homes and they're able to still hit net zero.”
Blue Heron plans to use this year's house as a model and sales center for a couple years and then it will probably sell for upwards of $2 million, said Chris Myers, the firm's director of construction.