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Inexpensive Innovation

A Tucson builder creates an energy-efficient gem of a home

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When local builder Michael Ginsburg set out to design an energy-efficient home on Tucson's northside, he certainly knew what he didn't want. In short, he had zero desire to create a pricey, aesthetic showcase that would merely give a nod to energy efficiency.

What he ultimately achieved was a comfortable, appealing home where utility bills hover in the low double-digits—when there are bills at all. The home only cost around $150 per square foot to build, making it widely affordable.

He calls it his SEED project, short for "super energy efficient design home." That makes it a keen fit for these energy-conscious times.

You can explore Ginsburg's triumph—along with nearly 20 other groundbreaking dwellings—during the Tucson Innovative Home Tour and Solar Tour, on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 5 and 6.

Even among this year's broad collection of cutting-edge designs, Ginsburg's home is a standout. But behind its simple territorial design and sunny, nonpretentious interior are hours upon hours of painstaking legwork. For instance, he priced out every component of the home using a variety of alternatives, always with top energy efficiency as a cornerstone.

As it happens, inspiration for this gargantuan effort struck Ginsburg when he was attending an innovative-home conference hosted by Tucson's Solar Institute, which also sponsors the home tour. Then and there, he decided to "find out what it takes to do an energy-efficient home," he says. "It would be modest-sized, 2,000 square feet. I would do a lot of research and find out which were the best products, and take a year to do it."

Ginsburg started by picking a primary building material. That led him to investigate everything from insulated concrete forms called Mikey Block to rammed earth and straw bale. He ultimately decided upon cost-effective, structural insulated panels, commonly known as SIPS, with their core of polyurethane foam. Using these panels for exterior walls and the roof, he turned his home into a structural "envelope" which would retain heat in the winter and coolness in the summer. He also broke new ground with the installation of tubing for radiant heat and cooling, contained beneath the concrete floor.

If you're not envious yet, consider that Ginsburg's home stays a steady, radiated 75 degrees throughout the winter and summer, with nary a noisy blower or uncomfortable hot spot.

Insulation was important, he says. "Radiant heating has been used for decades, particularly in colder parts of the country. If you're heating your whole house, the warmth is originating down low, so it rises. It's a no-brainer. But that's only half of the equation of radiant systems: If you don't have a good thermal envelope, your radiant heating is worthless." The house is also oriented for passive solar, with no large windows on the sunlight-drenched east or west sides.

But those insulated panels sealed the deal, he says. "There is no comparison between using SIPS of this kind and any other construction form. This gives you the opportunity to make a near perfect thermal envelope."

In addition, the roof is fitted with energy-producing photovoltaic panels, while water for the radiant heating is also warmed by the sun. Vinyl Milgard-brand windows are fitted with dual-pane glass. The home has a greywater-recycling system, a fresh-air exchange, and Energy Star-rated appliances. When all the tweaking of various systems is complete, and with electricity produced by the solar panels, the home is expected to have zero net energy costs.

Not surprisingly, Ginsburg's accomplishment has perked national attention. The home received stellar efficiency ratings from the U.S. Department of Energy's Builders Challenge Program, and from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. It also earned an EnergyValue Housing Award from the National Association of Home Builders.

That broad recognition adds heft to Ginsburg's vision, and highlights Tucson's high profile within the sustainable-design movement.

While the lousy economy has slowed progress toward more energy-efficient homes, it simultaneously turned energy savings into a top priority. That paradox made the past year "the best of times and the worst of times," says Solar Institute director Paul Huddy. "It was the worst because next to no construction was going on. All these companies are laying off people and trying to find something else to do, much of which is renovation rather than building.

"But the other side of it is that a bunch of builders are looking around and trying to figure out how to distinguish their product from other products. And they've noticed that everybody has gotten involved in sustainability and green building. So they are doing homework and trying to incorporate at least some of that into what they do."

Either way, Tucson's forward-thinking builders are pressing ahead. For proof, look no further than this year's home tour, where you'll see homes such as Ginsburg's, with affordable passive solar designs, cutting-edge cooling and heating systems, and construction techniques ranging from rammed earth and adobe to straw bale and SIPS. The tour will commence with the Next Generation Home Seminar, offering tips on making your house energy-efficient and cutting maintenance costs.

Ginsburg's focus "was in making an energy-efficient home, and he certainly did a fine job of it," says Huddy. "He used a number of different approaches, as you must in order to achieve a high level of energy efficiency. That's not to say he put everything into the house that he could have. But that's a valid approach, especially to see what you achieve at a price that's competitive with standard construction."

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