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Issue Date: February 2007


New Country Attitude

Forget cookie-cutter — WGAR morning host Michelle Maloney built a home that reflects her eco-friendly ideals.
Kristen Hampshire
Michelle Maloney updated loyal listeners of 99.5 WGAR for more than six months about her home-construction project. She blogged on the country music station’s Web site about everything from construction delays to hemp upholstery.

“My builders put a radiant floor mat underneath the tile, so my bare feet will stay nice and toasty in the wintertime,” she wrote. Days later, more progress. “Here’s my furnace. Small, huh?” It’s actually the compressor for her geothermal system. “Here’s the master bedroom … it’s painted a warm chocolate color. (Hey, I love chocolate!)”

Pictures of her “green” home set on a 3-acre lot in Streetsboro illustrate all the decisions, delays and anticipation that come with building a home: “I can’t wait to put rockers or a swing out on the porch next spring!” she blogged.
Maloney’s three-bedroom country escape is different from most. It could survive a direct hit from an F4 tornado or a category-5 hurricane, and the whole structure is recyclable.

Maloney excitedly describes the green quirks of her country retreat like a student unveiling the secret formula of a science-fair project. “Did you know, if every household changed one light bulb to one of these energy-efficient bulbs, an entire power plant could be closed down,” she blurts. “Can you believe that? It’s crazy.”

She pauses, soaking in the sunlight from a wall of windows in a cozy library that branches off her foyer. A single space heater pumps warm air from the basement to the upstairs and throughout the entire house, while a construction crew puts the final touches on Maloney’s dream home. “You can heat this place with a match,” she remarks.

The building is just that tight.

That’s one quality that makes it so green, which in this case, means sustainable design — construction with the least impact on the environment: conscientious building and mindful use of materials.

“Most people think of domes, and those are great,” Maloney remarks. “And yurts have their place, too. But people can still build a home that looks like a standard house and is extremely energy efficient and easy on the Earth.”

Maloney’s place isn’t a design oddity by any means. She wanted what everyone else had — just a more environmentally friendly version. Misconceptions about what sustainably built buildings look like probably discourage homeowners from breaking ground on a green home, she says. “But there are so many options to take advantage of [that] do the least amount of damage to the environment as possible while still being comfortable and getting what you want.”
 
Maloney has always figured the Earth into her lifestyle.

She was a vegetarian back when planning meatless menus was difficult. “Now, it’s much easier,” she says, “and it’s a lot less strange, too.” She doesn’t wear fur or leather. She turns to magazines such as Body + Soul and Vegetarian Times for vegetarian recipes, and in the process, began learning about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and offgassing from paints, plastics and furniture.

So when Sanctuary Home Designs contacted her about building a sustainable home — one constructed with recyclable materials and any earth-friendly fixing she chose, Maloney was on board.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized this type of building makes perfect sense,” Maloney says. “This is what everyone could and should be doing.”

But most aren’t. Within eyeshot of Maloney’s property is a housing development of stick homes that popped up like a weed patch next to her lot. She is thankful that the cookie-cutter models are hardly visible from her front yard. Each of those homes is made from roughly 2.5 acres of trees, she points out.

“Northern Ohio happens to be very slow to change,” explains Paul Popovich, president of Sanctuary Home Designs in Solon. Building a house like Maloney’s can cost 5 percent to 10 percent more than a “stick built” home, but the energy savings and health benefits of a structure made from materials that don’t pollute the air present a significant return on investment, he adds.

Maloney’s 2,096-square-foot house will save her 60 percent to 80 percent on energy bills. The entire frame is made of recyclable concrete and steel — insulated concrete forms that fit together like Legos. The only place air can seep from the outdoors into her living space, which will stay toasty warm with a double-sided fireplace, is through an open window or the HVAC system.

Insulating concrete forms — hollow “blocks” or “panels” made of plastic foam that are stacked into walls and filled with reinforced concrete — create a solid, energy-efficient and quiet structure. And steel braces are stronger than the wood used in homes next door to Maloney’s.

“Steel is used every day in commercial construction,” Popovich points out.

The concrete walls help the home maintain a consistent temperature, with less than a 1.5-degree variance.

But Maloney’s green ideas extend beyond the home’s structure. The guts are incredibly efficient: a geothermal pump transfers heat from the ground to the house. She’ll probably pay just $30 to $40 a month for all energy bills — heat, energy and gas.

Geothermal energy heats water as well, and Maloney decided on a tankless water system. “You heat [water] when you need it, and you never run out,” Maloney explains.

“You can take an hour-long shower, which defeats the purpose of being energy efficient,” she jokes, “but you can do it.”
Because the house is so tight, meaning air cannot flow from outside in and vice versa, the builders installed an air exchange. “You can filter the air, so there is less dust,” Popovich notes.

Then there are the carefully chosen paints, tile, cabinets and furniture. Bamboo floors are highly renewable and a cleaner alternative to carpet. “I didn’t want carpet — it tends to harbor allergens,” Maloney says, though she eventually decided to install it in the two guest bedrooms. So she found hemp carpeting, which won’t diffuse pollutants from synthetic materials into the air.

Accent walls in every room are painted with Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony line, which has antimicrobial properties, does not contain VOCs and is low odor. Butternut-yellow covers the walls in the kitchen, while the master bedroom is cloaked in chocolate brown and guest rooms are muted plum and sunny yellow.

Richlite countertops in the kitchen are made from baked paper and resin, and don’t offgas. The surface is heat resistant up to 350 degrees. “They use that product in skateboarding rinks,” Maloney remarks.

Furniture in Maloney’s living room is covered in organic hemp cloth and filled with organic wool and cotton. The frames are natural wood and constructed by Amish craftsmen, all purchased at A Natural Home in Fredericktown, Ohio. Even Maloney’s mattresses are organic.

And like-minded people direct her to other resources. Susie Little, the owner of A Natural Home, “pointed me to a whole eco-line of footwear that uses recycled rubber soles,” she says.

Most of Maloney’s research was Internet-based — and overwhelming. “There is an alternative for everything,” she says, noting that she discovered a slew of green companies based on the West Coast. But how green is it to transport products from far away, burning gasoline cross-country?

Also, some green options are a lot more expensive than standards, Maloney says. Wheat-board cabinets would cost twice as much as the high-end KraftMaid honey-glazed maple cabinets she chose. “I thought, Man, I’d love to do this, but I just can’t,” she says. In addition, a shorter truck trip from the KraftMaid factory to her home means less pollution. “That’s my justification for the cabinets,” she quips.

Maloney decided that vinyl siding for the home’s exterior was most economical; she combined this material with stone manufactured in Ohio.

“Vinyl is a petroleum product, but there is only so much you can do,” Popovich remarks. The bonus is the surface doesn’t need to be repainted every five years like the fiber cement siding Maloney first considered. It was double the price of vinyl.

“At least I’m doing this much,” Maloney says. “Every little bit makes a difference.”

The end result: “It looks like a standard house, but it’s just extremely energy efficient,” she describes.

And perhaps the ideal site for her organic wedding this fall, she muses. 

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