By RITA KUEBER
One of Moreland Hills’ newly constructed houses, a 3,000-square-foot contemporary ranch, is in the running for a national award from the U.S. Department of Energy. Already the building has qualified as a 2023 Housing Innovation Award Winner, with the Grand Award Winner announced this October. The award recognizes design/build projects for successfully providing homeowners with the best in energy efficiency, indoor air quality, comfort, and construction quality.
The criterion for these awards includes “a high-performance home so energy efficient that a renewable energy system could offset most or all the home’s annual energy use.” How a house gets that designation includes cooperation from the owner, architect, and builder. Some of the techniques to lower a building’s carbon footprint can include solar photovoltaic systems (solar panels), geothermal wells, an earth-coupled heating-cooling system, a thermal pool, and more.
But the most important step to reducing a home’s carbon footprint is the desire on the part of the owner to create such a structure, and then find like-minded professionals. In this case, the owners, Andrea and Mike, are empty nesters who wanted to build a house to accommodate their adult children and their families for visiting but also have flex space for both living and working on hobbies, so the couple can age in place. The house itself is set on a hill and has two levels, the traditional living/dining room/kitchen area, several bedrooms, and a lower-levelwalk-out rec room, an attached garage with a breezeway, but also space for a studio, as Andrea is a photographer.
The owners took their ideas to Akron-based architect Hallie Bowie, founder of New Leaf Home Design. She, in turn, contacted Jennifer and Dale Tomasek, owners/operators of Cornerstone Construction in Hiram, Ohio. The company works on new homes, renovations, and additions that reduce energy costs as well as reduce home maintenance by using high-quality, sustainable materials.
When Cornerstone started in 2007, the construction, housing, and finance industries, as well as the general media were abuzz with dire predictions of energy shortages and an emphasis on ‘green’ or eco-friendly buildings. Since then, the urgency has faded, however, it’s a vision the Tomaseks, as well as architect Bowie, never wavered on.
Green building did make a dent in our collective belief in the need for energy-efficient homes. Energy Star appliances, for example, are a very basic expectation, Jennifer explains. “The single most important aspect of building this way depends on how tight the house is. This means taking extraordinary care to close up all of the cracks, crevices, the foundation, and anywhere materials meet and connect to each other. It’s amazing how hairline cracks add up,” she adds. “If you’re conscious of it from the beginning, taking a few extra steps matters.”
The second factor that makes a big difference is how well-insulated the house is. Often, when thinking about insulation, we think about winter and keeping cold out, but this layer also affects a house during the summer months. “At one point earlier this summer, Andrea told me she hadn’t had to turn on the air conditioning yet since the house was still cool,” Jennifer says.
Everything from the HVAC system to the lights, using all electric appliances (no fossil fuels) plus the installed solar panels create the energy-efficient home the owners wanted. More, there’s no way to tell from its appearance that the building is highly energy efficient. Jennifer recalls some of the designs she saw in the earliest days of green building. “They were awful houses – squares with no windows. Nobody wants to live in a dark box, but this house feels as modern and beautiful as any other new build in the area. It has incredible windows. The view off the back looks into a wooded ravine. It’s thoughtfully situated too, with the roof line and the solar panels placed and angled in the right direction.”
Jennifer comments on the resurgence in green building. “It’s becoming a headline again. In really critical scenarios, we have to get people moving in the right direction, no matter if it’s freezing temperatures, wildfire-prone areas, or homes in the path of a hurricane. We need to be super thoughtful about ways people can build and protect their homes.”