She wanted classic style, he wanted a net-zero energy house.

July 26, 2015
Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant and contractor, renovated an older home in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a "net zero" energy house that looks like a typical house most people in Lexington want to own. So far, his project has been a success.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant, renovated a circa 1958 house in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a “net zero” energy house that looks like a typical Lexington house. Photos by Tom Eblen

The solar panels that help power Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The solar panels that help power Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.

 

When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn’t want the same thing.

“She wanted a very Southern Living house,” Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. “I wanted a net-zero house.”

Kentucky doesn’t have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.

Jamie Clark of Lexington is an energy-efficiency consultant and contractor.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark

Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.

“Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase,” he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. “This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington.”

Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.

The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.

They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls’ double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.

“I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again,” Clark said. “We were really mindful of growing in this house.”

The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks’ contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.

Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.

Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.

The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with “pretty” bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls’ playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.

Jamie Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

“It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof,” Clark said. “Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house.”

Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.

To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.

Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. “I’m trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I’ll put 20 more panels up there for charging it,” said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.

Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren’t visible. “The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line,” he said.

The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.

Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark’s energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.

“They will more than pay for themselves,” he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.

Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.

“It’s a dream home, that’s for sure,” Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. “It’s everything we wanted.”

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.

Jamie Clark's wife wanted a "Southern Living" house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Clark’s wife wanted a “Southern Living” house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation.


Yes, I wrote this column while sitting on my porch

July 8, 2014

When I traveled the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution years ago, I noticed a lot of statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns. I always thought Willis H. Carrier would have been a better choice to memorialize.

After all, the inventor of air conditioning helped make the region comfortable and prosperous, turning the Sleepy South into the Sun Belt. But Carrier’s invention had a drawback, too. Southerners started building houses without porches.

I have lived most of my life in houses built since 1950. One had a patio. Another had a breezeway between the house and garage. Another had a “decorative” front porch too narrow to be of any use.

A couple of my houses had decks. The large deck I built on the back of my 1950s Atlanta home was especially nice. But decks are inferior to porches. There is no roof, and deck railings are rarely as elegant as porch columns and balusters.

porchMy current house was built in 1907. It has a long, wide front porch and a large screened-in back porch, both equipped with ceiling fans. For most of three seasons each year, they are my favorite places to sit and relax. And on cool, low-humidity weekends like this past one, they can be little corners of heaven.

Front porches and back porches are very different places.

My front porch is a public extension of the living room. There is a spring-cushioned swing and two antique rocking chairs I bought cheap from people who thought, as my wife did when I brought them home, that they were worn out.

Both came with caned bottoms and seats that had seen better days. One was re-caned for me by a friend who is an excellent craftsman, in addition to being a retired physician and Air Force general. The other chair may be beyond hope, as the wooden frame looks as bad as the splintered seat and back. It is reserved for skinny visitors.

Old porch rockers have a design feature that makes them superior to those now sold at places such as Home Depot and Cracker Barrel: the back rails are steam-bent just above the seat. As President John F. Kennedy famously discovered, this bend tilts the back to the optimum angle for comfort, whether you are trying to run the world or simply watch it go by.

Front porches are all about watching the world. They are places for getting to know those who live around you, as well as for keeping the neighborhood safe and secure by providing what the urban analyst Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

I have a tradition with a fellow journalist who lives at the end of my street. About once a week, around 6 p.m., one or the other of us will hear the familiar “ding” of an iPhone text message. “Beer on porch?”

On either my porch or his, we discuss life and solve the world’s problems. An award-winning poet recently moved in around the corner, and I have invited him to join us. That should elevate the conversation a notch or two.

Rather than a living room, my back porch is more like an outdoor den, shielded from neighbors and screened from mosquitoes. Becky and I each have a pillowed wicker chair, and there is a dining table barely big enough for two. It is where we go to escape the world rather than to engage or watch it.

We read the newspaper on the back porch most mornings and have dinner there many evenings. It is a great place to relax, if we can ignore the fact that the back yard needs weeding, pruning or watering. Chores should never be visible from a porch.

My porches are cozy places to watch a rain shower, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. They are ideal for listening to birds and tree frogs — and enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts from the nearby Jif peanut butter factory.

During this past winter-from-hell, I got a surprise one morning when I looked out at the back porch. The wind had been so strong overnight that an inch of fine snow had been sifted through the screens, covering wicker chairs and all.

So, after I shoveled my sidewalk and front steps, I shoveled my screened-in porch, thinking how funny that would seem come July.


A solar pioneer takes his home to the next level

January 4, 2010

Richard Levine has heard all of the arguments about why solar energy won’t work in Kentucky.

And he has been defying them for three decades.

Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, designed and built one of the nation’s first solar homes on 32 acres he bought in 1974 near Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. He has been living there ever since.

Last month, he finished adding new high-tech solar panels to the roof of a studio next to his home that will make both buildings “net zero.” That means, over the course of a year, the photo-voltaic cells will produce as much electricity as the buildings consume.

“But to do it I may have to unplug my hot tub and convince my daughter to turn off her computer at night,” Levine said with a smile.Raven Run House has been written about in books, magazines and architecture journals all over the world but has received little attention in Kentucky. That’s mostly because Levine’s late wife, artist Anne Kemper Frye, who died in 2005, wanted privacy.

Levine, co-director of UK’s Center for Sustainable Cities, is continuing to use his live-in laboratory to explore new home design and energy technologies he thinks will become more important as utility rates rise and environmental concerns grow.

“All of these things are pointing to the fact that in the coming years we’re not going to be building houses the way we do now,” he said. “It’s coming very quickly.”

Levine was a young architect in the early 1970s when the Arab oil embargo and the fledgling environmental movement first got Americans thinking about renewable energy.

At the time, solar energy was the province of scientists and hippies; few architects paid much attention to it. Levine thought buildings would need to become more energy-efficient, so he decided to explore the possibilities.

He spent nearly a year researching and designing his home to use both kinds of solar energy: “passive,” in which design exploits the sun’s natural light and warmth, and “active,” in which mechanical devices capture and store it.

Levine began work on the house in 1975. The project took eight years, mostly because he and students did most of the construction — and because the Levine family lived there the whole time. He has never figured the total cost, but said, “It wasn’t terribly expensive.”

The design Levine created was a 40-foot cube, sliced diagonally to create a large hexagonal surface. That surface faced south at a 54-degree angle, the optimal position to catch winter sunlight.

On that 32-foot sloping surface, Levine installed vertical rows of solar collectors, which warmed air and stored it in bins of crushed stone in the basement to provide heat with a system he patented. He alternated those collectors with rows of narrow windows he called “sundows” that let in natural light and warmth.

A greenhouse at the base of the slope also helps light and heat the home, and it provides a year-round growing environment for vegetables and exotic plants.

The tall sides of the home that face northeast and northwest have many small, square windows of three kinds. Double-layered glass windows provide views and light. Screened ones provide ventilation; cool night breezes coming up from Raven Run Creek make summer air conditioning unnecessary. Translucent windows made of six layers of plastic (for insulation) light each room.

The home’s walls were well-insulated by 1970s standards, but the materials weren’t nearly as good as the super-insulation available today. Likewise, most of today’s high-efficiency windows didn’t exist then, so Levine designed and made his own window systems.

Levine installed two composting toilets in the house, which have worked well with minimal maintenance. There are several experimental energy systems he installed — but rarely needs to use — such as a geothermal heat pump, a highly efficient wood-burning boiler and an air-circulating fireplace.

Levine’s decision to take 1970s technology as far as he could resulted in a home that is as weird-looking outside as it is strikingly beautiful inside.

The living area is open and airy, with white walls, oak woodwork and a central oak staircase that provides a visual centerpiece. Variously shaped rooms on multiple levels open to the staircase, making the 3,000-square-foot space seem larger.

Levine just added 30 new photo-voltaic panels to the roof of his studio to generate electricity. The panels have micro-inverters that make solar-generated power usable at a lower cost than old inverter systems did. Each panel’s performance can be monitored by computer; you can see it from a link on Levine’s Web site: www.cscdesignstudio.com.

He doesn’t need batteries to store the power his photo-voltaic cells produce, because “net metering” allows him to feed power to his utility company on sunny days and draw from it on cloudy ones. Over the course of a year, it should balance out.

Some utilities, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, buy from small renewable power producers, allowing them to make a profit. In Central Kentucky, though, utilities are only required to swap power, so the best a solar-generating homeowner can do is break even.

Levine thinks changing Kentucky’s net-metering law to allow producers to profit would encourage more solar generation by both homes and commercial buildings.

In addition to Levine’s studio renovation, construction is wrapping up on a weekend home he designed on Herrington Lake for another UK professor. It has well-insulated walls and windows and a $10,000 photo-voltaic system that will make the home net-zero.

“That’s really very little to pay for energy independence,” Levine said. Solar systems are getting better and cheaper all the time, and tax credits provide attractive incentives for installing them.

Once the first energy crisis passed in the early 1980s, Americans went back to then-cheap fossil fuels and paid little attention to renewable energy. European countries have become the technology leaders.

“It’s just amazing how far ahead they are in many ways; even China is ahead of us,” Levine said. “It’s very sad, really. They used to come here for ideas.”

About 40 percent of all U.S. energy is consumed by buildings. Levine thinks “green” architecture for new buildings — and retrofitting of old ones — will become more popular as energy prices rise. Homes offer some of the best opportunities for better design, better insulation and small-scale renewable energy systems.

“I think it’s something that any rational homeowner will want to consider,” Levine said with the pride of a pioneer. “I can’t see a better, more guaranteed investment.”

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Frankfort home is all that’s Wright in Kentucky

August 16, 2009

FRANKFORT —Frank Lloyd Wright was hired in 1910 to design a Frankfort home for a Presbyterian minister he met during a trip to Europe. But it would be nearly four decades before the architect would visit his creation.

Wright was speaking in Louisville and Lexington, and he asked to be taken by the house. When the man who then lived there answered the door, the story goes, Wright walked in as if he owned the place.

During the visit, the man asked Wright, then 80, what he had in mind when he designed the display case around the top of the living room fireplace. It is the only one like it in any of the hundreds of homes Wright designed.

After a few moments, Wright replied that he couldn’t remember what he was thinking at the time, “But I’m sure it was very advanced.”

Ed Stodola, who has owned the Rev. Jesse Zeigler house at 509 Shelby Street for nine years, smiles when he tells the story. Wright was almost as famous for his outsize ego as for his innovative architecture, so Stodola thinks the story of that 1948 visit just might be true.

One thing is for sure: Of the more than 1,000 structures Wright designed during his 70-year career as perhaps America’s greatest architect, only one was built in Kentucky.

Wright is getting a lot of attention this year, the 50th anniversary his death in 1959 at age 91. It also is the 50th anniversary of Wright’s last great building, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The art museum on Fifth Avenue marked the occasion with a retrospective of Wright’s work.

Wright is best known for his “prairie” style buildings that blend into the natural landscape. His most famous creations might be the Guggenheim and Fallingwater, a house built over a waterfall in rural Pennsylvania.

Wright’s ideas about architecture had a profound influence on 20th-century home design, from the bungalows of the 1920s to the ranch-style homes of the 1950s. He pioneered and popularized open floor plans, built-in cabinets and carports. He experimented with pre-fabrication and even designed furniture and fixtures for his houses.

Stodola and his wife, Sue, are Wisconsin natives who were taught in school about native son Frank Lloyd Wright the way Kentucky children are taught about Abraham Lincoln.

Stodola, a psychologist, was living in Lexington in 2001 but doing most of his work in Frankfort. He vowed he would move to Frankfort if the Zeigler house ever came up for sale. Driving by one day, he noticed a “for sale” sign in the yard. He soon bought the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The four-bedroom Zeigler house, which like most Wright houses is of modest size and distinguished by strong horizontal lines, was built by a Frankfort contractor. The leaded-glass windows and Roman brick on the fireplace came from Wright’s studio in Chicago, Stodola said.

Zeigler, who had a wife and three children, economized in a few places: the upstairs floors are heart pine, rather than oak, and plain glass was used in rear, upstairs windows.

All but one room open to an outside terrace or deck. That and the windows help accomplish Wright’s goal of “organic” architecture that visually brings the outside environment inside.

There are many small design touches, such as the pink dogwood blooms painted on the shades of wall-mounted light fixtures in the master bedroom, echoing the pink dogwood tree that has always been in the front yard.

Although Wright’s designs are an architect’s dream, they can be a structural engineer’s nightmare. Fallingwater has been jokingly called “Fallingdown” because it has required costly repairs over the years.

Luckily for the Stodolas and the four previous owners, the Zeigler house hasn’t had many such problems. One reason could be that its roof is more steeply pitched than those of many Wright houses. It also has a basement, a rarity in a Wright house.

“This home is very livable,” Sue Stodola said. “I never feel crowded in the rooms, because they feel bigger than they really are.”

Light shines through the wavy, leaded-glass windows and reflects off the oak woodwork differently depending on the weather and season. Ed Stodola loves sitting on the back, upstairs terrace with a glass of wine during a summer rain; the drops make an interesting sound on the roof overhang.

“There’s this ongoing discovery with the house,” he said.

The Zeigler house also has another claim to fame: Woodrow Wilson slept here.

Soon after the house was built, and three years before Wilson became president, he was Zeigler’s guest while attending a National Governors Association meeting in Louisville. Wilson was then president of Princeton University and had just been elected governor of New Jersey. The two men had known each other at Princeton.

The Zeigler house has had a state historical marker out front for many years. The Stodolas added a small “private home” sign after more than a few curious sightseers knocked on their door or looked in their windows, thinking the house was a museum.

One woman came to the door and explained that she was a schoolteacher visiting Wright houses as part of a cross-country trip. As it turned out, she was from Denmark, Wis., Stodola’s tiny hometown. After a few minutes of conversation, they discovered that his mother had been her fourth-grade teacher and she now taught in her old classroom.

The Stodolas have come to accept that the occasional stranger at the door is the price you pay for living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His designs are so iconic, his influence on architecture so great, that it feels natural for some people to want to walk right in as if they owned the place.