Geothermal in an Urban Eco-cottage
In 2006, Corey Omey and his new bride, Deb, drew an ambitious set of plans for her 995-square-foot, 1925 cottage in the Overlook neighborhood. Their goal was to create a more energy efficient home with natural light, open spaces for the gathering of friends, personal character and warmth. By the time the plans had advanced to the permit phase in 2008, the Omeys’ project included a stair tower, two new bathrooms, updated windows and doors, finishes, cabinetry, porches, and the installation of a 4.5 kW photovoltaic array and solar thermal system.
Creative about their building materials, the Omeys did the unexpected. They turned an old bowling alley into a kitchen counter with an inlaid backgammon board. The couple also crafted a set of bedroom cabinets from a cedar tree in their front yard. They even re-purposed plywood mortgage signs as wall sheathing. Altogether, the use of recycled and reclaimed materials for 90 percent of this renovation significantly cut the couple’s costs.
“The materials and process have personalized the house,” says Corey. “There is a story behind everything we found and incorporated into the finished product.”
Corey, an architect, first visited the home that he and Deb would one day remodel together before he ever met her. In 2001, he dropped by the house with a mutual friend who was cat-sitting while Deb was on vacation. That friend mentioned that Deb might be interested in remodeling her staircase, but it wouldn’t be until a few years later that the two would finally meet.
The new Mrs. Omey was enthusiastic about the renovation plans, but there were a few bumps along the road. She recalls that it wasn’t until they had all the stucco removed, the roof ripped off, no wall at the back of the kitchen, and only a single room with a door and a window that anxiety crept in. A passerby asked whether the house had been gutted by a fire. “At that point there was no going back,” she says. The end result, she acknowledges, was worth the fear, stress and hard work.
One energy-saving upgrade the Omeys treasure is a water-to-water groundsource heat pump, the ground loops for which were installed beneath the couple’s driveway. This placement was accomplished through a technique known as radial drilling, which involves the drilling of a series of holes at various angles. This is a popular process for existing homes with small, developed lots. With this system, the Omeys enjoy efficient hydronic radiant floor heating.
From the start, the sixteen-month-long renovation was a local group effort. There were the raw materials, gleaned locally from The ReBuilding Center in Portland, warehouses, Craigslist, and Freecycle, among other sources. There was also a small army of volunteers who pitched in at various stages. “Our friends and neighbors helped with de-construction, planting an eco-roof, removing stucco—you name it,” Corey confirms. “It often turned out to be a neighborhood and community event.”
In the fall of 2009, the Omeys moved into their striking 1,800-square-foot contemporary home clad in cedar rainscreen siding. Inside, light floods in where darkness reigned, highlighting artful touches—tile mosaics by Dan Borg of Borg Mosaics, including paw prints of a cat approaching a bowl (a tribute to Chloe, a pet that died during construction). There was also an inlaid backgammon board, and neighbor Mike Suri of Suri Iron installed a recycled metal guardrail and an iron water sculpture.
The final building costs came to $134 per square foot, not counting the estimated $30,000 worth of homeowner and volunteer sweat equity. Even after doubling the size of their home, the Omeys now pay for a third of the cost of their energy bills compared with their original smaller house. Additionally, the couple makes a monthly profit of $100 to $600 from excess electricity produced by their photovoltaic system and sold back to the grid. This profit will eventually pay for their investment in the photovoltaic array and more.
The newest chapters in the vibrant tale of the Omey house continue to unfold. The couple has immediate plans to install a garage eco-eave retrofit, which holds plants along the lower edge of the roof that are watered by runoff rain from the upper portion flows. “Deb didn’t necessarily buy this house with the idea of transforming it,” Corey explains, “but she married an architect, so it may have been inevitable.”
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Platinum LEED in an Ashland Modern
At first glance, the 4,500-square-foot, elegant Resnick home above Lithia Park might not appear to be the typical picture of sustainability. In fact, this domain has earned the venerable Platinum LEED designation—the highest level in the sustainable building rating system.
“One of my major goals was to build a very green or efficient home that didn’t look like it was built out of straw bales,” explains Allan Resnick, a retired electrical engineer. “Green, with class.”
In order to meet the dual goals of attaining beauty and cutting-edge efficiency, Resnick and his wife, Lynn, enlisted the help of Ashland architect Carlos Delgado and contractor Gary Dorris of Dorris Construction. Together, they spent six months researching and designing. Finally, in February of 2008, the couple had a set of plans for a large and innovative modern house. A year later, they moved in.
Though they originally intended to build a smaller 3,500-square-foot dwelling, the Resnicks’ architectural plans soon expanded, in part to accommodate their oversized furniture and décor. Still, they were determined to minimize their environmental impact in every possible way. While the final product “is not what you’d expect for an energy efficient home,” Resnick says, “the LEED rating system requires additional points based on the larger size to achieve Platinum status.”
The Resnicks, who both grew up in Arizona, moved to Ashland from San Diego, where they had first settled after his retirement. Ashland is the home of one of their two daughters, Benai, and three grandchildren.
The couple’s custom-designed dream home features a twelve-panel, 2.2 kW solar array, solar hot water, and a small basement that minimizes heat loss and helps to maintain a steady temperature indoors. A heat recovery ventilation system, or an HRV, brings in air through a filter and heat exchanger, funnels interior air back through the mini-basement and is bypassed on warm summer nights to provide cool air. Both concrete foundational walls and a roof made of structural insulated panels, or SIPs, which eliminate the need for an attic, add to the home’s efficiency.
The Resnicks’ heating and cooling system comes from an innovative ground-source heat pump that is coupled with a series of vertical boreholes in the earth. The consistently cool air from just below the ground’s surface is pumped into the house in warmer months. Conversely, hotter air from deeper in the earth’s core is circulated in the winter. “Geothermal is a very nice and efficient system,” observes the retired engineer. “It’s gentle and quiet, and you are seldom aware that it is on. The maintenance is minimal.”
Aesthetically, the homeowners’ taste runs to granite countertops and flooring that ranges from black and white Italian marble, to maple and even carpet made from recycled nylon. Every room in the house brings in magnificent mountain views through double-paned, argon gas windows. The south side, or back of the house, benefits from passive solar energy year-round.
Some other key features that contributed to the Platinum LEED designation are low-VOC paints and finishes, low-flow toilets, faucets and bathtubs. The landscaping sips from a drip irrigation system for droughtresistant plants, alongside permeable walkways of compacted rock and Aqua Loc pavers.
Even in the swelter of summer, the Resnicks’ monthly energy bills top out at around $40. Resnick estimates that the monthly energy bill for a comparably sized but inefficient home would be nearly $450. Looking back, Resnick muses, “There are very few things we would do differently.” The time that he and his wife spent on research and design meant that virtually every detail was explored and resolved during construction.
“When you have the opportunity to design a house that is tailored to the way you live and every convenience is right where you want it,” says Resnick, “things just fit.”