A High-Performance Home

Chris and Dave Kellems paid a $402.99 electric bill for the month of February 2014 for the less than 2,000-square-foot home Chris’ father first built as a three-season cottage and then a year-round home at 120 Alabama St. in Sturgeon Bay.

“No one was living there. It was an empty house,” Chris said. “That bill did it. I am not doing this to just keep the pipes from freezing.”

The Redwood City, Calif., couple – she a 63-year-old house painter and he a 72-year-old electrical engineer – had been thinking of finding a retirement home since 2010 when Dave sold his business.

“We looked all over the western United States for a place to retire to, but we kept coming back to Sturgeon Bay with this prime piece of property in the family,” Chris said.

Their original thought was to remodel the Alabama Street home, and with an interest in conservation, they hired Sturgeon Bay green house architect Virge Temme.

“With Virge we explored trying to repair and remodel. It became clear we had to start over,” Chris said. “It was sort of a heartbreaking decision. The house was really cute, it fit the property perfectly. It was wonderful, but it just wasn’t working right.”

“Too hot in summer, too cold in winter,” Dave interjected.

“We had to bite the bullet,” Chris said. “As far as I am concerned, we are so far behind as a society in embracing new technologies that can help us with the climate change that’s here. It seemed like a natural place to explore the possibility of a super, high-performance home in the northern climate.”

They decided to rebuild the same size house on the site, but a super-energy efficient one using Temme’s talents.

“We’re using the LEED format,” Temme said. “LEED [which stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] actually is a program designed by the U.S. Green Building Council to help designers, builders and raters design, build and rate the homes.”

There are four levels of LEED certification. The Sturgeon Bay home and another one Temme designed in Gills Rock two years ago are at the Platinum level of LEED certification.

“What that means, it’s the highest level of energy efficiency and environmental responsibility,” Temme said.

The house will be heated with a conventional forced air system, but one that has been designed for each room instead of the entire house, as is typically done.

“What this does, you go through room by room by room, look at the orientation of the room, how much exterior wall is in the room,” Temme said. “It’s very, very specific. That can bring down the size of the furnace by as much as 50 percent. A furnace that is sized properly isn’t running all the time, and, again, uses less energy.”

Since heating and cooling buildings currently contributes 39 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted into the environment, Temme describes green building as “the commitment to make conscientious choices.”

“There’s a lot more thought that goes into it than a traditional building,” she said. “For instance, all the plumbing fixtures have to be low-flow fixtures so you don’t waste water. We chose to super-insulate this house because the less heating and cooling a home has, the less impact it has on the climate. Light fixtures are all LED or fluorescent, again to save energy because the energy in our area comes from coal. The less electricity you’re using, the less coal you’re burning. All the plumbing is super-insulated, R-5. You don’t normally see this in a house, except down in crawl spaces.”

Of course there is an upfront cost for making conscientious choices, “but very little,” Temme said. “Less than two percent. And the payback is three to four years. That’s it. For instance, if they took out a loan to pay for this house, their monthly mortgage might go up $8 or $9, based on this. But then they’re saving $150 to $250 a month on their heating. Why would you not do that?”

The 2,600-square-foot home she built in Gills Rock two years ago has been monitored since it went online. Fully electric except for a gas water heater and built to optimize passive solar gain, Temme said the electric bill has averaged less than $50 a month.

Much of the technology being used on these tight, well-insulated homes comes from Europe.

“They were forced back in the 1970s and ’80s to go into this technology, and now it’s coming to the United States. This started here about 20 years ago or so,” Temme said. “It’s got a lot of acceptance on the coasts, but for some reason or another, in the central United States, it has not. Wisconsin is almost at the bottom of the pack, which is just criminal. We’re the home of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

So, if the owners end up saving money and it’s good for the environment, why don’t more architects and builders design LEED homes?

“I don’t know the answer. I wish I did,” Temme said. “Even here in Door County, it’s so hard to get many of the builders convinced they should be doing it this way. They literally tell the owners, ‘Aw, it’s a waste of money.’ It’s not a waste of money!”

Bryan Neubauer, owner of Ahnapee Construction, the firm hired to do the construction, thinks he knows the reason others aren’t getting into cutting-edge building technology and superefficient homes.

“Resistance to change is the No. 1 reason. It’s a habit to do it the old way,” he said.

Neubauer said he first started learning about green building six years ago at a trade show, and wanted to use the techniques to make his own home more energy efficient.

Then he met Temme about four years ago.

“She is a big advocate for green building and energy efficiency,” he said. “Once I built one home with her, I loved it. I loved learning the more advanced way of doing things. It was more interesting to me than just doing a standard home. It was a bit of a challenge. It’s a whole new way of doing things. We have 11 people working for us. It takes a lot for my foremen to change the way they’ve framed 15, 20 years. Now I’m teaching them and Virge is teaching them how to reduce all the extra studs that aren’t needed.”

Throughout the entire LEED process – which includes three inspections by LEED rating specialists – Temme said the entire team is in communication, from excavator and plumber to architect and builder to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

“It’s wonderful. These guys are dream team,” she said.

The Kellems expect to be back in Sturgeon Bay in early February, at which time Chris will put her housepainting talents to work by painting the walls of her own home.

“We’ll spend most of the summer landscaping. We don’t have any grand plan yet,” Chris said. “It will be a work in progress for at least another season.”

Dave added that he hopes their home inspires others to go in this direction.

“A lot of people have been dragging their feet in the Midwest on high-performance buildings,” he said. “This definitely will be one if someone needs an example to look at, we’ll be happy to show it to them.”

Stay tuned for dates of future open houses at the Kellems home.