In the lush hills of Portland, green building is poised to reach a new landmark. I recently visited the LeapFrog House, a beautiful, sustainably built new home that demonstrates what can be accomplished in green development for a reasonable price. I met my friend David Todd, the realtor representing the home, at the house early on a sunny Friday morning for a tour. What I got was a lesson in current green construction technology and sustainable living design.
The LeapFrog House is a 2600-square-foot home that is located in Southwest Portland, a beautiful area in which my wife and I looked for homes with David two years ago. From our perspective, Southwest has some of the best options for urban seclusion: a 10-minute drive to downtown Portland or a comfortable walk to one of the region's most serene natural settings, Tryon Creek State Park.
Owner/Builders Charlie Weiss and Katharine Lawrence have worked with Green Hammer, Inc., to create this stunning urban retreat. The home combines an efficient, modern design sense with environmentally responsible construction methods. The LeapFrog House is on track to be the first residence in the Portland metro area to achieve LEED Platinum status, the highest certification for compliance with sustainable design and construction practices. Although certification was a goal, the aesthetics were not sacrificed to accommodate the requirements; in fact, the requirements actually accentuate the design.
On approaching the house, the galvanized steel gutters that surround the oversized eves are an immediate eye catcher.
"The soldered joints protect the rainwater from any potential contamination that traditional materials such as epoxy can introduce," David explained.
A filter collects and processes the harvested water, which is stored in an underground 6,000-gallon cistern for use in the home. The home connects to the city water system, but the rainfall in Portland provides more than enough water for a mid-sized family for most of the year.
The entire house has been meticulously sealed and insulated to both increase efficiency and improve air quality. To provide controlled airflow, energy-efficient fans run silently at a minimum speed 24 hours a day. This is one of many aspects of the LEED certification standard that was tested rigorously during the evaluation.
"You could float this down the river it's so tight," David commented, quoting a phrase from co-owner Charlie.
Entering the house through the oversized 2-car garage, I paused to admire the state-of-the-art control centers for net-zero solar energy conversion, space and domestic water heating, and rainwater purification. The water system was particularly noticeable, as the exposed pipes look like a carefully crafted copper sculpture, a residential plumber's artistic dream. The system includes the option to eventually reuse gray water when health officials approve the concept.
The garage was also host to an unusual sight for new construction: a designated construction materials recycling area, complete with clearly identified, separate bins for the various recyclables. Providing a construction waste recycling center is also part of the LEED certification. Maintaining a recycling center for construction waste raises the awareness of how materials are used, and contributes to reducing costs.
Once inside the living area, the familiar chemical odor of new construction was noticeably absent, despite fresh paint and finished floors. Nearly all of the materials, such as the concrete, cabinets, paint, and other finishes, were chosen for both aesthetics and their minimal volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions. Working in a cabinet shop for years and having built my own home, I recognize a variety of construction material odors from lacquer thinner to burnt MDF. My nose didn't pick up a single aroma.
The primary living space felt inviting and well designed with an abundance of natural light. Indicative of the design's quality, the front door is oversized, but I didn't notice the height until I was standing near the doorway. Unlike many new homes I've visited, the tall doorway did not stand out as an obvious extravagance; it fit the space modestly.
I was surprised to see exposed wood beams towering above the open floor plan.
"The timbers were locally grown and milled, and then treated with a low-VOC sealer," David clarified. "The beams are corn-blasted to emphasize the grain and give an aged appearance." The beams add warmth, and the visual effect is a consistent, pleasing look.
From a practical view, the kitchen includes high-end energy-efficient appliances and ample counter space. The kitchen feels inviting and spacious, and will be a natural fit for entertaining.
Throughout the rest of the home, including the beautiful staircase made partially from reclaimed bleachers as well as the comfortable bathroom and bedroom spaces, you get the strong sense that the house was designed not only as a sustainable showpiece, but to be lived in.
Charlie and Katharine have clearly demonstrated that creating dwellings with minimal environmental impact is not only possible, it is desirable. I left the house with a new awareness of what can be accomplished when you simply decide to make sustainability a goal and an integral part of the design.
For me, it all boiled down to one thing: given that the construction costs fall squarely in the middle of the range for new custom homes, why doesn't everyone do this?
For more information, you can visit the Web site at: theLeapFroghouse.com.
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