Young Leelanau farmers 'bare-knuckle' it on the road to their vision

John Plichta has been building houses for decades, and has seen what people want in a home change drastically over that time. A few years ago, it was all about how big your house was -- but now, it's of more concern to many people to keep tabs on how earth-friendly their house is.

Plichta, owner of JR Construction Building & Design LLC, now has built a ground-breaking, green home in Petoskey, and in doing so, earned the highest award in green building.

It received an Emerald award based on the National Green Building Standard, which was created by the National Association of Home Builders and the International Code Council. That means it's both energy-efficient and built with environmentally-friendly materials, among other requirements.

Plichta's home was only the second Emerald awarded in the nation. The home is not just energy efficient, though -- costing less than $70 in total monthly bills in the coldest winter months -- much of the building materials are also certified green.

While many green homes may bring to mind space-age buildings covered in solar panels, this 1,900-square-foot cottage facing Crooked Lake is anything but. In the yard, white Adirondack chairs face the lake. On the porch, a pair of Sperry topsiders lay outside the front door, inviting guests to venture inside the light and airy home, which opens up to a kitchen, dining nook and a sitting area complete with gas fireplace.

"We said, 'If we're going to build this, let's make it fit into the Northern Michigan climate,' " says John's son, Dan. Both Dan and John discuss the home in this video.

The home, which was built as a spec house, is now owned by Dan and his wife. Building it was a family affair -- Dan helped construct the house, and his sister was the interior designer.

And while the cottage resembles many of the homes on the street, the resemblance is only cosmetic. "The energy used in 10 of these houses equals one of the houses across the street," John says.

The home took five weeks longer to build than a traditional home, but that could be cut down to two or three more weeks, now that they've done it, John says. In total, the house cost $268,000. Green homes can cost about 10 percent more than traditional homes, but can recoup savings within seven years.

The construction of it proved to be more challenging than the family had anticipated.

After attending a green building conference in Traverse City in 2007, John decided he wanted to try something new. This meant having an inspector look at the plans, which had to be modified multiple times until they used the National Green Building Standard handbook.

"I can't tell you how many times I thought, 'Oh my god, this is crazy,' " John says. "We've got a life, and all we're doing is filling out forms."

The team had to submit a building plan before it started, demonstrating what materials would be needed to avoid over-ordering and wasting materials. But it wasn't just using green materials that would make the difference; it was the total construction, which left some of the crew rethinking techniques. They used a manual, essentially the crew's bible, on advanced framing techniques.

"When I started 35 years ago, I thought I had it down and followed the code," he says. "The focus was on structure."

At the time, insulation was an obstacle, to be done as quickly as possible.

"Just get it in, just get it in," he says. "Now it's a focus."

For insulation, a rigid foam board made by Dow was used. The board was caulked, and spray foam insulation was used in between joists for a tighter seal. This prevents condensation, which is a cause of mold and rot. The technique is a main reason the house can stand at least 150 years, John says, adding that traditional homes last between 75 and 80 years.

John says many people want a "leaky house" so fresh air can flow, but fresh air actually causes mold when the warm air tries to escape through the walls while cold air attempts to get inside, trapping it in between the walls.

"We build a house like a boat," Dan says. "We want to keep water out."

Instead, fresh air is provided by an Energy Recovery Ventilator. This not only exchanges air during regular intervals, but also filters out pollutants. Clean air was a priority in the home.

The carpet is made of organic wool, and formaldehyde-free. All paints and sealants applied in the home were low-VOC materials and the fabrics used in the home are natural, either cotton or hemp.

The home also saves energy by using a manifold plumbing system. A water heater can account for 15 to 20 percent of a home's energy costs, John says, and there's a 20 to 60 percent heat loss from pipes. Because of this, no more than 30 feet of pipe connects the hot water heater to the taps throughout the house, decreasing heat loss.

A geothermal heating system uses energy from the sun to heat sections of the home.

Unlike many green homes, this cottage features cathedral ceilings. The ceiling heat is captured through the furnace ducting system, bringing it back downstairs.

"You think about recycling, a lot of people think about cans and pop bottles. We recycle heat," John says.

The house's water systems also are designed for efficiency. In the bathroom, the toilet has two flushing options, one for liquids and one for solids, so it uses less water. The steam created in showers is also recycled as heat. After leaving the bathroom, a timer light shuts off a few minutes later.

Outside, the landscaping uses indigenous plants, so less water is needed tending non-native species, and a cistern can collect up to 500 gallons of rain water to hydrate plants.

Despite the down economy and a stall on new construction, John says he's been busy. He also says homeowners can take steps to make their home more efficient. He is training to become a Home Energy Rating Service rater, which performs building audits to prioritize treatments for improvements. He's also sharing his knowledge with area builders at 6 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month at the American Legion in Petoskey.

Homeowners can reduce their energy costs by replacing antiquated furnaces and hot water heaters. John's also a fan of air filtration systems to improve health. He noted that homeowners will see bigger savings with the more upgrades they do, saying going green is good for the planet.

"Green is an evolution of conscience given the demands placed on the planet by it's present population," he says.

Despite the award, John says continuing education is key to continued success, because once he stops learning he's going to be out of a business.

"We never would've accomplished this without the crew we had," he says. "We believed in the dream."

Valerie West is a community editor at The Oakland Press located in Pontiac, Mich. She is the creator of The VALunteer Project, a weekly blog that focuses on volunteering. She obtained her bachelor's degree in English from Northern Michigan University.
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