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Home saves energy in many ways

Chris Dorst
Robert Dorsey holds a chunk of structural insulated panel (SIP) that was cut out of his study wall for a window. Six inches of foam is sandwiched between sheathing to provide support and insulation for the exterior walls.
Chris Dorst The Nu-Air ventilation machine ensures that equal amounts of fresh air comes into the house as stale air leaves it. In airtight houses, like Dorsey's, the heat recovery system is necessary for air quality and to prevent condensation from forming in the house.
Chris Dorst Tubes distribute water to each faucet throughout the Dorsey house.
Chris Dorst The wood beams were made from ash trees cut on Dorsey's farm in Lincoln County.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robert Dorsey said he wanted to save money when he asked architect Joe Sinclair to design a house that would fit on the concrete-block foundation of a previous house.

And he insisted that's why he recycled materials such as using leftover pipe for closet rods and scraps of wood for bathroom shelving.

"I already own this tree," he said, explaining why he used ash for the ceiling beams in the contemporary living room. Dorsey has ash trees on a farm he owns in Lincoln County.

Sinclair agreed that economy is important, but equally so is the natural environment and people. It's a philosophy known as the "triple bottom line."

Sinclair pointed out that the ash was locally harvested and is sustainable, in that trees can be replanted. The hickory for the wood floors came from an Appalachian forest, certified as a stand in which the trees are planted at a rate faster than they're being cut.

The wood burned in the fireplace insert is cut from trees on Dorsey's land, and even the mantel is milled from a branch of a walnut tree that was on his farm.

Obviously, a lot of energy is saved when wood is harvested on site or nearby.

"When they bring bamboo for floors from China to West Virginia, it makes my heart sick," Dorsey said.

The biggest energy savers are the structural insulated panels (SIP) used for the exterior walls and ceilings. Six- and 8-inch-thick foam is sandwiched between sheathing to provide both insulation and support.

"There are no studs," said Sinclair, explaining that inside heat is lost through the wood framing, a term called thermal bridging.

"SIP eliminates thermal bridging. It keeps heat in in winter and out in summer."

In traditional construction, fiberglass insulation is secured between the supporting studs of an exterior wall. In West Virginia, insulation with an R-13 value would be recommended. But with the loss of heat from thermal bridging, the rating would actually be R-7, Sinclair said.

"With SIP, you're getting all of the R value -- well over R-20."

Which raises the question: Is the Dorsey house too airtight?

"You can't neglect interior air quality," Sinclair replied.

That's why a heat recovery ventilation system was installed in the basement. Fresh air from the outside is brought in through a vent that passes by, but doesn't touch, the exhaust air that is exiting through another vent. The incoming air is heated or cooled by its proximity to the exhaust from the gas furnace or electric air conditioner. The Nu-Air machine that makes the exchange ensures that the same amount of stale air leaves as fresh air enters.

Sinclair said the heat transfer system is used mostly in Canada, and is becoming a trend in Europe.

Energy is also saved through the double-pane Pella casement windows that seal tighter than other window styles.

And unlike most houses in the Kanawha Valley, a feature of the Arts and Crafts-style design is roof overhangs -- three-foot overhangs in the case of the Dorsey house. They help shade the house in the summer and keep water off it.

"If you keep a house dry, it will last forever," Dorsey said.

The wood-burning insert will supplement the gas furnace, and, in case of power outages, heat the house. The surrounding interior wall made of artificial stone will hold heat from the fireplace.

Dorsey hopes captured rain and spring water will be the main water source. He installed an underground collection system that holds and slowly releases rainwater into an old hand-dug well, also fed by spring water. The ground and spring water is pumped from the well into a 1,100-gallon tank in the basement.

Dorsey said the tank will probably supply water for the garden, to flush toilets, to wash clothes and to provide water during emergencies. There's city water for drinking and cooking and for backup when the well is dry. The water systems never mix.

A PEX plumbing system is used to distribute water inside the house. From a manifold in the basement, plastic tubing carries water to each individual faucet instead of a major line with feeds off of it.

The always-practical Dorsey said, "It's a cheaper way than using copper."

And the "tri-bottom line" advocate Sinclair pointed out that water is distributed more efficiently and "it's a healthier alternative to running water through PVC piping."

Dorsey is now studying a solar water heating system. He's not sure it's economical for a sole residence, but he believes the solar panels would be perfect for large consumers of hot water such as nursing homes.

What works in his house may not work elsewhere, Dorsey concedes. Still, he likes to use the house to demonstrate that there may be a better way to do things. He's a longtime member of the Home Builders Association and has hosted several open houses for that group. And he's escorted busloads of students from Carver Career Center and Ben Franklin vocational schools through the house.

Last month, the house won the West Virginia GreenWorks Placemaker award for "sense of place."

Sinclair translated: "It means the house fits into the context of its landscape and culture."

At the Morgantown building conference he was among three architects recognized individually for leadership, inspiration and stewardship in green, sustainable placemaking.

"I couldn't have done it without his input," said Dorsey, who believes architects are essential for the detailed plans that all can follow.

"Robert is the owner and builder. He made the final decision on everything. All I could do is provide recommendations," said Sinclair.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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