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‘Green’ Ambition

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LOCAL ARCHITECT PUTS ENVIRONMENT FIRST

When Elaine Gallagher Adams designed her home in Bluffton two years ago, the award-winning architect and sustainability expert set out to “walk my talk.”  She wanted to incorporate as many eco-friendly features as possible in her 1,721-square-foot home in Old Town Bluffton.

“My house generates more energy than it uses,” she said. “Global sustainability is a big, fat, hairy challenge and there are a lot of us working on this problem — including myself.”

Green home8Adams, who is a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design and sustainability director for architectural firm LS3P Associates, has had plenty of experience incorporating environmental best practices in commercial projects like “green” campuses, buildings and communities. But she was disturbed by her personal carbon footprint, which she calculated to be 16 metric tons of carbon per year — despite “recycling like a fiend and having super- efficient everything.”

“That’s the equivalent of four-and-a-half planets of resources if everybody lived the way I did,” she said. “That’s nuts, and it’s not sustainable.”

Deeply concerned about climate change and sea level rise, she chose Bluffton because she fell in love with the town and “there’s no way in hell I’m going to buy a house on a barrier island.” She selected a lot with southern exposure because this orientation is optimal for solar energy.

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Her design and construction process resulted in a home that’s beautiful, highly livable and extremely energy efficient. In addition to being her home, it serves as a demonstration project for residential sustainability. Adams teaches architecture, historic preservation, sustainability and urban design at SCAD, which may explain why she’s willing to open her house for tours upon request.

Design that’s mindful of the environment isn’t always apparent to the casual observer. Adams’ three-bedroom, two-bathroom house looks much like the other homes on her street in the Tabby Walk neighborhood — until you look closer and notice the solar panels on the roof, the 1,000-gallon rainwater cistern in the backyard and the charging station in her garage (for her Tesla).

Many hidden features allow the home to use little electricity. Adams’ electric bill is just $13 per month — she pays just the connection fee that her utility company charges each customer who is hooked to the grid. Built over an unvented, conditioned crawl space, the house is virtually air-tight. It’s “super-insulated” and has high-performance windows.

“Solar panels generate 102 percent of my home’s energy, but only because I significantly reduced my overall energy consumption,” she said. “Solar panels are expensive, so reduce the load first.”

She has a metal roof and energy-efficient appliances, like a magnetic induction stove. These features, plus three independent cooling zones, allow her air conditioner to not work very hard.

As one would expect, the house has smart controls that Adams manages via cellphone. Once, even though she was hundreds of miles from home, she was able to wake up her daughter by turning on and off the lights in her bedroom. When Adams walks into a room, ceiling fans turn on; when she walks out, they turn off.

Many of the home’s “green” features are designed to reduce water consumption. Adams collects rainwater and uses it to irrigate her organic vegetable garden; the native plants that serve as her landscaping don’t need irrigating. Inside the home are dual-flush toilets and low-flow fixtures. Her water bill is about $30 per month — much less than average for homes of this size.

Building a super-“green” home hasn’t been without its challenges. In particular, Adams said, the appraisal industry is “way behind — they don’t know how to appraise energy-efficient homes.”

Her advice to others who plan to build custom homes and want to “go green” was surprising to many who heard her speak at the TEDxWomen conference in January on Hilton Head Island: “If you build to code, you are building the worst possible building allowed by law,” she said. “Please do better than code.”

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Vendor list

Solar panels:
Carolina Energy Conservation

Energy/pressure test:
Elm Energy

Electric heat pump water heater:
GE Geospring.

HVAC:
Carrier Greenspeed SEER 20.5 and Aprilaire Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV)

Paint:
Sherwin Williams low VOC

Cabinets:
IKEA

Rainwater cistern:
Texas Metal Tanks

High-performance fiberglass-clad wood casement windows:
Marvin Integrity

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