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Green homes: Where the floors are made of recycled toilets

Uwe Schneider

This 154-square-foot backyard studio in Southwest Portland was one of 22 stops on this weekend’s tour of green homes. It was built out of salvaged lumber from three Oregon barns with a salvaged copper roof.

So, I have a lot to learn about green homes…and how to tour more than one of them in a Saturday. I went on the Portland Build it Green! Home Tour this weekend. And when I say “home” tour I mean it. I only made it to one home – out of 21! (I also visited the June Key Delta Community Center, which was part of the tour and is taking the elite Living Building Challenge, but it’s not technically a home.)

What a home it was. Mike and Virginia Malone went all out with their new house in Northeast Portland: Rooftop solar panels, a stormwater capture and recycling system, super-thick insulation, ductless heating, LED lighting … the house has floor tiles made from ground-up old toilet bowls, it has pipes that recapture waste heat from hot shower water, and it has walls – I kid you not – walls made from Douglas fir that’s sustainably managed by local Girl Scouts.

And that wasn’t even my favorite part. I geeked out with Mike about how he monitors his home energy use from his laptop for WAY too long (missing opportunities to geek out at other homes), but we’ll reap the benefits of that conversation later.

For now, check out the slideshow below of highlights from the full tour of homes (some photos are mine, others are not).

One of my favorite shots from the Malone house features perhaps the least exciting green building practice: high-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. Ninety percent of the lighting in the Malone's house is LED. Carey Booth's remodeled Victorian cottage in Southeast Portland features rainwater harvesting and cisterns for garden irrigation. The skylights at the Malone house were designed to reduce the need for overhead light fixtures during the daytime and could also provide some passive solar heat. This 154-square-foot backyard studio in Southwest Portland was one of 22 stops on this weekend's tour of green homes. It was built out of salvaged lumber from three Oregon barns with a salvaged copper roof. An ecoroof outside a window at James Thomson's fully remodeled home in Southeast Portland. The home also uses solar tube energy, earthen plasters, an earthen floor and non-toxic clay paints. The Planet Repair Institute remodeled this old bunkhouse in Southeast Portland and and gave it all kinds of low-cost, natural building features, including 18-inch thick clay walls with straw insulation, a high-efficiency wood stove, a gray water reuse system, an ecoroof, permaculture, yard composting, a food garden and chickens. The tile floors at the Malone house are made from industrial waste byproducts – including ground-up toilets. They were surprisingly comfortable to walk on in bare feet. Among the many kinds of flooring in the Malone house are Willamette Valley white oak milled in Wilsonville. The slatted wood wall to the right was made from certified sustainable Douglas fir from Mountainwest Girl Scout Camp forestland. The Hawthorne Park studio addition at Southeast 15th Ave. is a two-story studio space with lots of light and triple-paned windows and doors. The building has hydronic/in-floor radiant heat, low-flow water fixtures and toilets, rainwater harvesting, and its owners have applied for WaterSense water-efficiency certification through the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of the homes on the tour Saturday boasted "aging in place" features such as this wheelchair ramp at the Woodhole Duplex in Southeast Portland. The Malone house has a built-in elevator to allow the couple easy access to the second floor when they're old and gray. The June Key Delta sorority is turning a contaminated 1967 building in North Portland into a net-zero Living Building. The remodeled structure is built around two recycled shipping containers, which you can see jutting out of the building here. A community garden is growing alongside the parking lot. Looming over the crowd at the Malone's house Saturday was a ductless heating and cooling mini-split unit. It's more energy efficient than a system that relies on a furnace that pumps warm air through heating and air conditioning ducts. And, as a bonus, it allows the Malones to heat and cool portions of their home as needed. That's an 8-inch, double wall filled with foam insulation. It helps make the Malone house super energy efficient. TED stands for "The Energy Detector." It tells Mike Malone how much energy his home is using. Mike Malone can monitor how much electricity is being generated by the solar panels on his roof and compare it to how much energy he and his wife Virginia are using inside the home. Virginia said Mike can tell when she's been using the clothes dryer, and he sometimes quizzes her on energy-using activities she's been doing around the house. Mike says he's monitoring the house partly to help reduce its overall energy use, but mostly he's a curious engineer, and "I just want to know." The Kirkpatrick-von Hagen addition in Sellwood is the first of its kind to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. It has panelized construction built to ultra-energy-efficient Passive House standards. As of August 2010, only 13 structures in the U.S. had Passive House certifications. With passive solar and natural ventilation, it has no need for a mechanical heating or cooling system. At the home tour's party tent, I met a woman named Catherine Wilson who wove these mats and pillow cases out of newspaper bags! I was quite amazed by the variety of colors she's collected, and the way she used them to turn something utterly unattractive into something I would hang in my windows.

I knew green building was big in Portland. There were 30 applicants for the green home tour, according to event organizer Valerie Garrett of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. And only 22 made the cut.

The city’s been holding green home tours for 10 years, and is now checking applicants for multiple sustainability certifications, energy performance scores, and “miles per gallon” ratings.

But the “greenness” of homes here really hit home while I was talking with Carson Benner of Cellar Ridge Custom Homes.

Benner’s company built the Malone house, and he explained how it got the top EarthAdvantage green-home rating – platinum certification. The home is almost entirely sealed in from the outside world. On a scale of 200, it’s 23 points away from net-zero energy consumption.

And in Portland, it’s not all that unique. Benner said the city is making a habit of green building practices that aren’t really even contemplated across most of the U.S. Even the standard building code here is greener.

“Our building code is so strict we have to have our own version of Energy Star – it’s Northwest Energy Star,” he said. “You could be 10 percent better than code in Texas and it would be illegal here.”

I’d love to hear about your home. Benner said the average house has lots of little leaks that add up to the equivalent of a 4-foot by 4-foot hole! Have you made energy-efficiency improvements to you house? Have you made a point to use non-toxic or sustainable building materials? Did it cost you more, and was it worth the extra cost?


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