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Students Explore Energy-Saving Construction Techniques

By Jane Nicholson

BOONE–Building an energy efficient house doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be as simple as positioning windows correctly to maximize solar energy, or as advanced as installing wastewater reclamation and solar water heating units.

Students at Appalachian State University are learning firsthand the challenges of designing and constructing energy efficient buildings, and gaining public support for energy-saving practices.

A design competition sponsored by eastern North Carolina contractor Phil Mayrand Jr. challenged students to design a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath addition to a beach cottage in Eastern North Carolina. In addition to providing practical experience, the L.P. Mayrand Sr. Memorial Sustainable Building Design Competition at Appalachian offered a $5,000 first prize.

Graduate students Travis Thompson of Boone and Merrill Hibbs of Blowing Rock submitted the winning design. Thompson is an appropriate technology major and researched a variety of building materials for the project. Hibbs, an interior design major,

designed the addition’s first and second floors and looked at handicapped accessibility and energy efficiency issues.

Approximately 40 students working in teams of two participated in the competition. The competition was open to all majors, and drew interest from students majoring in construction technology, sustainable development, interior design and the sciences, among others.

Mayrand plans to incorporate the best practices from the designs into the cottage addition.

“This competition presented our students with a real-world design problem,” said technology professor Dennis Scanlin. “It’s an ideal opportunity for them to put into practice a lot of the ideas and technologies we discuss in the department related to appropriate technology and sustainable building design. It motivates them, it challenges them, it helps them learn to work together in teams, and it helps them recognize that this is an important technology that others are interested in supporting.”

Thompson said designers and builders are challenged with balancing environmental issues with occupants’ health and the cost of constructing an energy saving-dwelling. Sometimes these concerns conflict.

For example, using engineered wood made from wood products can help reduce the need for clear cutting of trees, but unhealthy gases from the glue and chemicals used to create the product might be released into the dwelling. Plastic decking, which can replace wood, is expensive.

Thompson turned to technology to find a compromise. “Modeling computer software produced by the Environmental Protection Agency lets you compare building materials using economic and environmental factors,” he said.

“We had a good partnership for the competition,” Hibbs said of his and Thompson’s collaboration. Hibbs included sliding pocket doors and 3-foot-wide doors with lever handles to make the space accessible. His paint choice for the building’s interior has a low VOC paint, which does not emit odors or harmful gases.

Fiberglass casement windows and a poured concrete floor were recommended because of the coast’s weather, humidity and sand.

Students researched materials as well as building code and zoning issues, according to Scanlin. “There was a lot of problem solving involved in this competition,” he said. “We didn’t give them all the answers. They had to research materials and use computer simulations to determine the predicted performance of the building.”

Through research, Thompson selected ACQ (Alkaline Copper Quat) pressure-treated lumber, which releases fewer gases than CCA (Chromated Copper Arsenate) pressure-treated lumber.

Thompson’s and Hibbs’ design also used passive solar features, such as incorporating glass on the addition’s south wall and minimizing the use of glass on the east-, west-, and north-facing walls.

To maximize the energy efficiency of the house, they recommended structural insulated panels and a heat-recovery ventilation system. The system ventilates a dwelling without drawing in unconditioned air. The students also improved the addition’s heating and cooling efficiency by correctly sizing the HVAC unit to the dwelling.

“Some contractors install over-sized systems which means homeowners have to pay more to run the system,” Thompson said. A system that is too large cycles on and off too quickly, using more energy, he explained.

“Solar energy and ‘green’ building principles are something I hope to incorporate in my business,” said Thompson, who plans to become a licensed general contractor. “Interest in residential construction that addresses environmental issues is starting to grow.”

Mayrand plans to sponsor additional design competitions at Appalachian, each one focusing on a different region of the state. He hopes the demonstration houses constructed from student designs will encourage more contractors to explore new construction methods and materials.

“Construction is a very conservative field,” Thompson said. “It’s tough to get contractors to try new products.” Structurally insulated panels are one energy efficient item that is gaining more acceptance, in part because it can minimize labor and decrease construction costs, Thompson said.

“It just takes a little more attention to those things in the beginning. It may be a little more costly at first, but the features will pay for themselves before the life of the house.”

The second-place $1,000 prize went to a team consisting of Appalachian interior design majors Caroline Shillito and Jason Revalee.

A $600 third prize was awarded to appropriate technology majors Taylor Hartman and Lori Wright and drafting and design major Chad Lovin.