Steve Sierleja brings green building options to his clients when they call upon Custom Homes Ltd.
STEVE SIERLEJA LAUNCHED his home- building career in Philadelphia in 1973 and immediately set himself apart from the competition.
He has spent his entire career using alternative building practices, techniques and materials.
Sierleja launched Custom Homes LTD in 2003 to jump to the forefront of green building, when many of his peers considered the trend nothing more than a fad.
“Just because we’ve done it a certain way for however many years doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it,” Sierleja says. “With all of the issues we’re having with our planet, traditional homebuilding certainly contributes to a lot of the problem, from the waste that goes into landfills to the inefficiencies within the homes.”
Building green should always take into account these five areas of construction practices, according to Sierleja:
• Site utilization;
• Energy efficiency;
• Healthy interior air quality;
• Water conservation; and
“For very little monetary increase, we can do a much better job and be good stewards of our planet,” Sierleja says.
A prime example of this is a customized green building project Sierleja’s company did in Mico, Texas.
It’s a 3,000-square-foot, net-zero home that relies solely on renewable energy for its power and a potable rainwater harvesting system for its sole water source.
Site utilization is a prime consideration with net-zero homes in order to take most advantage of the sun’s power to charge the solar panels as well as the placement of the rainwater system to produce optimal water flow.
The Mico home’s orientation is such that the 16.8-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the home gets as much charge out of the sun as possible.
The Mico home has a backup battery system energized by its solar array and propane-fired backup generator should the batteries run low on energy.
This home also has a solar hot water heater.
Energy efficiency is extremely important in a home relying on its own energy sources.
The home is framed with insulating concrete forms (ICFs), which go a long way in minimizing energy use for heating and cooling.
To avoid taking on too much heat from the Texas sun, the home also features low-e thermo pane, 0.21 solar coefficient windows.
The windows – which measure 18 inches wide and about 6 feet tall on the west side – are protected by 3-foot eaves. LED lighting is used throughout the home along with the most energy-efficient appliances.
Healthy Interior Air Quality
One of the major problems Sierleja is tackling in custom homes these days is indoor air quality.
He says because homes are sealed tighter than ever today, the air quality has dwindled significantly, creating a variety of respiratory ailments in children and adults ranging from asthma to ADD. With the Mico home being framed with ICFs, creating a practically impenetrable air-tight shell, the choice of materials used to finish out the interior is crucial to its lasting air quality.
Sierleja has changed many of his building materials to avoid air problems in its custom homes.
For example, Sierleja changed the brand of spray foam insulation because its previous choice relied on a chemical for the blow agent.
“Now we use insulation that uses water as the agent, which is not only better for the homeowners, but also for the installers,” Sierleja adds.
Sierleja encourages homebuyers to opt for hard-surface flooring instead of carpet that can build up allergens. Even some wood products today contain formaldehyde, which needs to be avoided. Also, Custom Homes LTD no longer stains its concrete, which requires acid washing.
Instead, the company uses a dye processes that is friendlier to the environment and installers.
The size of the air conditioning and HVAC is also very important. A larger unit is not better, as this can create mold and mildew issues.
Electronic dust collection systems or HEPA filters can be added to HVAC systems. The Mico home includes a fresh air intake and exchange due to tight seal of an ICF home. The kitchen and bathroom venting is also installed to aid in removing excess humidity from day to day living.
Sierleja admits that due to the increased upfront costs for homebuyers, it isn’t always the easiest to sell the products to improve a new home’s indoor air quality. Still, Sierleja believes it is his responsibility to make sure his customers are aware of the options available to them.
“I know it’s an issue, so we need to do something about it,” he says. “I have a fiduciary responsibility to educate the client to the best of my ability. However, the ultimate decision rests with my clients.”
The Mico home has the capacity to harvest 40,000 gallons of potable water. With that includes two 20,000 gallon tanks and a potable filtration system.
Sierleja advocates rainwater harvesting because comparable to the cost of installing a water well, the rainwater-harvesting system saves money overall with its savings on filters and long term maintenance.
With one rain event, a harvesting system can produce 8,000 gallons of water or more. The Mico home has been able to produce a surplus water supply, even with periods of drought.
To be water conscious, the home does make use of dual flush toilets, water-efficient shower heads, and other water-saving appliances.
Sustainability is Key
As an eco-friendly builder, Sierleja makes sure that every home his company builds is as environmentally friendly as possible. The Mico home being net zero has incorporated every aspect of sustainability, but even homes without solar or rainwater harvesting can be built to save energy and water with materials that do not deplete or harm the environment.
“Green building practices need to be the norm not the exception,” Sierleja says. “We need to be good stewards of this earth for future generations. We have the capabilities presently to improve this world for all.”