Vail EarthCraft Platinum HouseChallenge: The Vail family needed an HVAC system that would be comfortable and help them meet their sustainability goals.
When Lisa and George Vail moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta in 2006, they were determined to build a dream home that would be both eco-friendly and modern. After renovating several properties over the years, the couple had a shared vision to create a home that was perfectly customized for their family and lifestyle. It would take seven years before they realized their dream, moving into their new ENERGY STAR® and EarthCraft Platinum-certified, modern home in late 2011.
“A favorite pastime when we arrived in Atlanta was to drive around neighborhoods looking for land,” said Lisa Vail, a realtor specializing in green homes and a partner in the green building supply company Via Viridis, Woodstock, Ga. “Even though we had chosen yet another fixer-upper and were in the throes of a major renovation, we still fantasized about building.”
1. The Vail’s utility bills average $75 per month, 43% less than the average Georgia home, which pays about $131 each month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
2. The Vail house saves about $56 monthly and totals near $673 annually in average cost savings.
In their tours about town, the Vails discovered that the houses they liked best all had an EarthCraft certification. They soon learned that EarthCraft is one of the oldest green building programs in the U.S. — a precursor to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) itself. Established in 1999 by the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and the Southface Energy Institute, EarthCraft provides a blueprint for creating and maintaining energy and resource-efficient living environments.
Planning the Dream House
The building fantasy started becoming a reality when George and Lisa found a dramatic quarter-acre lot overlooking a nature preserve two blocks from downtown historic Roswell, Ga. The land drops steeply away from the street into the woods and the floodplain for Big Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, creating a stunning and serene forest view. The Vails immediately fell in love with the land and neighborhood, and approached architect Jordan Williams, partner of the Atlanta firm Plexus r+d, about designing a sustainable, modern home.
“George and Lisa are some of the best-prepared and highly motivated homeowners I’ve ever met,” said Williams. They knew exactly what they wanted, including all the green-building features that would provide maximum energy savings.” According to Williams, after looking at all the expenses related to LEED® certification, the team decided it could achieve the same benefits by turning to the more affordable design guidelines of the EarthCraft House Program.“Our design strategy became the challenge of fulfilling the Vails’ dream by doing as much as we could afford to make the house as passive as possible,” Williams said.
Solution: A Mitsubishi Electric ductless system provided the perfect balance of comfort, healthy indoor air and efficiency.
Ductless Systems a Perfect Balance with EarthCraft Principles
“Building a new house offered various HVAC options,” said homeowner George Vail, an IT Director with a GIS/mapping firm. “But having lived in homes with forced heating and air systems, Lisa and I knew that we didn’t want to deal with poor indoor air quality from dirty ducts and the suffocating hot, dry air provided by a natural gas heater.”
After researching extensively and designing their home with many principles from the EarthCraft, LEED and Passive House programs, the Vails determined that a traditional HVAC system would not meet their energy and sustainability goals.
The Vails chose a ductless system from Mitsubishi Electric US Cooling & Heating Division in nearby Suwanee, Ga. “We found that the ductless systems provide the perfect balance of energy efficiency, comfort, ductless health benefits and technology that we were looking for — all at a comparable price of a typical HVAC system,” explained George.
Following the EarthCraft guidelines, design proceeded for the 2,700-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2½-bath house. “The Vails wanted an open floor plan, so we put the living room, dining room, kitchen and guest half-bath on the first floor,” Williams said. “Because of the orientation to the pristine nature preserve, we put highly efficient glass walls overlooking the forest. As there are few interior walls on this entry level, when you walk in from the street, you are looking out into the trees — and yet you are only two blocks from a major city center! Due to the steeply sloping site, we put all three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the lower level. All have glass walls with private, natural views.”
In addition to the efficient ductless system, the Vail house design included 6-inch walls with R-60 blown foam insulation (R-70 in the roof), a high-efficiency tankless water heater, an energy recovery ventilator (ERV), an ENERGY STAR advanced lighting system, a water collection system for irrigation and landscaping, and a photovoltaic array on the flat roof membrane for power.
No Need for Mechanical Room, Ductwork or Alternative Heat Source
Builder Bert Thompson is president of Forest Brook Properties (FBP) in Atlanta. He had built several new homes under EarthCraft guidelines, and the Vails admired his craftsmanship. After interviewing several other homebuilders, they asked Thompson to build their dream house.
This was Thompson’s first experience with a Mitsubishi Electric ductless cooling and heating system. He learned that the ductless system would be easy to install, including the five wall-mounted units. As a builder, he appreciated the fact that there was no need for a separate mechanical room.
The Mitsubishi Electric ductless system was installed by Pat Hayes, president of Air Conditioning Specialist, Inc., Covington, Ga. “There’s a lot to admire about this technology,” Hayes said. “I especially like its extremely low energy consumption and highly versatile zoning capability, plus its ability to heat the house down to a very low temperature without needing alternative sources for heating.”
Air Conditioning Specialist, Inc., a Diamond Contractor, had experience with hundreds of Mitsubishi Electric installations. Hayes was struck by how effective they are in homes where there is little space for ductwork. “[The wall-mounted indoor units] are kind of like those flat TV screens you see on the walls of every home today. After a few days you don’t even notice they are there, especially because these units don’t make any noise.”
Homeowner Enjoys Showing off Interior Wall-mounted Units
George said that one of the greatest benefits of the indoor units is the multi-zone personalization for each bedroom and the living/dining area. “This allowed us to obtain independent temperature control in the five zones needed in our house, instead of the typical two zones for a multi-story house. Additionally, each unit comes with a remote controller, making it easy to make slight temperature adjustments from the couch or when I’m in bed.”
He explained that each unit is activated independently as the house temperatures change throughout the day due to personal need or solar heat gain. The outdoor unit uses an INVERTER-driven compressor that is able to vary in speed so that it uses the precise amount of energy necessary to reach the set temperature in each zone, instead of the wasted energy required for a typical single 4-ton HVAC unit.
“As a technologist in an engineering field, I love the sleek look and enjoy showing off the indoor units to visitors,” said George. “They are so quiet many people don’t believe they are working until I tell them to reach out and feel the light breeze. Then I point out the i-see Sensor™ and how smart the unit is — that it will even detect drafts and direct heat or air to a specific area in the room. Everyone’s always enthralled by our indoor units!”
“This all worked out perfectly,” said Lisa. “We love the final design Jordan created for us. We are both delighted with the way the EarthCraft House Program helped us achieve our goals for sustainability and green building. The Platinum Award was an unexpected bonus, but the real reward comes in the surprise of a $75 average monthly energy bill.”
George added, “We couldn’t be happier with the Mitsubishi Electric [ductless systems] for their excellent engineering that provides us with the best overall comfort, quiet operation and flexibility in an energy-efficient manner. This technology is far superior to any traditional HVAC system.”