Plenty of luxury homes are tweaked to be environmentally friendly – but multi-million dollar abodes specifically designed to leave tiny eco-footprints are rare. 2002 Alpine, a “hyper-ecoluxury urban home” which was recently built in Boulder, CO, has us in awe over its careful design and amazing attention to the details of green living.
The house is a massive 5,160 square feet (including garage) and sports nearly every eco-friendly amenity you can think of. From the solar panels on the roof, to the low-voltage cable lighting wired throughout the home, practically every room is an environmentalists dream. Oh, and did we mention the stunning view of the Flatirons from the huge master bath?
This kind of luxury doesn’t come cheap, so prepare to drop $3.5 million to make it your own. To find out what the American-designed, German-engineered building team learned about eco-friendly home-building as they put this dream project together, we caught up with Ralf Meier, President of Vireo and one of 2002 Alpine’s builders.
EcoSalon: While designing and building this luxury home, what lessons were learned that can be applied to standard U.S. home building?
RM: Perhaps the biggest lesson starts with changing your assumptions before you start. Before you even say you are building a home, instead ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Are you focused on the home, or finding a better way to live?
We focused on the latter – asking what is the best most harmonious way to live. How can we live using the least energy, producing the least amount of carbon gases, having the least impact on the earth, on society, on into the future as far as we can see or affect? By changing the goals of our labors, you change then everything you do. “What is the good life” changes more than the front door – although our front door is very different and has been changed because we asked that larger question about the good life.
More to your point, breaking the unspoken commodity mindset and cycle is the first lesson. If you don’t change the reasons you build a home, you can’t how you build, or the kind of home you build. By law, most bankers making loans for houses have to get comparables in order to price a home; what if there is no comparable? What if this home is different? How do you price a home when there is no other one down the street, or in another town. This becomes the question of the chicken and the egg – which comes first?
For us, this has little or nothing to do with “standard U.S. home building”. Standard U.S. home building builds to a price first, to “standards” and a host of norms second. Our standards aren’t based on other houses, but for the lowest possible ecological footprint, and for the best possible lifestyle for the occupants. This takes us in an entirely different direction. This is similar to how designing and building a standard car is different to building a car to produce record setting mileage, or a higher speed, or to last for a century instead of four years. Form follows function. Our design is to function so as to live differently, more than a different way to build a house. Although, once you change the goal, the house we build is different.
This isn’t about making it cheaper, or faster, or quicker, but about how to make it better. This is defining better as to what has the least impact, uses the least energy, while not compromising the quality of life within. This about putting quality in every sense before every other issue, and seeing where that takes you. measuring that quality based on how little energy can this house use – to design, to build, to sell, and to live in. This isn’t about building a thing which once sold is the end of it, but trying to answer that question about what is the best. How can you minimize – not just for a minute, hour, day, month or year – but for a lifetime or even many lifetimes of use – minimize all the energy spent regardless of how it has been done in the past.
ES: What kinds of methods were used to reduce building waste from 17 percent to 2 percent?
RM: I gather you are talking about the U.S. average waste of 17 percent for materials in new home construction. Our goal was no more than two percent. WeberHaus estimates a measured non-recycled waste of 0.7 percent, and our records indicate we added another 0.1 percent to that for a total of 0.8 percent total material waste in building 2002 Alpine. That is reducing non-recycled waste well over 2,000 percent better than industry norms.
But the list you ask me to produce is the size of a book. Basically, everything is different. The top five reasons?
1. CAD/CAM design/build. By starting with computer aided design, and moving to a controlled factory with high-tech laser jigs and precision controlled cutting devices and more, we eliminate much waste before a single material is purchased. Our programs keep us from buying the wrong supplies, and then wasting them on site. Our skilled craftsmen then use the best most precise tools in a controlled environment. The unfair advantage starts here. The saw dust and end cuts are used inside the walls, for insulation or holding brackets for other parts of the home. The goal is Zero waste.
2. Porsche consulting – the same people who make the sports cars, helped WeberHaus incorporate the best of Edward Demming’s quality control work. Just in time manufacturing, where materials and subsystems arrive just as they are needed, instead of being stacked in a warehouse helps. But the entire “Quality Circle” concept from Demming is used to manage construction flow from design, through build, include seamless timely inspection with documentation, right through to packing into air/sea transportation boxes and then opening them in the best sequence to maximize flow.
3. Fast reassembly and build on site. The house goes up at a rate of about 1,000 sq ft per day. This means things don’t get lost, and the weather doesn’t ruin what we are working on. No time is lost waiting for inspections. And once the shell is up and tight, then we have a quiet, protected place to work. Things don’t grow legs and disappear. We get the rest of the work inside the house done fast and right the first time.
4. Total quality integration of subsystems. We aren’t adding the heater, air conditioning, plumbing on site with labor picked up from the parking lot at Home Depot. Each system is already designed and chosen for use in the home. Instead of having variable quality of the crew, and based on who is well on any given day, the systems are integrated from design, installed in the factory – or at least laid out for final install on site. Instead of relying on the ingenuity of how the on-site crew that day can make something fit – it is already specifically designed to fit and work.
5. A half-century of home building in Germany has given WeberHaus the pull to select from the best manufacturers of equipment in the world. From windows to boilers to photovoltaic arrays, not only is the equipment chosen for its performance and longevity, with guarantees and warranties negotiated between the heads of each company for the best protection for the home buyer, but those manufacturers help make sure performance is enhances by best possible installation techniques.
Taken together, all this and more is why we have 0.8 percent waste, and not the norm of 17 percent.
ES: Any plans to build similar homes anywhere else in the U.S.?
RM: Yes. Where and when will be dictated by those demanding but appreciative future owners that will understand and appreciate how dramatically they can live in EcoLuxury. It isn’t about sacrifice to gain performance. It is about not sacrificing performance. The scarcity mindset is ultimately harder to defeat than the physics of building homes to last for a century that use as close to net zero energy and produce as close to net zero carbon gases.
We are talking with some potential owners now, and hope to make announcements where soon.
ES: What was the biggest challenge when building and/or designing this home?
RM: Challenging the assumptions of what is possible. As the focus is on the house and not on what it does, so it becomes more difficult to resist the compromises made every day in every way as the part of doing business.
Changing our goal to living the best possible life gives us the answer making ecological luxury homes possible. If we were to focus on just building a greener house – well you know what the answer to that question is. That’s not us.