Historic Decisions

Looking back at the completed project, Ethan Landis, principal of Landis Construction Co. in Washington, D.C., says that everything about the finished project is well done.

“This was an A-plus job,” says Landis. “The quality of construction, the attention to detail, the finish selections, the performance of the home, the comfort of the home for the homeowner, all of those things are very good.”

Indeed, Landis’ gut-rehab of a town house in the historic Georgetown area of Washington achieved nearly all of the objectives set forth by the homeowners when they embarked on the project more than two years ago. The owners had intended to purchase the home on a speculative basis, renovate it to a very high green and luxury standard, and then sell. One financial crisis and a number of logistical challenges later, the owners now live in the home along with other members of their extended family.

“They are extremely happy with it,” says Landis, “with almost no regrets.”

The owner’s desire for a deeply green renovation, perhaps one that would ultimately achieve LEED Platinum certification, stemmed from her career as a realtor. LEED is a designation offered by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) that was first introduced for commercial projects. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This owner had developed a specialty in selling “green” homes. “Even if they broke even on the project,” says Landis, “they wanted to learn about the process and gain from the experience professionally.”

Even though Landis Construction is a design/build firm and co-owner Chris Landis is an AIA accredited architect, they were brought in after another architect, Erik Hoffland, AIA, had already been engaged on the project. It was his drawings and schematics that were used to secure financing for the project and to later build it out. Both Hoffland and Ethan Landis are LEED accredited professionals, so once the funding was in place, the project began in earnest.

Because the goal was to achieve LEED certification for the home and because the design and construction responsibilities were split among two firms, the first step, says Landis, was to hold a design charette where many choices and courses of action were determined well ahead of time. Involved in the charette were the owners, the architect, the general contractor and key trade contractors.

“Though we had walked along the LEED pathway with other projects,” notes Landis, “this was to be the first time we planned to earn LEED certification and possibly LEED Platinum, so we really needed to get everyone on the same page.”

Embarking on a deeply green project required the knowledge and a commitment from the owners that it would undoubtedly cost more than a conventional remodel, particularly since the scope of the project was large. They took a 2,200-sq.-ft. town house, tore off the back, built a three-story addition and dug a deeper basement, all while gutting and preserving the façade in accordance with strict guidelines set forth to preserve the historic streetscapes of Georgetown. The finished project added approximately 1,000 sq. ft. to the home for a total of 3,300 sq. ft. All told, the project cost about $1 million with an estimate $30,000 to $40,000 of that cost attributable to green and sustainable aspects of the project, or 3 percent of the total cost, Landis estimates.

He explains that many of the key product selections that helped the project along the green pathway would have been selected regardless of whether the intent was to earn points toward LEED certification or not, so the exact cost of green features can be fuzzy. Case in point was the decision to lower the floor of the basement in order to gain more ceiling space in what was to be an in-law suite. They could have poured a normal basement slab floor but opted instead to make it an insulated slab.

“Once you have that floor out, what is the increased expense to make the slab insulated and get an extra LEED point? It is an extra $1,000. And then you say, ‘Well, that is simply a good building practice’; we likely would have done it anyway. These were the type of green selections that were easy for us to make. The really tough decisions were those that were required in order to achieve a high LEED rating that you otherwise would not have wanted.”

A good example of one such tough decision would be the LEED requirement that all of the home’s walls be entirely opened up, insulated and inspected before the wallboard is installed again. This requirement precludes a possible decision to opt to blow in insulation down a closed wall cavity while building a very tight addition to the house. But since the aim was to get LEED certified, all walls of the existing house were gutted and insulated with an expanding open-cell, soy-based foam insulation. This requirement added substantial time and cost to the project and is the key difference between a green remodel and a remodel that achieved LEED Platinum certification.

“With LEED, you cannot do half a house,” Landis explains. “You have to do the whole thing. Overall LEED for Homes is a great, very well thought out, very well tested, sophisticated regime, but it is not a building code. It is not a process where you open the book and follow A to Z and come out the other end with a superior product. It is somewhat interpretive. In this situation if someone comes to the table with the right attitude. And they want the best, or certainly an excellent product, at the end of it; it is a great system in which to achieve that outcome.”

Historic Preservation

Anyone who walks the streets of the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. is struck by its many charms — the cobblestone streets, the tree-lined sidewalks and an unrivaled collection of 18th- and 19th-century homes that provide a perfectly preserved streetscape dating from a bygone era. These charms did not happen by accident. They are the result of a rigid set of preservation codes enforced by no less than three separate bodies of preservationists who oversee all alterations to building facades throughout the district. Like Washington’s many federal monuments, the Georgetown district falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government’s Fine Arts Council.

Within that council, a separate subcommittee is devoted to hearings and approvals relating to Georgetown. The third layer of preservationists is the Washington, D.C., Historic Preservation Review Board. Brother and partner Chris Landis, AIA, is a member of this board, but his presence there was of little consequence in this case because the Georgetown group’s recommendations are usually rubber stamped by the other two.

Getting a project through the historic preservation process can be cumbersome and can potentially impose costly delays if the project needs to go back to the commission repeatedly in order to win final approval. In this case, says

Landis, the process took two presentations to the committee to win approval. But the commission meets only once per month and does not meet at all in the month of August, so timing is a major factor. Ironically, the home is not nearly as old as most of the neighboring structures, many of which date to the early 1800s. This house was built in 1900, well after the neighborhood was already built, but since all of Georgetown falls under the jurisdiction of preservationists, so too did this house.

“The owners did not buy this house because it was historic,” says Landis. “That was not their initial goal. However, it became clear very quickly that we’d have to work with the historic authorities. Our clients were not going to try to get around any rules.

They just wanted to know the balance between historic and green. And it became clear very quickly that there is no balance. Historic trumps everything when it comes to the façade of a house like this.”

Very little about a Georgetown façade can be altered, says Ethan Landis. If a home was originally built with painted wood siding, then its renovation must also use painted wood siding that matches the original. This goes for windows as well. In most cases, they cannot be changed out, not even for the most architecturally correct replicas which can be achieved by many leading window manufacturers. Instead, says Ethan Landis, each of the original windows in the front of the house had to be restored. Broken weights had to be fixed. Old paint needed to be stripped away and replaced in order to make them operable. Lastly full-lite, custom-made wood storm windows were made to fit as tightly as possible for each existing window.

“You obviously restore the window and improve its weatherization,” says Landis. “To our surprise, we did blower-door tests afterward and discovered that these restored windows in combination with good quality storm windows installed on top, were about 90 percent as efficient as brand new Weather Shield windows installed in the newer sections of the house.”

In the final analysis, after the project was complete, Landis sat with the owners and asked them to summarize their satisfaction with the project. They were extremely happy with the results. Of their three “regrets” all related to factors beyond the control of the architect and the contractor. Water service needed to be replaced out to the street resulting in a $30,000 cost variance. A neighbor delayed the project with issues relating to an easement. And lastly, a number of problems with the cabinet manufacturer resulted in a long delay.

From Landis’ perspective the only regret was not being able to handle the design in-house. The process would have gone more smoothly, he says. “If we were to design this in-house, that would have helped dramatically.”

Fast Facts About this Project

  • Location: Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
  • Architect: Erik Hoffland, AIA
  • General contractor: Landis Construction
  • Total project cost: $1 million
  • Square footage before: 2,200
  • Square footage after: 3,200
  • Project started: December 2007
  • Project completed: Spring 2009

Specified Products

Concrete: Handyman high fly-ash content
Countertops: Virginia black granite, Vermont Danby Olympian White, Norwood Marble & Granite
Custom interior wood doors: Designer Doors, Inc.
Custom millwork: Dave Cahoun, St. Joseph’s Carpentry
Drywall compound: Proform brand
Drywall adhesive: Titebond solvent free drywall
Drywall: 100% recycled
Exhaust fans: Panasonic
Flooring: EcoTimber bamboo; Mountain Lumber Antique heart pine wood flooring
Hot water heater: Solene
HVAC: Carrier, BMC Installation
Insulation: Demilec Agribalance, Dow Frothpak, Nova spray foam
Lighting: Sea Gull, Cree LED lighting
Lumber: FSC lumber from Nature Neutral Supply and TW Perry’s
Masonry: Concreto Plus
Medicine cabinets: Nutone
Paint: American Pride, Benjamin Moore, Restoration Hardware
Plumbing fixtures: Kohler
Precast concrete widow sills: Dominion Precast, Inc.
Siding: Hardiplank
Skylights: Velux
Stairs: Eastern Stairs
Tile: Oceanside; Quemere International, Architectural Ceramics, Daltile
Tub: Porcher
Virginia black granite: Norwood Marble & Granite
Water piping: Aqautherm Fusiotherm
Window restoration: Historic Structures
Windows: Jeld Wen

Green Components of Project

Demolition, Excavation, and Site Work:

  • Deconstruction
  • Donation of salvageable materials
  • Recycling of construction and demolition waste

Concrete and Block Foundations:

  • Concrete with coal fly-ash content

Rough Framing

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified dimensional lumber
  • Borated-treated, FSC dimensional lumber
  • FSC, formaldehyde-free plywood for subflooring
  • FSC, formaldehyde-free oriented strand board for sheathing
  • No-VOC adhesives
  • Optimum value engineered framing techniques were employed to save wood and increase size of insulation cavities

Exterior Windows and Doors

  • Historically correct windows and doors
  • Restored original front façade windows re-weather-stripped for energy efficiency with high-end storm windows

Exterior Finish: Trim, Siding, Soffits

  • Reinstallation of cement-board, Hardie-plank siding salvaged from side of neighbor’s addition

Roofing

  • New, sun-reflective “cool roof”

Cabinets

  • Cabinetry case: GreenTech Core with no added formaldehyde
  • Case construction: All cabinets constructed with FSC wood products with no added formaldehyde
  • Doors & drawer faces: FSC sustainable wood species; GreenTech Core
  • Drawer box materials: Solid bamboo
  • Finish: zero and/or extremely low VOC finish; zero formaldehyde; zero HAPS (Hazardous Air Pollutants); water based finish, stains and topcoats

Countertops

  • Locally quarried granite — kitchen
  • Salvaged granite — laundry

Appliances

  • Energy Star appliances

Plumbing

  • Fusiotherm piping was used rather than copper
  • Highly water-efficient bath and kitchen faucets, toilets and showerheads
  • Solar thermal hot water

HVAC

  • Very high efficiency (96% efficient) gas furnace
  • Very high efficiency (21 SEER) AC unit
  • Ducts sealed with mastic rather than tape
  • Ducts kept sealed during construction
  • Energy recovery ventilator installed to bring in fresh air that will be preheated or precooled
  • Very high 16-MERV air filters installed to maximize removal of air contaminants

Electrical

  • LED lighting throughout home in the form of recessed cans and under-cabinet lighting
  • Some CFL and fluorescent tubes used in closets and stairwells

Insulation

  • Open-cell, soy-content foam for nonbasement walls and roof rafters
  • Closed-cell, soy-content foam for basement walls

Gypsum Wallboard

  • High recycled content gypsum and paper wallboard
  • No-VOC joint compound
  • No-VOC drywall adhesive
  • Drywall scraps were recycled

Specialty Millwork

  • Interior moldings milled locally

Fireplace

  • Closed-combustion, low-emission, high-efficiency gas fireplace

Flooring: Hardwood, Vinyl, Carpet

  • No carpet used
  • Engineered salvaged heart pine flooring installed on middle and upper floors
  • Solid, woven bamboo installed in basement
  • Low and no-VOC adhesives and/or finishes used on the flooring

Stairs: Wood stairs, railings, guardrails

  • Stair systems used all FSC and salvaged woods.
  • Exterior stair and railing wood was either borated-treated pine (for structure) or locally salvaged.

Tile: Walls and Floors

  • Local and/or recycled content tiles installed in bathrooms, foyer and laundry areas

Painting: Interior and Exterior

  • Green Seal certified primers and paints

Chimneys

  • Salvaged historic bricks

Hardscaping and landscaping

  • Native plants used to minimize need for water
  • Hardscaping was shaded
  • Hardscaping stones were locally sourced
  • Water from the yard is absorbed on-site

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