The Greenest of the Green

A tour through Wellesley’s first LEED-certified single-family home

Steve Maas writer
Peter Baker photographer

Cynthia Curtis didn’t intend to make Wellesley history. She just wanted a small house near the center of town with a back yard where she could garden and her two dogs, Bosco and Coco, could romp.

Instead, Curtis ended up building the first single-family home in town certified under the stringent standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). In January, it received a gold certification (the second highest of four award levels), becoming one of only 34 LEED-approved residential projects in the state and 724 in the nation. Wellesley already has several LEED-certified townhouses.

With its dormer windows, gabled roof, and clapboard siding, Curtis’s house blends right in with the modest colonials and capes on quiet, tree-lined Avon Street in the College Heights section of town. Until a year ago, a 4,400-square-foot house appeared destined to consume just about every available inch of its steep, rocky lot. But the McMansion met its match in a green house little more than half its size.

It was built by a quartet of extraordinarily motivated people: a client with a green mind and a gift for marketing; an architect with an unfulfilled passion; a builder with an eye for detail and the fortitude to scale a mountain of documentation; and a landscaper with a long commitment to green practices. They surmounted a host of natural and manmade obstacles: an irregularly shaped lot; strict zoning regulations; and a checklist for LEED for Homes certification that required a 114-page booklet and an all-day seminar to explain.

But all agree the result was worth it. The three-bedroom house features a sun-splashed garden room with a cathedral ceiling, slate floor, and remote-controlled skylights; radiant heating that toasts the toes when you climb out of bed (and into the shower); a through-wall gas fireplace that adds romance to the dining and living rooms; and, throughout, handsome bamboo floors and custom-made cabinets and shelving.

Curtis originally wanted to buy a small house, but when she couldn’t find one that suited her needs she took the plunge and built her own. She bought the lot from a developer who had obtained town approval to build a house double the size of the one that had been there before. Declining to scale down his plans for Curtis, he agreed to sell the property.

Although she knew about LEED houses, Curtis initially didn’t set her bar that high. “I don’t consider myself to be a rabid environmentalist,” she says. “But you can do little things, like the fluorescent light bulb, taking a canvas bag to the store. … It seemed like a no-brainer to me to do an energy-efficient home to the extent I could afford.”

She was inspired by an article in WellesleyWeston Magazine’s Summer 2007 issue about a small home (by Wellesley standards) with green features. Impressed, she contacted the architect, Jan Gleysteen, whose Route 9 office happens to be less than a mile from her lot. It was serendipitous. “This is an opportunity I’d been waiting for…to do a sustainable-designed house,” Gleysteen says. “This was something I was very passionate about.” Three decades ago, when the United States was reeling from the Arab oil embargo, Gleysteen studied energy-efficient design while at university. But by the time he launched his career, the price of oil—and interest in conservation—was on the decline.

By designing the Curtis home to LEED standards, Gleysteen saw an opportunity to tap the experience from his student days and bring both himself and his staff up to speed on green building techniques. “Cynthia was really great,” he says. “For her and for me, it was a little bit of a leap of faith”—and an expensive one at that. Because it is relatively new, green building costs 10-to-15 percent more than conventional construction. To sweeten the deal, Gleysteen cut his fees. “I said if I’m going to invest money into this venture by supplying a significant portion of my services out of my own pocket, you need to be willing to invest money into this sustainable design.”

Curtis also invested her own considerable promotional skills, honed as international marketing manager for a computer security firm. Vivacious and telegenic, she has already appeared on an episode of Renovation Nation, with builder Michael Lane. Team Curtis selected the Southborough-based Lane because he is a small solo builder who could devote extra attention demanded by the rigorous LEED standards. “It couldn’t be one of several projects, it had to be the central focus,” Gleysteen says. This was Lane’s first LEED home. “It was kind of cool to learn all about it,” he says. “Jan is cutting edge. It’s an actual privilege to hang out with him and his team.”

Catching the rays
There’s another key player on Team Curtis. This one is 93 million miles away.

From the start, Curtis wanted to tap the sun’s energy in her home. The team decided the most economically feasible way to do so was for heat and hot water. Next it had to solve a puzzle: how to position the house on its L-shaped lot to maximize solar exposure while complying with the town’s setback rules. Andrea Shurtleff, who managed the project for Gleysteen, achieved the best possible orientation with just inches to spare. The main part of the house faces southwest (due south would have been be ideal), its solar panels capturing the afternoon sun. A second array of panels absorbs the morning sun from a perch on the garden room, which extends at an angle off the kitchen.

Besides fitting the house into the lot, Team Curtis made sure its look fit that of its 80-year-old neighborhood. Gleysteen chose the Arts and Crafts style, but with contemporary touches. Among them: vertical clapboard on the second floor to contrast with the more typical horizontal siding on the first. To deemphasize the solar panels, Gleysteen nestled them among prominent dormers. The effect was to create “a stealth solar house,” as he and host Steve Thomas remarked on Renovation Nation.

The windows might be described as stealth high tech. A visual throwback to the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, they are double pane for maximum energy efficiency. In addition, windows facing toward the south have a coating that lets in the sun’s heat—but only when it’s wanted. Deep overhangs block the steep rays of summer while letting in the slanted rays of winter.

The solar-heating system—installed by Clean Energy Design of Osterville—sends water racing (otherwise it could freeze) between the roof and a 1,000-gallon tank in the basement, where the instrument panels resemble those of a ship’s engine room. Curtis hopes the sun will supply 70 percent of her heat and hot water needs; a natural-gas furnace backs it up during cloudy spells. A warren of tubing under the floors—including that of the garage— provides radiant heat, which does not require as high a water temperature as baseboard heat.

Curtis’s summer cooling bills will be the cost of operating an attic fan, which can suck warm air out of most of the house, and ceiling fans. She hopes a few simple steps—such as drawing shades and closing windows during peak heat—will keep her comfortable on all but the steamiest days.

Not green enough
Team Curtis was surprised to discover that all those energy-saving features counted for much less than they expected on the LEED for Homes scorecard. The “Yankee” air-conditioning system, as Curtis calls it, didn’t earn even a single point. “They’re more concerned with things that are more intangible: Do you live near a train station? How are you turning over the air in your house?” Gleysteen says.

While energy-saving items account for about a third of possible LEED points, the certification system is geared also to promoting recycling of construction waste, drought-resistant landscaping, green building products, and higher density housing. If your lot happens to be within blocks of stores and public transit, your house has an instant advantage.

The LEED process does not reward solid, traditional construction, but rather new and unconventional techniques. “If the new stuff is based on a tried-and-true technology, we’ll trust it,” he says. “If it’s based on a new technology, we’ll wait until someone else tests it for five years.” Curtis, for example, chose granite for the kitchen countertops rather than a paper composite material. “I’m sure it is fine, but I didn’t want to risk my entire kitchen on something that was so new,” she says.

Curtis did opt to go with bamboo flooring, which scores points because it comes from a rapid growing grass. Concerned about its durability, she had Lane thoroughly research the brands. The builder came up with flooring pre-finished at the factory, giving it a tougher surface.

As to the mahogany front door Curtis had her heart set on, that was out of the question. It alone would have disqualified the house from certification. The LEED for Homes checklist calls for wood that is grown within 500 miles (to keep the transportation impact down) or approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, a not-for-profit group that promotes “the responsible management of the world’s forests.” As a result, the front door is fir.

Since green building is relatively new, products can be more expensive and tougher to find. Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paint—that doesn’t emit unhealthy fumes—costs twice as much as regular paint. The dimmable compact fluorescent bulbs didn’t arrive until nearly two months after Curtis moved in.

At times, Team Curtis found LEED’s strict rules maddening. Take, for example, the clapboard siding, which is made out of a cement material called hardy board. It looks like wood, but is more durable. It won’t rot and will last longer between paint jobs. But because it had to be shipped from a factory in Texas—outside the LEED 500-mile limit—the hardy board didn’t earn any points.

“The LEED stipulations are very particular,” acknowledges Mike Schofield, who served as the certifying LEED for Homes consultant on the project and works for the nonprofit Conservation Services Group. Schofield adds that the hardy board also lost a chance for credit because it wasn’t made out of recycled material. The LEED program wants manufacturers “to push the envelope,” says Schofield, whom Curtis and Gleysteen praise for helping them navigate the certification process.

Going green does have its cost advantages. Thanks to LEED’s emphasis on low-flow plumbing fixtures, Curtis shunned expensive, multi-spray showers. But she did pay extra for dual flush toilets that offer the choice of using half as much water.

Because LEED encourages drought-resistant plantings, Curtis didn’t need an irrigation system. Her landscaper, Roger B. Sturgis, says he minimized the lawn area by creating a number of beds, which he filled with compost-rich soil that readily retains moisture. Curtis snapped photos of the site at different times of the day and sent them to her sister, a horticulturalist in Philadelphia who helped select appropriate plants.

Team Curtis also saved money and scored points by building walls out of rock dug up during construction and by finishing the driveway with gravel instead of asphalt. Rainwater seeps through the gravel into the ground, rather than running off into the street.

The burden of going green fell heaviest on Lane and Shurtleff. They had to fill out reams of paperwork. Among Lane’s biggest headaches were sorting waste for recycling and tracking its ultimate disposal. Lane had to squeeze three dumpsters on the tight lot and carefully choreograph the movement of heavy equipment around them. Still, Lane says of the project overall: “We had a lot fun doing this. Cynthia had such a great attitude. It was contagious.”

The pioneers
Both Gleysteen and Lane say they’re ready to tackle another LEED house. More important, they look forward to applying the lessons they learned from the Curtis project to all the homes they design and build. “We’re a history-making project,” says Gleysteen. “We [went] out there with our machetes, cutting a path through the jungle.”

Recognizing that few people are in a position to build from the ground up, Curtis wants to use her house as a showcase to encourage others to incorporate green features when they remodel. On a chilly day in late fall, she held an open house to thank her neighbors for enduring the construction project and to show just how cozy a green house can be. At the party, a woman who lives down the street recalled spotting a gigantic deer by the side of Curtis’s house: “He was standing very still. The only reason we knew he was alive was because he was breathing in and out. He seemed very at peace.”

Perhaps that’s the ultimate seal of approval.