Photos by Kayleigh Omang
In an unassuming neighborhood in Grand Forks stands the only LEED Platinum home in North Dakota. This sustainable and eco-friendly house is home to Betsy and Dexter Perkins. In January 2019, the home received the Platinum designation from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), becoming the only Platinum-certified residential build in the state.
The idea for building this “green” home evolved over a long Norweigan winter in 2016. The Perkinses were temporarily living in Moss, Norway, as Dexter was working at the local university. During their time there, they lived a very eco-friendly life. They had no car, walked everywhere they needed to and spent a lot of their down-time in their apartment.
During the notoriously long Norweigan winter, the couple had a lot of time to think. All this idle time lead to them fantasizing about their “drømmehus,” or dream house. They began with lighthearted conversations outlining what they’d want in their ideal home, what would it look like? How would it be built? How could they optimize space?
Soon this daydreaming turned into reality and, somewhere during that long Norweigan winter, they decided to build the house they were designing in their minds.
A Team Effort
First up in making this dream home a reality was gathering the right team.
When assembling a team for the home, the Perkinses did a lot of research. They needed to find people who were not only willing to put in the work to produce this vision but people who had the ability to execute it as well.
In the beginning stages of planning, the couple visited John Bagu in Fargo, who has rooftop photovoltaic panels (or PV panels) on his home. Seeing his success with the system, they made their decision that they would incorporate a PV system in their home as well. When speaking to Bagu, he suggested they reach out to Malini Srivastava, an architect at Design and Energy Laboratory (DandElab), who also had experience with passive solar homes. After consulting a number of other architects, they ended up hiring her and her husband, architect Mike Christenson, to design their home, as they aligned with the homeowners’ values the most. More builder consultations lead them to Jeremy Hom, who was excited by the opportunity to build something truly different from anything he’d done before.
Together, this team shared ideas and alternatives back and forth. Months of consultation between the homeowners, architects and material manufacturers occurred before construction began in the fall of 2017.
While energy efficiency and green practices were the first priority, practicality was the secondary goal. Before building, the couple read Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House,” a book that emphasizes the principle of “build better, not bigger.” Upon reading, they discovered a takeaway that was possibly unintended by the author. From seeing the stylish interiors within the book, the Perkinses determined that they wanted to make a home for living, not for show.
They wanted their dream home to be practical, one where all the space was used. This goal was successful, as the final product has no wasted space. There are no scarcely used formal dining rooms or an empty basement. They knew what spaces they utilized as a couple and decided to omit anything extraneous. “Use the space you have or don’t have it at all,” said Dexter.
Other themes continued to emerge while they were planning. They wanted to emphasize nature and natural materials. Whenever possible, they used recycled materials and the home is virtually free from plastics and synthetics. Elements used included about a dozen different types of wood, sandstone, natural light and plants.
The idea of the outdoors being part of the indoors also carries throughout the home, which they achieved by making the south wall of the combined living room dining room and kitchen mostly glass. “We really wanted the outdoors to be part fo the indoor decor,” said Dexter. “So for me, the number one most successful part of the house is that the outside becomes part of the inside.” This is achieved through strategically placed triple-paned windows, allowing in views and ample sunlight. Instead of a sod grass lawn, their front and backyard are comprised entirely of native vegetation, with a sea of wildflowers growing up to six-feet tall in the summer, with butterflies and insects finding solitude in the environment.
LEED Platinum Certification
Along with everything else that’s incorporated into the design, the most important theme to the homeowners was that the home be LEED Platinum Certified.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or “LEED” is a national certification system developed by USGBC to encourage the construction of energy and resource-efficient buildings that are healthy to live in.
The way that LEED certification is determined is through a system of points. These points come from practicing various green building strategies across a number of categories, including home location, biodiversity on-site, water efficiency, energy efficiency, materials used and innovation. Based on the number of points received from such categories, projects can earn one of the four LEED rating levels (from low to highest): Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.
Point break-downs are as follows:
- Platinum: 80+ points earned
- Gold: 60-79 points earned
- Silver:50-59 points earned
- Certified: 40-49 points earned
The USGBC website states their mission as, “We believe green buildings are the foundation of something bigger: helping people, and the communities and cities they reside in—safely, healthily and sustainably thrive. The heart of our green building community’s efforts must go well beyond construction and efficiency, and the materials that make up our buildings. We must dig deeper and focus on what matters most within those buildings: human beings.”
With a dedication to providing humans safe and healthy places to work and live, this certification allows homeowners and builders to recognize practices that benefit our daily lives. With more and more citizens and builders acknowledging these practices, we have hope for cleaner, brighter and more efficient futures.
For the Perkinses, the LEED Platinum certification wasn’t a goal they strove to achieve, it was mandatory. Throughout the whole building and design process, the homeowners shifted and pivoted in ways to ensure that they would earn all the points necessary for their home to be awarded the Platinum certification.
According to Nodak Electric, the Perkins’ home is the only private residence in Grand Forks to generate its own power from rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems. Their system includes 30 PV panels on the roofs atop the east and west wings of the home. This system can store 10 kWh of electricity in their lithium-ion battery, and in the summer and early fall, they generate much more power than they need, allowing them to sell it back to the electric company. As the days grow shorter in the winter and the temperatures drop, they do have to purchase some power, but it never is a lot.
To keep their energy footprint low, they rely on their high-efficiency wood-burning fireplace, which includes a catalytic converter to eliminate pollution. This warms the house, but also provides a priceless ambiance to the living quarters. “The quality of life benefits are instantaneous. This is a happy and warm house compared to our previous one. Everyone would be so mentally and physically healthier if they lived in happy houses,” said Dexter.
The homeowners added, “We are willing to bet that we have one of the best insulated homes anywhere.” One huge factor in making this claim was the use of Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs. SIPs are construction materials that are made of an insulated foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, resulting in insulation that exceeds a standard wall. These panels are one to two feet thick, depending on their location. This thickness, combined with the technology, makes them incredibly efficient. “All homes should be built with them,” said Dexter. “The payback is immediate […] This is one of the energy efficiencies where there’s no excuse for anybody today to even think about building a home without using these kinds of things.”
The Perkins’ SIPs have high R-values (a tool of measuring how well a two-dimensional barrier resists the flow of heat), ranging from R-60 to over R-100. Dexter noted that, according to the engineering firm that prepared the paperwork for their LEED certification, this home is the “tightest” and best-insulated house they had ever seen.
In terms of budget, building with SIPs costs about the same as building with wood frame construction and the payoff you’ll see with energy bill savings are notable. The cost to build with SIPs balances out due to its ease of installation. “The house gets built faster because the walls of the house are made in a factory with the windows and doors cut out and they ship the whole thing that way. The builder just puts it together,” said Dexter. This pre-fabrication allows for less job site waste and shorter construction times.
Choosing materials for the home became a bigger hurdle than anticipated. “At first, we wanted to go with all local materials, but it turned out to be impractical, but we tried to do that as much as possible,” said Dexter. They found that there’s not a good central shopping place nearby for acquiring green and natural materials, and some of the desired materials were hard to track down. This added time and design changes to the overall build process.
In the path to choose materials that felt the best ethically, the Perkinses saw the cost add up as well. For example, recycled materials were considerably more pricey than virgin materials, but this added cost was well worth it. “With all the materials being all-natural, with no plastic and that sort of stuff…how do you figure out the financial payback on that? You’re investing money to get what makes you feel good. And what you want to be living with,” said Dexter. “Some say they can’t afford it and I say you can’t afford not to. You’re talking about your life, your health. […] The recycled and all-natural materials make me feel better. It’s just a personal feeling.”
When choosing such materials, the Perkinses opted for a variety of selections. “We could not decide what wood we liked best, so we used ‘all’ of them,” they said. Throughout the home, there are 12 different kinds of wood, including maple, cherry and quarter-sawn oak cabinets; red oak windows and trim; walnut shelving and benches; maple on the main stairways and hickory, beech and bamboo flooring, the hickory and beech parts made out of recycled barn wood. Countertops in the kitchen are made from recycled paper and the mudroom floor is made from recycled porcelain. Except for plumbing and electrical switch plates, there are no plastic or synthetic materials in the home. And even those few synthetic elements, they plan on replacing when funds allow it.
“Some people have asked us what it cost us to build this house. And, we have avoided answering. Because you pay for what you want and different people want different things,” said Dexter. “There is no way to attach a value to the benefits of the healthy and relaxing quality of life provided by living in a beautiful natural environment.”