It's not easy being green. Especially when building a house.
"Sustainability professionals out in the world always talk about how we should be doing it for the planet or the children ..." said Kirt Merrill, director of production for Nilson Homes in South Ogden, "but they almost never come up with a plan that's affordable enough to build."
Merrill says the pros could learn from three women who recently graduated from Weber State University. For their senior project, the design graphics engineering majors designed a green home that's modestly priced -- and they managed to give it some curb appeal, too.
"I'd probably give them an 'A' for what they learned," said Merrill, after the project was presented to Nilson Homes for a critique. "I think they could teach a sustainability class."
The women did earn As, but they didn't stop with receiving diplomas.
"We're burning both Habitat for Humanity and Nilson Homes CDs of the soft plans," said Abby Jayne Ronnow. "They can use our idea, and hopefully it will extend beyond us graduating."
The goal of the "Sustainability Through Size" project was to design a living space that's affordable, comfortable and environmentally responsible.
Ronnow, a Californian who came to Utah to attend WSU, proposed the project. Tiffany Anne Dazley, of Ogden, and Layton's Kendal Marie Andersen, became her project partners.
"The slogan we've been going with is, 'It's a movement to dramatically downsize our homes,' " said Ronnow.
Family size in the U.S. has decreased since 1950, but homes are about 140 percent bigger, she said. Bigger homes require more materials and energy, giving them not just a larger physical footprint but also a larger environmental footprint.
But that's not the only reason to downsize.
"For homeowners, we're seeing a lot of stresses put on them with large homes. They're not making them happier," Ronnow said. "They are more economically stressed, and then in maintaining the home, they have to invest so much more time into these homes than if they were smaller."
Tiny home movements are catching on in some parts of the country, but Ronnow says many plans cut out the average homebuyer.
"We found some that were like 70 square feet, and 90 square feet," she said, mentioning Tumbleweed Tiny House Company of California as an example.
Tumbleweed offers plans for a house 7 feet wide by 11 feet long, featuring a 4-by-4-foot kitchenette with a hot plate, and a loft that fits a queen-sized bed but has a height of just 3 feet, 2 inches.
The students set a goal to create a modular design that could be built as a one-, two- or three-bedroom house on the same foundation. They also wanted to adapt the one-bedroom plan to be wheelchair accessible.
Most people live in 700 to 1,000 feet of their homes, according to Ronnow.
"They're actually not using the other space, but they like the space because it feels comfortable," she said.
The students designed a 700-square-foot one-bedroom home, using vaulted ceilings to create an illusion of space. An open floor plan, with a living room that doubles as a dining room, adds to the illusion, as does a change in flooring visually separating the entry and kitchen.
"In a lot of the other small spaces we looked at, the kitchens were kind of neglected," Ronnow said. "They were kind of afterthoughts that had like a two-burner stove and mini fridge, and we didn't feel that was very practical."
The team went with a 10-by-15-foot design, stacking cupboards to the ceiling. A stepladder is needed for full access, but they say it's better than a dust-catching space decorated with fake plants.
The bedroom fits a queen bed and dresser, and has a full closet. The bathroom has a shower, no tub, but Ronnow says that's what most people prefer. Frosted glass keeps the area light, and pocket doors take less space than hinged doors.
The wheelchair-accessible design has wider hallways, and lower windows and counters.
The students kept the same footprint by adding a second floor for the two and three-bedroom options, which max out at 1,400 square feet, even with a tubbed second bathroom. The stairway has balusters instead of walls, for an open feel.
Ronnow, Dazley and Andersen say it isn't enough to throw a solar panel on the roof and call a home green. They wanted to meet National Green Building Certification Program standards.
"We didn't actually get it certified, because the home's not built, but we walked through what would go on and ended up with 'Emerald,' which is the highest you can get," said Ronnow.
Ronnow, in charge of systems, put solar panels on the house to heat water.
"Utah is one of the really high areas that gets some significant sun," Ronnow said.
The system ties into hydronic radiant floor heating, which she said saves 25 percent to 50 percent on heating costs compared to forced air. She also went with an electric tankless water heater.
"We chose to go all electric," said Ronnow, noting that the home could be powered with solar panels or wind turbines.
For cooling, students designed a vented roof with a fan in the attic to remove hot air. They also chose a swamp cooler, with newer technology that doesn't make the air as damp.
Andersen, in charge of building techniques, saved wood by placing studs farther apart. The framing is with 2-by-6-inch boards, making a wider space for insulation. Using three types of insulation -- foam, sprayed and blown, she gave the walls an R-value of 42, and the ceiling 49; code is 38.
A lot of green homes are less than attractive, the women said. They wanted something that would blend into a neighborhood.
Dazley selected building materials, and went with cement fiberboard instead of aluminum siding.
"It looks more like wood than the aluminum siding ... and it will last longer than wood boards," she said.
She chose stone instead of brick, to add curb appeal, and metal roofing for heat reflection and a longer lifespan.
Indoors, she went with bamboo flooring.
"It's half the price of regular hardwood floors you see, but you get the same durability," she said.
Dazley also selected low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints to cut down on chemicals vaporizing in the air, and countertops made from a combination of recycled glass and cement.
The students set a goal of keeping the cost to build under $90,000. For the larger versions, it came out at $130,000, or $127 per square foot.
"If we applied that to our 700-square-foot home ... it came out at $84,000," said Andersen.
Nilson's staff said they wouldn't change anything about the students' floor plans. They did offer suggestion to lower building costs.
"One system they suggested changing was the radiant flooring to forced heating, just to save money," said Dazley, adding that tile floors and brick would be less expensive than bamboo and stone.
But Merrill understands that the designers' decisions were based on more than cost.
"I have been to the International Builders' Show numerous times, and listened to a lot of green approaches to homes. Their approach, I thought, was one of the very best I've seen," he said.