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Finding gold in green
Bruce and Brenda Thompson assembled a team of professionals to build their LEED home.

By Marty Primeau

Green can be beautiful.

That’s what Brenda and Bruce Thompson wanted to prove four years ago when they decided to build a LEED-certified home in East Grand Rapids.

“Most people envision a contemporary square box when they think of a sustainable house,” Brenda said. “Not true. We knew we could build a traditional home that would blend in with the older houses in our neighborhood.”

And they did, thanks to a team effort involving an architect, interior designer, landscape expert, builders, a home energy inspector and more.

The Thompsons got the idea of an earth-friendly home while living in Europe. “In Germany, people recycle everything. They build their homes with natural materials and they build them to last.”

The Grand Rapids natives were living in Virginia when they decided to take the plunge — return to West Michigan and build a healthy home for their family. They bought an empty lot and hired builders Joel Peterson and Dave Morren of Insignia Homes.

“It was our first LEED home so it was a great learning experience,” Peterson said. “As builders, we tend to be creatures of habit. But Brenda and Bruce pushed us to look at products we hadn’t typically used.”

The builders also relied on inspector Mike Holcomb, a LEED expert who specializes in home energy and environmental audits. “The biggest learning curve was the whole LEED process,” Peterson said, “and Mike took on a lot of that responsibility.”

 

In the family room, carpet is New Zealand wool
from Town & Country in Sparta. All VOC-free
paint is from O’ Leary Paint Co.

To qualify for LEED certification, the project has to earn points in a variety of areas, from water efficiency and indoor air quality to the design and location — all outlined by the U.S. Green Building Council.

For instance, the Thompsons earned points for living close to a grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants, banks and businesses in Gaslight Village, as well as such community resources as EGR’s police and fire departments.

They racked up points for dual flush toilets, a secondary drain under the washing machine, Energy Star appliances, extensive day lighting, soy-based insulation, drought-tolerant plants and low-mow turf. The foundation was pre-formed and dropped in, not poured, so the basement is bone dry.

“As a builder, we really had to pay a lot of attention to insulation and the overall tightness of the home,” Peterson said.

Earning points — 88 are required for a Gold certification — became “a matter of tradeoffs,” Peterson said. “One material might earn half a point but cost $10,000, so we’d look at alternatives.”

For interior designer Gayle DeBruyn of Lake Affect Design Studio, the challenge was making the finished home elegant.

“We made sure the home’s sustainability is seamlessly blended in,” she said. “You don’t walk in and immediately think ‘This is a LEED home.’”


Rooks Landscaping created rain gardens in the front and back yards for storm water management and planted a variety of native plants and trees.

One of her big concerns was finding materials that were suitable for the Thompson’s younger son who has asthma and chemical sensitivities.

“When we were working on this home, low VOC paint was considered kind of weird,” she said. “Now it’s everywhere. People are realizing that a fresh coat of paint doesn’t have to come with a toxic smell.”

Points also were earned for using regional materials, so DeBruyn worked with the Thompsons to find products made in Michigan.

“Our studio has been working in sustainable design, so we sourced local artisans who built the iron handrails. We went to Detroit for tile in the kitchen.”

Kitchen cabinets were made by a company in Northern Michigan “and finished with a water-based stain,” Brenda said.

 

“You really have to do research. Just because something is recycled, it doesn’t mean it’s good. You need to know what’s in it.”

Most difficult was finding natural fabrics.
“I searched showrooms to find organic materials that were beautiful and non-toxic,” Brenda said. “All I found were things that looked like burlap bags or recycled polyester.”

When she discovered O Ecotextiles, she flew to Seattle to meet the designers. “I loved the fabric collection and the founders of the company,” she said. “I’ve been a rep for them for three and a half years. And just now, people are asking for natural fabrics.”

Another key component was the home’s exterior. “We wanted a rain garden,” Brenda said.

Tom Rooks of Rooks Landscaping designed a garden that would allow rainwater runoff from the roof to be absorbed into the ground.

"We had to visit with the city of East Grand Rapids because they didn’t have a classification for a rain garden,” Rooks said, “but they really wanted to do the right thing to protect the watershed.”

Rooks planted a variety of native trees and plants, from red twig dogwood to swamp iris.

“In the back, we planted a grove of river birch and tamaracks so that even from the upper story window, they would look into trees.”

The front yard has a no-mow grass — a low-growing fescue that is less thirsty and doesn’t need fertilizer.

Since moving in, the Thompsons have had few complaints.

“We did a lot of things right,” Brenda said. “The next home, we’ll do even better.”GR

   
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