Beyond brick and mortar: The Green Home Tour

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The Rhino Cubed shipping container named “Nola” occupies a grassy patch in Louisville and serves as a sustainable and affordable living option in Boulder County.
Courtesy of Rhino Cubed

Accessibility to sustainable residences is an important part of mitigating climate change. In the U.S., residential buildings account for 21 percent of all domestic energy consumption and 20 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. U.S. buildings as a whole, including commercial and residential, account for 40 percent of all domestic energy use — more than both the transportation and industrial sectors.

In the face of such statistics, the Green Home Tour is back to showcase the 10 most innovative sustainable homes in Boulder County — from homes with edible landscaping to apartments that you can virtually heat with a hair dryer. In its second year, the self-paced tour aims to showcase the diversity of sustainable living situations available to the average budget.

According to Juana Gómez, committee member of the Colorado Green Building Guild, these 10 innovative homes go way beyond solar panels and energy-efficient appliances.

“When people think about green building, they automatically think about energy conservation — which is a good thing — but we’d like to extend that idea to being aware of all the materials that go into the house and where you are building the house,” she says.

Each year, the guild picks a number of residences that demonstrate the wide variety of sustainable options available to homeowners and tenants. This year, the projects range from large to very small homes, communal living apartments, and a fully-equipped, repurposed shipping container.

“We want to show people that there is a lot you can do with every size of building and every kind of budget toward living more sustainably,” says Gómez, a long-time Colorado resident who has been a green architect for decades.

For Louisville-based Rhino Cubed, sustainability comes in the form of repurposed metal shipping containers that typically languish unused after traveling from a producer in one country to a consumer in different one.

“We’re an ideological company motivated by sustainability,” says Rhino Cubed co-founder Sam Austin. “[We] take what is essentially a piece of industrial garbage, [and turn it] into something that can sustain a person or two.”

Austin says about four Rhino Cubed containers currently reside in Boulder County.

The Green Tour will feature a 24-foot-long, 8-foot-wide container in Louisville called “Nola” that includes a shower, bathroom, a full kitchen, efficient high-end fiberglass windows, hardwood floors and a metal “rhinoceros horn” on the top. Although its small size is its primary environmental asset, Austin stresses that Nola’s interior is “very robust.”

As an example of impressive energy efficiency, the Tour also includes a passive house, outfitted with super-tightly sealed doors, ultra-insulated windows and an unconventional air ventilation system to cut down on heat escape and drafts. This system can be used in any building, from an apartment to a school, and is so prominent in Germany that the government has mandated “Passivhaus” status for all residential apartments by 2025. The affordability is in part what makes the passive building system so accessible: Depending on the size of the building, the added cost can be no more than 5 to 10 percent more than a conventional construction.

Attendees will also see the Willow Sage co-housing project, a North-Boulder neighborhood with communal facilities composed of 34 attached townhomes and a communal house. Residents share chores and meals along with a laundry room and common yards in a variation of communal living. For Gómez, this is exemplary of the social changes needed to affect a sustainable society.

“Green living is beyond brick and mortar,” she says. “It’s also about social consciousness: living in neighborhoods, and in commons, and sharing.”

Sustainable living options such as the ones showcased as part of the tour are some of the ways the Green Building Guild hopes to engage the community in mitigating climate change through the residential sector. And in an affordable way.

Not only does the residential sector account for much of our energy consumption, but accessing new, sustainable technology is pricey. Getting a home LEED certified, which is one of the most popular sustainable rating systems for commercial and residential buildings, can cost tens of thousands of dollars up front, even though the investment is typically returned years down the road.

Recognizing this problem decades ago, Boulder County established tax incentives and rebates for sustainable development, along with some of the strictest energy codes in the country, according to Gómez.

“[Local government] is very progressive and does a great job of promoting sustainable living,” she says. “They were really at the forefront of the push in the last 15-20 years to make Boulder a greener city.”

That progressive stance has molded the sustainable ambitions of Boulder, which include pursuing energy municipalization and 100 percent renewable energy production by 2030. And, it has established Boulder County as a leader in sustainability that has attracted environmentalists from all over the nation.

Gómez credits the fantastic environmental culture in Boulder for the large turnout at last year’s Green Home Tour. And this year’s event expects to draw up to 500 people.

“In many ways we are at the forefront of energy technology and the exchange of ideas,” she says. “[The tour is] a great place to start people who are encouraged to be living sustainably, and is also a draw for people who just like to see things done well and beautifully. I think that goes a long way.”