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Oakwood, DU students go green

Watch a video and take a poll at the end of this blog.

One of the greenest homes in Denver will be completed in about a week.

This photo, taken of Oakwood Homes while it was under construction, will be one of Denver's greenest homes.

But it’s not some super-expensive home that is the work of a tree-hugging zealot.

The “Net-Zero Energy Home” is being constructed by Oakwood Homes in Green Valley Ranch, the northeast Denver community where new homes start in the low $100,000s and where you would be hard-pressed to find one priced at more than $400,000. The home is being billed as the first “net-zero” home constructed in the Denver area by a production builder. A net-zero home is one that creates at least as much energy as it consumes, in some cases even returning energy to the grid.

DU students find it’s not easy being green

It’s being built with the help of a dozen DU students, whose research helped Oakwood construct a home whose energy saving features could serve as a template for production building across the country. The students received hands-on supervisory experience building the $315,000 homes while earning class credit for a “Residential Practicum” capstone course at the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate & Construction Management at the University of Denver.

The nine-month course wraps up on June 3, when the 2,100-square-foot, four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house is scheduled to be completed.

“It really has been unbelievably cool working with the subs and the other students,” said Alex Hossellman, a DU senior majoring in Real Estate & Construction Management, whose role is to serve as the “president” of the 11 other DU students constructing the house for Colorado’s largest privately held builder.

“This is arguably the best course I have ever taken,” added Hossellman, a Honolulu-native. “I’m also taking a really great investment class right now, and it is really great to learn about how investments work. But with Oakwood Homes, it’s not just theoretical. We’re out in the field building a real house that is giving us real-life work experience.”

The capstone class includes six undergraduates and six grad students.

In addition to Hossellman serving as the president, the students are involved in such things as construction, financed, LEED certification and marketing. For insurance reasons, the students don’t actually swing hammers or drill holes, although they supervise those who do.

Hamill has history of helping DU

Oakwood Homes, headed by Pat Hamill, a DU graduate himself, has a long tradition of providing a real-life building opportunities to students at his alma mater.

“We’ve been doing this for either 15 years or 16 years,” said Hamill, who graduated from DU in 1981. Hamill, who also is a trustee at DU, said part of it is giving back to the school. However, it goes beyond that, he said. “If you look at it from an educational standpoint, it is a great, real-life learning experience,” Hamill said. “It really expands everything they learned in the classroom.”

DU students, professors and Oakwood officials check the progress of the Net Zero home while it was under construction.

Over the years, Hamill has hired a number of students who helped built a home.  “We’ve got them peppered throughout the company,” he said.

Best green-building practices sought

Frank Walker, a vice president at Oakwood, who earned his MBA at DU, said this year’s house is especially rewarding for the company as well as the team of students. It is the most energy efficient home Oakwood has ever built, he said.

“We really decided to push the envelope on building an energy efficient, sustainable house this year,” Walker said. “The students contributed a lot of front-end and back-end research. When your goal is to build the most energy efficient house as possible, there are many different options. And we want to do it in a way that it is repeatable again and again, so the features of these homes can be incorporated into mainstream production.”

The students started the course last September, at first focusing on things such as engineering, option selections and plot plans, and, of course, researching green features.

“We broke ground in February,” Walker said. “We like to break ground on December, but this was delayed because there is so much that goes into building a net-zero home.”

Passiv Haus production home

The green features added $35,587, or about 11 percent, to the home at 5223 Dunkirk St. Oakwood will donate proceeds of the sale either to a local charity or to the Franklin L. Burns Foundation. A portion of the proceeds also will go to a scholarship fund at DU.

The home is being built using “Passiv Haus” design principles, which emphasizes a super-tight construction, super-insulation, and low-e windows. Oakwood’s Net Zero home, for example, has 12-inch think walls. “I think we have R-48 insulation in the walls and R-60 in the attic, both well-above average,” Hossellman said.

But having the Passiv Haus concept as a guide, wasn’t like having a blueprint that would allow them to slap up a home by the numbers.

“Sounds easy, right? But it was insane,” said the 22-year-old Hossellman. “It was a lot of work. This was a fresh idea for Oakwood Homes. So we learned along with them.”

Early in the process, the students researched the Passiv Haus  concept online , tapping into the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois, where a great deal of data has been published on the concept.

“The U of I is the centerpiece of Passiv Haus in the U.S.,” Hossellman said. “And there was one a Passiv Haus being built on Gilpin Street, within walking distance from DU, so that gave us a real hands on feel for what it was all about.”

But they didn’t stop with the Passiv Haus concept.

Platinum LEED, too

The house, for example, also will receive Platinum-LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. “We got creative,” Hossellman said. “We had to dig a deep hole for the foundation, and we thought, “Gee, let’s throw down some geo-thermal loops,” to allow the earth to supply heating and cooling.

And they’re leasing a small photovoltaic solar system for the house. “Because we’re leasing it, instead of buying it, the payback is almost immediate,” he said, as far as saving on the electric bill. Other energy saving features include a heat pump hybrid hot-water system, water-saving fixtures, and Energy Star appliances.

National model

Hossellman thinks this home could provide a national model for how production homes are built.

“There really is no choice,” Hossellman said. “Whatever happens with the prices of oil and natural resources in the short-term, we know long-term, they are going to go up. The energy savings on this home today are really great. Ten years from now, the benefits likely will be overwhelmingly important.”

Hamill, Oakwood’s president, agrees. “We can’t just keep taking from the environment,” Hamill said. “What needs to be done on a national level is to continue to work to find ways to build homes that are more environmentally friendly, while keeping them affordable. Over time, what we have learned from this house will be incorporated into our production homes. We’re  very excited. Also, as more big builders embrace the best practices of green building, and subs become more comfortable building sustainable homes, the lower the costs will be.’

There are some signs that builders are beginning to embrace green-building. Last month, Meritage Homes said it has completed a home in the Phoenix area that is the first net-zero home in the country built by a production builder. And the Geos development  in Arvada eventually will have 250 net-zero homes, the largest net-zero community in the U.S.

Walker said other builders have approached them, and he shares with them what they are doing.

Mistakes will be made

Of course, not everything about the home is the fun, green stuff.

“We have this kitchen island that got framed out about a month ago,” team president Hossellman said. “Since then, guys have been leaning heavy drywall on it, they’ve sat on it, they’ve used it for a table. Over time, it’s been warped.”

The sides of the island, with a granite-laminate countertop, already have been dry walled. “So do we rip it out and rebuild it, or use shims to make it plumb (perfectly vertical)? The subs, of course, don’t want to rebuild it, because they’ve already built it once.” They decided to use three shims to fix it. “We’re just waiting for approval,” he said.

Lessons like those are extremely important, Walker said.

“As a supervisor on any home construction site, really your job is to make sure that all of the subs do their jobs properly and do it on schedule,” Walker said. “You need to develop good communication skills and keep on top of a lot of different people doing a lot of different things. And sometimes that requires making people come back to do something over again.”

Taking home lessons learned

Hossellman said he believes his experience as part of the team will be invaluable when he looks for a job after he graduates. One idea he has is to return to Honolulu and do high-end, green renovations on existing homes and buildings.

“Given everything I’ve learned about green-building at this home, I really think that would give me an edge over a lot of other people. Not many people are going to have this kind of experience.”

To see what other homes are for sale in Green Valley Ranch, please visit this COhomefinder.com link.

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VIDEO: Alex Hossellman discusses green-building features in Net-zero home in Green Valley Ranch

For an earlier story about Oakwood’s green-building, please visit this Denver Post link.

Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com.