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TREE House Takes Root in Hiram

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Hiram –  “TREE House exemplifies what is distinct about Hiram,” beamed Dr. Debbie Kasper, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Hiram College. From its radiant heat in the basement floor to its R60-rated insulation in the attic, the TREE House is a model of energy efficiency and sustainability.

Work was done by local contractors, and supported by volunteers from faculty, staff and the community.

Local resident Scott Robinson supplied the fine carpentry work. Mike and MJ Viggiani from Mike’s Electric in Hiram, OH completed electrical work. They installed the energy-conserving LED lighting systems and energy-monitoring systems to enable Hiram College to track energy usage throughout the structure. Dominic Gualtieri, of Gualtieri Construction in Hiram, worked on foundation and footer work, helping the TREE House, much like trees themselves, grow from the ground up. Using less traditional materials like foam blocks, and simple tools including a drill, a reciprocating saw or other cutting tool, and plenty of zip ties, Gualtieri remarked, “the process is easy enough for an average homeowner to do.”

Insulation guru Nate Adams from Energy Smart Home Performance in Mantua, lent his expertise to the project as well. According to Adams, at the start of the project, blower door tests — used to measure a home’s airtightness, — were measured at 6,700. The team’s goal was to reduce that number to 2,000. After all the work the team has completed, the TREE House now scores under 1,000.  A Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index rating measures how energy efficient a home is. A score of 100 is the goal for structures to meet the 2009 standards. Adams continued, “The TREE House started at 208, but is now listed at around 50.”

According to Jim Zella, the architect and builder from Hiram who served as the Project Manager, “Air leakage is the most important factor for energy use. To improve comfort and reduce moisture problems, tighter is better. But if a home is too tight, air quality may suffer.” To solve this issue, an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) was installed to give the bad air a way to get out. The ERV pulls fresh air in, while filtering incoming air and exhausting stale air. In the process, exhausted air helps to warm the incoming air, making the system more effective.

Zella shared how the old siding, which contained lead paint, was left in place and encapsulated in cement board siding. This not only kept harmful materials out of a landfill, but serves to diminish the heating system requirements of the building. Since the envelop of the house is tight, it doesn’t require as much energy to heat. “I’m very pleased with what took place at this green and sustainable project,” Zella continued. It was truly a team effort that resulted in a reduction of energy usage at the TREE House — a whopping 75% lower than the original structure.

Several foundations have helped fund this project, including the Kent H. Smith Charitable Trust; Dominion’s Higher Educational Partnership; and the Lubrizol Foundation. In addition, private donors have also given their support, including Jane & George Rose, Merrill Preston, Jr.; Damaris Peters-Pike & Ken Pike; Steve Zabor, and Kathryn Craig. The overwhelming support is what Kasper says made it, “genuinely special and rare. All in all, it has been a grand learning experiment, and the kind of thing Hiram does best,” he continued. “What we’ve created is a wonderful space to teach and meet and learn.”

The windows on the first floor and some of the second floor have been replaced with more energy-efficient models; the rest will be replaced as budget allows. The old parts of the home were repurposed on site, for example, old windows now top display tables created by local artist Barry Bishop, and an unneeded door was transformed into a corner shelf for a quiet space off the kitchen. One of the goals of this project was to show people how to salvage pieces of older homes, preserving the character while diverting useful items from the landfill. Water collection system will irrigate the on site gardens.

“We’ve been working so hard and dealing with unexpected issues on a nearly daily basis for so long now, it feels really surprising — in a good way — to have most of the major work behind us and to think we’ll actually be able to use the house,” shared Kasper.  One member of the Environmental Studies Department has already moved in, while the rest of the Department is scheduled to do so over the holiday break.  “Ever since the grand opening, we’ve been getting lots of questions from students who are eager to use the space!  They will be very happy to know that we plan on teaching several classes there this spring,” beamed Kasper.

The next steps for the TREE House will be to learn how to effectively use the space, given its collection of advanced technologies. In addition, the team will be hard at work compiling data they’ve been collecting throughout the process. “We learned a lot through the process, and continue to do so,” shared Kasper. The TREE House team has documented throughout the process, and will share that data so that others can learn from their experiences. Data regarding the various systems and cost savings will be posted on the TREE House website hiram.edu/sustainability/tree-house. In addition, over the next few months, information about some of the most important features will be shared on informational placards that will be posted throughout the house, allowing visitors to learn more and link to the website for additional resources.

Minor work is still being finalized on the TREE House, with a schedule for public access to be established in early 2015. Contact Debbie Kasper at kasperdv@hiram.edu for more information.