Passive aggressive

Green-building consultant Ken Huck has been playing with energy since he was 12 years old. The Canadian native helped wire his family's farmhouse more than 30 years ago, then toyed with radio kits in high school and studied the history of science and technology in college. By the time he worked on a solar-array project for the Vallejo, Calif., water system in 2003, he was hooked on alternative energy.

An all-green Canadian import: Ken Huck started his green-building career helping his dad build a farmhouse in his native Canada. "Build it right in the first place," says the West Asheville resident. Photo by Margaret Williams

These days, he's living in West Asheville and still experimenting. He's trying to match pragmatism with theory in designing a "passive house" — one so airtight and efficient that even the warmth of a dog or two can make a significant contribution to its coziness in wintertime.

Xpress sat down with the 44-year-old Huck to talk about living, building and thinking green.

Xpress: How did you get started in green building?
Huck
: I got to help my dad try to shore up our farm house because, as we were putting the roof on it, the foundation started to cave in. I learned that it's much harder to fix something than it is to build it right in the first place. And I wired most of that house.

When you were just a kid?
There were certain things I wasn't allowed to touch! But I went around the house and wired the outlets.

Didn't you go on to mess around with electricity through school?
I really wanted to learn about electronics, but a lot of my initial projects didn't work, and I didn't have a clue why. I would get kits, and the first one that really got me hooked was a radio without a power source. I built it with my dad, and that one worked.

But some other early experiments didn't work?
I know now that I made mistakes, like bad soldering connections or overheating components.

Later, you taught industrial electronics, but a health issue in your 20s influenced the direction your career took.I discovered I was allergic to wheat. The whole process of becoming attentive to food, finding out a problem and eliminating it has made me think about environmental issues.

How did you get into renewable energy?
I started reading about it and taking courses. I worked on the Vallejo, Calif., pumping project in 2003 that used a 200-kilowatt peak solar array for its water system. Then I got a job with Regrid Power as an electrician on a photovoltaic crew, which goes back to wiring that house.

More recently, you've been hooked on super-insulated, or "passive" homes.
I always thought, "I'm a green thinking person, I'll build a passive-solar house." But to build it, I have to take a wooded lot — which is why I liked the place I bought — and cut down a lot of trees, right to the property line. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. But if you build a house that's really efficient, it doesn't need a lot of energy for heating.

That's what's called a "passive house," which is more common in Europe.
I started looking into that, and found out about Cobb Hill Cohousing in Vermont. They used an innovative wall structure with super insulation.

But such approaches aren't common yet in most of the states. You're working on a West Asheville house that fell just short of being certified as a passive house, which is much more efficient than even a certified Healthy Built or Energy Star home.
Right. I bought a planning tool for the house and was told it would work here with this climate, but it doesn't.

You ran into a snag in the certification process.
The U.S. Passive House Institute asked the owner to change the windows, which would have cost $7,000 and would have saved so much energy a year, but we can generate that energy with renewables for so much less, so … we did what was needed for this house in this climate. Have you ever heard the saying, "The map is not the territory?" The computer model is not the house. Use the model to guide you, but at a certain point, step back and ask what makes sense. Why spend $7,000 for one technology when another cheaper one will achieve the same green results and get tax credits?

Still, you got some truly efficient windows for the house, and they're manufactured with environmentally friendly materials.
They're triple-paned, insulated frame, insulated sash, casement windows. They're tight.

And they're made in Canada.
All four manufacturers we found for the best high-performance windows we needed are in Canada.

They're a little more concerned with dealing with cold weather back in your native land.
When you have a leaky window and it's 40 degrees below zero, you feel it.

Beyond windows, what does green building mean to you?
Assessing the impacts of the building over its complete life cycle, including the materials we use and what happens to the building during its lifetime. What kind of energy does it use? Does it emit toxic fumes into the conditioned space that occupants get to breathe? Is it durable? If a building lasts twice as long, the environmental impact is halved. What's it going to be like to decommission it?

To that end, there's a new push for creating something like an Energy Star ratings for existing homes.
We need a fuel-economy sticker for houses, for both new and existing homes. If you rated the carbon impact and the carbon consumption and the energy efficiency of each house, it would help people make a decision when buying or renting a home.

You converted a Ford Focus to run on biofuel. What other everyday things do you try to do to live green?
I have low-flow showerheads.

Really, really low-flow, your partner, Amica Venturi, says.
[Jokes,] Is that a complaint?

[Venturi] No, but he put low-flow showerheads all over the house.

[Huck, laughing] In other words, Ken knows what his flow rate is, and every time Ken goes into a hardware store, he looks for the latest, best low-flow showerhead.

What else?
Any time we do any kind of repair with a light fixture, we seal all the little holes in a junction box, because that's a major source of leakage of air in and out of a house. We've probably done half the fixtures so far. We put in an attic fan, which substantially lowered our air-conditioning usage in the summer.

But an experiment with the attic vents didn't go so well.
During the winter, closing them can keep the attic warmer. In a very tight house, it's a good choice, but in this house, we had a little bit of condensation. A better experiment was repairing the foundation skirt so during the winter, the air doesn't blow under the house and the plumbing doesn't freeze anymore.

What does being green mean to you?
It's about disclosing what you're using and what it's made of and why you're using it. I keep encountering companies that won't answer those questions. I recently read Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They say that being less bad is not good. Putting fewer toxins into the environment only changes the time at which the final result — a toxic environment — will arrive.

Like you said about your family's collapsing foundation at the farmhouse: It's easier to do things right from the beginning.
To the end. If we implemented into our building all the best practices that cost the least over the building's lifetime, then we would eliminate the demand of houses for energy by about 70 percent, with current, cost-effective technology. That's a step that has been widely missed.

Margaret Williams can be reached at mvwilliams@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

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