It takes some green to buy a green house.   Or does it?   At least for Michael Yannell in 2009, it did.   Chicago’s solar-powered residential prototype might induce sticker shock:   Yannell paid $1.6 million to have his off-the-grid house built.   On the flip side, Yannell’s energy bills cost on average of $20 per month (his highest bill was close to $30 one month) since he moved into the house in April 2009.     Maybe Yannell should bill ComEd $20 per month for all of the energy his house produces.

The skeptic may ask what’s green about a 2675-square-foot house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for one man and two cats?   If you look beyond this massive prototype, with time, creativity, and a significant paradigm shift in building environmentally sustainable housing, variations on Yannell’s theme might just be the wave of the future.   Those variations might be basic ones you could make on your existing home that won’t cost a million dollars, either (look for my future posts for more details).

Imagine a home that’s independently powered, immune to blackouts and independent of fossil fuels.  Enter 4895 North Ravenswood Avenue, where each cat gets her own bedroom and-almost-bathroom.  Those cats must love all that natural light shining through the triple-paned windows of their green house-not to mention all the outside noise diminished by those windows.     An ice storm will still scare the kitties, but it won’t turn off the power.   Perhaps underlying Yannell’s choice of square footage was a desire to make room for potential neighborhood guests he would host when their power goes off.

Just how does a house like Yannell’s work to power itself and also create power?   Welcome to net zero.   To oversimplify, Yannell’s house gets energy through its cutting-edge solar panels.   These are not your father’s solar panels, but ones that use state of the industry   photovoltair/thermal technology.   This house has 48 voltaic panels.   Technically, Yannell’s house is still tied to the grid.   The beauty of it:   His house gives off as much energy passively as it would ever draw from a grid.   The result?   A net zero balance.

What about curb appeal?   Could an energy-producing house like Yannell’s also be pretty?   Chief designer, Jonathan Boyer, of Farr Associates, Chicago’s leading green architectural firm, accomplished form as well as function for Yannell.     Just how do you make 48 solar panels aesthetically pleasing?   They’re hidden with Boyer’s design, a “butterfly” roof which folds upward.   The roof’s design serves as a rain collector, too.   The building also features a “rain screen” on its face, with a layer of cedar panels and fiber-cement board panels.   The interior layer is functional and provides thermal insulation.   Parts of Yannell’s kitchen countertop contain recycled newspapers.   There are even wall tiles made of recycled green glass bottles.

Boyer’s aim was to remain true to Chicago’s architecture yet keep the machinery of this powerplant house inconspicuous. Yannell’s basement is where you’ll find geothermal gadgets to heat and cool the building.   These gadgets are attached to three wells.   Water filtration systems are also found here, where washing machine water is recycled to clean water.   Every time the cats uses the toilet, they know the water has been used responsibility. Assumably, Yannell does the flushing and possibly not after every use if he’s true to his green values.

At the very least, Yannell’s house is a powerful (forgive the pun) lesson in environmental science and a new Chicago landmark (tours are available; see link below).   At the very most, Yannell’s solar-powered home just might inspire the beginnings of a paradigm shift in how houses are built.   Imagine a paradigm shift in which houses are built right, not necessarily as inexpensively up front as they might be built now-but also not needing updates to be energy efficient later.   Imagine a return to simpler methods to achieve environmental friendliness while maintaining aesthetics.   Imagine that once the trend caught on-as has been happening in Montreal since 2006, for instance, affordability would follow.   Your cats or kids could do fine in a two-bedroom 1000-square-foot building, factors which would also bring your sticker price down to a more affordable level.

Now come back to reality in 2009, the year Yannell’s green features added 10-15% to the price of designing his house.   Also, to save money and be net zero, you would need to have energy-efficient appliances as Yannell does and still be thrifty in your appliance usage behavior.   For now, it’s a costly endeavor in Chicago, as opposed to sunnier places, although climate does not appear to be an issue.   Ren Anderson of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado says “it can be done in pretty much any climate.”

Yannell’s is among only 100 “statement houses” in the country, so if indeed there’s a paradigm shift, it will be very, very incremental.   Maybe you’ll see smaller hybrid variations of Yannell’s house. Maybe it’s an eventual renovation of your existing home with the installation of PV panels.   Maybe the next home you purchase will have south-facing windows, a great energy saver.

You can see a slide show of Yannell’s place here.     Better yet, email Yannell at his web site for a tour.   And when that door opens, please be sure to mind the cats.

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