Vivian Todak describes how the use of Sructural Insulated Panels in her rebuilt home creates an insulated attic with no exposed rafters. - Jim Craven

Green Phoenix Rises from the ashes

It was a charming, historic house, the one where Vivian Todak grew up on Church and Third streets in Phoenix.

You had to love its century-old charm, but when the wind blew outside, the curtains moved inside. There were spots in the house that would never get warm and, with almost no insulation, the electric bills were climbing through the roof.

Charm aside, life in that house often was about buying caulking by the case, she says, and living a life of patch, patch, patch.

Then last fall, a short in a toaster cord brought the battle to an end, burning the house beyond repair and opening the door for her and husband, Paul, to build a new one — honoring the old farmhouse look — but based throughout on green energy and solar design.

The just-finished house, which was featured on the Phoenix-Talent Green and Solar Home tour in October, sports a solar water heating grid on its second-story roof, a heat pump, a legion of tall south-facing windows and revolutionary SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) for the roof, instead of the old joists and insulation.

The couple wanted energy-producing photo-voltaic roof panels, but would have had to cut down a 40-year-old pecan tree, planted by Vivian's father, which itself is a "green" system, producing lots of energy-saving shade in summer, she says.

They plan to mount PV panels on a pole in the backyard, where a Global Positioning Tracker and motor (powered by the PV) will track the sun through the sky each day, says Paul, noting the system will net state and federal tax credits.

Built by locals Gary Dorris and Greg Claflin under the Earth Advantage program, the 1,845-square-foot home incorporates many of the recent advances in green thinking, including:

  • Studs on 24-inch centers instead of 16, because wood is a poor insulator, so the less, the better. This raises the R-value (the measure of resistance to heat flow) by 20 percent.
  • Wood floors (cherry), no carpeting, because the once-lauded wall-to-wall carpeting, in addition to off-gassing unhealthy fumes, serves as a reservoir of dust, dirt, dander and other stuff causing indoor air pollution.
  • Low-emissivity fiberglass framed windows.
  • Fresh air exchanger. Since the house is so tight, fresh air doesn't seep in; it has to be drawn in.
  • Rain screens: 1.5-inch-wide strips every foot under the siding to allow moisture to drip to the ground, rather than being trapped under siding and creating mold and unhealthful air.
  • Big eave overhangs on the east and west sides to shield from summer sun.
  • Light-colored roofing, which reflects the sun, reducing summer roof temperature by as much as 60 degrees over dark-colored roofing.

Each one of these items may be a small energy saver by itself, but together they form a solid defense against pollutants and loss of expensive energy. The steps are detailed in the favorite book of the project's builders and homeowners: "Your Green Home," by Alex Wilson.

While SIP panels — a 9-inch-thick sandwich of polystyrene or polyurethane between two slabs of strandboard — have been around for three decades, they're just coming into the valley and are featured now in three area lumber yards, says Dorris.

He's planning them in the roofs of his next building projects and predicts, because of rising energy costs, they will be the standard for walls in the near future.

Norton Lumber locally sells them in sizes ranging from 4-by-4 feet to 8-by-24 feet at about $9 per square foot. They need to be hoisted into place by a crane, then screwed directly to the roof beam and wall plates, then locked together and taped. Norton Lumber officials, who also sell kits for walls and floors, say SIPs are going into three Ashland homes about to be built.

Building a house around green, solar, energy-stingy systems is moving from fad to necessity, something Dorris says he hopes brings back the era of true home craftsmanship that was prevalent before the mid-20th century.

Notes Paul Todak: "We built it to be energy efficient from the ground up, and we look forward to a future of not having to spend all that money on heating bills. The ironic thing is, if instead of being in Iraq, we spent the money to do this to every home, we wouldn't have to be in Iraq."

Vivian Todak roughly designed her home by walking historic neighborhoods, sketching it out — she wanted it to fit in the old neighborhood and "not look like a brand-new house" — and handing her ideas to Claflin, who turned them into an energy-conscious descendant of her old family manse.

"It's amazing it could go from that funky old farmhouse, through a lot of loss of personal possessions, and now into a very solid house, light years away from the old one," says Vivian, pointing out the granite kitchen counters and travertine marble kitchen floors, with M.C. Escher design at its center by Dan Pinkham of Phoenix.

"It's got a constant temperature. It's light and airy, and I can walk through the rooms without having to turn on a light," she says. "When the wind was blowing hard, I only knew by looking outside and seeing the trees move."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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