Florida House 2.0: Questions and answers with the experts


_DSC6870After years of being closed to the public, Florida House will reopen Saturday as a demonstration home and landscape for sustainable construction, design, furnishing and living. I sat down recently with Florida House Institute executive director John Lambie and others involved in the project.

Q: How has Florida House’s mission changed?

John Lambie:  It has a three-fold mission

  1. A demonstration house, showing homeowners how they can retrofit their houses, and also new construction, in the areas of energy, water and structure, including quality of life, such as universal design, walkability, local food and clean indoor air.
  2. A public meeting facility. We’ve resigned the living area and can convene about 50 people. We’ve paid a lot of attention to acoustics and lighting. We’ve enclosed the porch, and it has high-grade PGT sliding doors that attenuate the sound from the street to make it a good meeting space.
  3. The third is as a think tank, which is basically a network to capitalize on the expertise in this community, and the network that we have nationally to bring that expertise to bear on community opportunities.

Most of today’s problems are solutions to problems we had in the past. Our mission is future by design, so we think by engaging in the future we would like to have, we create markets for the entrepreneur and might be able to arrive at a future we all like, or that our grandkids would like.

Q: What is the importance of the updates made to Florida House?

_DSC7121JL: We keep trying out new products. The plan is to go around the building and continue to replace the windows with high-performance windows. The old windows are original, single-pane windows from PGT of 25 years ago. The recommendations for windows has changed a lot; 25 years ago, the Florida Solar Energy Center was adamant that because Florida’s climate was so mild, insulated windows were a waste of money. But low-e glazing reflects the infrared and therefore mitigates the solar heat gain. The insulation attenuates sound, and with impact-resistant glass, you are strengthening the building and getting insurance benefits. All of those benefits add up to make it sensible to replace windows. It delivers multiple benefits.

The biggest “a-ha” in the house is when we close the sliding-glass doors in the meeting area, and you see the traffic going by on Beneva Road, but you can’t hear it.

Q: The landscape is getting renewed emphasis, is it not?

_DSC6936JL: We have identified 20 summer food crops. Working to do a project with the food bank to grow them here and test them with their customers because there is a summer food desert. The farms quit producing. We are going to try them out and test, and vegetarian chefs are going to help us with recipes, and teach people how to grow them.

We want to use all the water that falls on the site – retain all the water on the site and reuse it where possible. We want the site to feel to the watershed as it might have 100 years ago.

Q: What are the main goals of the Florida House Institute?

JL: The big goals for the house are zero energy use (from the power grid), structural integrity, quality of life and watershed balance

There will be a cistern beneath the building, but that is an unfunded mandate at this time. Coming soon to a demonstration house near you.

Terry Osborn, architect: It’s continuous improvement here.

JL: This is part of what we show the homeowners: How do you do this incrementally? We have done the zero-energy stuff with energy-efficient windows and spray-foam insulation. Picking up the balance is (photovoltaic panel vendor) Andrew Tanner and the other solar companies.

_DSC6880Andrew Tanner: I did 50 percent of the solar array. (Brilliant Harvest did the other half; Mirasol Solar did the solar water heating.) When I first moved to Florida and wanted to build a house, I didn’t know anything about the Florida concept of building well. I came to Florida House and saw these phenomenal things that you can do. But very few contractors were doing them. So I jumped in with the whole passion of doing it. They helped me start my business.

We are at zero energy now. A $9 a month electric bill, with a 15 kilowatt array of PV solar panels.

Q: What is the cost of PV panels?

AT:  It keeps dropping year over year. The mandate is to get it less than $2 per watt, but right now it is about $2 a watt. We are challenged here because of the high-wind code – we have to do more structural work. But we are definitely under $3. Ten years ago, it was nearly $9. We are a third of that.

We have payment plans where people don’t have to put out any money at all. If their power bill is $100, they switch to paying $90 for the solar to offset the cost of the panels. It is functional, even without the FPL rebates. They save 10 percent a month right off the bat with no out of pocket.

Q: Tell me about Florida House Institute’s new air-conditioning system.

_DSC7042JL:  We have a 25-SEER state-of-the-art Carrier variable-speed system for the house -- a marvelous system. Then, we enclosed the porch, and we wanted to demonstrate that if your AC was properly sized and you enclosed a chunk of your house, your AC may not make it happen. So we added a mini split system, which is one of the coming things in air-conditioning. They are ductless. You enclose your porch, you get a mini split.

Q: Florida House was an early champion of compact fluorescent light bulbs. And now?

JL: We have new LED lighting from Bright Sky home automation. And we still rely on daylighting.

Q: What are the “low-hanging fruits” – the easy things homeowners can do to make green or sustainable retrofits to their houses?

JL: Getting your house right is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Keeping the sun out. Shade. Planting a tree in the right spot.

Andrew Tanner: A renewable-energy solar package to reduce your carbon footprint would include insulation, better windows, better air-conditioning, solar hot water and then photovoltaic panels for the balance.

JL: Reduce your load to as small as possible and then pick up the balance with PV.

Q: And the big trend in green design?

JL: Everybody is interested in performance. When you get multiple benefits out of your windows, that’s real performance. So getting multiple benefits out of a single improvement is a big thing.

I think people are interested in quality of life, aging in place. You will see the roll-under kitchen sink and cabinet in the bathroom. Being prepared for multigenerational living. How is the house going to work for your grandkids or for your aging mom and dad if they come to live with you?

The big benefit in coming to Florida House is helping you make a plan. You will see the things you would like to do. You will see that the windows will make a big difference in how big the air-conditioner needs to be. You will know to tell your AC gut that you are about to replace the windows and to size the AC accordingly. Having a plan is the first low-hanging fruit.

Get on your hands and needs and see where the light is coming in under your doors. That is where the cold air is sinking out and cooling your patio and your neighbors. That is the lowest of the low hanging fruit.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 21, 2015
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