Living the Dream

After Hurricane Charley destroyed their 1940s-era home, an Orlando couple built to suit their environmental concerns.

The Paré family thought they’d dodged Hurricane Charley while vacationing in the Keys in 2004—until a neighbor sent them a cell phone photo of a toppled oak tree resting on their Orlando home. The photo of the destruction came with a message: “You’d better get back here.”

John and Pam Paré rushed home with their toddler daughter in tow to find their 1940s-era ranch home a total loss. The catastrophe, however, gave them an opportunity to change the way they live without having to leave their beloved Lake Como neighborhood.

Three years later, their new 3,200-square-foot dream home was finally completed as a testament to their environmental concerns. It was the first private home in Florida to earn the LEED Green Building Rating System’s silver certification, the second tier in the four-level rating system. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a program that recognizes green design, construction and operation.

The Parés were veritable green pioneers in Central Florida at a time when environmentally friendly building hadn’t quite taken off locally, and their home’s silver rating is a beacon for others to follow. They’re proud of that accomplishment, which was a byproduct of the green building route they took, rather than a stated goal from the start.

“We built our home—and other aspects of our lives—around what is important to us,” says John, “which is to make sure that we leave the next generation no worse off—and hopefully better off—than we were, in terms of the environment they will inhabit.”

The home includes both 21st century green innovations and time-tested traditional architecture. Broad roof overhangs, borrowed from old Florida vernacular homes, shade the windows and shelter the home from sun and rain. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide solar power, and a rain barrel collects roof runoff that’s used to water plants during dry spells. The couple further reduced their home’s water consumption by installing dual-flush toilets and putting synthetic grass in the back yard, the latter move also eliminating the carbon emissions from a gas-powered lawn mower.

To provide a healthy environment indoors, the Parés decided not to install carpeting, which can trap allergens and give off harmful chemical emissions. Instead, they went with stained and polished concrete and sustainable bamboo and cork as their flooring.

To increase energy savings, highly efficient insulation was applied to the roof’s interior rather than laid on the attic floor, keeping external heat and cold away from the home’s ceiling and ductwork. The reinforced concrete exterior walls are six inches thick and the windows are impact rated to withstand wind forces of 120 miles per hour—great for energy efficiency and also for holding up against another Charley that might be in Central Florida’s future. “When it comes to hurricanes, once bitten is enough,” says John. “Some might say we overbuilt, but it is what it is.”

John says it’s hard to say how much more it cost to build their home to meet green standards compared with the costs of traditional construction practices.  Ultimately, he says, some of the extra measures will pay for themselves.  An example is the solar power: His monthly power bills for 2009 averaged about $90.

“For 3,200 square feet of living space, that’s phenomenal. There are months we have a net gain,” says John, who serves as deputy state attorney general for the central region of Florida. He adds that, as an Orlando Utilities Commission customer, he gets paid for excess power his home generates. “When we produce more [than we use] we send it back to the grid and they pay us retail rates.”

Those solar panels were added after the construction was completed—one decision the Parés regret. If they had it to do over again, they would have included them during the building process. They initially held off because of the high cost of installing photovoltaic cells—approximately $40,000 for a home that size—only to discover later that various rebate programs would substantially reduce the price tag.

John also wishes they had pushed for a higher rating. A combination of factors led them to go for silver —including what John calls “construction fatigue,” a desire to leave their rental home and have their own place, and the sheer learning curve of these nascent building standards.

Although John and Pam, along with daughters Olivia, 7, and Jacqueline, 3, are happily settled into their green dream home, they’re not finished making eco-friendly adaptations to it. Among the projects planned are further landscaping alterations that demand even less water and sweat equity, the addition of a rain barrel so there’s even more captured water for irrigation and other tasks such as car washing, and the installation of a more efficient composting station outdoors where they can dispose of organic waste.

“We keep adding new things, researching new things; it’s a process,” says Pam, a schoolteacher.

John has shared the lessons they’ve learned from the experience. He has participated in two panel discussions for the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, has opened the home for two Florida Renewable Energy Association Solar Tours, and has hosted visitors from the International Builders Show. The home also has been filmed for two documentaries on green building.

John’s motivation for opening his home and sharing his story is to let others know that going green at home is an attainable goal for everyone:

“You can do this without giving up a lot. I don’t think we’ve given up anything.”

Categories: Features