HomeLink Magazine Summer 2015:  City House and Country House

City House and Country House: The Legacy of Michael Roberts

By Suzie Romig 

      Guiding the construction process of both beautiful and very

energy efficient residences requires a home builder who is both

passionate and pragmatic—skills that longtime local home builder

Mike Roberts embodied.

            Close friends say Roberts never played it safe in life or business. Before his accidental death during a hiking trip in Summit County last fall, Roberts and his team with Odyssey Builder Group completed an efficient three-story home in Steamboat Springs and an off-grid solar home in the county.  

The mountain modern home in Old Town Steamboat and the rural home between Steamboat and Oak Creek were houses that Roberts constructed toward his desire to move Routt County green builders in the direction of the passive house model. The German style of passive home adapted to Routt County is a challenging undertaking in the local climate zone 7, the same climate zone as parts of Alaska.

Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Roberts was both a science nerd with a kid’s chemistry set and an athletic cross country runner. With Roberts’ degree in biochemistry from Princeton University and his acceptance into medical school, it is not surprising when friends explain he built homes with a lot of science in them. After college he opted out of medical school and moved to Colorado. He started a solar company in Evergreen before finding his way to construction in the mountains, including building homes in Routt County for thirty-three years.

“He had a dream of building homes that wouldn’t affect the environment so much. His dream was to build a habitat, to work with nature in your home,” said Mike’s wife, Marne. The couple moved from Walden to Routt County in 1981.

In the mid-1990s, Roberts and his Habitat Design & Construction company were known for the Tamarack Point green home subdivision southeast of downtown Steamboat. The subdivision of 1,100 to 1,500 square foot homes was recognized as Colorado’s First "E-Star Green Subdivision" by the Colorado Office of Energy Conservation, and twenty-two homes pre-sold within ten days of city approval. All twenty-nine homes were sold before completion, mostly to local residents who had been unable to afford homes in the city. 

According to his company website, Roberts explained: “We’ve advanced our green building techniques on high-end custom homes, but you’ve got to be able to bring that technology back to the average person.”

Roberts’ company motto—“In building as in nature, it’s the details that makes the difference”—guided his life’s work. 

BOTH HOUSES

            Both the city house and the country house completed last year utilize the energy efficiency concept of continuous insulation outside of framing, said LEED accredited architect Tim Stone of Kelly & Stone Architects  in Steamboat, who designed both homes. Stone explained that insulation has a better R-value (or the measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of material) than wood, so the wall is wrapped on the outside using one to two inches of insulating foam board that is taped at the seams to help mitigate thermal bridging through the wood.

In the two homes, all seams, even between plywood joints, were sealed with 3M brand all-weather flashing tape to create a tight building envelope. Air leakage is a major way a home loses heat, so the more attention paid to air sealing, the more energy efficient the home becomes. And green building experts say leakage into a home through outside cracks or flooring seams can let in dust and pollutants and cause moisture and mold issues.

Each home has an intensive insulation package compared to most homes in the area. In addition to the continuous foam board on the exterior, the first layer of insulation on the inside of the exterior walls is Corbond brand closed-cell spray polyurethane foam. Cases of caulking and spray foam were used in common areas of air leakage prior to hanging the drywall.

The energy efficient exterior wall system (see diagram) includes:  5/8-inch gypsum wall board, 2x6-inch lumber framing studs, sprayed Corbond, blown-in blanket insulation with R-23 value, plywood structural sheathing, Tyvek DrainWrap (an air and moisture infiltration barrier with a vertically grooved surface), 1½ inches of continuous polystyrene foam board, ½-inch rain screen strapping with a venting screen at the bottom to create air space for any possible moisture on the back of the siding, and, finally, the weathered wood siding on top. At a total width of 7 5/8 inches, the wall is wider than traditional construction, necessitating deeper window jam extensions.

Both houses have an ERV, or energy-recovery ventilation system, that brings fresh air into these tighter and quieter homes. As it enters the home, the outside air is warmed by heat transferred from air inside. The ERV conveys a portion of the indoor humidity to the incoming air so as not to dry out the house so much in the winter, said installer Jim Finegan, owner of Fin’s Tin in Clark.

For the mountain aesthetic, both houses use weathered, reclaimed and remilled wood siding. The home in town uses old snow fencing from Wyoming, while the country home uses reclaimed wood from barns.

CITY HOME

            The in-fill residential lot on Nob Street posed challenges from the beginning due to the tight lot on a well-traveled corner in a dense neighborhood. The sloping lot was a former overflow parking area where fill items such as tires, buckets and barbed wire were found deep in the dirt. The lot sloped 14 feet from Nob Street on the north side to the narrow back alley, project manager Jon Huge said. Excavation to undisturbed soils required removal of some 175 dump truck loads of materials by All Terrain Excavating in Steamboat, consequently providing room for a 14-foot tall basement level.

“Parking, materials storage, heavy equipment coordination and most routine construction activities required extra care and communication to minimize the impact on the neighborhood,” Huge said.

The 4,060-square-foot, three-story home includes a basement level three-car garage on the south side with a large deck atop the garage affording views across town and of the ski areas.

Ross Warbington, owner of Safe Construction Co. in Steamboat that completed the foundation waterproofing and foam board insulation around and under the home, said Roberts was the only builder he worked with who asked his opinion while sitting down together and reviewing the plans. Warbington said Robert’s questions were always about making each project better, not cheaper.

“He’d always been a real stickler about energy savings and taking care of the customers. He was a super guy in my book,” Warbington said.

Since the home is positioned above an over-sized garage, it required a more robust than average steel assembly. Ryan Curry of Certified Welding and Fabrication said a 15-foot, 2,500-pound steel beam was used running north to south to support the garage roof/main floor in addition to three moment frames and other structural steel.

The city home, owned by the Geesey family, has radiant in-floor heat powered by a natural gas Triangle Tube ninety-six percent high efficiency modulating boiler that provides heat for both the radiant floors and domestic hot water. The 80-gallon smart tank can prioritize domestic hot water and house heat depending on what is needed most at the time.

Gary French, owner of Cross Mountain Plumbing & Heating in Steamboat, said the basement level in-floor heat was activated early to keep the structure temperate during construction.

“That all comes back to Mike Roberts’ vision of creating a high-efficiency home,” French said. “Because the entire structure of the house was wrapped in foam board, even before the walls were insulated, we were able to keep the core temperature of the house up to make a comfortable work environment in January.”

Utilizing the heat conducting properties of concrete, the basement level in-floor heating tubes were tied to a wire mesh placed on top of two inches of foam board and embedded in concrete including a fly ash mix. For the upper two floors, the radiant heat tubes were embedded in 1.5 inches of lightweight concrete, French explained. The concrete layers also add noise dampening between the floors.

The homeowners installed a Nest system learning thermostat, which programs temperatures based on the owners’ selected preferences. Homeowner Tom Geesey said the combined natural gas and electricity bills for the home averaged $245 from October 2014 through February, which locals understand as reasonable utility costs compared to older homes of similar size.

            Two gas fireplaces were installed beneath concealable flat-screen televisions in the den and the living room. A subdued color scheme, metal-mesh stair railing, clean trim lines, dark alder and blonde oak woodwork, and modern cabinet styles created a contemporary, soothing and classic atmosphere. Rumor Design + reDesign in Steamboat assisted the homeowners with interior design.

COUNTRY HOME

            Instead of loud, gasoline-fueled generators, the home on High Ridge Drive southwest of Steamboat used solar to power a majority of the building process. A 6.12-kilowatt solar system was less expensive to install than laying a long power line to the rural hillside location, so the 3,325-square-foot home was built off-grid.

            The pole-mounted solar electric system, completed by Brightside Solar of Steamboat, can be tilted seasonally to harvest ten to fifteen percent more energy than a static array. A 740-amp hour battery bank provides full power for the home after the sun sets. The OutBack Power system controls are monitored and managed remotely via a website interface.

            Backup heat and power in case of more than three cloudy days in a row are provided by propane and an EPA-approved wood stove. Last winter the solar system provided two-thirds of the home’s electrical needs with generator support during snowy or cloudy cycles. For the sunnier eight months of the year, the system is sized to meet the home’s full electrical load with the generator only needed for nominal use.

Electricity needs for lighting in the solar home were reduced by using a vast majority of LED integrated fixtures and LED or CFL bulbs sourced by Light Works of Steamboat.

            The home’s south-facing passive solar orientation lets in low-angle sun rays and warmth in the winter, and deep overhangs protect against high-angle rays of the summer sun.

“Mike was trying to create the most thermally efficient building envelope due to the house’s hilltop exposure and off-grid solar design,” noted Skip Warnke, project manager.

The home features high-performance Semco windows with low-e glazing and more energy efficient, three-layer frames including aluminum, thermal plastic and wood. Beetle-kill pine wood was used for the soffits. Corrugated metal, treated to look weathered, was applied horizontally for a sturdy finish for the lower four feet of the house’s exterior.

            A large deck was constructed from Trex Transcend made from ninety-five percent recycled materials, such as recycled wood, sawdust and plastics. The home uses well water with no outdoor irrigation, so the landscaping is xeriscaped for minimal maintenance.

Jolene Esswein, owner of Alpine Design & Home Staging, worked with Mike and the Ridder’s on the interior design and describes the home as Mountain Modern with the owners’ eclectic style thrown in. All the flooring, tile and surfaces are easy to live with while the decor is a perfect mixture of old and new, re-upholstered chairs, placemats made from old curtains and pillows from fabric remnants.  The inspiration came from the home's setting, the view being its biggest design asset.  The colors you see outside are brought inside.  Mike was at the initial design meetings making sure all the products fit into the home's eco-friendly design. 

The homeowners say they grew up as conservationists and searched for a green builder. They talked with six other contractors before selecting Roberts.

“He was a fabulous guy, really remarkable,” homeowner Joannie Braden said. “He asked questions, and he was really interested in our vision for this home. One of things that was very important to Mike was that the house fit the environment of the landscape.”

ROBERTS’ LEGACY

Friends say Roberts pushed for energy efficiency in homes years before others realized its importance.

“He built really tight houses and put air-to-air heat exchangers in them before it was common practice,” said Conrad Walls, a supplier and solar advocate who knew Roberts since the early 1990s. “He had a calm approach to problem resolution and understood the industry.”

Roberts brought his intellect, adventurous spirit and perseverance to promoting green building science and a tight structural envelope.

“Mike was an excellent source of construction knowledge and a pragmatic manager of all phases of the process. He built with quality and innovation always at the forefront,” project manager Warnke said.

For these two homes, and many more in the valley, the builder and capable teams of local subcontractors and professionals strived toward Roberts’ mission of “creating innovative and environmentally sensitive yet stimulating variations of human shelter.”

 

Mike Roberts’ building philosophy, in his words:

At Odyssey Builder Group, we view the “home” as a total system with many highly interrelated components. It behaves much like a living organism, responding in predictable ways to its environment, both internal and external. By understanding the variables that influence that response—temperature, moisture, airflow, heat transfer, occupant lifestyle, etc.—we seek to regulate and stabilize the response. 

Our goal, typically, is to maximize comfort (including health and aesthetics), longevity (maintenance and durability), and efficiency (cost as well as resource). Paying careful attention to such minute details assures that the quality of our final product will be uncompromised—from the inside out. As a result, we believe we have developed a comprehensive understanding of cutting-edge technology in home construction and regard ourselves as students of the rapidly expanding discipline of “building science.”

Passive House is a relatively new standard of energy-efficient construction that originated in Germany and is now making its way slowly into the U.S. I completed certification training for the program (in spring 2013), which was quite rigorous and extremely compelling. I’ve been implementing many, though not all (some are not yet cost effective in the U.S.), of these procedures and products in the three homes I’m presently working on. It’s clearly the “wave of the future.”

These products and systems clearly represent “value-added” features that are not yet recognized by our appraisers or appraisal systems, which can become quite exasperating when, in assessing value, we’re forced to use “comps” that really are not true comps. But that’s all part of my crusade. I really believe this is the right way to build. The only meaningful common denominator for assessing the performance of a structure is “units of carbon consumed” (aka “embodied energy”), not heating/cooling costs, air leakage rates, or any of a host of other measurements more often used for this purpose. 

Passive House is the standard that is coming of age in home construction in America, and I have become a devout disciple and ambassador for spreading the word.