01 March 2011

Cool House Tour Update

In January, we applied to the Cool House Tour, a showcase of green homes that takes place every June and is co-sponsored by the Texas Solar Energy Society (TXSES) and Austin Energy. This year, there were about forty applications for ten or twelve spots on the tour, and the second step of the application process is that the organizers visit every house that is submitted. (It's a very busy time for them.)

Last week was our site visit. Steve, R (our builder), and I were outnumbered by the six or so people representing the tour. I don't recall everyone's name or affiliation, but Austin Energy and the TXSES were both represented, plus there was an architect whose own home was on the tour last year and a few others. We met them outside and immediately addressed the elephant in the room...by which I mean the landscaping that appears to have been eaten and/or trampled by an elephant...by which I mean our total lack of landscaping. Although the tour is still three months away, the photos for the tour book are taken sometime in March, so they probably want houses that look a bit more finished than ours. And because all of the applicants were either five-star green houses or didn't get rated but would have earned five stars if they had, the selection committee won't need to make many compromises to get a good bunch of houses for this year's tour. Fortunately, though, we had the completed landscaping plan laid out on the dining table, so they were able to see what we have planned. (We also had our latest utility bill on hand. I think they were pleasantly surprised that we were a step ahead of them when they asked if we would be willing to share that information.)

The selection process is a bit of a mystery, but what is clear is that they want a diversity of styles, sizes, and locations around town (including -- at least in past years -- a couple locations pretty far out of the city). They also look to feature a variety of green features. (Since the Solar Energy Society is a sponsor, I imagine solar panels qualify for some bonus points. We don't have solar panels, but our house is considered "solar-ready" because of the large, unimpeded roof area and the conduit from above the electrical meter into the attic.) Most of what we did is pretty standard for today's green houses; the metal roof, foam insulation, on-demand recirculating hot water pump, etc. are unlikely to set us apart from the other applicants. We do have two things that, I think, make our application stand out a bit. First, we have the geothermal heat pump, which is sufficiently uncommon that we could be the only applicants with one. We also have R. He's a leader on the local, statewide, and national green building scenes, and his knowledge really came through during the site visit. I jokingly refer to the site visit as our "interview," but I think we actually were being evaluated on our ability to speak about the building process, green techniques and components, etc. We're total nerds for that stuff, and the three of us are not only totally fluent in green building, but we could talk as readily about what we didn't do -- rainwater cistern, solar panels, tankless/solar/condensing/air-source heat pump water heater -- as what we did. It may also help that we are actual homeowners, not a builder looking for free advertising for a green spec home.

We spent about an hour showing off the house and talking about its features, and we think, all things considered, that our application is pretty compelling. We got a lot of ideas from the 2009 tour and like the thought that our house could provide similar inspiration for others, but secretly, we wouldn't be at all sad if we weren't selected. We were on the fence (you know, the fence we haven't installed yet) about applying and really only did it as a favor to R. We're not in love with the prospect of, as one of the interviewers put it, welcoming 1,200 of our closest friends into our home (even though everyone takes off their shoes or wears booties), and they said it would be best, if we were selected, for the bunnies to stay somewhere else on the day of the tour. While we definitely agree, do we really want to do something that the guys can't be a part of?!

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