Green house grows

Two builders go to great lengths in their eco-conscious pursuit

Murray Smith (left) and Laurie Norton stand in front of the house they built using sustainable practices.

Murray Smith (left) and Laurie Norton stand in front of the house they built using sustainable practices.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Give it a gander:
The eco-friendly house built by Murray Smith and Laurie Norton is located at 1711 Mulberry St.

An eco-friendly house on Mulberry Street is nearing completion, thanks to the collaborative vision of Laurence “Laurie” Norton and Murray Smith, craftsmen from the British Isles who have adopted Chico as their home.

Their gift to the community: a home for the future designed to benefit the Earth.

“A lot of love has gone into this house,” Norton said, showcasing the thoughtful details of the contemporary house that he and partner Smith call the product of “eco-nomics,” a phrase they use to explain their sustainable building techniques.

Norton was born in London, the son of a craftsman, and raised with carpentry tools in hand. After apprenticeship, he hopped the pond to America, settling in Chico 25 years ago. He’s worked as project supervisor and building superintendent for a large subdivision on Bruce Road, helping build a hundred homes. Having acquired his contractor’s license, he is now “master of his own fate,” Norton Construction.

Murray Smith (left) and Laurie Norton show off the kitchen of their eco-friendly home.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Smith was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and apprenticed with D McAndrews ("the oldest joinery firm in Great Britain,” he confessed), where he honed his talent on historic projects. After 18 years in Chico, Smith is one of the finest finish carpenters in the North Valley, according to Norton. The men have arrived at a common place: the desire to build energy-efficient homes. Fortunately, interest in sustainability is growing, although Smith noted that even five years ago, green building was rare.

More than 200 visitors came to view the house on Earth Day (April 22), from Chico State students to contractors to the guy down the street who sold them the vintage claw-foot tub that was refurbished and installed in the master bathroom. The open house featured information on green building techniques—details like the story of the home’s magnificent hand-cut and -fitted, vertical-grain, old-growth staircase, constructed from salvaged wood; and the tan oak cabinets and woodwork saved from a burn pile on the California coast.

The stories of the builders are just as romantic. After much traveling, both men fell in love with Chico, and both have married local women, strengthening their ties to the community. The builders are committed to using suppliers from within a 500-mile radius of their chosen hometown, keeping transportation costs to a minimum and stimulating the local economy.

Whenever possible in building this home, the men used “green” products, such as the carpet made from recycled plastic soda bottles, and recycled padding, from Floors by Ray, a local business. (A sign on a wall downstairs informs: “A staggering statistic, Americans use 3.3 billion plastic bottles every hour but recycle only 1 in 5.") Lumber came from Meek’s Lumber & Hardware, and the builders are seeking a guarantee from the Chico supplier that future harvested timber is replanted. If Meek’s is not able to do this, the men say they’ll find another local vendor that guarantees this condition.

The partners also challenged themselves to recycle all garbage and scrap from the construction process, including trips to the city green waste facility. “Just $60 was spent on rubbish, from a $400 disposal budget. Now, if we could get a compost facility to accept gypsum [sheetrock] scrap, we’d be in business,” Norton said.

The green house sits in an established Chico neighborhood.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

In addition to shopping at local businesses, the builders employed like-minded craftsmen. Local painter Goran Westerdahl, a Swedish transplant, applied a variety of paint free of volatile organic compounds, in a new leaf green shade, to interior walls. Sherwin-Williams supplied the paint; it also carries “recycled” paint (leftovers of its own brand remixed to create an affordable, earth-tone/friendly palette). Also, a woman the builders met at the farmers market will landscape the front yard with indigenous herbs and shrubs, consciously forsaking lawn.

The home’s two-story design allowed the lot’s mature trees to remain standing, creating shade for the back yard, and the two-car detached garage has a roof covered in solar panels. The 2-kilowatt solar system will ensure the house will not be subject to the spikes in power bills that PG&E customers see during peak-use times, according to Norton. The men hope to get feedback about the solar array from whoever purchases the home, which is the first one they’ve equipped with solar power.

The builders also used ad-vanced framing techniques on the home, spacing heavier-duty lumber farther apart, directly under support beams. This key sustainable building practice used less lumber than standard techniques and left more room for insulation (high density 80-percent recycled glass), resulting in a more efficient and stable structure. In addition, much of the downstairs flooring is finished concrete, a big deal in green building. Concrete reduces the need for more floor material and acts as a “thermal mass,” retaining heat during winter and cooling the soles during summer. The stained concrete floor, sealed in a light mosaic of cappuccino cream and granite shading, complements the stainless steel fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms.

Beneath the concrete floor, “open web floor trusses with heat and air chassis designed within, keep the conditioned air within the envelope of the building,” Norton said. Also, the upstairs and downstairs are zoned. In winter, heaters come on downstairs only, as heat rises. In summer, air conditioning comes on upstairs, where strategically placed ceiling fans encourage cool air downward. Hand cranks open skylights at the highest point of the house to vent hot air.

Five-foot windows that sit high on the walls are strategically placed to optimize daylight and air flow. In fact, no artificial light is needed in the home during the day. At night, compact-fluorescent recessed cans produce efficient, ambient light. Appliances are all Energy Star models.

The home’s exterior is a quirky combination of three-coat stucco, and corrugated metal lined with 1-inch, foil-backed foam: low-maintenance, paint-free and highly reflective in key places.

The three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath house is nearly finished—designed, Norton said, with a young, middle-class family in mind. The price tag is steep, at $395,000, but Norton said he thinks it’s worth it.

When asked why they chose to practice sustainable building, the men exchanged a bemused glance. “It’s the logical thing to do,” Smith said, “to create homes that are an asset to the community, that are compatible with the natural environment.”