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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Bite the Frost and Go For Net-Zero Energy House Plans

George Harvey

Gwendolen St. Sauveur has a background that almost looks like it was designed for the job she is starting to do. After earning an Associate of Applied Science degree in Architecture and Building Technology at Vermont Technical College, she spent two years at a lumber company, Allen Lumber, doing residential design and estimates. During that time, she also worked through a Bachelor of Science degree in Construction Management. She then joined a multi-disciplined engineering firm, DuBois & King, as a Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing Design Engineer. There, she assisted in the design of hundreds of commercial building systems, ranging from hospital suites to waste water treatment facilities, for seven years.

Rendering of the Aspen home (BTF)

One thing that St. Sauveur learned is that there are a lot of stock designs out there that are not very good. She said that she was dismayed to have people come in with sets of plans that cost thousands of dollars, asking how much the materials would cost to build the houses they had decided on, only to discover that building them was not practical, safe, or even possible. There were plans that had stair cases that did not line up between floors. There were designs that were not energy efficient. Some people bought plans for houses too big for them, because the sizes were unclearly represented. Some plans were for warmer climates, where efficiency was not as important, and some were definitely not designed to accommodate the snow loads people should expect in the Northeast.

She has spent the last year working at Vermont Mechanical Inc., as a Mechanical Engineer, doing construction coordination, including for HVAC and piping systems. It is a job she calls both challenging and beautiful. One other thing it also does is to provide further education.

With greater background, St. Sauveur has not stopped learning new skills. She has become very interested in solar design, so she can design solar photovoltaic systems, currently learning to specify their components and construction.

All that learning, on the job and in college, has given St. Sauveur a deepening passion for homes that are both efficient, comfortable, and recognizably traditional in their designs. She is putting that to work on her own. In 2015, she started up a company that produces house designs aiming at net-zero energy use. She has named her company “Bite the Frost,” usually shortened to BTF. BTF has a website, Visitors to the site can soon see St. Sauveur’s passion at work. It starts by describing the company: “BTF is a SMALL Architectural & Mechanical HVAC design firm: Specializing in space, energy & resource efficient homes.” To focus on the net-zero aspect of this, the site also says, “We are extremely excited to be one of the first firms to offer Net Zero and fossil fuel free stock home plans,” and “We’ve made it easier to build Net Zero, than ever before.”

Early on in her business, St. Sauveur saw that there was a market for designs for net-zero homes that was unaddressed. She aimed to have her business fill that gap to make building easier for net-zero homes. That means contractors find it easier to build, and it also means ordinary people can find plans that are very much what they want. To do this, BTF is operated based on a set of guiding practices St. Sauveur has developed. We will mention a few.

Some building designs on the market could lead to houses that are not built to code. Some contractors seem to be willing to build houses that are not to code, and in some places, Vermont being one, inspectors let code violations slip by. St. Sauveur takes care to be sure that all designs are strictly to code. Codes met are listed on BTF’s website.

BTF designs include mechanical details in the plan specifications. The mechanical details and systems designs provided are also fossil–fuel free. This is not a Net Zero requirement, but St. Sauveur says emphatically that it should be. These are elements that should not be left to chance. Having them specified also reduces the contractors’ office work.

Net-zero construction requires tight buildings, but this means there is a need for ventilation and humidity controls. Leaving control of the ventilation to occupants can be a problem, because some people forget to turn the system on or off. St. Sauveur has a solution for this which is to have household ventilation on all the time, with a small fan and simple heat exchanger. Bathroom and kitchen systems to vent humid air can be operated as needed. And BTF designs do not ventilate humid air into the attic, as some other designs do.

One big thing about getting to net-zero is to orient the house properly. One specific side of the house should be oriented to the south. St. Sauveur takes care of this by building orientation into the plan. This is made easy by making all sides aesthetically pleasing from the outside.

This leads me to an observation I have made looking at the set of designs offered. I have always been irked that many houses seem to be built to have convenient window placement for room layouts without regard to how a house looks from any angle except the front. The BTF designs are exceptional in that regard, and all the houses look nice from any direction. To see this, go to the website given above and scroll down to see “Free Downloads.” Have fun!

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