Peter Taggart is no newcomer to green custom building.
This may be the moment that Peter Taggart has waited for. Committed to sustainable building practices since long before green became everyone’s new favorite color, the Freeport, Maine, builder toiled for years in relative obscurity. Since founding Taggart Construction in the early 1990s, he has refined his building methods, serving the limited market for energy-efficient, resource-conserving, healthy custom homes. He has also contributed countless hours of pro-bono work to the green cause (a longtime board member of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, Taggart is slated to assume chairmanship of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Maine chapter). At conferences and seminars he has freely shared what a less high-minded professional might consider trade secrets. “He really has created a niche for himself,” says architect Lynn Shaffer, who chose Taggart to build her own house. In southern Maine, she says, “Most architects consider him the go-to person for sustainable design. He’s a leader; he’s a person we turn to with our questions.” But being green has not always been a bankable commodity. “I think early in our history it actually worked against us in growing our company,” says Taggart. Now, with the sudden explosion of interest in all things green, Taggart finds himself in demand as never before.
The reasons are many, Taggart says. “One is the rise in allergies and asthma in kids; that’s been growing for a while now, ever since the 1970s, when we started to tighten up our homes.” Higher energy prices also play a part, as do the emergence of global climate change as a consensus issue and frustrations with efforts to address the problem. Interest in greener homes represents the same impulse that has made Toyota’s Prius hybrid a bestseller, Taggart says. “The Prius thing is about people wanting to make a statement, wanting to feel like they’re making a difference. ‘Finally, I can vote with my pocketbook.’” Taggart says that his traditional clients see a house that functions in harmony with the environment and with lower energy inputs as part of a simpler life. In recent years, though, green building’s appeal has spread also among clients who want to incorporate green features into luxury homes. He is currently working on a 9,000-square-foot, $3.5 million ocean-front compound in southern Maine that will include most of the green features that Taggart Construction has long incorporated into its smaller jobs. “We’re doing more larger homes, because people now see what we’re doing,” Taggart says. “Now that green and high-end are more combined, it’s made it easier for us to move into that market.”
As high-end clients awaken to the benefits of a green custom home, long-time green builder Peter Taggart is building more plum projects like this summer residence on Maine’s Great Diamond Island.
Photo: James R. Salomon
In fact, it is the market that is moving to where Taggart has been all along. “In 1995, when I built my first house, we used a lot of the same techniques we’re using now,” he says. Those include advanced framing methods, dense-pack cellulose insulation, exhaust-only ventilation, in-floor radiant heating fed by high-efficiency gas boilers, wood from local mills and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified sources, and low-VOC finishes. But Taggart’s way of building cannot be reduced to a laundry list of materials and details. He helped Benjamin Obdyke test its HomeSlicker building wrap, which he considers a great product, but he doesn’t always use it. Sometimes the application calls for HomeSlicker, he says, “Sometimes it’s tar paper and vertical lath.” Building a durable, high-performance, low-maintenance, healthy house requires an intimate understanding of the building as a system, the environment in which it operates, the principles that underlie that operation, and the human interactions that influence it. It’s not rocket science; it’s building science.
Facing southeast to the shoreline, this oceanfront home’s large windows capture both spectacular views and a substantial amount of solar energyPhoto: James R. Salomon
West- and north-facing walls have smaller openings.Photo: James R. Salomon
A convertible sun porch/screen porch adds living space without adding heat load. This home was designed by architect Lynn Shaffer of Portland, Maine. Photo: James R. Salomon
Photo: James R. Salomon A visit to one of Taggart’s recently completed projects, on a hot summer day, illustrates that approach. The house stands in a field of tall grass and wildflowers in a conservation subdivision. “What that means,” Taggart says, “is they were allowed to put the houses close together and put the rest of the land into conservation.” It also means that the owners enjoy acres of shared meadow views while saving the expense, fuel consumption, and emissions of mowing a large lawn. The house’s north side is low-posted, with relatively few small openings. Banks of tall windows line the higher south-facing walls, which are sheltered by eave overhangs calculated to shade the glass during the summer months. Inside, the building is bright and cool. Without the whoosh of an air handler, it is also quiet. Despite an outside temperature in the 90s, the house remains comfortable without air conditioning. Taggart asks the owner, a retiree from New Jersey, how his rooftop photovoltaic array is performing. “It looks like it’s giving us two-thirds of our electricity,” says the man. How a 3kW array can accomplish so much becomes clear as we tour the house. “You start with your loads,” Taggart says. “You always try to get your loads as low as possible.” Energy Star-rated appliances and compact fluorescent lighting help in that department, but the real payoff is from the way the house interacts passively with its environment. Just as overhangs limit direct solar gain, north-facing skylights and interior windows reduce the need for artificial lighting. In addition to cutting electrical demand, such efficiencies reduce the amount of waste heat dumped into the house, which helps make an air conditioning system redundant, even on the hottest day of the year.
A hefty amount of insulation helps too. Taggart’s framing practices (2×6 studs at 24 inches on center, single top plates, headers bearing on steel hangers rather than jack studs, two-stud corners with drywall clips) save wood and maximize the volume of wall cavity available for insulation. An additional 2 inches of rigid foam outside the framing create a continuous thermal break. At the roof, 12 inches of cellulose plus 2 inches of foam insulation yield an R-value of close to 48, obviating the need for a ventilation space under the sheathing. Programmable bathroom fans generate a slight negative pressure throughout the house, which keeps indoor air fresh and humidity at a safe level without the complexity and ductwork-cleaning headaches of a heat-recovery ventilation system. Wood flooring is bamboo and FSC-certified maple. The cabinetry, by Taggart’s millwork shop, Freeport Woodworking, was built with FSC-certified Europly hardwood-veneer plywood.
Construction was well under way when the U.S. Green Building Council launched the pilot phase of its LEED for Homes program, but Taggart decided to submit the house anyway. With virtually no alteration to the original plan, it became the first LEED Silver home in the country. “And that was without really trying,” Taggart says. “That was just our next green house.” A subsequent project earned a LEED Gold certification, missing the Platinum top rating by only a point and a half. Taggart’s only gripe is that the LEED checklist awarded no credit for the shuttle bus he rented to carpool his crew to the site. “We figured that during the course of the job we saved 9,000 pounds of carbon,” he says.
The fact that more and more clients can grasp the significance of that number is a measure of how far the market has come toward Taggart’s way of thinking. But there is still work to be done. Lately, Taggart notices builders putting “the green sticker” on houses that lack a fully integrated green approach. Green building, properly understood, involves more than replacing traditional materials with “sustainable” ones, Taggart says. Depending on the application, even the best stuff “may or may not be cost effective. It may or may not be sustainable. There’s a huge need for consumer education about what’s green and where the value is.” As the newly chosen LEED for Homes advocate for the state of Maine (another pro-bono gig), Taggart will have the opportunity to address that need. But while the forum will be new, the message will not. Taggart has long pushed the idea of sustainability as a systematic approach to building rather than a list of virtuous products. “It’s not about the latest siding material,” he says, “it’s not about the latest vapor barrier. [It’s about] understanding moisture flows, thermodynamics, solar transmittance, glass-to-mass ratios.” It’s not about a list of features, he explains. “It’s about the principles.”
LEED by Example
Peter Taggart has thrown his lot in with a bunch of environmental building initiatives over the years—The Good Sense Home, Canada’s R2000 program, Energy Star, the Energy Crafted Home—none of which has established itself as a regional or national brand name. But if Taggart is right, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program may succeed where its predecessors have fallen short and, in the process, move the home building industry toward more sustainable practices.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system for high-performance green buildings. LEED Providers, local professionals trained to administer the process, award points for environmentally sound site selection, landscaping, and irrigation; sustainably produced materials and low-waste building practices; an efficient building envelope; proper ventilation and moisture control for indoor air quality; energy-efficient appliances, lighting, and mechanical systems; use of renewable energy; and other preferred features and practices. Targeted at the top 25 percent of the housing market, the program provides guidance for designers and builders and an objective measure of “greenness” for homeowners.
“It’s fairly comprehensive,” says Taggart, whose company built the first LEED Silver-rated house in the country. The program addresses the three major components of green building: energy, the environment, and health. “It’s also scalable, in terms of home size. The bar gets raised for bigger homes.” Most important, as the green designation becomes a marketable commodity, it will protect both homeowners and qualified green builders by setting objective standards. “We’ve been doing this forever, and now everybody is rasing the green flag, and the consumer doesn’t know the difference,” Taggart says. LEED may change that. “It’s measurable, verifiable, and third-party certified.” When a house carries a LEED certification, “It’s been inspected. It gives the homeowner a lot of assurance.”
Freeport, Maine, custom builder Peter Taggart, founder of Taggart Construction, has been committed to sustainable building practices since long before green became everyone’s favorite color. Here he shares some of his observations:
On today’s customers: Taggart’s clients have always been interested in sustainable building. But today’s clients, he says, are better informed than ever. “They’re doing their research; they know stuff. I’ve met some people lately who just blew me away with their questions.”
On the virtues of stick construction: The quest for sustainable building technologies has yielded a whole catalog of alternative structural systems, and Taggart is conversant in a number of them. “We’ve done SIPs houses; we’ve done Durisol [a wood-and-Portland cement CMU system]. We’re going to be doing a big commercial building in Durisol. When we’re doing a simple shape like a Cape, SIPs are great; ICFs (insulated concrete forms) are great all the way to the roof.”
For most projects, though, Taggart chooses stick framing. “It really has been our philosophy to tweak known systems,” he says, which make use of available workforce skills and avoid retraining and on-site head-scratching. “Plus, we do a lot of custom homes, and [stick framing] is the most flexible when it comes to offsets, bays, and dormers. And, in Maine, we’ve got a lot of trees. It’s indigenous.” Which is not to say that wood should be wasted. Taggart saves wood and maximizes insulation volume by using advanced framing techniques advocated by Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Consulting. “We pretty much follow Joe Lstiburek’s book.”
On contractor licensing: As green building gains popularity, Taggart says, builders with little background in the field are “putting the green sticker on.” The LEED for Homes program provides consumers a measure of protection. But Taggart would like to see a more rigorous certification process for builders across the board. “You need a license to cut someone’s hair,” he says, but when it comes to building the biggest thing most people will ever buy, “anybody can do it. There’s no training; there’s no licensing. I’m a big fan of licensing. I think it should be rigorous and include safety and health.”
On being green versus looking green: Most of what makes Taggart’s buildings green—insulation, high-performance glazing, a low-infiltration building envelope—is hidden in plain sight. But his clients view building green, at least in part, as a personal statement. So Taggart makes sure to include some features that are both green and satisfyingly tangible, like photovoltaic panels and PaperStone counters. “You have to have a mix,” he says. “Something to show your neighbor, as well as that good feeling you get when you see your heating bill.”