From Building Science Experiment to Forever Home

Building science experts converted an uncomfortable 1970s energy guzzler into a home for the 21st century and beyond.

When two industry experts bought a house in Scottsdale, Ariz., in  July 2019, they never dreamed it would take more than three years and a gut job before they could complete their “Forever Home.”

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Completing ReVISION House Scottsdale took several years, courtesy of a pandemic, supply shortages and other unplanned setbacks. But the end result was an all-electric, passive-designed dream home for owners Steve Easley and Susan Raterman. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

Now, Steve Easley, an internationally recognized building science expert and founder of Steve Easley & Associates, and his wife Susan Raterman, CIH, an experienced indoor air quality consultant, and founder and president of The Raterman Group, are ready to enjoy the ReVISION House they designed to demonstrate best green building practices, as well as for their personal sanctuary.

“We’re two scientists who get excited when we test our automated indoor air quality system to see what happens when we light a candle,” Raterman jokes. 

On a more-serious note, the couple chose the property because they knew it needed extensive renovation. It is also within walking distance of shops and restaurants and offers a serene view of a lake and a golf course.

The house has a perfect north-south orientation, which is very important in Arizona, where there is such extreme heat, according to Easley. “When we moved into the house in December 2019, we knew we wanted to reconfigure the upper level,” he says. “But then we discovered that the 1970s-era house had significant structural issues, including termite damage and natural gas pipes that were installed with thread protectors instead of pipe couplings, which was dangerous.” 

Except for one wall, the entire house had to be gutted down to the slab. This provided an opportunity to rebuild with 2-by-6 framing, allowing for additional, much-needed insulation.

“The old house had two natural gas furnaces and two air conditioning systems,” Easley says. “At 110 degrees outside, we couldn’t get the [inside] temperature below 84 degrees.”

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Easley and Raterman chose their dream house partially due to its lakeside and golf course-viewing location, and partially because of a chance to create a state-of-the-art sustainably focused home. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

Passive Design From the Start

Easley and Raterman started with a passive design. For example, two large porches with overhangs on the south and west sides of the house reduce heat exposure in the summer. 

“We designed the house with plenty of natural ventilation and air flow to limit the need for air conditioning even on warm days,” Raterman says. “There’s almost always a breeze off the golf course and the lake, so even when the weather is in the 80s, we don’t always need to turn on the air conditioning.” 

The windows and glass doors also contribute to reducing the home’s energy consumption. Locally manufactured windows and glass doors have Cardinal glass, which has three low-E layers that block 80 percent of the sun’s energy. 

“That’s especially important anywhere in the Southwest,” Easley says. “There’s an i89 coating on the inside that reduces heat gain by conduction and reflects the heat back into the house in the winter."

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The home’s passive design included large porches with overhangs on the south and west sides of the house to reduce heat exposure in the summer.  Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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All windows and glass doors include three low-E layers that reflect 80 percent of the sun’s energy.

Building Materials That Ensure Energy Efficiency

The house has an R-35 wall system, well ahead of the typical R-20 version in most new Scottsdale homes, Easley says. They started with half-inch-thick Dryvit synthetic stucco, which has a fiber reinforced base coat that also increases resilience with 1.5-inch DuPont Thermax R-10 continuous insulation behind the exterior stucco. The house is wrapped with DuPont Tyvek Stucco Wrap weather barrier. All windows and doors are flashed with DuPont Flexwrap and Straight Flash. 

“We added two inches of DuPont Froth-Pak closed-cell foam inside the walls, then added another 3.5 inches of Huntsman open cell spray foam insulation covered with 5/8-inch drywall,” Easley says. “The goal was to get lots of insulation and thermal mass so we can ‘flywheel’ through the 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. peak energy times of day without running the A/C.”

To further protect the house from moisture, they installed a quarter-inch LathNet rainscreen lath over the Thermax, followed by the Dryvit synthetic stucco. 

“Anytime you apply foam over a wood-based sheathing, moisture management is really critical, Easley says. “This rainscreen lath creates a small gap between the stucco and the foam that allows water to drain out.”

The roof is R-70, compared to a typical R-38 roof, with resilience and energy conservation properties. 

“The unvented attic system starts with 5/8-inch ceiling drywall, 11 inches of Huntsman open cell spray foam, then 2 inches of their closed cell spray foam adhered to the bottom of the OSB roof deck,” Easley says. “We waterproofed the roof deck with Barrett Black Pearl membrane and installed 4 inches of DuPont DeckMate XPS insulation over it.”

The final waterproofing was 1 to 3 inches of closed cell foam with Henry AcryShield A550 elastomeric membrane that reflects 93 percent of the sun’s heat.  

“The 2 inches of closed cell spray foam insulation essentially glues the trusses to the bottom of the roof deck and that increases wind uplift resistance by 300 percent,” Easley says.

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To conserve energy, the Forever House features roofing with R-70 insulation, a product that is 22-25 inches thick—about 1 foot more than the R-38 used on most homes in the area. Photo courtesy Steve Easley

Good Indoor Environment Equals Positive Health Effects

The tight envelope of the home requires special attention to indoor air quality (IAQ), especially because Maricopa County has some of the worst ozone and particulate pollution in the country, Raterman says.

“We started with our design choices, such as low VOC materials to eliminate hazards,” Raterman says. “We chose surface materials from MSI Surfaces with GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification and Green Label Plus certified carpet. Sherwin-Williams SuperPaint with Air Purifying Technology reduces airborne VOCs from cabinet finishes and furniture or from cooking.”

Since the couple was in the design stage for their home early in the pandemic, they created a “quarantine room,” a guest area with a private bathroom, and its own HVAC zone and ERV to reduce air contaminants and separate from the rest of the house, Raterman says. 

“We also installed a Broan-NuTone Overture ventilation controller that constantly monitors the air quality and automatically turns on the ERV or bath fans as needed,” Raterman says. 

“Monitoring indoor air quality parameters is more common in commercial spaces, so it’s great for us to have this in a residential setting constantly operating in the background to monitor CO2, fine particulate matter, VOCs, humidity, and other indoor air pollutants. If you burn something in the kitchen, you can also use a switch to turn the ERV to boost mode.”

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The Sherwin-Williams interior paint used helps indoor air quality by reducing volatile organic compounds from cabinets and furniture. Photo courtesy Steve Easley

Bringing Energy Efficiency to New Heights

The Overture system helps save energy since it automatically starts and stops the ERV, based on the home’s real indoor air quality, not a formula that requires a fan to run constantly. Given Arizona’s climate, the HVAC system is also an important component of the Forever Home’s energy use.

“We have seven Mitsubishi Electric heat pumps so that each room has its own zone,” Easley says. “We can control each room individually from an app or use a remote control.”

The Mitsubishi Electric systems include inverter-driven heat pump ceiling cassettes and one ducted multi-position inverter-driven heat pump for the primary bedroom. The system runs at variable speeds to save energy, and there’s almost no temperature swing, Easley says.

“The HVAC is extremely quiet, which we really appreciate because before we remodeled the air conditioning system sounded like a train that woke us up every time it turned on,” Raterman says. “Sound, comfort and indoor air quality are entwined, and this system has a big impact on how you feel in the home.”

The couple will install Schneider Electric’s Wiser Energy monitoring system with Wi-Fi-enabled switches and outlets that will continuously keep them informed about all energy being used in the house. 

“Vampire loads of electricity from things like TVs that use energy even when they’re not on can be as much as 8 percent of your energy bill,” Easley says. “The Wiser system can be used to turn off outlets and turn them back on, even remotely when we’re not there.”

Easley and Raterman are committed to an all-electric house and chose KitchenAid and Whirlpool’s energy-efficient appliances, includ-ing an induction cooktop for the kitchen, as well as a ventless heat pump clothes dryer. 

To further a desire to electrify, Easley and Raterman installed a FireMagic 220-volt electric grill and Modern Flames electric fireplace that has a 100-inch-wide video LCD screen to display a fire.

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Mitsubishi Electric systems include inverter-driven heat pump ceiling cassettes that can run at different speeds with minimal temperature swing throughout the house. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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Broan-NuTone’s energy recovery ventilation system includes free-standing sensors that switch on the appropriate fan when humidity and pollutants are detected. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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The all-electric home includes KitchenAid energy-efficient appliances such as an oven and induction cooktop for the kitchen. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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Both front and backyard uses the synthetic ForeverLawn, which provides a natural green color without requiring water. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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The Orion all-electric fireplace uses a 100-inch wide video screen to provide extrememly realistic flames and the sound of an actual fire with no onsite emissions. It can output 5,000 to 10,000 BTU.

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Clean energy usage extends to recreation, such as with a FireMagic 220-volt electric grill. This grill has zero onsite emission and can reach a temperature of 700 degrees. Photo courtesy FireMagic

Water Conservation Techniques and Products

Water conservation is particularly important in the desert Southwest. Easley and Raterman went beyond the first step of introducing low-water usage plants to their property. 

“We have a system so that plants are zoned according to their water needs,” Easley says. “Some plants may need water once a week, while others need it two or three times a week, so we planted accordingly and only water when absolutely necessary.”

Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controllers were installed to control the in-ground irrigation system with smart home devices for more efficient watering.

The grounds also include ForeverLawn, a synthetic product that Easley says adds “a green and calm” element to the property without water. The swimming pool also includes energy and water conservation features.

“We used Hayward’s variable speed pumps for the swimming pool, which uses up to 36 percent less energy than other pumps,” Easley says. 

Hayward’s smart automation panel allows the pool to be controlled remotely, so the pump functions can be reduced when no one is home. 

The hardscaping on the property includes stain-resistant Belgard Mirage porcelain paver products that also reduce heat retention. They were supplied by Pioneer Landscape Centers.

Water usage is controlled indoors with the Rheem ProTerra heat pump water heater, which exceeds the requirements for both ENERGY STAR and DOE Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) certifications.

“The heat pump water heater takes heat from the air and uses one-fourth of the energy of a traditional water heater,” Easley says. “We also used FlowGuard for our plumbing system, which only circulates water when it’s needed.”

The ability to keep tabs on the home is complemented by a Vivint smart home management system, which includes water leak and glass break sensors, along with an array of security elements such as doorbell cameras and special locks, smart lighting and other monitors. 

The couple is also installing a Phyn Plus auto shutoff water valve. “Vivint notifies us about leaks or if the system detects smoke and will automatically alert the police or fire department if needed,” Easley said. “We have a fire sprinkler system with BlazeMaster CPVC piping, too.”  

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A Vivint smart home management system includes an array of security elements such as indoor, doorbell and exterior cameras. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

Lessons from the Forever Home

Raterman and Easley designed the house for the long term, with a first-floor primary suite in case they someday have mobility issues, along with materials that are durable and resilient to climate issues. Raterman is eager to settle into the house to set up the pantry and other storage systems installed by Organized Living, and to become an expert induction cooking chef.

“The systems in the house are all designed for comfort, quiet and ease of use,” Raterman says. “The real key to all the automated systems we have is that manufacturers have made them easy to use and to integrate with our phones.”

Permitting delays, the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages all contributed to the long timeline between the initial home purchase and the completion of the Forever Home, Raterman says. 

“The house is a system with lots of parts, so as we were building, we realized how important it is to have some overlap with various tradespeople. This wasn’t always possible because of the pandemic situation and labor shortages,” Raterman says. “In any remodeling project, it’s important to be mindful of how everything works together and have open communication between the contractors.”

Easley’s recommendation to others building or undertaking a major remodel like theirs is to encourage building as much as possible offsite. 

“We weren’t able to take the additional time to get permits for SIPs [structural insulated panels] after it took us nine months to get the construction permits,” he says. “I recommend using panelization or even modules as much as possible to save time and reduce construction lags.”

Easley and Raterman’s goals with this project were to demonstrate cost effective, sustainable and innovative ways to build a resilient, durable, healthy and aesthetically pleasing high-performance house in the midst of a harsh climate. They’re both extremely pleased with the end result: A quiet desert oasis to showcase the progress that science and technology have made towards a more-sustainable way of building and living. 

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The stairs are a mono stringer floating stair case from ViewRail. The stair system was prefabricated offsite and installed efficiently onsite.
Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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The Forever House's innovative designs include wall-sized glass doors that provide lots of natural light and make access into and out of the home extremely easy. All of the glass doors are covered with overhangs or porches to deflect direct sunlight. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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Energy-efficient Halo LED lights from Cooper Lighting Solutions, and all-electric appliances and an automated indoor air quality system help create an exceptional environment for a dream home. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media

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A water-free version of a putting green can be as much fun as the real (and water-requiring) thing. Credit: Samantha Carlin/Green Builder Media