VISION House Sussex: Right Place, Right Builder

A next-generation family home, VISION House Sussex, is taking shape in a Milwaukee-area community.

It’s early April in the Village of Sussex, located in the greater Milwaukee area of Wisconsin. Having dealt with the usual challenges of building during a Wisconsin winter, local builder Tim O’Brien Homes is framing a new kind of dwelling that will set a regional benchmark for energy efficiency, indoor air quality (IAQ) and occupant comfort.


Carpenters began framing the Sussex home in spring and setting roof trusses. The focus has since shifted to insulating and waterproofing the foundation. Courtesy Tim O’Brien Homes

The model home, named VISION House Sussex, will be one of five new builds in Vista Run, a mixed-use, master-planned development with 289 home sites and 60 acres reserved for community amenities such as walking trails and parkland. The project is a partnership between Tim O’Brien Homes and Green Builder Media. It will demonstrate to builders and consumers how to optimize performance, sustainability, health and wellness, intelligence and resiliency at an attainable price point.

Aerial 1

The Village of Sussex will soon be home to a mixed-use, master-planned development with 300 home sites and 60 acres reserved for community amenities such as walking trails and parkland. Vista Run, where the VISION House Sussex is located, is one of the larger developments in the Village of Sussex. Courtesy Tim O’Brien Homes

Tim O’Brien Homes is no stranger to green building. The company has been crafting homes to a higher standard since 2007, continually improving sustainability and durability by focusing on best building science and design practices, renewable energy systems, and advanced technologies for optimal energy efficiency and home occupant comfort.

Company president Tim O’Brien says because builders within the Milwaukee area adhere to a building code that dates back to 2009, “not a lot of them are doing anything other than complying with that code.” In contrast, Tim O’Brien Homes focuses on energy efficiency, IAQ and reducing utility costs.

“Looking at the science behind our homes, we continue to bring in the baseline of what we’ve been doing for many years,” O’Brien says. “VISION House Sussex will be certified ENERGY STAR and EPA Indoor airPLUS. The project will give us the opportunity to show the market what can be achieved.”

Sussex Renewaire 300

The VISION House features balanced ventilation supplied by a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator. Courtesy Tim O’Brien Homes

Built for Wisconsin Weather 

According to O’Brien, the VISION House Sussex will be perfectly suited to its geographic location. “We live and work in an environment with extreme temperatures,” he says. “It can be a bitterly cold minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit here in the winter and a blistering hot 95 degrees F in the summer.” /p>

To address the climate extremes, the model home, like other Tim O’Brien houses, will focus on a super-tight building envelope for maximum comfort, including a thermal barrier, Energy Star-certified windows that insulate while reducing solar heat gain, and blower door testing.

TOB basement

Basement basics. Foundation walls are clad on the outside with 2-inch rigid foam insulation with a waterproofing membrane,-cell foam in the box sills, and blown insulation rated to a high R-value in the attic. Courtesy Tim O’Brien Homes

One key component to ensure yearlong occupant comfort and energy efficiency will be the home’s unique exterior wall construction, which includes high-performance blown-in batt insulation between the studs, 1 inch of rigid foam insulation on all exterior walls, and a “thermal blanket” of Tyvek house wrap. As an added bonus, this system allows for 2-by-4 instead of 2-by-6 framing. Without sacrificing structural integrity, the reduction saves on lumber costs while maximizing interior floor space.


Exterior walls to the VISION House Sussex home feature a combination of rigid foam insulation and oriented strand board, space-saving 2-by-4-inch framing, and a “thermal blanket” of Tyvek house wrap. Courtesy Tim O’Brien Homes

Elsewhere in the home, the foundation walls are clad on the outside with 2-inch rigid foam insulation with a waterproofing membrane, closed-cell foam in the box sills, and the attic contains blown insulation rated to a high R-value.

Because heavy, wind-driven rain is the area’s biggest weather-related event, Tim O’Brien Homes focuses on the homes’ durability. According to O’Brien, protection from the elements comes from the previously mentioned tight building envelope, installed by certified technicians. The company also works with leading building science firms such as Construction Instruction out of Colorado to perfect details and make sure that Tim O’Brien Homes keeps up with changes discovered through product testing.

“We’re fortunate that we don’t need to worry about outdoor air quality issues or major natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires or hurricanes,” O’Brien adds. 

That said, one IAQ issue prevalent in the region is a high concentration of radon, a naturally occurring but harmful gas, in the soil. To address this, VISION House Sussex, like every Tim O’Brien home, will be built with an active sub-slab soil venting system to prevent radon from entering the home.

Sussex radon venting

Sussex homes will include a radon venting system to prevent radioactive gas from entering the home.

Because the building envelope of Tim O’Brien homes is so tight, IAQ is key. The VISION House features balanced ventilation supplied by a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator (ERV), an appliance that continually replaces stale indoor air with fresh air from the outside. It also preheats the air coming into the home in the winter and removes heat in the cooling season. Other IAQ measures include a MERV 11 HVAC air filter and the use of low volatile organic compounds (VOC) paints. While ERVs have been standard in Tim O’Brien homes for almost 10 years, a key component of the VISION House will be a monitoring system that demonstrates its air quality in real time.

Water-friendly and Renewable Ready

The model home will also demonstrate the company’s commitment to renewables. “In the planning of this development, we factored in the best orientation of the homes for optimizing solar energy down the road,” O’Brien says. “Our model home will have solar panels, batteries, and a power inverter.” /p>

Water conservation is also imperative. “Even though we’ve got Lake Michigan right next door to us, we recognize that a big climate issue around the country, especially in the west and southwest, is water capacity and quality,” O’Brien adds. “Any little thing we can do to protect this precious resource makes a difference.”

As a result, the VISION House will be equipped with a Rheem water heater that optimizes the energy efficiency of water heating and distribution, Kohler low-flow water fixtures, and a leak detection and water management system.

Customer Focused–With Something for Everyone

Tim O’Brien Homes has built a solid reputation over the years as the green choice for new home buyers in the greater Milwaukee area. O’Brien describes his company’s typical clientele. “Our clients are first-time and second-time move-up,” he explains. “These are mostly people from urban, high-density neighborhoods who originally rented, but are now looking for more space with fewer shared spaces.”

Vista Run, where the VISION House Sussex is located, is one of the larger developments in the Village of Sussex. The mix of products in this community ranges from starter home condos in duplexes and fourplexes, to townhomes, to detached single-family homes.

“The partnership allows us to bring in more product types and be able to provide housing to a large demographic in terms of price point,” says O’Brien, whose company is one of several partnering with one developer in Vista Run. “This is especially important here in Waukesha County, where we have a lot of manufacturing. Employers are looking for a variety of housing stock that appeals to the diverse demographics and needs of their employees.”

According to O’Brien, the acceptance by consumers of the homes his company builds (to be highlighted with the VISION House project) is all about total cost of ownership—the initial cost to build, own and operate them.

“Our customers expect a durable home from us. They really don’t understand the difference between a home built to local code and a high-performance home like ours, which is built to a higher level of standards,”he explains. “When we talk to prospective homeowners about total cost of ownership, we put a higher emphasis on utility costs, as well as maintenance and replacement costs. People really get that. Because many of them have previously lived in homes that have been drafty, uncomfortable and expensive to maintain, this means a lot to them.”

As winter transitions into spring in the greater Milwaukee and Madison areas, the foundation has been insulated and waterproofed. Carpenters have finished framing most of the second floor of the home and begun setting roof trusses. Rough mechanicals will follow shortly. The other four homes will begin construction about one month apart from each other.

Throughout the construction process, prospective home buyers are being kept up to date on every detail by way of weekly email updates and photos. “It’s an integral part of keeping homeowners on board throughout the building process,” says Ryan Hillgartner, Tim O’Brien Homes’ director of marketing. “Building science and technology are new to most people, so it’s important for us to educate them not only about the ‘how’ but also ‘why,’ relating to the sustainability, durability and health of their new home.”

Using market-available and cost-effective products, systems and technologies, the VISION House Sussex will spotlight next-generation green homes that are beautiful, comfortable and affordable, says O’Brien. “It is my ambition to make a positive impact in the home building industry by continually improving our process to deliver customers a wonderful experience that reduces the level of stress in building a home,” he says. “It is this innovative approach that defines our company’s culture.”

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