Creative Carpentry: Building Houses that are Energy-Efficient and Affordable

Photo by Michael Jermyn

by Nat Frothingham

Need something built? Not just anything – but something smart, efficient and — here’s a word — “affordable.”

Well, consider Myron Dorfman and his experienced team of builders at Creative Carpentry & Construction. And the projects they’ve taken on and completed include the following: design and build, energy-efficient homes, timber frames, remodeling and/or additions. And, kitchens, bathrooms, flooring, tiling, fine woodwork, and the like.

During a recent visit to Dorfman’s homestead and property about four or five miles north of Montpelier on Shady Hill Road off Route 12 at least three of the Creative Carpentry team were there onsite. There was Dorfman of course who’s been there since the beginning, also David Vissering, a partner for 16 years, and Derek Carrier, another partner for 15 years.

Dorfman, Vissering and Carrier were showing off two newly-constructed, energy-efficient, affordable homes.

Both houses have a similar look but small differences. The first and most finished of the two houses has an inside (interior) footprint that measures 22 X 22 feet on two floors and because it partly includes a cathedral ceiling comes to a little over 800 square feet. The second house again has inside (interior) dimensions of 22 X 22 on two floor but no cathedral ceiling and therefore comprises a somewhat larger floor space of 960 square feet.

Photo by Michael Jermyn

Dorfman who is looking for efficiencies has paid close attention to the footprint of these two new houses.

Prior to 1950, Dorfman said, the floor size of a typical house was 950 square feet — almost unbelievable to anyone who has lived through the McMansion era when houses just got bigger and bigger.

In 2006, Creative Carpentry won an efficiency award from Efficiency Vermont in the category of houses under 1500 square feet — a credit to both to Creative Carpentry and to the entire partnership.

The two new showplace houses on the Shady Rill property achieve energy efficiency gains because every square foot counts and because they are carefully designed.

Here’s how Creative Carpentry achieves an energy-frugal house.

First, the trimmed-back footprint.  Second, the roof design, described by Dorfman this way, “It’s the simplest roof to put together.” And third, plenty of insulation. Here are the insulation details. The roof contains 30 inches of cellulose insulation. The one-foot thick walls contain eight inches of cellulose insulation. And the windows are double-glazed.

Both houses face south to southeast which gives them passive solar gains for the entire heating season. As we walked through the interior of these houses we experienced these pleasures: Windows admitting light, views across a small valley to a Vermont hillside in the distance. Floors of maple and birch, stairs of Douglas fir, and such charming appointments as a cherry wood accent at the top of the stairs and a tree — almost a sculpture — forming a post at the top of the stairs.

“You can heat the entire house with less than three cords of wood,” Dorfman reported.

Back to the subject of efficiency, Dorfman said, “If you have the land,” he said, noting that he was able to build “new” — “you can save continuously on the cost of heat in comparison to an old house with no insulation or very little insulation.” And an old  house with old systems, not brand new systems.

Photo by Michael Jermyn

Dorfman consciously clustered the two new houses on the single plot of land that is his homestead and surrounding property. This clustering allows for the economies of a shared driveway, a shared well instead of a water bill, a shared (mound) septic system, and there are plans in the works for a shared garden.

Dorfman estimated the cost to build each house at roughly $60,000. That $60,000 includes materials, the cost of the driveway, the septic system, and bringing in the electric. But, and he is clear on this point, “This does not include the cost of land.”

Dorfman likes working with other people and learns from working with expert people. One of his cost-saving measures in building the two new houses was to organize a couple of workshops with participants who paid a fee to attend. One of these workshops was with licensed master electrician Jan Ruta. Another of these workshops was with David Thurston, an expert in plastering.

Dorfman drew a comparison between what he has done with other on his Shady Hill homestead and property and what it would cost to buy an older house in Montpelier, for example, that could cost as much as $300,000 but without brand new systems and sometimes with little or no insulation.

His plan, overall, is to cluster and concentrate existing homestead buildings and the two new buildings on his land with shared systems. And the new buildings make it possible for someone, or a family on a fixed income, to be able to live in an affordable, energy-efficient house.

In conclusion, Dorfman said, “I’m trying to be pragmatic.”

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