Knoxville's Green House Effect

Believe it or not, East Tennessee is helping lead the way to a more energy-efficient future

You've read about it. You've heard about it on TV and radio and at work and at gatherings. The future is now. Of course a lot of the spin is marketing hype, but the simple fact that green living has moved from counterculture to the adman's radar should tell you something. Homes and office buildings are changing in ways that are visually subtle yet functionally drastic in order to get by with less energy. Your October and November utility bills probably helped shift the concept of energy conservation from abstraction to something more concrete—like money that you no longer have. Quirky low gas prices be damned, electricity and natural gas prices have escalated for a plethora of reasons (among them, supposedly, your incentive to conserve toward the benefit of all) and if your house or business is leaking precious heat to the atmosphere, this promises to be a very expensive winter. Scientists, builders, designers, architects, and even municipal decision-makers in and around Knoxville are making great strides forward to develop buildings and technology that locals and others can acquire or simply learn from to live—surprisingly comfortably—with much less energy.


In October, at their annual Showcase of Homes, Maryville-based Clayton Homes presented its iHouse prototype to the public and its retailers. Known for their emphasis on value and affordability, Clayton deviated from form with the iHouse. The design is a tasteful marriage of sleek Scandinavian-inspired interiors (made possible in part by a partnership with Ikea) and unusual exterior elevations that are functional and attractive and friendly to just about any landscape in which you might choose to park one.

Specially coated thermal pane windows, known as Low E windows, will save an iHouse owner in East Tennessee an estimated $350 per year. Specially designed ductwork and insulation are expected to lop off another $100 per year. Clayton Homes advertises that the iHouse will cost roughly a dollar a day to heat or cool, by means of a sleek wall-hanging "mini-split" climate control system in each room. So, yes, the living room can be a few degrees warmer than the bedroom. And every room is factory wired for telephone, television, and computer. Plug and play, homeowner.

The core product is a 992-square-foot one-bedroom home featuring a detached "Flex Room" connected by an "Outdoor Living Space" or deck made of recycled materials. If you look at the floor plan, as designed by a team including the creative minds of Andy Hutsell, Wes Boyd, Dave Kerschbaum, Clayton CEO Kevin Clayton, and many others, the main structure looks a little bit like a lower case "i," with the Flex Room as its dot. Hence the name.

In a Clayton conference room, the aforementioned men recall the accelerated process that led to the iHouse, scheduled to become available for sale and delivery in May of next year.

"July 1, we decided we were going to do this. We were committed to it," says Clayton. He then gestures to the designers around the table. "And then they started coming at us with ideas. The idea was to kind of push the envelope on design and energy efficiency. They're exposed to Dwell magazine and things like that.

"They started making a great deal of progress when I just turned them loose, when I did say, ‘Ignore budget, and let's see what's possible.'"

The iHouse does not look like anything you've ever seen in a trailer park. A butterfly roof design helps position solar panels that augment the home's electrical system. It also helps collect any rainwater that falls on it so that it can be stored for things like gardening or emergencies. The Flex Room opens up the floor plan in a way that makes this modest home seem surprisingly spacious. Clayton is still in the process of pricing and sourcing the finished product. But the plan is for this nearly 1,000 square-foot home, that can be delivered by one truck, to have a price tag of $100,000 or less. A two-bedroom version (1,286 square feet) will also be available. And the beauty of the Flex Room(s) is that it need not be situated at the end of the main structure. If the landscape of your site (or your wife) suggests it, that room and others like it can swing to the side or front or back. iCessorries such as external stairways access a second patio space on the roof.

"Having that detached piece is something I was uncomfortable with initially," says Clayton. "But as I showed it to other smart people, particularly females who loved it and got it, those people really responded to these modern designs. Having it at the Knoxville Convention Center confirmed that the world is ready for a more modern design.

"As we surveyed the consumers who visited the iHouse, we learned that their three top priorities were: number one, energy efficiency; number two, use of green products; and number three, design. We do think it doubled attendance at our Knoxville show this year."

Hutsell, who helped design the Flex Room and its, well, flexibility, says it's part of the iHouse's green-ness.

"Part of the green issue is how you integrate to the site," says Hutsell, "instead of just wiping it out and putting a big house on it. By coming in pieces this allows that flexibility."

Clayton's vice president of marketing, Chris Nicely, says that the iHouse is not so much of a departure for the company, as it is the moving of the company's priorities to the forefront of its product line. The Clayton facility in Maryville is lit by compact fluorescent bulbs, just like the iHouse. The iHouse recycles rainwater just as Clayton recycles any and all materials possible during the production process. (Clayton actually operates a household recycling collection facility onsite for the convenience of employees.)

Nicely says that at nearly every new home construction site, often the first thing you'll see is a Dumpster that's emptied many times over the course of construction. He says the waste from a typical Clayton home, including the iHouse, would fit in a couple of garbage cans.

"The iHouse is not window dressing for a corporation that felt it should do something like this," says Nicely. "Our company culture has always been directed toward recycling, minimal scrap, minimal waste. As green became trendy, it was already in place for us. This is an extension of our core culture. It's an extension of who we are."

Come May, Clayton intends to have every aspect of the home design and purchase process, aside from the handshake, online. Having removed typical green barriers such as cost and comeliness, the iHouse is poised to be huge. One purpose of the October event was to test the waters among the company's salespeople. In the words of one of the designers present, "Even the old-school trailer dogs are psyched about this."

Architect David Hutchins, of Hutchins Associates, PC, designs both commercial and residential buildings in the area. He's also a Knoxville Community Development Corporation commissioner and treasurer, and he's been watching the iHouse saga unfold.

"My hat's off to the interiors person," says Hutchins, "the person who's choosing those colors and really making the inside look different.

"The iHouse will be in the spotlight with this mortgage crisis. Once people start buying again, there will be a lot more value shoppers. I think people will be surprised by what this offers. Even if it's a PR stunt, it's exciting because they're going to get positive feedback. It's kind of like going to a seminar about their company."


Jeff Christian is a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a place most of us associate with the Manhattan Project regardless of when we were born. More or less unrelated to national defense, Christian's current project is one that he has attacked with the same fervor and focus you might imagine being in play among the ORNL cloisters of the late '30s. He has been tasked to demonstrate—first to TVA, and then to the world—that regular, comfortable homes in regular, comfortable subdivisions, can be built or adapted to be energy efficient by regular, ordinary carpenters and subcontractors. He's testing high-tech energy conservation for the real world.

Partnering with TVA and the local development company Rhodes Communities, Christian has overseen the design and construction of three three-bedroom homes with identical floor plans in the upscale subdivision Campbell Creek, on the Eastern edge of Farragut. One of the homes is a typical, conventionally-built spec house in East Tennessee, with no particular attention to energy conservation or investment in energy-saving appliances. The second home employs easy-to-buy and -use energy-saving devices such as Low E windows and Energy Star appliances, and was designed with a somewhat casual eye toward conservation. The third home is the bomb, with triple-pane windows and everything from a heat pump half the size of the one in the standard construction house, that operates inside the home's sealed and insulated "envelope," to a heat exchanger that uses warm water from the shower's drain to pre-heat cold water entering the solar-assisted water heater as you bathe.

"In 2002, Glen McCullough, chairman of the board at TVA, announced that he would co-sponsor with the Department of Energy five near zero energy Habitat for Humanity homes that would be built and monitored and analyzed over a five-year period," Christian explains. "In about three months we put up the very first house to legally sell power back to TVA. Other than me hanging around, they went up just like any other Habitat house, with all the volunteer labor."

Touring the standard construction house, pointing out the obvious (it was 38 degrees outside) heat leaks around outlets and switches, Christian says, "With the importance of mitigating climate change, we just can't afford to build houses like this anymore."

A near-zero energy home is exactly what you'd expect it to be. They consume little or no energy. They used to be called zero-energy homes, just as waterproof watches came to be called water-resistant watches. Better to be pleasantly surprised. Christian says that one of those Habitat homes, in Loudon County, is occupied by a family of three and costs roughly 50 cents a day to operate. As with the iHouse, energy costs are minimized by a combination of construction and insulation techniques and carefully selected appliances, along with an adjustment of thinking that's best exemplified by reflexively turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. The Habitat homes do make use of roof-mounted solar panels. People like Christian envision a future in which most homes are powered in part by solar energy, and with a little coordination, any homeowner will be able to store energy whenever the sun's shining, and sell surplus electricity back to their utility company. They'll be rewarded by a negative utility bill (i.e., a check) and other incentives for not adding to the demand peaks that occur while the unenlightened are getting ready for work or returning from work and draining the grid with their hair dryers and TVs.

The three test homes in Campbell Creek are nearing completion, and while Christian points out details—such as a bathroom vanity fixture lit by eight 60-watt incandescent bulbs in the devil-may-care home and eight equally bright nine-watt compact fluorescent bulbs in the near-zero energy home—contractors scurry about, spackling and installing switch plates. The homes will be outfitted with high-tech monitoring equipment to measure air flow, temperature near windows, other variables, and of course energy consumption. Christian asks that the exact methodology not be divulged, but while compiling statistics over the next seven years, the houses will be occupied by families ranging from wastrels to energy skinflints.

John Kerr, of Rhodes Communities, has been building in Knoxville for 25 years, and coordinated with Christian to build these test homes.

"It takes a little bit of rethinking conventional construction methods," says Kerr. "Most builders think more wood is better. In the near zero energy house, we used less wood, and it was very important where that wood went. As soon as we started framing, you could see that it was different. Subcontractors working in the development would pull up and ask about what we were doing and why."

For the near zero energy test home, the frame was built of two-by-sixes instead of two-by-fours. So the walls are thicker, and better insulated. And because the boards are stronger there are fewer of them; a good thing, since wood is a relatively poor thermal insulator.

"I believe this is the way of the future," says Kerr. "I think the building codes are definitely going to catch up. This is not a new product, it's a new way of thinking. And it's being mandated by the availability and cost of energy itself."

Several parties interviewed agreed that in the very near future, buildings built without attention to energy conservation will be considered sub-standard. One person went so far as to say that in 10 years if your home is not certified in some way as energy efficient you won't be able to sell it.


The same week in October that Clayton presented the iHouse at the Knoxville Convention Center, dignitaries gathered at the World's Fair Park to celebrate the fact that Knoxville has been designated as one of 25 Solar America Cities. (The DOE program has been erroneously referred to in print as Solar Cities.) In an effort to move toward a sustainable solar power infrastructure, the city will receive $200,000 from the program (a reimbursement grant), matched by $50,000 annually from TVA, and $200,000 worth of technical assistance from DOE.

As part of its Solar America City grant, Knoxville is obliged to pursue several high profile solar construction projects, such as the new Knoxville Transit Center, already taking shape along James White Parkway, visible from the Church Street bridge. The city will also make available public education courses and facilities to help residents better understand solar power as a viable resource. Pellissippi State has already launched online courses, with hopes of starting classroom courses in the near future. A solar workshop hosted by Ijams Nature Center on Dec. 13 was well attended. Similar courses will be made available soon, to help educate the tradesmen who will be installing and connecting solar power systems.

Madeleine Weil, Knoxville's Deputy Director of Policy Development and point person for the city's Solar America Cities program, thinks the most important part of what's happening is simply the example that the city is setting. Citizens see that the government is investing in solar and sustainable technologies, and begin to see it differently. It's a method of passive education. The dining room at the new transit center, for example, will overlook a vegetative green rooftop—a roof that's landscaped with native plants in order to provide color and insulation and also manage rainwater.

"Yes," says Weil, "this means we're leading instead of following."

Nell Campbell, of Bullock, Smith and Partners (which recently merged with Hnedak Bobo Group), is designing the transit center. The building is expected to be LEED Certified Silver. A standard system overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council, The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System can be as simple or as complex as you wish it to be, limited perhaps by the time you have to read about it. But LEED takes into account nearly every aspect of a building, from the way it effects the health of its occupants with fumes or contaminants to energy conservation to the way it gets along with its surroundings. LEED certification, a point system, is typically associated with big-budget public projects. Campbell says the process need not be expensive.

"As long as you design for it upfront," Campbell says. "It is expensive to add things later.

"LEED doesn't change the way the building looks. The process is not quite so ethereal as some people might imagine."

Unrelated to the Solar America Cities initiative, the city's Community Development office and the Knox Housing Partnership (KHP) cut the ribbon on seven LEED certified homes recently built on Chestnut and Houston Streets. These homes were designed specifically to be affordable and were financed by Empowerment Zone funds from HUD.

"For Knoxville, this is big," says Madeline Rogero, director of community development for the city of Knoxville. "People think that Knoxville lags behind. That's certainly not the case here. We're trying to set the pace. The standard will soon become Energy Star and LEED. I've been told that these are the only affordable LEED Gold homes in America."

According to Ken Block, project manager for KHP, "affordable" is defined by HUD. But he says that a first-time homebuyer of low to moderate income will be able to get into one of these brand new homes for around $85,000. And they'll be spending $80 to $100 a month on utilities, as opposed to the norm in Five Points of around $250 this time of year, due to the under-maintained/un-updated homes common in that neighborhood. And the choice of neighborhoods was intentional. People there have already responded to the attention and respect connected to this investment by the city.

"Five Points is usually in the paper because of bad things that happen there," says Block. "This project began in March and there has not been one instance of theft or vandalism. And if you're there for 30 minutes, someone walking by will stop to tell you how beautiful these houses are."

You may have heard that the only other LEED Gold home in Tennessee belongs to Al Gore.


One of the energy-saving innovations about which Jeff Christian is most excited is the General Electric "smart dryer" installed in his near-zero energy home. You can program it to dry your clothes at night, when demand is lower (and in some places, perhaps Tennessee some day, rates are also lower) and fluff them until morning. It sounds like a wonderful gadget. But let's face it: perhaps the smartest dryer of them all is a clothesline.

Bill Nickle is founder of Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center, in Grainger County. From humble beginnings, Narrow Ridge has grown in 30 years from 40 acres and a cabin to 500 acres housing more than a dozen homes and public spaces that are completely off the grid—no power lines or electric meters whatsoever. As you may have gleaned from the name of the place, the goal at Narrow Ridge is not so much saving energy as it is living in harmony with nature. But the two concepts dovetail nicely.

In a comfortable library lit by DC lamps, powered by batteries that were charged earlier in the week by solar panels, Nickle says, "We're not saying people should go back to living the way Grandma did. Maybe just be willing to hang your wash out on the line."

It would be a challenge to make solar power seem simpler than Nickle does. Out the window, he points to the two solar panels that supply four deep cycle boat batteries beneath the library. "Right now, the lights are DC. If I turn on this inverter"—it starts with a short-lived hum—"now I've got AC. I can turn on the other lights or use the computer or watch the TV. It's pretty simple. Anybody can use it."

Several of the buildings at Narrow Ridge are made of straw bales. The near-zero energy home at Campbell Creek boasts an insulation rating of R-24. (The higher the number, the greater the resistance to heat flow; R-14 is typical for the external wall of a new home.) Straw bale construction is R-45. In the kitchen of one of the straw bale buildings at Narrow Ridge, Nickle tells a reporter and a photographer, "If the three of us just stood here for a few minutes, our body heat would heat up the room."

Narrow Ridge's director, Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, lives in a straw-bale home there. In order to protect the bales, the walls are covered with stucco or spray-on coverings. The houses end up with a Santa Fe kind of look. As with LEGOs or cinder blocks, you can build with straw bales in just about any design that allows you to stack and bind the bales. In addition to insulating, straw bale walls absorb heat from the sun and release it in the evening, a process called passive solar heating. So straw bale homes typically have lots of windows to let that sun in, and feel comfortable and modern as opposed to rustic or homesteady.

On the day that Wood-Von Mizener gives a tour of her home, it's raining heavily. As handily as Nickle demonstrates solar power, the creeks that drain the Narrow Ridge spread are showing how a flash flood works. Still, the solar panels that power Wood-Von Mizener's home are generating power at low levels.

Among other things, a trip to Narrow Ridge, just 35 miles from Knoxville, demonstrates that much of the technology described in this article has been available for years or even decades. Arguably the most important innovation at the Campbell Creek homes is the zeal with which Christian examines every wall penetration and makes sure it's sealed. (His near-zero energy home is sealed so tightly, the HVAC system has a special rig to suck fresh, filtered outside air into the home on a timed schedule.)

What is changing is that the technology is moving toward the mainstream and the premium pricing once associated with it is on the decline, because more of it is being purchased. What's also changing, thanks to the people mentioned here and many others, is that there are many more examples of this technology in action—in Knoxville—than ever before