USA Today Writer Building Falls Church ‘Dream Green House’

green houseUSA Today reporter Wendy Koch and her husband are building a “dream green house” in Falls Church. We know this because she is reporting each step of the complicated procedure on the USA Today website, where she writes:

“I live in Falls Church, Va., with my husband and two school-age daughters. Our biggest challenge in rightsizing our life (we recently sold a McMansion): stuff. We keep cleaning out closets. This year we gave away five TVs and said goodbye to cable TV. . . . My family is building an average-size, ultra-efficient home that’s expected to earn the top certification from several green-building programs.”

This is the Falls Church house that will be torn down to build the green house:

On Dec. 23, Koch wrote:

“Have you broken ground?” is one of the most frequent questions I get from people who know I’m building a green home. Some have been asking for months. “Not yet” is my perennial, disheartened reply.

The planning process has been more arduous that I expected and resembles more the engineering of a machine than the designing of a home.

It’s been a year since my family sold a 5,000-square-foot house and began our journey to create an ultra-efficient home half the size in the walkable city of Falls Church, Va. Last December, my husband and I naively thought it possible to complete this dream in 12 months. We hoped to celebrate Christmas 2009 in our new home. How wrong we were!

I sometimes feel embarrassed at my “not yet” response, as if we’re goofballs or failures. We may be flailing about a bit, but having spoken to many people who’ve built cutting-edge homes, I’ve learned that the entire process is slow and often takes — gulp — years.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, our first stumble was hiring the wrong architect. We wasted three months, and an unfortunate sum of money, with a firm that delivered a bland design. We started over.

Since then, we’ve struggled to find the right builder, figure out whether we could afford geothermal heating and cooling (we can’t), pick the maker of our structural insulated panels (SIPS) and myriad other details, many of which I’ll share in separate posts in coming months.

Suffice to say, we’ve finalized our overall design, as depicted in a few renderings by our architects at the Washington firm of Cunningham/Quill Architects. I call the style “modern Prairie,” whatever that means. It is an L-shaped house that opens into a courtyard with southern exposure.

For the exterior siding, we’re planning a mix of architectural CMU (concrete masonry unit), James Hardie lap siding and Hardie fiber-cement panels. The CMU, which will be made nearby in Bladensburg, Md., with recycled concrete, will be gray, but we haven’t picked the exact colors for the rest of the exterior.

We plan to submit our grading plan and building design for permitting approval the first Monday of January.

If all goes well, and so often it does not, we could get approval to begin construction as early as February. We’ll start by disassembling the ramshackle house that sits on our lot to salvage all possible materials. Who knows, we may even begin building the new house in March. Hope springs eternal!”

Read Ms. Koch’s full story here.  Readers of the Falls Church Times have shown a great interest in “Green” houses being built in the City — most recently, the “Erdhaus.” We welcome updates from readers on this subject.

December 24, 2009 


14 Responses to “USA Today Writer Building Falls Church ‘Dream Green House’”

  1. Jim Breiling on December 24th, 2009 7:35 am

    Interesting. What’s the street address for this forthcoming Green home?

    What are other folks doing to be “Green”?

  2. Daniel Green on December 24th, 2009 5:35 pm

    Good luck wading through the building permit process in the City of Falls Church – get your hoops ready to jump through.

  3. Alison Kutchma on December 25th, 2009 10:32 am

    To the question as to the street address of this green house under construction — my guess is that it’s the house under construction on Grove Avenue. Based on the picture it looks like what has been started next to the old farm house on Grove — next to the two new houses on that same street. Just a guess.

  4. Brian Williams (Falls Church) on December 25th, 2009 10:58 am

    I’m all for these kinds of homes. I would love for FC to be known for innovative green construction on both the residential and commercial side. I know Wendy will struggle with the permit process (I also built a house in the City recently) which is a shame. FC should be known for having an efficient, nimble, and logical permitting process (which should be possible given our size), but unfortunately that’s not the case in my experience. That’s a topic for another post, though …

    From an aesthetics perspective I have my own personal tastes. While I’d love for everyone to happen to agree with them, I value more living in a community where individuals can do what they please within reasonable limitations. Are our residential building guidelines up to date and well done? I much prefer smaller, eco-friendly houses going up with modern styles reflecting innovative engineering compared to the hideous, gigantic mcmansions that go up so often.

    I’ll enjoy reading about Wendy’s construction. Thanks for covering it, FCT!

  5. Gerald Pressman (City of Falls Church) on December 25th, 2009 1:38 pm




  6. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 27th, 2009 8:46 am

    The City should (and can) be efficient with the permitting process. Some permit issues have time components build in (x days for public review, etc.) and others are actually outsourced to third parties – which can add time – but many should be pretty quick. In my experience, the key is to not rely on the builder to know or understand the permit process. Builders use “waiting on permits” as an excuse sometimes – make sure they really are waiting on them instead of waiting to submit for them.

    Also, I think builders are used to working with much larger organizations (Fairfax and Arlington Counties, for example) and don’t realize that a couple of strategic phone calls can make a big difference in Falls Church.

    As for the location, I recognize that house but I assume if the writer/builder wanted people to know the exact location she would have published it.

  7. Michael A. Sponseller on December 28th, 2009 7:47 am

    So great to see the Koch family right-sizing their housing options and pushing the issue of sustainability with their new home. Being a custom builder, we’re very familiar with the pains of new construction, especially on a single-house basis. Finding a builder comfortable with progressive and green design can be a challenge, but once the process is complete, the feeling of accomplishment from designing and building your own home will be unparalleled. As an Energy Star certified builder with on-staff LEED AP, we’d be happy to help out and answer any questions we can.

  8. Lynn Wagner in Falls Church City on December 28th, 2009 10:20 am

    This home is on N. Virginia Avenue. A lot of trees have already been removed from the property.

  9. Neil Shawen, City of Falls Church on December 28th, 2009 4:00 pm

    As someone who lives in one of Ms. Koch’s “ramshackle” houses, I can’t help but question the wisdom and ecological sensitivity of admitted McMansion dwellers (did they build that charmer too? – by living in one they certainly supported that lamentable trend) who buy a lot and tear down the existing house to build a new one amidst self-promoting fanfare. Where do the tons and tons of
    rubble go, anyway? As she chronicles her expenses and habitat adventures, it seems as if Ms. Koch is more friendly to the economy than to the ecology.

  10. Michael Slonim, Falls Church City on December 29th, 2009 1:01 am

    Kudos to Ms. Koch on building a green home and doing it in FCC! We’ve been very good at building inefficient, poorly designed houses for the last half century…I’m happy to see this trend slowly reversing as documented by Ms. Koch in USA Today. One suggestion…look at the possibility of harnessing “gray water” from you diswasher, sinks, washing machines, tubs/showers for use in toilets and as an option for gardening (two hose faucets – potable and gray). While this would be cost prohibitive in existing houses, it seems to me it could be done (easily??) in a new green build. Good luck!

  11. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 29th, 2009 9:03 am

    I’d be surprised if Ms. Koch isn’t recycling a lot of the debris from the old house. Many builders are doing this now – even when they’re not building a “green” house – because it’s expensive to have all the debris hauled off to the dump.

    Also, these older houses are not very efficient and while there are options for updating them I think it reasonable to consider how much more efficient the new structure will be when thinking about the issue of whether or not it’s environmentally good to rip down an existing structure.

    As for it being “ramshackle” or not – according to Merriam Webster I think the building in question might qualify: – I’m not anti-old house (my house is over 130 years old) but the house being torn down in this case doesn’t appear to be of high quality.

    I’m not sure what to say about Ms. Koch’s past transgressions with McMansions – live and learn I guess.

  12. Gordon Theisz, CITY of Falls Church on December 29th, 2009 7:45 pm

    Said house will be on N. Virginia, just down the street from Brian. The design is totally out of character with the other houses on the street. Brian’s house fits. Beyond taste, the owners bought on a street that is a forest and then took down trees ahead of the permitting process (can’t do that once you apply for a permit). Taking down trees is not a very green thing to do. Other famed green homes in town are significantly larger than the one they replaced. Being energy efficient itself is one thing, but if the new home consumes more energy then the one it replaces, then it is not an improvement. There is more to being environmental than energy efficiency and walkability. Water management in the city is a major issue and as a city we have made it our goal to slow the loss of our tree canopy. Taking down trees before permitting is a tactic used by developers to get around the FCC tree ordinance. Score so far minus one for the new resident.

  13. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 30th, 2009 1:02 am

    Can you cut down trees without a permit?

    Some of the trees they took down had to go (in order to put up a new house) – one of the trees was practically touching the existing house. There were a couple of trees on the back of the lot that I was surprised that they removed.

    I’m sure the City will require them to put in an underground storage tank to help deal with storm water – not that that’s the same thing as trees, but it’s something.

  14. Mike Nichols, Falls Church on December 30th, 2009 1:17 pm

    Just my two cents as one of the owners building the green house on Grove Ave — every one of the City staff who was involved in the review of the plans, on-site inspections, etc. has been quick, efficient, helpful, and encouraging. Our experience has been exceptionally positive dealing with the City, and we’re very grateful for their professionalism and expertise!

    Great discussion, thanks, Falls Church Times, for facilitating this!

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