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Rob Nicely, Warrior for Sustainability

Posted by Tom White on September 11, 2014
Rob Nicely, Warrior for Sustainability Rob Nicely, President, Carmel Building & Design

I was first impressed by Rob Nicely when I heard him speak these words to an audience of builders, designers, and building scientists: "We’re the warriors of sustainability...We already know everything we need to know to build sustainable buildings—the question is, Can we internalize it into our culture and incorporate that learning into our practices?"

Rob is the president of Carmel Building & Design (CBD), based in Carmel, Calif. I visited with Rob and members of his staff recently at the second of two homes he’s built or remodeled to the Passive House (PH) Academy guidelines. Rob has adopted the PH approach as the next standard that he has set for building high-quality homes, not just as an approach to saving energy. Rob is helping to lead the transition to this approach in the Monterey Peninsula by setting an example, and with the support of others in his community, he is influencing the evolution of building standards and practices across the U.S.

Carmel Building & Design Passive House, Pacific Grove, Calif.Rob is very excited by the prospect of driving down home energy use by 50-80% while also improving his clients’ comfort: no drafts, reduced noise, and improved air quality—all at little additional cost. Rob is also mindful of being a good steward of the Monterey Peninsula environment, a landscape along the central California coast known around the world for its stunning natural beauty.

While Monterey is surrounded by gorgeous ocean views and wildlife, it also known for its lack of fresh water. So in addition to refining his technique in building airtight, well-insulated shells, he’s also getting domestic hot water delivered at the tap in 3-5 seconds. In the midst of a 100-year drought, “There’s never been enough water on the Monterey Peninsula, and it’s criminal that we’re using potable water to flush our toilets,” said Rob.

Rob is lucky that his clients are also committed to lowering their carbon and water “footprint,” even going so far as following the Living Building Challenge (LBC) protocol for net zero energy, no combustion, sustainable materials, and limited waste water. Rob is pushing the envelope on drain water waste heat and grey water recycling by plumbing the LBC house with the Nexus water system, even though grey water for non-potable use (such as in toilets) it’s not yet legal in California. He’s ready to throw the valve switch as soon as it’s approved by local code.

Carmel Building & Design Passive House, Pacific Grove, Calif.As I toured the 2,400 sq. ft. passive house, I was impressed by the constant temperature and freshness of the air provided in all the rooms by the Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system. While it wasn’t a time of year requiring heating or cooling, the home is heated by a single Mitsubishi 20,000 Btu mini-split for the entire two-story house. Large south-facing windows let in light to capture solar heat in the large tiled living room. Rob used 2 inches of mortar bed under the tile, instead of the conventional ¾ of an inch to create greater thermal mass. With only .55 air changes per hour, little of that heat is wasted.

CBD homes have been featured in national building trade magazines, but I was impressed to hear how Rob has used his high profile to subtly open the conversation about better building practices and spread the message about how to build higher quality homes among his local community of home builders, remodelers, and building material suppliers. As he challenged his peers at the Passive House conference earlier this year, “Why would we do something stupid now that we know how to do something smart?”

For more information on CBD, go to CarmelBuilding.com.

Photo credits: Leslie Jackson

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