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Making Your Dwelling Well

A sick home? We think of good health when we speak of living organisms, but when David Anderson, VP of Dwelltech Solutions talks about houses, he talks of them as living systems.

"A house is a system," says Anderson. "Water usage, electric, gas, and heating -- it all works together."

Understanding houses as interconnected systems is a new way of thinking for those in the construction industry. When the housing market took a steep and long dip in 2008 and in the years following, many in the construction industry were forced to reinvent themselves. In so doing, a green building industry was born.

"We have nine employees at our Grand Rapids and Holland locations," says Anderson, "and the majority of us are from the traditional construction trades. Now, I see us morphing the other way, back into building, but keeping the knowledge we've acquired in the green economy."

Dwelltech Solutions does home energy assessments and energy audits, using sustainable technologies to bring homes to good health. To bring a house to good health means pinpointing energy loss and making the repairs to improve energy efficiency -- in short, greener.

"We work with BetterBuildings for Michigan to offer funding to our customers to make energy-efficient home improvements," Anderson says. Throughout greater Grand Rapids, homeowners are eligible for as much as $20,000 loans at 1.99 percent interest for 10 years. "It's unsecured, no fees, a great deal. And outside of Grand Rapids, you can get funding for 7 percent."

Even newer homes, Anderson says, often need "greening." Using thermal images in the energy audits, auditors move from room to room in a house, looking for energy leaks. Red images show hot areas, blue images show cold. On a cold day, that means blue areas indicate a needed repair.

"Unfortunately, Michigan is behind on energy efficiency," Anderson admits. "Elsewhere in the country, you see more solar panels, more wind power. People in Michigan think you can't use solar panels. Too many cloudy days. But that's not how it works. UV rays come through clouds, even when the solar panels are snow covered."

Where Dwelltech Solutions installed the solar panels in a home in Holland, the owner now receives a monthly check from her energy company. That's right, instead of paying an electric bill every month, she gets a check from Consumers Energy.  "They sell her back the energy that they collect from her home."

Dwelltech Solutions began as a small start-up company called Cottage Home in Holland before moving its headquarters to Grand Rapids. Founded by Brian Bosgraaf about four years ago, the company is now located at 959 Wealthy Street SE, Suite 2.

"We're not just guys putting insulation into attics," Anderson notes. "Many problems can be solved as easily as a bit of caulking. But we use science to determine where and how a house needs to be fixed. A lot of people want to start by getting new windows, but that's not usually the biggest problem. We seal air leaks in the attic, then in the basement, add insulation to walls, check heating and cooling equipment. And then -- the windows."

There's another green house player in town: WellHome, at 3030 Sangra Avenue SW in Grandville.

"There are two of us in Grand Rapids doing energy assessment audits for the Better Buildings program," says Michael Youngblood, market manager. Both companies had to apply to become qualified vendors in the Grand Rapids area for the program, allowing homeowners to take advantage of tax incentives for making their homes more energy efficient.

WellHome is part of Masco Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, and a part of Masco Home Services, Inc, in Tayor, Mich.

When BetterBuildings for Michigan chose communities to receive grant funds for residential energy improvements, they looked for a strong presence of neighborhood groups; synergy with local partners including utilities, foundations, and community action agencies; and a high percentage of home ownership.

"I moved to Grand Rapids from the east side with my family when this area was chosen for a sweep," says Youngblood. Like most in the green housing economy, he and other WellHome employees have a construction trades background. "I have a degree in construction management from Michigan State University," he adds. "When the housing market shifted around 2009, I relocated here to help open the WellHome branch."

He was joined by Josh Saxton, a Ferris State graduate in architectural technologies. "I ran Saxton Builders for 14 years, then came to WellHome when the housing market bottomed out."

Another employee from Michigan who had moved to South Dakota was only too pleased to return to his home state when the housing market here found new life by going green. A total of 21 people work with WellHome locally.

"When we go into a home, we test for three things," says Youngblood. "Safety, comfort, and energy efficiency."

People call WellHome, he says, when comfort becomes an issue. The house may feel drafty, or maybe windows drip with condensation, or utility bills soar too high.

"Something in the house is out of balance. We come in to check the home, and we interview the homeowners about their concerns and energy usage. We look for utility bills that are extraordinarily high. We develop graphs to show customers what they are paying and how much we can help them save."

Sometimes what the auditors will find is more than just a drafty window or a leaky attic.  "We had a worker go into a home and find a major carbon monoxide leak. It was the middle of winter, and the family in the home was already showing signs of lethargy. He got the family out of the home -- immediately."

Most homes, however, can be made much more comfortable with just a few small fixes. The audit produces a detailed report about the house, much like a home inspection report when purchasing a home, listing any problem areas with recommended fixes and estimated prices. The homeowner can choose which item to fix when and in what order, as budget allows, obtain financing if needed, and use WellHome or any vendor one chooses to do the job.

Home audits done by WellHome or Dwelltech Solutions cost $99.
Zinta Aistars is creative director at Z Word, LLC, and editor of the online literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
Photographs by Adam Bird
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