Whole New World

The first project Tom Owens designed in Oregon looked simple enough. He had to add a second-floor dormer. But an engineer had to be called in and structural panels needed to be installed to bring the project up to earthquake code. Welcome to the West coast.

Before coming to Oregon, Owens owned a remodeling company in Wisconsin that specialized in high-end remodels. Then the company folded, and he accepted a job as a sales consultant and designer for the Neil Kelly Co., based in Portland.

Designing in the Pacific Northwest is a "new world" for Owens, the winner of seven national CotY awards. In Wisconsin, buildings tend to be designed in classic styles and built in brick or stone. "I was amazed," he says. "Here, everything's wood." In addition, engineering requirements have to deal with wind loads and seismic shock. "There is a lot of complexity to that," Owens observes.

Clean Heat

The boat repair shop rebuilt as a home is heated by a geothermal system. Where other heating and cooling systems transform chemicals into hot or cool air by burning or other means, geothermal heating systems extract heat from either the earth or water and convert it to energy. Geothermal systems work by circulating fluid through loops or coils buried in the ground or set in a body of water, where the heat is extracted and returned to a heat pump inside the house. According to the EPA, geothermal systems are the cleanest, most energy-efficient, and most cost-effective HVAC system.

So why aren't more of them installed? Dan Reude, owner of Dan's Top Notch Heating and Cooling in Washougal, Wash., whose company installed the system in the Snyders' house, says up-front costs for geothermal are approximately double those of oil or gas-burning systems. The cost breaks down roughly into thirds: a third to excavate to install the loops that gather heat from the soil; a third for the heat pump; and a third for labor. He estimates it would cost $10,000 to $14,000 to change out the heating system in an existing home -- assuming ductwork was in place.

Those steeper up-front costs discourage homeowners, Reude says. But the "monthly energy bill will be half as much." He guesses it will cost the Snyders $100 a month to heat or air condition their 6,000-square-foot home. In addition, the system will produce 50% of hot water needs in winter and 100% in summer. Another benefit is minimal maintenance and the fact that a geothermal system will likely last for the life of the home. Geothermal heating systems are slowly catching on. Reude says the unit he installed in the Snyders' home was his company's 12th in five years. This year he hopes to install another dozen.