When Kelly and Ryan Uszenski asked Jarad Kriz to help them build an green home on St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands, Kriz suggested they go even further and build to LEED Platinum standards. The fact that Kriz had never been involved with a LEED home project proved to be no obstacle. Eighteen months after the Uszenskis approached him, Kriz had earned his LEED AP for Homes accreditation and helped them build the first LEED Platinum home in the US Virgin Islands.

Inheriting an Island Venture

Kriz was a clear fit for the job. With degrees in engineering and applied sciences from Penn State University and the University of Alabama as well as graduate certificates in sustainable building design and construction and sustainable residential design from Boston Architectural College, the 30-year veteran of the construction industry also had 14 years of experience in the US Virgin Islands. Kriz started his career working as an engineer for companies that specialized in power plant and industrial construction. Later, he helped found Brower, Kriz & Stynchcomb (BKS), a Houston-based construction project management and construction claims analysis firm.

In 2001, Kriz answered a call for assistance from a friend who owned a construction company that was building a Ritz-Carlton in the US Virgin Islands. Not long after, the friend passed away, and Kriz took over the business. “He was a good friend, and it was both an honor and a challenge to continue his legacy,” says Kriz, who managed to split his time between the Washington, DC, office of BKS and the company in St. Thomas. Four years later, Kriz sold the company to a US construction firm that wanted to establish itself in the US Virgin Islands market, and Kriz formed his own company, Islcon VI, and continues to do projects in the area.

The US Virgin Islands, comprising St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and Water Island, along with many other surrounding minor islands, encompass 133 square miles of land just 40 miles east of Puerto Rico. Home to just more than 100,000 people, the islands have a tropical savanna climate affected by moderate trade wind, meaning it’s hot and humid with temperatures ranging from 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

A Free Energy Source

As a part-time resident of the US Virgin Islands, Kriz has worked extensively in the tropical environment, and in doing so, has seen the skyrocketing energy costs it brings. The islands, he says, have no natural resources, such as coal and natural gas, to generate electricity, and in recent years, no means of refining those resources. “There used to be an oil refinery on an adjoining island about 60 miles away, but [it] closed down, so now oil used to generate power will have to be brought in from more distant locations,” Kriz says. “As a result, energy costs in the US Virgin Islands are slightly below 60 cents a kilowatt hour. By way of comparison, you probably pay about 12 cents. So it’s five times the normal national energy cost, and it’s just not affordable to operate a house on the islands given the price of electricity. Businesses face the same energy cost burden.”

These economic issues—in addition to a passion for the environment—got Kriz interested in solar power. “We have such a plentiful resource [in] the sun, but only recently has the use of solar power gained popularity in the US Virgin Islands,” Kriz says.

Kriz got his opportunity to break new ground, so to speak, when the Uszenski’s asked him to help consult on their new family home on St. Thomas. He recommended solar power, and when the topic of cost arose, Kriz suggested they take a new approach. Others on the island were using solar, Kriz says, but no one had thought holistically about how to design a house for overall energy efficiency. In order for solar to be as effective as possible, it needs to work in the context of a sustainably designed house that prioritizes passive strategies—a tight envelope and efficient air-conditioning, appliances, and lighting.

Kriz suggested that the Uszenskis, who were already conscious of environmental issues, raise the bar and pursue LEED certification. The Uszenskis liked the idea and came up with a floor plan, after which Kriz consulted with a local engineer to transform what the couple wanted into a sustainable house.

During construction, Kriz continued to add to his knowledge of green building practices. Already armed with a LEED AP BD+C accreditation, LEED Green Rater Training, and being a RESNET HERS Rater, Kriz added a LEED AP Homes accreditation so that he could certify the house on the US Virgin Islands. It took months, but Kriz says the journey was worth it. “It helped me do everything I needed to counsel the homeowners on the requirements to get the home to LEED Platinum,” he says.

A New Brand of Block

Being the first LEED-certified home on the US Virgin Islands wasn’t the project’s only pioneering venture. Kriz specified Staqable Symmetry Insulated Blocks, concrete blocks with superior insulation values developed in Clarence, New York, and tested at Oakridge National Laboratory. The blocks had yet to be used on a construction project. “Someone had to be first to try it, and I commend the Uszenskis for doing so,” Kriz says. Conventional non-insulated block allows cold air to escape from (or in colder climates, permeate into) a home through thermal bridges called webs. As a result, conventional blocks offer R-values of 0.88 to 1.28, depending on thickness—4-inch and 12-inch, respectively, for the aforementioned figures. Staqable Symmetry’s insulated blocks, however, have a calculated R-value of 15.3, which is among the highest tested R-value of any block on the market.

Not only are the Staqable blocks super-insulated, but their structural stability is also perfectly suited for earthquake- and hurricane-prone areas. In flexural tests conducted by the National Concrete Masonry Association, the reinforced bars in fully grouted cells offered a performance comparable to conventional reinforced concrete masonry walls. And the blocks don’t let any water through—a plus in the wet Caribbean climate. Water infiltration tests performed on uncoated Staqable blocks by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) showed that no water migrated through the blocks’ foam interior using the standard visual test. Kriz says Staqable Symmetry went one step further and requested the NAHB perform a more detailed inspection that involved dismantling one face of the block. The result: Absolutely no water migrated through the foam, even when five inches of water stood against the block wall.

The last of the blocks’ benefits were shown in the construction phase. Concrete block structures are common in the US Virgin Islands, and Kriz says the process of using the Staqable blocks was surprisingly simple. Under the guidance of Dellinger Construction’s Frank Dellinger, who constructed the laboratory test walls for Staqable Symmetry, local craftsmen installed the blocks without issues. Although the tropical climate and rocky site weren’t challenges (island-based construction firms are used to working in the heat and performing rock excavation), importing the Staqable blocks was cost-prohibitive. The solution: a specialized mold was shipped over so that Heavy Materials could cast the Staqable blocks on the island.

IMG_2271The Active Systems

With the home protected from hurricanes, heat loss and gain, and water, it was time to focus on the energy generation part of the equation. Photovoltaic panels were installed on the low-pitched concrete roof above the deck and walkway, which doubles as a shade for some of the home’s windows. The panels, supplied by Energy All Over, generate 4.5 kilowatts of power and use a net-metering system that allows daytime solar power to spin the home’s electrical meter backward (it reverses at night when energy is being consumed and no solar power is generated). All told, the home uses about two-thirds less electricity than a conventional home of the same size. “My three-bedroom condo in the US Virgin Islands uses $400 a month of electricity when I’m not there,” Kriz says, “and this five-bedroom single-family home that’s occupied by two adults and a child uses less energy than my condo.”

Other key elements include high-performance WinDoor windows and glass doors with a slight tint that helps keep the sun out. Following Kriz’s recommendation, the Uszenskis also used high-efficiency Mitsubishi air-conditioning units, high-efficiency tankless water heaters, Energy Star appliances, and energy-efficient lighting fixtures. Even the light-colored insulated metal roof helps reduce energy consumption. “People usually choose based on architectural preferences,” Kriz says. “These homeowners chose based on solar reflectivity.” The house also used FSC-certified wood provided by MSI Building Supplies.

Setting a Precedent

Despite being the first of its kind, the 3,000-square-foot home, which was completed in fall 2012, earned LEED Platinum with 88 points. Additionally, as part of the LEED certification process, the home went through extensive energy-performance testing, the results of which earned it a HERS 5 Star Plus rating—the highest possible.

“Whenever anything new happens down there, it’s watched closely, and this home is no exception,” says Kriz, who has presented about the home to the Virgin Islands Energy Office and the US Department of Energy’s Energy Development for Island Nations program. “It’s consistent with the whole theme of the US Virgin Islands—it’s about maintaining the natural beauty by using resources efficiently.”