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In Portland, living the green American dream

More young urban professionals are forgoing square footage for eco-friendly homes.

By Elizabeth Armstrong MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2005


Bryan and Chris Higgins didn't set out to save the world. But one look at their home, built on a tiny lot with tall windows and radiant floor heat that result in low utility bills, and it's obvious the young couple has a mission: to leave the lightest footprint possible on mother earth's soil.

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Mr. Higgins, an architect, and Mrs. Higgins, a civil engineer, are proud to own just one car and walk to work every day, dropping their daughter Frances off at child care along the way. They love their energy-efficient kitchen appliances and feel fortunate to live in a place that cools so well they don't need an air conditioner, even on Portland's 90-degree days.

The Higgins are at the forefront of a boom in green building.

Much of it is being driven by a generation of young professionals interested in anything "earth friendly" to create their own urban oasis. Call them GUPPYS - green urban professionals who are young.

In some respects, it is the 1970s all over again, except its adherents wear Merrills instead of earth shoes and bamboo floors and recycled glass counters have replaced woodstoves and solar panels as signature elements.

And perhaps nowhere does the fervor take on a deeper shade of green than in the Pacific Northwest, in cities from San Francisco to Seattle, where the climate is relatively mild and environmentalism is a virtual religion. Indeed, Portland, Ore. - which already draws a large number of 25- to 34-year-olds - may be the new capital of the ecohouse movement.

"A lot of people move here seeking many things, not the least of which is life in a greener place," says Ethan Seltzer, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "Oregonians may not be getting the biggest paychecks, but they are getting access to a natural environment that provides them with a lot of benefits. So it's not surprising that you see more solar lighting and eco roofs here."

Well-educated young people are disproportionately drawn to Portland, according to Joe Cortright, economist and coauthor of "Young and Restless: How Portland Competes for Talent," a study of the migration of 25- to 34-year-olds across the US. "In focus groups people said Portland is a place where you can live your values, and environmentalism is clearly one of them."

Mr. Cortright sees this playing out across the country as well. In places where young professionals are migrating - Portland, Ore.; Phoenix; and Charlotte, N.C., to name a few - the job market gets extremely tight, forcing much of the creativity into entrepreneurial positions. It is those people who may push the mounting interest in building green over the edge and into mainstream.

Many young professionals looking to buy or build their first house - or empty-nesters wanting to downsize or remodel - see building green as much more than a movement. It's a responsibility, and it's becoming irresistibly chic.

"Building green is both a very practical, self-interested activity, in terms of lower operating costs, and it also has a deeper spiritual value to many people taking responsibility for the impacts they have," says Alan Scott, an architect in Portland who has been involved in the green building movement for years.

Portland groups such as City Repair, which brings several hundred people together to work on natural building projects dotted around the city, have tapped a market that is clearly on the upswing.