In Portland, living the green American dream
More young urban professionals are forgoing square footage for eco-friendly homes.
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Part of its allure is that "green" is no easy name to come by. It is akin to a status symbol, and it must be earned. Even the Higgins hesitate to call their house green, despite its many environmentally sensitive features.Skip to next paragraph
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A green building must attempt to produce net zero energy, which many achieve through solar paneling, eco roofs, and smaller spaces. It must use mostly recycled or renewable materials - anything from glass countertops and used lumber to wool carpeting and bamboo floors. Even the energy spent to transport the material to the site is considered; recycled glass, for instance, loses its "conservation" value if a lot of fuel was used to haul it there.
It is no surprise, then, that green homes are less accessible to those who cannot afford the pricier materials and construction expertise. It is still the domain of the wealthy - or at least yuppies with disposable income.
But as the owners of green homes know firsthand, the cost difference is largely superficial. Any up-front costs are recaptured over time because these buildings use so little energy. Portland General Electric, for instance, reimburses houses that generate more power than they use. An award-winning green house in Cannon Beach, Ore., with its solar panels and eco roof (a roof planted with greenery to deflect heat and improve insulation), is actually making money this spring.
"There are such significant selling advantages to building a green building that if the up-front cost differential is eliminated you will see a lot more green development taking place," says Leanne Tobias, founder of Malachite LLC, a venture founded to provide services on sustainable or green development in Washington, D.C.
"As energy prices continue to inflate, the advantages for building green become even greater," she says. "Green building will be mainstreamed, a far greater share of new construction will be green construction, and there will be a great deal of interest in retrofitting existing buildings so that they are more energy efficient."
Though such breakthroughs as solar paneling and eco roofs have been in the works since the '70s, actual adaptation has been slow. Even five years ago the kinds of recycled materials available today weren't on the market. But California's energy crisis, the 2003 blackout in the Eastern US, along with swelling gasoline costs, have served as a wake-up call to homebuyers.
"[We are being] forced, in a good way, to take note and be proactively involved [in green building], says Darr Hashempour, vice president of energy solutions for PinnacleOne, a construction consulting firm in Los Angeles. "This isn't a fad. Building green is now a fact of life."
Not everyone characterizes the green momentum in such optimistic terms. "There clearly is an upward swing, but if you're talking about any real penetration into the mainstream, I don't think there's been any," says Lester Lave, an economics professor and director of the Carnegie Mellon Green Design Initiative in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Lave has been pushing for greener building since he moved to Pittsburgh in the late '60s, and he admits his patience has worn thin. "When I put on my economics hat, I think it is reprehensible for people to build buildings where they're focusing only on first costs. There's no excuse for it."