Easy on the eyes and the environment

The number of environmentally friendly new homes is increasing, as builders - and buyers - 'go green.'

At first glance, the two-story stucco house at 371 Columbus Drive in a new development called Evergrene could be just another well-appointed model home. In the entryway, polished wood floors offer a sleek welcome. Attractive oatmeal-colored carpeting cushions living room floors. In the kitchen, a midnight-blue backsplash rims the counter, and above the cabinets a strip of light circles the room. Everywhere the look is sophisticated and upscale.

But wait. Who could imagine that the gleaming floors are made of bamboo - a grass, rather than hardwood - or that the carpet is spun from plastic soda bottles? For that matter, who could guess that the backsplash is 80 percent recycled glass, or that the fiber-optic ceiling light uses just one bulb instead of six?

These and dozens of other environmentally friendly features give this Spanish-style house an impressive distinction: It has been rated the "greenest" house in the state by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

It also represents part of a growing national effort by builders and environmental groups to broaden the appeal of houses that lower power bills, create healthier indoor air, and use fewer natural resources.

"An increasing number of home buyers are demanding that environmental issues become a top priority in new construction and remodeling efforts," says Ray Tonjes of the National Association of Home Builders.

From Texas to Colorado, Washington State, Florida, and beyond, green is no longer simply the province of specialty builders creating custom homes. Gradually, green is going mainstream as the concept spreads to large-scale builders and catches the attention of a broader range of buyers.

Numbers show the interest. Nationwide, between 1990 and 2001, a total of 18,887 homes were built to local green building guidelines. In 2002 alone, the most recent year for which figures are available, 13,224 green homes were built. Austin, Texas, pioneered the first local green building program in 1991. Today, nearly 20 such programs dot the country, with more being developed.

This month, when the National Association of Home Builders holds its annual National Green Building Conference in Austin March 14-16, topics will include the mainstreaming of green homes. Later this year the group will issue national guidelines for green home building.

Austin's own next big project involves an affordable subdivision with 100 homes that will be "extremely green," says Richard Morgan, manager of the Austin Energy Green Building Program. Prices will not exceed $120,000.

Here in Palm Beach Gardens, developers of the 1,555-square-foot "concept house" dubbed Geni-G - short for Generation Green - hope the prototype will serve as a model for builders around the country.

Resource-saving features in the green home begin at the curb. Permeable pavers on the driveway and walks allow rain to soak into the ground, reducing runoff. Xeriscape landscaping uses native plants, grouped according to the amount of water they need. Two green plastic rain barrels catch water rolling off the roof and store it for watering plants.

In the backyard pool, small amounts of sodium, rather than chlorine, keep the water clean. Solar energy heats the pool.

The house itself faces south, avoiding direct sun on the windows in the morning and afternoon. To form exterior walls, concrete is poured between insulating plastic foam, an efficient wind resister. Expandable insulation, called Icynene, is sprayed inside the attic, sealing it against wind and moisture.

Bamboo floors in the kitchen and hallway offer the look of hardwood. But consider the forest-saving difference: Some species of bamboo grow 30 inches a day, while oak trees may grow no more than 30 inches a year. Bamboo costs $7 or $8 a square foot installed, comparable to hardwood floors.

In a radical move, the kitchen has no garbage disposal. Instead, food waste can be placed in an outdoor compost bin tucked discreetly behind shrubs.

Sensors switch bathroom faucets on and off, potentially saving a family of five 200 gallons of water a year. Dual-flush toilets could also save more than 2,000 gallons of water annually. A tankless hot water heater warms water only as needed.

To keep air quality pure, a central vacuum channels all dust and debris into a container in the garage. Special paints and finishes emit fewer gases.

Lights turn off automatically when a sensor no longer detects motion in a room. Although compact fluorescent bulbs in every socket cost more initially, they last seven years. Appliances carry the Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar seal of efficiency.

These environmental features add $75,000 to the cost of the house, raising the price to just over $400,000. But Al Hoffman Jr., CEO of WCI, emphasizes that many features are optional.

As more green homes are built, prices will drop, he says. "If we can get it on a production basis, the cost of these things will be reduced substantially." He expects to build 1,000 homes at Evergrene by 2006.

Buyers can choose from a menu of energy- and resource-saving options that suit their budget and appeal to their interests or needs. "Not everybody wants a home with great indoor air quality," Mr. Reinson says. "Somebody else might just want a home that's energy-efficient."

Some additional costs can be offset by savings in energy use. The Florida Solar Energy Center calculates that the Geni-G home will save $431 a year in energy bills.

Houses rated energy-efficient by a local energy company might also qualify for a special mortgage, which might enable buyers to afford a more expensive house.

Most features incorporated in the Florida prototypecould be used in a Northern climate, Mr. Hoffman says, with a few changes. Windows coated to keep out Florida heat, for example, would obviously not be needed in Wisconsin.

Hoffman describes the average buyer interested in a green home as well educated, usually part of a dual-income family, and willing to pay more for the environmental features.

"Certain people are going to spend the extra money to buy organic food, no matter what the economic impact," he says. "There are people who are pioneers of green houses for the same purpose."

Yet others remain confused by the choices. "Most people would say they want to do the right thing, but they don't know what to do," says Karen Childress, environmental stewardship manager at WCI.

To help them, environmental groups and builders around the country are taking steps to educate consumers. At the Austin Energy Green Building Program, Mr. Morgan says, the group spends half of its time speaking to community and business groups and writing about the benefits of green buildings.

Such efforts appear to be paying off. In a survey conducted by WCI and the Florida Energy Extension Service at the University of Florida, more than three-quarters of respondents said they would spend more for a green product. Nearly 90 percent said they would pay more for green home features if they recouped their expenses within five years, such as with lower electric bills.

Going green is also increasingly important in remodeling.

"New homes are relatively easy to make green," says Carl Seville, vice president of SawHorse, a residential building and renovation firm in Atlanta. "Existing homes become a lot more complicated."

He and others in Atlanta have put together a green remodeling program. "It has to be simple enough so people can do it," he says, "but complex enough so it's effective."

Whatever the approach, the real issue, Reinson says, comes down to the sustainability of the planet.

"If you do one house, will it matter?" he asks. "Probably not. But if you do a thousand, and the industry begins to change as well, you're looking at an industry that does a better job of being environmentally sustainable than it does today. It's a creative path."

The greening of America

The idea of "going green" appeals to many people, but what does that actually mean? The most basic definition from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) refers to buildings that are "resource- efficient" in design, construction, and operation. It applies to environmental quality both inside and outside the home.

Green building, the NAHB explains, offers persuasive and often measurable benefits. These include:

• Lower utility bills. Homes that require less heating and cooling and use fewer gallons of water are less expensive to operate.

• Less maintenance. More durable building materials reduce upkeep. And lawns that require less watering and weeding, and decks that need no sealing or staining, give homeowners more free time.

• Improved environmental quality. Builders' attention to moisture control and the use of paints and materials that do not give off gases contribute to a healthier indoor environment. Overall resource efficiency within individual houses also contributes to a better local environment.

• Increased home value. Documented lower utility bills and reduced upkeep can bring higher selling prices, according to owners of green structures.

But even with these benefits, some homeowners - and builders - still have a lot to learn about what's involved with green homes.

Even construction debris becomes an issue. "It's very much a part of sustainable building to manage waste during construction," says Karen Childress, environmental stewardship manager of WCI Communities Inc., developer of a prototype green home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., chosen as Florida's "greenest house."

"There's a tremendous need for understanding from subcontractors," she adds. "You don't want everything going to the landfill." They prefer to separate and recycle construction materials.

Al Hoffman Jr., CEO of WCI, likens the overall education process to teaching a child to ride a bicycle. "You start with training wheels," he says. "Right now our industry is sort of on training wheels with manufacturers, contractors, and customers. We've got to bring them all along simultaneously."

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