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March 11, 2004
The market for environmentally sound homes is poised for substantial growth, thanks to a powerful and rising market niche — the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability consumer, or Lohas.
Also known as “cultural creatives,” eco-savvy Lohas are motivated by their strong values of personal, social and environmental well-being, as seen in the steep rise of the organic food market.
Similarly, people around the country are now sitting on 10-month waiting lists to purchase Toyota's new fuel-efficient, gas-electric hybrid, the Prius.
Demographic studies indicate that 26 percent of Americans participate in this lifestyle-based marketplace. According to the LOHAS Journal, the Lohas market accounts for $230 billion in annual sales in the United States.
The Puget Sound region has a particularly robust Lohas population, lending promise to an emerging green real estate market that is just finding its legs.
Better for you
In the past, many green homes sales were driven primarily by a small market that paid a premium for environmentally friendly homes. Today, however, the message is emerging that green homes aren't just better for the environment, they're better for you.
They offer improved health, quality, energy efficiency and durability. Less-toxic materials are used in their construction — such as low-VOC paints, non-toxic glues and less carpeting — which, coupled with air filtration systems, improve indoor air quality.
Integrated design from the beginning optimizes energy systems and water use, lowers monthly bills and reduces harm to threatened salmon. Durable materials help minimize ongoing maintenance requirements, and renewable and recycled resources save materials, energy and improve outdoor air quality.
And, oh, by the way ... your choices are making you a more responsible global citizen.
Difference in the details
Typically, green homes are visually hard to distinguish from conventional homes.
A low-VOC paint, for instance, looks like standard paint. The difference is in the details.
Built Green, a program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, offers home-building checklists that include more than 254 items for which builders can score points to meet criteria for a one-, two- or three-star Built Green home.
The checklist items range from restrictions on heavy-equipment use (three points) to limits on carpet coverage (also three points). Homebuilder need to accrue at least 180 points to earn the three-star rating.
Checklist categories include green codes, site and water, energy efficiency, health and indoor air quality, material efficiency, maintenance manual, and promotion of environmentally friendly homeowners operations.
These details add up to a well-designed house with definite advantages over a conventional home. Builders enjoy the self-assessment and use the checklist as a guide to educate themselves.
Green is quickly becoming synonymous with efficiency and quality. While many successful and well-regarded local builders have built reputations around quality construction, building green is a way for all builders to showcase their efforts to produce better homes.
In fact, many top builders in King County are now building Built Green homes. This all adds up to produce a higher quality home for the homebuyer.
Real estate agents can tout these advantages for the homebuyer. Agents suddenly have a way to differentiate a home as being energy efficient and well-designed, with improved indoor air quality, comfort and livability.
Help for builders
A variety of programs seeks to strengthen the local green-home marketplace. They include the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, the Master Builders Association, the city of Seattle's Built Green design competition, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce Resource Venture program, Seattle Public Utilities, the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Institute of Architects.
Developers and builders are also jumping on board. Issaquah Highlands, a large master-planned community, recently launched a marketing campaign called “Living Green,” which asks the question, “What if you could build a better home and help save the planet, too?”
All homes built in the Issaquah Highlands are required to be Built Green-certified. Banks are on board also. Fannie Mae offers an Energy Efficient Mortgage, which effectively gives you money to upgrade your home's energy efficiency and reduce your monthly energy bills.
The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild's Seattle chapter remains active with custom green-home architects and builders. Their Wednesday evening education gatherings have remained popular for years.
Natural buildings such as straw-bale homes, cob homes and rammed-earth homes have also shown healthy growth around the state.
This growth has largely been limited to custom homebuilders, though. Few natural-building spec homes have been built. Banks, appraisers and developers have not been a very receptive audience. Custom homebuilders are working hard through wetting, blowing, shaking and otherwise testing their products to meet code.
Straw-bale homes in particular now have several examples of building codes that jurisdictions can adopt to permit their construction. Eastern Washington has been a hotbed of straw-bale building.
Time for change
Those of us who market and sell homes need to understand the green-home marketplace and better educate green homebuyers.
It can be argued that the rubber is not meeting the road at the present moment.
If the homebuyer who drives a Toyota Pruis pulls in and parks next to the real estate agent's new luxury Cadillac SUV or gleaming Hummer, you can guess the sale might happen in spite of the agent.
Tools exist to better market and sell green homes and it's time to use them.
Yesterday's “save the earth” homebuyer is now joined by those motivated to capitalize on the benefits of quality green homeownership. As technology and engineering continue to make advancements, green homes become increasingly compelling.
Ben Kaufman is co-owner of GreenWorks Realty, one of the first real estate firms in the nation to specialize in green homes.