March 17, 2005

You can build green without showing off

  • Some home buyers want sustainable features wrapped in a traditional package
    Specialized Homes

    Not too long ago, if you were interested in a new hybrid car, you had two choices: the Honda Insight or the Toyota Prius.

    The Insight, with its doorstop profile and covered rear wheels, screamed "green." The Prius, on the other hand, blended in with the rest of Toyota's lineup, bestowing its environmental benefits without advertising them.

    Likewise, environmentally conscious consumers can now purchase a new green home that announces "I am green" — or they can purchase one that does not. So those of us who want a traditional-looking home can still enjoy the benefits of healthier indoor air quality, lower energy bills and the satisfaction that comes with treading lighter on the environment.

    Indeed, most prospective home buyers are still primarily motivated by architecture, floor plan, community, location and school district. To them, environmentally friendly amenities are the icing on the cake.

    Specialized Homes is building 15 homes at Issaquah Highlands to serve that market. The community requires each home to be constructed to standards set by Built Green, a residential building program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

    Each of these two- to five-bedroom homes, 2,600 to 3,800 square feet each, sits on a relatively small lot, in tune with this pedestrian-scaled community.

    The homes wrap dining and living spaces around a central outdoor courtyard. Exteriors reflect traditional architectural styles, from shingle-style to Mediterranean-inspired stucco. Prices list between $475,000 and $600,000.

    Elsewhere Specialized built 12 three- to six-bedroom homes that range between 3,500 and 4,800 square feet, starting at around $850,000.

    Each of these homes offers green amenities that meet Build Green's four-star rating standards.

    These homes prove that green and luxury need not be mutually exclusive.

    3 telling statistics

    As a homebuilder, I've found that the following three statistics illustrate why people increasingly desire green features:

    • Indoor air may be two to five times more contaminated than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Poor indoor-air quality exacerbates the symptoms of asthma and has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing it.

    • Using traditional building methods, the construction of a 3,400-square-foot wood-frame house requires the equivalent of two acres of forest timber.

    • The average American house consumes nearly $1,500 a year in utility costs. Yet Built Green homes reduce energy costs by approximately 25 percent annually, which could lower those bills to $1,125.

    Many green features that address these concerns still allow a home to look traditional from the street. These features include strategic site placement to leverage passive solar power, adhesives and paints that emit few if any volatile organic compounds (VOCs), structural framing that uses less lumber, and insulation made from recycled paper-based products.

    When designing and building a home, Specialized Homes focuses on three goals to create green value, and uses a variety of techniques to reach them:

    Resource efficiency

    Whether constructing a frame or choosing an appliance, using fewer resources not only saves money, it saves trees and reduces water consumption.

    Energy Star appliances consume 10 to 66 percent less energy or water per year, and 1.5-gallon aerators reduce water consumption.

    Garbage and recycling centers can be designed into kitchen cabinets. Making recycling easy to sort and garbage convenient to dispose of encourages homeowners to reduce waste. Humans are inclined to be lazy, I've found. Making it easy to recycle is half the battle.

    The traditional way of framing a house also uses more wood than necessary. Advanced framing techniques allow timber to be used more efficiently and strategically to carry the structural load of a home. These systems use 35 percent less wood.

    Also, headers, or lintels above doors and windows, can be precisely measured to serve their structural function. Typically, headers are uniformly cut, which ends up wasting wood.

    Improve indoor air quality

    Air-cleaning systems, low-VOC materials and finishes, and low moisture all contribute to improved indoor air quality.

    Air-cleaning systems remove many VOCs from indoor air. Low-VOC materials include laminate and linoleum with low-VOC adhesives, and biodegradable linoleum floor coverings, which can be used instead of floor coverings made from PVC plastic-based vinyl. Formaldehyde-free cabinet finishes also reduce VOC emissions, as do low-VOC paints and water-based hardwood floor finishes.

    Another tip: After constructing the frame, allow the houses to dry to a mere 12 percent moisture content, which stabilizes the wood for a tighter building envelope, minimizes settling cracks and reduces the potential for trapped mold.

    Increase energy efficiency

    Design and construction methods to increase energy efficiency include using innovative insulations, efficient water heaters and furnaces, and strategic architectural elements.

    There are different types of insulation that are more efficient than what building codes prescribe. For example, wall insulation made from cellulose, or recycled paper, creates a tighter seal than fiberglass-based insulation.

    Specialized Homes is investigating soy-based foam as a potential insulator, and may use the material in home construction soon. The point is to continually investigate evolving technology to improve efficiency and quality.

    Specialized just completed a home at Issaquah Highlands in which an on-demand water heating system was installed that improves energy efficiency by 55 percent over regular water heaters.

    Instead of a passive system that always heats water, an on-demand system heats it only when hot water is needed.

    Lastly, more-efficient furnace systems and blower door tests eliminate excessive leakage of heated air.

    Specialized has looked into solar panel systems but hasn't used them because, in this climate, their rate of return has not proven cost-effective for our customers. The systems are getting better, though, and we may install them in the near future.

    Until then, Specialized has found that incorporating large, overhanging eaves on a home keeps the building cool in the summer and protected from elements in the winter.

    Bob Niemann is president of Specialized Homes.

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