'Green' homes at peace with the environment

Sunshine: As a power source, it is a key part of green design, but so is most any concept that spares limited resources - insulation from recycled materials, for example.

February 09, 2003|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Chuck Fox and his family decided it was time to remodel their Crownsville home, they had a lot of questions about what to use and how much it would all cost, but one thing was for sure - the only color on the palette would be green.

An environmentally friendly design - often referred to as "green building" - was a given for Fox, former director of the state Department of Natural Resources and currently senior policy adviser at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. That meant optimal use of the sun, recycled supplies and new materials that had the least negative impact on the environment.

Experts said an increasing number of homeowners are just as concerned as Fox about what their homes do to the environment. While green design sparked in the early 1990s in the new-home market, the trend is making inroads to the remodeling market, building experts say.

Elements of green design include the use of solar water heating, photovoltaic electricity production, insulation made from recycled materials and woods or wood-like products that are least detrimental to forests. And, at the very least, remodeling itself is considered green - because it doesn't involve building an entirely new home from limited resources.

"We're not made of money; we're not going as far as possible," Fox said. "But we're taking a proven technology and applying it."

The home will include geothermal wells for more efficient heating and cooling, a salvaged white oak floor, a concrete siding that reduces wood use and a new septic system that removes nitrogen waste and yields healthier soil and water.

Though green building first bloomed in new-home construction, designers and builders now see an untapped market in remodeling. Finding a remodeler who specializes in green materials remains difficult, experts said, but homeowners have a variety of options available to them, from recycled insulation to using solar panels to help power a home. The process can be expensive from the start because state and federal tax incentives are few. For example, solar panels can cost up to $4,000 for some homes and the payback can take years to recoup in energy savings.

Experts said homeowners interested in green building supplies should study a variety of products and then ask contractors scores of questions when choosing who will perform the work.

"The movement is picking up steam. ... It's an intuitive thing that people gravitate to," said architect Janet Harrison, a specialist in green design who was the environmental consultant for the landmark Chesapeake Bay Foundation building in Annapolis, which often is considered the greenest building in the region. "In residential work, sometimes green is about reuse - using what you have and doing more with less. Renovations, by their nature, are green."

Green builder Jonathan Meyer from Annapolis was engaged to remodel Fox's home. Though builders are just beginning their renovation work, even the "deconstruction" period is critical to being green, Meyer said. While tearing out the old materials, it is critical for builders to handle construction waste so that as little as possible goes into landfills or waterways. Meyer will recycle Fox's old driveway for use as roadbed crust. He also is installing a drain-water heat-recovery system.

"It's not glamorous, but construction waste is the largest single category of waste in landfills," Meyer said. "Rather than demolish, try to recycle it all."

Use nature

Expensive photovoltaic (PV) cell systems are semiconductor devices that convert sunlight into electricity that can be used to power the home. They can cost more than $25,000. Solar panel systems, much cheaper, also are employed. But natural, common-sense elements such as trees, the sun and a home's position on the site are just as important to a green environment, consultants said.

Are there enough windows in the south and west, for example, to gather afternoon sunrays to help heat a home during the winter? Are there proper window shades or trees to block those sunrays during the summer? And if there are trees on those sides, they should be deciduous, so that the home has shade in the summer and sun in winter, Harrison said. Skylights also help bring in natural, free lighting.

"People have always known these things," she said. "Before there was air conditioning, all homes were built to catch the breezes and the sun and the shade. Air conditioning made us build as if it didn't matter."

Harrison chose her home in Annapolis largely because of its ability to catch the rays. A large, glass window wall faces south, to pick up the sun as it travels west. But the windows are shaded just enough by an overhang so that summer heat (when the sun is higher in the sky) doesn't stifle the family. Exterior shades or shutters can do the same thing, she said.

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