`Green' homes starting to flower despite cost

Growing: The number of `green' homes built in 2002 and last year surpasses those built in the previous 11 years.

June 27, 2004|By Shruti Mathur | Shruti Mathur,SUN STAFF

Hidden under Esther Siegel's white oak flooring lie the first drafts of history.

Recycled newspapers and salvaged firewood help make up the sub-flooring in her Takoma Park home. Unlike traditional plywood, the environmentally friendly sheeting material does not emit gas and can be found at local hardware stores.

Siegel's floor, like many other parts of her house, is constructed from discarded materials that save her money and energy.

The idea of reusing products around the house that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly is commonly referred to as "green" building.

The trend has been popular in resource-limited Europe, but as energy prices continue to rise in the United States, green building is becoming more appealing to homeowners, industry experts said.

Many consumers still balk at the prices because some materials cost more than traditional building supplies. But builders and contractors claim energy-efficient appliances and several other materials have become more affordable during the past few years and customers often inquire about them.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, more than 27,000 homes meeting green building standards were constructed in 2002 and last year, compared with fewer than 19,000 between 1990 and 2001.

While the green-building phenomenon began during the energy crisis of the 1970s, industry experts said they have seen more interest in the past two years.

Siegel and her husband, Michael Tabor, built a straw bale addition that includes 18-inch-thick walls and cellulose insulation. The walls, along with a masonry wood-burning stove, have helped keep their energy bills steady over the years, despite an addition that has doubled the size of their residence.

Recycled car windshields tile the bathroom, while scrap trees and fallen branches collected from the back yard create a loft railing in the home.

Unusual wooden doorknobs decorate a series of 400-year-old doors, all very different, yet adding to the unique and earthy aura of this green home.

"We were first attracted to the area because of its environmentally progressive interests," said Tabor, who is an organic farmer. "And so when we decided to renovate our own home, we wanted to take the same actions and do as much as we could."

Jim Hackler is the director of the Earthcraft House Project, one of 26 local green building programs nationwide. The Atlanta organization has helped produce 1,600 green homes in Georgia in the past three years and has plans to expand to Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Although Maryland hasn't developed a program yet, national green homebuilding guidelines will be made available from the National Association of Home Builders this year.

Hackler attributes the green building growth to an industrywide marketing effort.

"They are working on transforming the concept from being equated to inaccessible renewable homes that are a specialty item into a common technique that is both relevant and affordable," he said.

According to Joan Kelsch, who works with the Arlington County Environmental Planning Department in Virginia, homeowners are now on the pulling end of the green production cycle.

"People are becoming more aware of energy costs, toxins and fresh air flow," Kelsch said. "And just in general, that green building is not only beneficial for the environment, but for your personal environment [health and productivity], and as a result people are demanding more products."

Building green no longer signals digging deep into the wallet as more and more off-the-shelf environmentally friendly materials are becoming available and affordable.

Green designer Sigi Koko, who has offices in Pennsylvania and Virginia, believes that green building is close to becoming a piece of the mainstream residential market. She did some green design work for the Montgomery Park Business Center in Baltimore.

"There are certain things that can be costly, but there are lots and lots of things you can do, both during the construction and through the life cycle of a product, that can save you money," she said.

Mark Keen, a local architect and contributor to Baltimore's first Green Week exposition in March, agrees: "The whole trick is to reduce energy so you can pay less per month over a period of five to seven years. Then you could break even and can even start making money."

Solar panels, for example, can cost from $11,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars while $6,000 to $7,000 is the price tag of a solar water installation, according to Jeff Gilbert of Chesapeake Wind and Solar Co. Gilbert said the energy savings can be as high as 12 percent to 14 percent each year and that Maryland residents can cash in on a 15 percent tax credit of up to $2,000 that expires at the end of this year.

But while industry experts highlight the eventual savings of such projects, upfront costs are just too steep for some to bear.

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