The Solaire, home to maid service, views of the Hudson River and Battery Park, plus a 24-hour concierge. Green features include toilets that flush with water treated in the same building. Fridges churn out doubly filtered drinking water.© HLD/BLANKMAN PUBLIC RELATIONS
Steven Glenn lives in "The Greenest House on The Planet," as a Business Week headline called the glass-filled, two-story, four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot prefabricated house designed by Ray Kappe and situated on a hillside street in Santa Monica, California. In this case, it’s an unwanted superlative.
"Well, it’s not true," says Glenn. "We don’t write the headlines. What does that mean, "greenest house"? There are clearly homes that have a smaller ecological footprint than this one. But it’s much, much, much smaller than typical homes. So that’s a good point."
You can, in fact, live in a home just like Glenn"s—he’s selling prefabricated versions of the first home in the nation to receive the highest-possible Platinum rating from LEED. His company, LivingHomes, is considered the first to make LEED-certified prefab homes available to consumers nationwide, though the cost is steep at about $300 per square foot. Glenn’s home serves as the model home. Just the building and foundation cost more than $1 million.
It’s a zero-energy house, with rooftop photovoltaic cells producing power that feeds into the electric grid by day, turning his electric meter backwards; by night, the building uses power from the grid for about four or five hours. The goal is that on average, the energy use zeroes out.
Sink and shower water irrigates the landscaping. Among many other features, there’s a rooftop garden. All wood and millwork is Forest Stewardship Council-certified. The company’s clients include people who buy organic foods, drive Priuses, shop at Design Within Reach furniture and give money to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Stockton Williams, meanwhile, is on a mission to green the homes of people on the lower end of the tax bracket—people like cancer survivor Jan Bey. S
he moved into Seattle’s aforementioned Denny Park Apartments, built through a five-year, $555 million initiative known as Green Communities that seeks to build more than 8,500 homes for low-income people in 23 states.
Williams works for the effort—a partnership between his employer, Maryland-based Enterprise Community Partners, and such organizations as NRDC, Global Green USA and the American Institute of Architects. The initiative provides grants, financing, tax-credit equity and technical assistance to developers who meet specific green criteria to build affordable housing. The goal is to help transform the affordable housing industry so that sustainable development becomes mainstream. Already, upwards of 6,800 units have been built or started in little more than two years. The locations vary from Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia to rural Viking, Minnesota, and the beach town of Bonita Springs, Florida. Senior citizens find green homes at the Azotea Senior Apartments in Alamagordo, New Mexico.
"We really believe that sustainable development has to become mainstream," says Williams, senior vice president of Enterprise. "It’s not an option. It’s a right and necessary thing, because the people stand to benefit so much from better buildings. A more energy-efficient home saves people money. A healthy indoor environment helps folks with weakened immune systems or young kids," while "rundown conditions [elsewhere] can exacerbate asthma."
Bey’s neighbors and other Green Communities residents earn incomes ranging from nothing to two times the poverty level. "They are the working poor: janitors, bus drivers and service workers," Williams says. "So, a seemingly small difference in a utility bill or the ability to walk to transit to go to work can have a significant impact."
William Johnson, 20, one of Bey’s neighbors, expresses relief that his three-month-old boy, Savonte, is unlikely to accidentally burn himself on the heater baseboards, which seem cool to the touch. They’re actually "water radiators," whose heat comes from a central gas-fired boiler downstairs, explained Michele Wang, who designed the building as a project manager at Runberg Architecture Group. "It’s something that’s very modern," Johnson said. "We feel like we finally moved up—a step up."
Apartment buildings like Johnson’s are symbols. If affordable housing can be green, Enterprise’s Williams figures, "It sends a very strong message that other builders and other building types really have no excuse. If the places that the people with the least amount of resources call home can be sustainable and can do their part to fight global warming, then how can the buildings and the builders of market-rate homes and high-rate homes not do at least as well?"
Not everyone is jumping on the green building bandwagon. Residential builders are slow to catch on to the trend, as they tend to look at what sold yesterday when deciding what to build today. Homebuilders mostly use the same means, methods and materials used 30 years ago, a report found. Architects and designers—important players behind the commercial greening movement—are rarely employed for homebuilding. Small companies build most houses, Browning says, so it"ll take a while for the green trend to filter down.
Resistance to change is perhaps to be expected, especially given typically higher building costs. But "the incredibly slow evolution of the building industry" is "a significant factor that holds back radical change," according to a 2003 report by Duncan Prahl of Pittsburgh-based Integrated Building and Construction Solutions (IBACOS). "Very few builders are providing high-performance houses, so a consumer’s experience in a new home in terms of comfort, indoor air quality and durability are not markedly different today than they were a generation ago…[T]his is one key reason why many builders do not perceive customers demanding anything different."
In fact, some limited focus groups indicate "consumers perceive green building to have a lower value that conventional construction." Consumer preferences seem to veer in a planet-tromping direction, regardless of the pockets of green homes in cities like Austin, Portland and Denver. Case in point: the trend toward mega-sized houses, some of them outfitted with a full-body shower spraying more than 20 gallons of water per minute—enough to fill an entire bathtub in one minute.
"Every three people putting in these shower systems negates the efforts of 100 people putting in efficient products," wrote Wilson, the BuildingGreen president, in Fine HomeBuilding magazine. Federal regulations require low-flow, 2.5-gallon-a-minute showerheads. Yet these new multiple-head systems spray 10 times as much or more, "a small portion of which may briefly contact your body," Wilson wrote, "en route from your water heater to your sewer line."
If the point behind the green building movement is to shrink every person’s footprint on the planet, then the societal shift toward 3,500-square-foot or larger homes runs counter to that spirit. The real estate world seems set up to encourage big houses—due to zoning regulations in some areas, subdivision covenants, mortgage lenders" practices (a lot should not be worth more than 30 percent of the real estate, meaning a pricy lot needs a pricy building), as well as the usual desire by some consumers to keep up with the Joneses, according to a 1999 analysis published in Environmental Building News. The average house has doubled in size from about 1,100 square feet in the 1950s.
"You can build a pretty mediocre house from an energy standpoint at 1,200 square feet and it will probably use a lot less energy than a state-of-art green home that is 3,500 square feet. And that’s a factor we need to be conscious of," Wilson says.
Building materials alone are gobbled up at a greater rate for bigger houses. It’s estimated that a 5,000-square-foot house consumes three times as much material as a 2,085-square-foot home, even though its square footage is only 2.4 times larger, according to that Environmental Building News analysis.
Still, the green building movement includes green mansions—or as Salon.com dubbed them, "Great big green monster mansions." LivingHomes, for instance, has been contracted to build 6,000-square-foot versions of Steven Glenn’s "greenest house on the planet."
Most green-building rating systems don’t give much weight to house size. They don’t want to come across as proselytizers, Wilson says. So far, LEED has only a pilot project for rating homes, so the field is essentially left to other voluntary rating systems, all of which require buildings to gain a certain number of points to earn certification. The National Association of Home Builders" Green Building Program addresses house size by awarding four points for building smaller, Wilson says, out of a 300-point rating system.
A notable exception was the Vermont Builds Greener certification system. If you wanted a certified-green home that’s twice the size of the average house, you had to earn 50 percent more points than would be required for a small home. And that mean
t adding far more eco-friendly measures to compensate. Since last year, however, the program has gotten more lenient, moving toward the LEED for Homes pilot standard, which requires 13 percent more points. (The hope, says VBG’s Peter Schneider, is that LEED will continue to incorporate more small-size-encouraging measures as its national standard evolves.) "We’re really trying to push people to build smaller homes," Schneider says.
If the point is to be lighter on the planet, then the trend should be toward building smaller…or at least to shrink the energy bills of new, improved, green replacement buildings. But there’s a temptation to build bigger or more elaborately.
The glass-dominated, LEED Gold-certified Seattle City Hall stands out for such remarkable features as a lobby with cascading waters and a green roof, yet a local newspaper story bore this headline: "Seattle’s New City Hall is an Energy Hog."
The building used 15 to 50 percent more electricity some months than the older, larger building it replaced, even though it houses fewer employees, said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005. Considering that Mayor Greg Nickels encourages mayors across the nation to cut their cities" energy use to voluntarily meet Kyoto protocols, "the high energy use is an embarrassment for the city," the P-I reported. Electricity use remains higher at City Hall than at the old building, though it’s unclear by how much, as officials sidestepped the question.
"The buildings are truly incomparable…We didn’t want another municipal building. We wanted a civic center," says a defensive Brenda Bauer, director of Seattle’s fleets and facilities. "The electric use is higher because we’ve got many more functions. The efficiency of the appliances is extraordinarily more efficient. The lighting fixtures are more efficient. We had a building no one wanted to go in. There was nothing for people to do. It was seismically unsound and was, frankly, falling apart."
Among things the new City Hall has that its predecessor didn"t: large lobbies and stairways, substantial fountains, a TV studio, specialty lighting for integrated art, architectural lighting on the exterior skin of the building and six efficient elevators. The building also has a greater number of ventilation fans and life safety systems, "all of which consume energy and create a more comfortable, safer and functional facility," Bauer noted. "This is not in any way environmentally irresponsible."
A study of LEED-certified buildings occupied for at least a year in Portland and Seattle found that six of the 10 buildings used an average of 30 percent less energy than predicted by design models, according to the Cascadia Region Green Building Council study. The bad news: Of the seven buildings that had design projections, all but one used an average of a third more water than predicted. Still, the average 25-year savings for the buildings studied is $2 per square foot.
Further objective examinations could help the green building movement spread. Some wonder whether efficiency standards really deliver desired results. "Clearly, it’s an extremely laudable goal. The question is: Is this laudable goal actually going to be reached in terms of performance and outcome by using the [building] techniques that are commonly used now?" says Ujjval Vyas, a former architecture professor and now an attorney with Foran, Glennon, Palandech & Ponzi, Chicago, which focuses on green building issues.
Ford's newly rebuilt Rouge Center in Dearborn, Michigan features a huge green roof.© FORD/WILLIAM Mc DONOUGH & PARTNERS/EARTH PLEDGE
And historic preservationists and environmentalists want some consideration given to older properties. Around a ffourth of the material in solid waste facilities is construction debris, much of that from demolishing older and historic buildings.
When one typical small downtown building (25 feet wide by 120 feet deep) is demolished, it essentially wipes out the environmental benefit of recycling 1.34 million aluminum cans, argues Donovan D. Rypkema of PlaceEconomics in Washington, D.C., a speaker at the 2005 National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in Portland. Every day over the past 30 years, an average of 577 older and historic homes are torn down. Typically built of the least-energy-consumptive of materials (plaster, concrete and timber), they’re often replaced with conventional buildings of energy-consumptive plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum, he argued.
"You’re a fool or a fraud if you claim to be an environmentalist and yet you throw away historic buildings and their components," Rypkema remarked.
While at least some green buildings make a deliberate point of using recycled materials, historic preservationists remain wary of bulldozers. "If a community did nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation is Smart Growth," Rypkema says. "A Smart Growth approach that does not include historic preservation high on the agenda is stupid growth, period."
In the end, it’s clear that the green building movement is growing, yet faces obstacles if it’s ever going to take the world by storm. Toronto-based designer Bruce Mau considers it vital. "For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. We"ll rebuild half the planet’s buildings in the next 50 years," says Mau, keynote speaker at the Building Energy "05 conference in Boston. "Now that modern technology has put us in a position that we can do anything, what will we do?"
SALLY DENEEN follows green building from sustainable Seattle, Washington.