Earth-Friendly Homes: Whether a religion or a hot trend, sustainable energy translates into action for `green-conscious' homeowners (San Jose Mercury News) : LUSENET : Sustainable Business & Living iForum : One Thread

Published Saturday, April 22, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Earth-Friendly Homes
Whether a religion or a hot
trend, sustainable energy
translates into action for
`green-conscious' homeowners
<> BY KATHERINE CLAY Special to the Mercury News

[Fair Use: For Educational/Research Purposes Only]

WO GAS-POWERED cars and one electric vehicle sit at the curb in front of the house made of straw bales, their license plates -- ECO DZYN, ECOFRK and EV PWR -- attesting to their owners' ecological interest.

Green power. Non-toxic. Recycled. Certified. Passive solar. Active solar. Gray water. Renewable. Reclaimed. Sustainable. What's it all about?

Since it's Earth Day, we'll tell you. ``Sustainable,'' according to the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development, means ``Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'' It was a word heard often on the recent Sustainable House Tour, sponsored by Hidden Villa in Los Altos, the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation and the Northern California Solar Energy Association.

To some, using sustainable energy is a religion. ``I think the planet's in trouble,'' said Lisa Friedman, owner of a 1951 ranch house that is slowly turning green, project by project. ``We need to move technology forward in order to survive. Getting smarter is better than cutting back.''

To others, sustainable energy is the new hot feature, the buzz. What to buy when you have everything else. How to impress the neighbors.

But how is the lofty concept of sustainable energy translated into action?

Notice the shiny dark blue shingles with integrated photovoltaic cells, those miraculous devices that convert sunlight into electricity. Take off your shoes so the in-floor radiant heating system can warm your feet. Notice the thick walls made of straw bales, now covered with stucco. Listen to the splash of the fountain where solar power recirculates water. Look at the deck made of recycled milk cartons. Walk across floors made from certified wood -- from trees grown in a forest certified to be managed to specified standards, in an environmentally sensitive way.

``Buying certified wood is not the lesser of two evils; it's the good thing because you're ensuring sustainable forests,'' said Kurt Hupi, consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Third party organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, inspect and certify that certain standards were observed -- avoiding clear-cutting and minimizing downstream impact, for example, said Steve Hardy of Hayward Lumber, which has the largest inventory of certified wood in the state. Hupi thinks people will pay a green premium for houses built with green enlightenment.

Suzanne Johnson, a physical chemist who wanted to live a more environmentally conscious life, had a photovoltaic system installed in her Sunnyvale home on Cathedral Drive about two years ago. ``To a lot of people,'' she says, ``solar energy is still a mystery. But as more people use it, more will be encouraged to follow suit.'' Right now, she says, when there's a utility power failure, she'll be the only house on the block with the lights on.

Will it work?

John Rennick and his wife decided to conduct an experiment: build a passive solar and straw bale house on Vista Grande Drive in Los Altos. ``How efficient will it be in the winter?'' he asks rhetorically. ``Will we miss air conditioning and forced air heat, or will the natural ventilation cooling and gas fireplaces keep us comfortable?''

Straw bales are bales of hay or rice, roughly about 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet, used to make walls. The builder drives supports through them and covers them with stucco. They are particularly effective for thermal and noise insulation, and are fire resistant after the overcoat of stucco is applied.

He concedes that their contribution to energy conservation will be infinitesimal, but it's a start. Nor does he know what impact the use of green energy might make on the sale of the house, but resale value was not central to his decision to build the house with sustainable materials.

Some believe that a house that uses sustainable energy will sell more easily or for more money than a conventional house.

Others disagree, believing instead that it depends on the buyer. A savvy buyer who understands active and passive solar, efficiency of energy, gray water and other concepts around the green development issue might well be eager to pay a green premium. Others may not want to be bothered hosing off solar panels from time to time to keep the dust and pollen from impacting the conversion of solar power into energy. But it stands a better chance in Palo Alto.

``Palo Alto tends to attract buyers who are environmentally conscious -- much like Berkeley,'' said Bob Gerlach of Alain Pinel Realtors. ``But for some others, solar panels are a negative.''

It depends, indeed, on the buyer.

``There are classes of people who know about sustainable energy and appreciate it,'' said Suzanne Johnson. ``But to a lot of people, solar energy is still a mystery and to them, using sustainable energy is not necessarily attractive.''

Aesthetic attractiveness, however, is no longer a problem.

Green homes, once thought to be of interest primarily to mountain men and hippies, have gone upscale. No longer funky and rustic, today's sustainable homes can be stylish, artistic and elegant.

Changing the business

``Green building is a trend shaping the construction industry,'' said Drew Maran of Drew Maran Construction/Design in Palo Alto, who has made a name for himself in green building. Maran designed the Slater home on Emerson Street.

``It's fueled by concern for the health of the planet, by a growing understanding of alternative energy, and by a growing acceptance of houses designed with the environment in mind.''

Help abounds for those wanting to build or remodel green.

The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, an association of contractors and others interested in ecologically sustainable design, was founded in 1993 and has grown to seven chapters around the Northwest. Guild members put on workshops and publish the Green Pages, a directory of members and their environmentally friendly products and services.

Other signs of growing acceptance include the second annual ``Green Building'' conference held in Denver in early April, sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders, a trade organization with 200,000 members.

Other signs of growing interest in green building is the number of architects who specialize in green building; the sprouting up of software tools for estimating the life-cycle environmental impacts of a building; the number of states -- including California -- with rebate programs for builders who use solar energy; the number of states with green building alliances to provide expert services and information to help solve green building problems, and the growing number of suppliers of healthy, environmentally sound building products.

Another straw bale house is under construction at Hidden Villa, where there will be a ``bale raising'' the first two weekends in June, under the supervision of John Swearingen of Skillful Means, who will journey from Junction City, west of Redding in Tehama County.

``Come on down. It's a trip,'' says Swearingen, the guru of the straw bale. These, he assures us are quite sturdy. We've come a long way since the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew down the straw house of one of the Three Little Pigs.

Katherine Clay is a freelance writer living in San Carlos.

-- Anonymous, April 28, 2000


Northwest EcoBuilding Guild

-- Anonymous, April 28, 2000

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