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Green on the upswing as eco-friendly home building goes mainstream

Laws and LegislationHouse BuildingInner HarborMake-A-Wish Foundation of AmericaEnergy Saving

At first, Baldwin Homes didn't build green. Then it dipped its corporate toe in — one home here, another there.

Now the Gambrills company is constructing an entire green neighborhood. It's the story of U.S. home building writ small.

Green accounted for 2 percent of the new-home market in 2005, according to a report by industry data provider McGraw Hill Construction. By last year it had ballooned to 23 percent — nearly a quarter.

"I don't think green is a niche market anymore," said Michele A. Russo, director of green content at McGraw Hill Construction.

More builders have jumped in with both feet. Others are giving green techniques a try, to the point that more than 60 percent of single-family home builders say they're doing at least a moderate amount of work in the field, according to McGraw Hill.

Even strictly conventional homes are built in a more environmentally — and budget — friendly way than they were five years ago because energy-efficient appliances are so common, Russo said.

Some builders get a green stamp of approval from a certifying body, such as the U.S. Green Building Council. Others just incorporate some of the ideas, which can range from designing a home with sunlight in mind to building "green roofs" in urban areas so dirty stormwater doesn't run off into the Chesapeake Bay.

The level of activity and acceptance is a sea change, said Michael Furbish, president and founder of Furbish, a green product supplier in Baltimore that specializes in green roofs and walls.

"Green building has become the norm in 15 short years," he said. "Instead of being a novelty, it's become a presumed logical way of building."

It's not that everyone's become an environmentalist. The "conversation is changing," said Kevin Morrow, director of sustainability and green building at the National Association of Home Builders. Techniques once sold as environmentally friendly are increasingly plugged as "high performance," because the two frequently go hand-in-hand.

Take, for example, a highly insulated house. It uses less energy, a plus for outdoor air quality and the owner's utility bills. It's also much more comfortable than a drafty property.

The goal is "making sure that the home is a pleasant place to be," Morrow said.

Mike Baldwin, president and owner of Baldwin Homes, is working on National Green Building Standard-certified homes at the Preserve at Severn Run in Gambrills.

The company developed the Anne Arundel County neighborhood with deep swales at the front of some lots — and no sidewalks or curbs — to manage stormwater. Baldwin said he built the swales at the county's request and decided to go fully green in that subdivision as a result.

Now he's a convert. He speaks with enthusiasm about leaving as many trees on the land as possible, insulating well, designing for better indoor air quality, using windows on the south-facing side of the house that reflect heat, reclaiming old building materials — techniques he's using at the Preserve.

"Green home building is not just about the products that you're putting in the home," Baldwin said. "It's embracing every aspect of building a home, from the site on."

He built the model to be a showcase, with more than 60 green features. He pointed out examples as he walked through. A chessboard-like patio, recycled-content concrete pavers interspersed with squares of synthetic grass. Reclaimed columns from Second Chance in Baltimore. Zoned heating and cooling so different areas can be set to different temperatures. Buried cisterns to feed the irrigation system with rainwater rather than well water. A solar hot water heater in the basement. A fan in the garage that automatically runs for 15 minutes after a car pulls in — to get the carbon monoxide out.

It's a huge house, built as a fundraiser for Hospice of the Chesapeake and Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic. But the electric bill for the nearly 7,000-square-foot property, including the finished basement, averages about $200 a month, Baldwin said.

Fifteen miles north, local developers are putting the finishing touches on a five-townhouse project in South Baltimore. The 1,850-square-foot homes aren't green-certified, and there's nothing unusual about the interiors — now that high-efficiency appliances, heating and air conditioning are common — but at the very top of the Townes at Marshall Green is an example of Furbish's work. Green roofs.

The city's Department of Public Works suggested them to manage stormwater runoff, said John Roe, one of the developers.

"I didn't know anything about green roofs, really — I know of them," he said. "So my partner and I started doing research on them. The more I read about it, the more I liked the notion."

Runoff isn't a theoretical concept for Roe. He enjoys boating in the Inner Harbor and the bay, and he's dismayed by how dirty the harbor water can get.

The roofs appealed to him as a way to catch rain and filter it, removing gunk, as well as providing a bit of greenery for residents in a pavement-intensive place. Half the roof is covered in plants, growing in soil packed above super-absorbent mineral wool; the rest is done in concrete pavers, suitable for a table and chairs.

Roe's considering green techniques in future projects.

"Obviously, development all has to fit into a budget, but it's something certainly I'm interested in," he said.

Janet Harrison, an Annapolis architect who specializes in green building, said there's a lot that can be done at low cost, simply with design. The shape of a home, the shading, the windows — done right, they can maximize sunlight in the winter, when extra heat is a plus, and minimize it in the summer when it would just run up the tab for cooling.

She calls it "old wisdom."

"We knew all these things before we forgot — before air conditioning came in," she said.

The more green elements, the more likely there's an extra cost attached. But Morrow, with the home builders association, said it's not as high as it used to be, a change driven by more competition among product providers and more builders with experience.

"About two-thirds of builders report that their customers are willing to pay something higher than they might otherwise have for a high-performing home," he said. "Whether that's 1 percent or 10 percent, there's disagreement on."

Baldwin's experience is it's still a challenging sell, despite green's mainstream position in the market these days. He said Maryland is such a pricey place to build, with suburban impact fees and big-ticket requirements such as nitrogen-removing septic systems, that buyers are wary of anything that looks more expensive upfront.

That means he has to do a lot of explaining. About the lower cost to operate and maintain his homes. About the materials he uses standard — like hardwood floors — that aren't in the base price of conventional new homes because it's an upgrade.

But he has to get buyers in the door to have that conversation.

"If they really understood what green is, anyone would want a green home," he said. "It's just a home that works well, to its maximum efficiency."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Green grows

A by-the-numbers look at the green homebuilding market:

•37: Percent of single-family home builders in 2011 who said green projects represented at least a moderate amount of their work

•62: Percent of single-family home builders in 2013 who fell in that category

•84: Percent of single-family home builders who project that green will represent at least a moderate amount of their work in 2018

•$6 billion: Value of the green new-home market in 2005

•$37 billion: Value of the green new-home market in 2013

Source: McGraw Hill Construction

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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