The city of Poquoson, Virginia has long been regionally known for things like its commercial watermen, mosquitoes and a low crime rate.
As home to one of the nation's most avant garde, environmentally minded residential communities? Not so much.
But a small development in western Poquoson has emerged as one of the country's pre-eminent cooperatives — unique even among the smattering of similar eco-friendly offerings rooted mostly in western states.
Each of the homes in the 5.3-acre Garden Atriums subdivision, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Wythe Creek Road and Poquoson Avenue, are constructed with renewable materials whenever possible and use natural systems for heating and cooling, electricity and some water needs.
In addition, interior designs use health-conscious components like interior paints that do not emit harmful chemical "outgassing" and dye-free wool carpets that contain no formaldehyde.
Stu Rose and Trina Duncan started noticing trends in the 1990s that made them dream of building a self-supporting house. Now, they are riding the forward edge of a sea change in public sentiment toward "green" housing.
In the course of about six years, the architectural consultants' vision has flourished into an upscale neighborhood consisting of four occupied residences with three more planned.
"The goal we have for doing these is to demonstrate, not that you can create a sustainable house — technically there is nothing here that's wildly new — but can we create a house and allow it to sell in the marketplace in competition with older, traditional houses," Rose said.
"It has to be a house that's fun to live in that says 'Hey, this is OK, this is neat. It's a great place to live, a great place to entertain, a great place to hide in the corner, a great place to raise kids.' I think we've done that with these houses."
From the curb outside, the roughly half-million dollar homes are nondescript and reveal few nuances to distinguish them from other high-end residences dotting the lowland peninsula's landscape.
However, step into Rose and Duncan's home "Phaistos" — named after an ancient Cretan palace — and the "Wow" factor is jarring.
It is the oldest of the four houses, and at 4,900 square feet the largest, with tropical plants standing a dozen or so feet high, interspersed among budding fruit trees that section-off sitting and dining areas and a hot tub. A concrete water fountain emits soft gurgling to mesh with the jungle-like surroundings. Look skyward and you see, well, the sky. The shatter-proof plate glass roof bathes the entire atrium in natural light that seeps into glass-walled bed and media rooms.
And that's just during the day. "I don't ever remember living in a house where I was aware of the moon rising," Duncan said.
Rose said the house was built with more conventional means using a combination of wood frames, steel girders and gypsum board interior finish. An outer facade was molded from granite dust. Throughout, recycled materials were used wherever possible. Columns are also molded from granite dust and hardwood floors harvested from the wood of old ships and barns. The walk-in pantry has cork floors. In the kitchen, porcelain-tile counter tops are clay-made and efficient appliances use about a third of the energy regularly consumed.
The other smaller, approximately 2,300-square-foot homes are built with energy-efficient structural insulated panels — construction panels of oriented-strand board sandwiching a core of rigid foam plastic insulation. Those homes have either brick or stone facades.
In each, the atriums have only partial glass skylights — Rose said he discovered after construction of Phaistos that partial-glass angled at 90 degrees would be more efficient. In his house, reserve heat kicks on when outside temperatures dip to about 34 degrees, but the others seldom have that need, Rose said.
Each residence contains a sizable rainwater cistern to provide for non-potable water. Rose said municipal water bills run about $3 to $5 per quarter.
Garden Atriums was made possible by the creation of a Poquoson clustering ordinance in 2002. In it, homes can be spaced 20 feet apart so long as the developer leaves at least 50 percent of the total acreage for open space.
So while these houses are separated by private patios, an expansive community space occupies much of the development. Fruit trees and berry vines ring the property that includes a retention pond with an ornamental fountain powered through solar panels erected on the roof of a gazebo that extends over the water. Each homeowner gets a 10-by-20-foot plot in a community garden.
All four homes are heavily insulated with interior heat provided by the sun through the glass skylights, solar panels for electricity and a geothermal unit for cooling. The bulk of the homes are designed to have no power costs, but Rose said that in Phaistos the bill runs about $45 per month because they inadvertently failed to account for the hot tub when installing solar panels.
Each is enrolled in Dominion Power's Net Metering program, where excess generated power is credited back to the homeowner's account to offset future usage, said Bill Blackwell, a Dominion administrator who works with the program.
There are only about 45 homes — including the four at Garden Atriums — that are enrolled in the program statewide, said Blackwell. He was aware of a couple of duplexes in Northern Virginia that had been outfitted, but Blackwell said he knew of no developments.
"It's an interesting community," Blackwell said, of Garden Atriums. "I don't know of any other community like that."
Blackwell said the first Net Metering system was installed in Virginia in 2002, shortly after lawmakers established governing rules.
"As each year goes by we see more interest and more installations going on," Blackwell said. "It benefits us all. It's good green power with no emissions."
For 30 years, John Spears, president of the Maryland-based Sustainable Design Group and International Center for Sustainable Development, has designed "green" homes and even whole communities in several developing countries. He consulted on the Garden Atriums and called Rose's aim "cutting edge."
"The problem in the U.S. is we're not hurting bad enough yet for people to think it's necessary," Spears said. "There are innovators and visionaries, like Stu, that see and are addressing that. Eventually, everyone will see. But nobody's come to that conclusion on a broad scale yet."
Rose and Duncan suggest something of a collective lightbulb has been lit in the minds of many they encounter.
"When we first came down here, people thought we were from Mars," Duncan said, of the couple's move from Georgetown several years ago. "But awareness has gone up nationally. People always thought it was an interesting house, but now more are starting to get the 'why.'"
"Sustainability means you can build a million of these and it won't deplete the world's resources," Duncan said.
They decided that if the plan was a bust and no one wanted to buy the house they built, they would just live in it. Today, they have no apparent plans to sell Phaistos, but the other completed homes, priced around $600,000, have been snapped up.
Rose said he's ready to start work on the fifth house, but he's closely watching the region's sluggish real estate market for clues as to when to get started.
"If I think it'll sell, I'm hot to do it," he said. "But I can't get into economic suicide."
Learn more on the Web: www.gardenatriums.com Visit the Sustainable Design Group at www.sustainabledesign.com Information on Net Metering can be found on Dominion Power's Web site at www.dom.com The U.S. Department of Energy has many information resources at www.doe.govCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun