'Green' homes starting to flower despite cost

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.


When the roof of Neil Ridgely's 30-year-old rancher needed to be replaced last fall, the Carroll County resident decided to go green. He looked into a "living roof," which grows grass and plants as well as slowing storm-water runoff. Ridgely received a $40,000 estimate, which he said was too pricey.

Mark Gaulin, an industrial commercial roofing contractor who installed his own green roof in Anne Arundel County, said prices may fall as green building becomes more popular.

"Green roofing is expensive, and its usage is more for the commercial world," Gaulin acknowledged. "I think, however that as people are seeing the value in green design more and more, that the prices will go down."

Some consumers complain that contractors still resist green building.

Lori Handrahan has been attempting to turn her Washington home into a model for green living for more than four years.

"The contractors we have contacted are unwilling to implement green techniques," she said, recalling receiving one bid for the installation of a geothermal heating system for $45,000.


"They tell us that the green projects will cost us a lot more money, that sustainable bamboo flooring would cost more than $10 a square foot, yet the green architect designer we hired found some priced at $2," she said.

Handrahan is remodeling her home in environmentally friendly ways by using radiant floor heating, paint recipes made from everyday kitchen supplies and a house fan. She stopped short of buying a $4,000 green refrigerator, which saved more energy than others, saying the price was too high.

Polly Bart, a green builder in Baltimore County, acknowledges that some builders are reluctant to use such techniques because more people are needed to manage such a project.

"It is difficult to find someone who is eager enough to do those things, and unfortunately, sometimes the builder will talk a client out of it or give a high-priced quote," she said. "A lot of people have this idea that it is expensive to go green, but I feel that people shouldn't have to pay to be green. It should benefit them."

Richard Katon had concerns about the economic benefits when he and his wife, Jynny, decided to remodel their 25-year- old Rockville home with a green approach.

"I was worried that it would be too expensive, but apparently there are a lot of economically friendly things you can do if you shop around," he said.


Experts said techniques that are friendly to the environment and wallet include buying nontoxic paints, replacing old washing machines and refrigerators with new Energy Star appliances that are more efficient, and installing blown-in cellulose made of recycled newspaper, a material that can be less expensive than standard fiberglass.

David Brosh, chief inspector of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development's weatherization program, helps many low-income households become more efficient by performing energy audits, sealing cracks and leaks, installing insulation systems and replacing old heating systems. The free service is available to families of two that earn less than $18,735 a year and families of five that earn less than $33,045 annually.

"Many of the bigger green projects are more for high-end homes; we are required by the Department of Energy to install things that have a fairly short payback," he said.

Brosh said one less expensive alternative is a reflective roof, which is made of lightweight polyester fabric and sealed with an acrylic coating. He estimates that for the average Baltimore rowhouse, a reflective roof could cost $1,200 to $3,000. This kind of roof reflects 95 percent of the sun and will last longer than other materials.

In Finksburg, Neil and Deborah Ridgely ended up paying $15,000 for a white roof, which allowed them to still go green. A geothermal heating system, which involves drilling adjacent wells outside, also was installed for $15,000.

Deborah Ridgely said the changes have saved the couple more than $100 a month in energy costs. She confesses that while the living roof may have been a great idea, she couldn't help but envision a forest full of weeds and squirrels above their heads.


"I am very happy with what we have done," she said. "It's just fantastic, and I believe, possibly over time, we should recoup the costs."

Green tips:

Use less gas to heat your water by wrapping an insulated jacket around the water heater to prevent heat loss. ($15-$20)

Invest in some plastic wrap to help seal leaky windows ($4-$5)

When building or renovating, position windows and other passages to help capture prevailing winds and block sunlight during summer months.

Look for paints and carpeting that contain low or no volatile organic compounds. Paints with high levels of this material create strong fumes and diminish air quality.


Upgrade to Energy Star appliances, which are more efficient. Learn more at

For more information:

Weatherization program by the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development: 443-984-1066

Advertisement Shruti Mathur


Green-building cost comparisons, according to Home Depot Inc.:

Appliances: Energy-efficient refrigerators cost on average about $100 more than regular counterparts; washers and freezers average about $50 more. The green appliances can offer up to 50 percent in energy savings.

Insulation: Material made from recycled newspapers (cellulose) is $6.94 per bag. Standard fiberglass insulation is $8.80 per roll, which is comparable to a bag.


Garden hoses: Soaker hoses made of recycled tires cost $9.94 for a 50-foot hose. It seeps water into the garden and uses 70 percent less water than the traditional garden hose, which costs $12.99 for 50 feet.

Lights: A standard incandescent, 75-watt light bulb is 36 cents, or a pack of four costs $1.44. They last up to 1,000 hours or about a year when used three hours a day. A compact fluorescent light bulb costs $6.97. It is comparable to 75 watts but consumes only 19 watts of energy - a savings of 25 percent. It lasts 10 times longer than the standard bulb and has a seven-year warranty.

- Shruti Mathur