Green Houses


Environmentally friendly homes are a lot easier to build these days



By Lynn N. Duke

NYT Regional Newspapers



When Julia Russell wanted to make her home environmentally friendly more than 25 years ago, her options were limited pretty much to low-flush toilets and low-flow faucets – and even those were scarce. The term xeriscaping (landscaping for water conservation) didn’t exist, and energy efficient appliances were still on the drawing board.


Since then, the demand for environmentally friendly building products and techniques has gained enough momentum that builders are beginning to see the green in going green, and many ideas once considered cutting edge have been codified.


“The market demand is definitely growing,” said Russell, founding director of Eco-Home Network. “But it’s not dominant.”


In Sarasota, Fl., one man is confident that residents of that wealthy community will welcome condominiums that are designed with an eye toward the health of the occupant as well as the environment.


“A lot of people can’t afford to live in a new home physically, although they can financially,” said Dr. Harvey Kaltsas, referring to toxins found in new carpeting, insulation, finishes and even health risks associated with where the electric lines tie into the building.


Kaltsas, a specialist in Oriental medicine and acupuncture, recently opened sales on a $36 million 14-story project in Sarasota that includes 35 residential units and two commercial/retail units.


His inspiration for Kanaya – named for an 1823 painting by the Japanese artist Hiroshige that reminded him Sarasota - came from a constant parade of patients who had ailments he connected to their environments, including an alarming number with compromised immune systems.


Kaltsas promises the mid-rise will be a ``healthy'' building with such features as formaldehyde-free insulation, advanced filtration on air conditioning and humidistats and cross ventilation to prevent mold and fungus. He's including reverse osmosis, charcoal-filtered drinking water systems and mildew-resistant paints without volatile organic compounds. No electromagnetic fields will be within four feet of beds. The pool will be chlorine-free with solar hot water.


He expects construction to begin in early 2004 with completion 14 to 16 months later. There are tentative plans for a second project in Miami, which would be powered completely by solar energy. Kanaya will incorporate Eco-$mart building techniques and systems that have been reviewed by The Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development. These include energy-efficient, full-spectrum lighting that is considered healthier and uses less energy. Flooring will be made with materials not harmful to the environment. Wiring will be a copper that doesn't create poisonous gases if burned.


Off the Grid


Juliet Cuming and David Shaw escaped New York City to Dummerston, Vt., where they built a straw bale house for less than $75 per square foot.


“We’re completely off the grid,” said Cuming. “And our house is made completely of all-natural, non-toxic building materials.”


The construction project took about a year, with Cuming, 38, and Shaw, 42, serving as general contractor and builder respectively. They moved in in February 1997, and live there with their son and also run a photo archive business from the 2,600 square foot house.


“It all seemed to come together – design and health. It just makes sense to want to build more naturally,” said Cuming, who had developed a chemical sensitivity after years in the fashion design industry.


Cuming and Shaw not only built green, they built local, only using materials that came from within 30 miles of the building site. That meant a nearby farmer grew their hay, rocks were plucked from their land for the foundation and their masonry stove (which heats the entire structure throughout  the winter on about three cords of wood) was made from recycled bricks.


And just because they’re “off the grid” doesn’t mean they’re out of touch with the 21st Century. Cuming said they have two computers, all the modern appliances you’d expect to find in suburbia (there are probably more energy efficient), but there’s no electric  bill to pay. Solar and wind power also figure into the mix, and they’ve installed a propane gas generator as a backup, primarily for their business.


Gauge Your Appliances


But you don’t have to build a new house, or even substantially remodel an existing one, to make better use of energy, which in turn helps the environment and often your health.


In the early 1990s the federal government launched Energy Star, a program aimed at helping builders and consumers identify and compare energy efficient building products, appliances and new homes that have earned an energy efficient rating. For example, a new central air conditioning unit with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER) of 12 will cost about $3,000. That’s $400 more than a similar size unit with a less efficient SEER of 10. The more efficient  unit will cost $105 less per year to operate, adding up to almost $1,200 for the life of the system. Similar comparisons can be made on the site for everything from clothes washers to light bulbs.


Small savings in individual homes add up to big savings for the environment when applied on a national level. According to Energy Star: “if every household in the U.S. replaced one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road. CFLs provide high-quality light, smart technology, and design, requiring less while lasting longer than typical incandescent bulbs.”


On a local level, many utilities offer energy audits, rebates on energy-efficient appliances and other resources for consumers. Go to and search for a program in your area.


Tracy Mumma, a program specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, Mt., said the cost of building an environmentally friendly, energy efficient home need not be prohibitive. For example, NCAT has developed siding made from fiber and cement, which is used in place of wood siding and is comparable in price. Better fire resistance and lower maintenance make it much more attractive financially over the long term, Mumma said.


New Codes


The energy crisis of the 1970s prompted many states to adopt energy efficient building codes.


“Thirty years ago there were no energy codes for homes,” said Nadav Malin, editor of Environmental Building News in Brattleboro, Vt.  “Now there are a few areas where there are no energy codes, or you go to places like Oregon where R-30 insulation in the ceiling is required, and double-paned glass is the minimum allowed on windows.”

According to Malin, modern houses have doubled in size since 1940 - from an average of 1,100 square feet to 2,300 square feet. But in the past 35 years, the energy efficiency of these larger homes has almost doubled.



At 2,655 to 3,003 square feet, Kenaya trumps even the national average. But Kaltsas said his spacious condos will have less impact on the environment and positive impact on their occupants’ health. So much so, that he hopes others will follow suit.


“I’m proud of the building,” Kaltsas said. “It’s healthy and environmentally friendly. It’s not that much more expensive to add a lot of these amenities. I would really like to inspire or embarrass other builders into adding some of these amenities in the future[l1] .”