The `green house' effect

The Star-Ledger, January 9th, 2007

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2007

Date: 2007/01/09 Tuesday Page: 049 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 1441 words

Environmentally friendly, energy-efficient construction is gaining popularity with builders and buyers

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

The first indication that Mark MaGrann's home is no ordinary house is the carpet in the dining room.

Anytime MaGrann tells visitors it's spun from recycled plastic bottles, they drop to their knees and start caressing the beige-colored carpet in disbelief.

"It's funny – everybody bends down and touches it," he said.

It's easy to see why. The carpet is soft and cushiony, and the yarn looks and feels, well, real.

But while the plastic carpet is the perennial crowd-pleaser, the really cool stuff is what you can't feel or see.

That's where the real story is – behind the walls and under the carpet and down in the basement.

Five years ago, MaGrann, president of MaGrann Associates, an engineering and energy consulting firm, constructed a 3,500-square-foot home in Medford to showcase the latest in eco-friendly building technologies and inspire more homeowners, builders and architects to "go green."

Back then, it was all very novel – the liberal use of engineered lumber made from shredded wood; the front-porch deck made from recycled plastic; the siding and shingles made from recycled cement and shredded newspaper.

But with the sharp increase in oil and natural gas prices over the past couple of years, more builders and developers are preaching the gospel of "going green," designing and constructing homes that are more energy efficient and less wasteful.

In years past, green construction accounted for only a fraction of new construction, experts say. Now, the green market is expanding into the mainstream as more and more developers and architects explore ways to boost sales while reducing the environmental impact of new construction.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes the adoption of green building practices and technologies, estimates the green market, both for residential and commercial construction, has grown to $8 billion today, from $800 million in 2000. It forecasts a $20 billion market by 2010.

"I'm 55 years old and I was raised with the concept of disposable – you buy a can of Coke, you finish it and throw it away. A gallon of gas cost 29 cents," said Herb Hauser, a green technology consultant with Midtown Technologies in New York. "But $3-a-gallon gas really shocked everybody."

SLOW GROWING

To understand how building a new home can affect the environment, consider these numbers:

The residential housing sector accounts for one-fifth of all the energy consumed in the United States, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A typical home can generate twice as much air pollution as the average car.

The construction of an average 2,350-square-foot, single-family home generates between 7,000 and 12,000 pounds of construction waste, the National Association of Home Builders estimates.

Going green can cost builders a little more up front – about 3 percent to 8 percent more than a traditional home – but some say it can ultimately lead to higher property values and a better return on investment.

While a growing number of builders are responding to the public's hunger for all things green, the construction industry has for the most part been slow to answer the calling, especially here in New Jersey, experts said.

Jack Armstrong, a spokesman for Florham Park-based BASF, which spearheaded a project in Paterson to build one of the most energy-efficient homes in the country, said developers tend to be a conservative bunch who continue to rely on traditional building materials and technologies. Part of the problem is cost. MaGrann's home, for example, cost about $900,000 to build five years ago.

"Very few builders are stepping out and using innovative building products," he said. "People don't like to do new things in a new way. They have this recipe and they want to follow it, so we're trying to hold hands and lead them through the process."

A number of smaller projects incorporating green technology and eco-friendly materials are currently underway, including five luxury homes costing upward of $800,000 in the Seven Oaks section of Orange, being built by Bloomfield-based Rosmar Industries.

Meanwhile, Pulte Homes and KB Homes, two of the nation's largest home builders, have been testing the viability of mass-producing large numbers of energy-efficient "green" homes in markets like Virginia and California.

IT'S GOT THE LOOK

Although the phrase "going green" may conjure images of a tree-hugging peace-nik living in a tent, MaGrann's house looks as fancy and polished as any other custom-built house on his quiet, tree-lined street in South Jersey.

But a quick peek under the hood reveals it is anything but.

MaGrann's airy, daylight-filled house uses 60 percent less energy and electricity than a standard home in New Jersey, making it one of the most energy-efficient homes in the state.

"The neat thing about this house is it doesn't act or look differently than any other house in the neighborhood," he said. "One of the missions of my company is to get mainstream builders and home buyers to understand that green is a good thing and it doesn't have to look any different."

Perhaps the most unusual feature in MaGrann's house is the geothermal heating and air-conditioning system. The home has no oil-fired or gas-fired furnace and no electric air conditioning equipment.

Instead, he relies on an aquifer 300 feet underground to heat and cool his home. It's clean, efficient and – best of all – it saves him money on his utility bill. MaGrann said it only costs him $150 a month to heat, cool and supply hot water to his 3,500-square-foot home.

MaGrann's company is one of 12 in the country selected by the U.S. Green Building Council to help develop and test a common standard of measurement for green residential construction and enable home builders anywhere in the country to obtain a special "green" rating on their homes. The program is called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

'STATE OF THE SHELF'

The first home to get a LEED stamp of approval in New Jersey was built on one of 3,000 in-fill lots in Paterson that have been targeted for affordable housing.

The Paterson project was spearheaded by BASF and nearly 150 other construction, design and building partners to demonstrate how easily "state of the shelf" technologies can be used to build homes that are better for their residents and the environment, according to BASF's Armstrong.

Everything about the house – from the direction it faces to the materials used during construction to the types of trees and shrubs planted outside – is meant to conserve water and electricity. Even the mulch in the garden is made from recycled tires.

The Paterson house, which has been donated to a needy Peruvian family with a quadriplegic son, is 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventionally built home, according to Armstrong.

"Who better to live in a house with low energy bills than people who don't have a lot of money to start with," Armstrong said.

Still, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the green building movement is cost.

But a recent survey of building owners, developers, architects and engineers by Turner Construction found 84 percent of executives involved with green building think it yields higher property values. Furthermore, 75 percent of the executives said their green properties earned a higher return on investment than their other buildings.

Glen Ravn, director of design and construction for the Sheldrake Organization, which is developing Riverhouse, a 31-story condominium rising at the northern end of Battery Park City in New York, agrees.

Although it would have cost less to meet the environmental regs set by the Battery Park City Authority, the developer exceeded those standards and spent more than 15 percent of the $200 million project cost on advanced green measures, Ravn said.

"In the future, everything is going to be green," Ravn said. "From a pure investment point of view, not only are people living with clean air and water and no volatile organics and no emitting chemicals in their condos, they are investing in the future."

Sam Ali may be reached at sali@starledger.com or (973) 392-4188.

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