- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

Economic concerns may trump environmental concerns at the moment, but, fortunately, green building addresses both issues. Underneath an immediate focus on money, many consumers also share a long-term interest in protecting the Earth through recycling, energy efficiency and sustainable building practices.

In Prince George’s and Howard Counties, Williamsburg Homes LLC (www.williamsburgllc.com) builds town homes priced from the mid-$400,000s and single-family homes from the $500,000s to more than $1,000,000. Williamsburg Homes is an Energy Star partner, which means that all their homes meet high standards for energy efficiency.

“We want to put as much value in our homes as possible,” says Tim Morris, vice president of sales and marketing for Williamsburg Homes. “By building Energy Star homes, we are developing homes that are at least 15 percent more efficient than the code that is currently in effect, and we have third-party verification of their efficiency. We know that building energy-efficient homes is good for the environment, but we are also looking for a way to benefit buyers.”

Mr. Morris says that buyers not only save money on utility costs, which is particularly important as those costs rise, but they also will live in a home that has been built with the latest technological and construction improvements.

Williamsburg Homes offers features such as low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, storm water-retention systems, low-E windows, 90 percent energy-efficient hot water heaters, 90 percent energy-efficient furnaces and 13 SEER-rated heat pumps and air conditioners. The homes are Tyvek-wrapped to provide a weather-resistant barrier that prevents air leaks and allows the HVAC system to run more efficiently.

“Sometimes it is hard to say where one thing begins and others end, because many of the things we do that are good for the environment are also good for the homeowners,” says Mr. Morris. “For instance, we put in engineered floor systems, which are a green building technique, but they also have higher tensile strength than solid wood floors.”

Last summer, Williamsburg Homes offered a smart fortwo car to home purchasers as an incentive to appeal to consumers interested in saving money on gas and reducing their carbon footprint. The smart fortwo car is only 8.8 feet long.

“The promotion certainly generated a lot of traffic in our homes and interest, and it was timely when gas prices were soaring,” says Mr. Morris. “Not all buyers took the car, but we definitely believe it helped increase interest in our homes. Every buyer has a different hot button, but helping the environment and helping people’s pocketbooks are both important in this current economic climate.”

Parkwood Homes (www.parkwoodhomes.com) builds town homes, single-family homes and live/work homes at the Villages of Urbana in Frederick County with prices from the mid $400,000s. Parkwood Homes recently ramped up its green-building initiatives to include solar power as a standard feature.

“We’ve always been interested in green building, which we believe has a philosophical connection to the neotraditional communities where we build,” says Steve Wilcox, a principal of Parkwood Homes.

Parkwood Homes first began building homes in Kentlands in Montgomery County, a prototype for communities designed for residents to be able to walk to recreational amenities, transportation, shops and restaurants. This type of land planning is associated with the green-building movement, since it allows people to limit their use of cars.

“Neotraditional communities help reduce carbon footprints by allowing homeowners to reduce commuting time and, thereby, emissions,” says Mr. Wilcox. “Some time ago, we took the next step and became one of the first Energy Star builders in the area. I’ve always felt that if we can build a better home for the ultimate purchaser, it just makes sense to do it. The costs and benefits of the Energy Star program just make sense. For instance, just adding an inexpensive programmable thermostat will pay for itself within three or four months.”

Mr. Wilcox says his own home, built in 1980, is completely obsolete, especially in terms of the heating and air-conditioning functions, which he says “pump the heat right out of the house.”

Parkwood Homes are built with 2-by-6-inch exterior walls with upgraded blown-in insulation. These wall studs are 2 inches deeper than standard wall studs to allow for more insulation. All homes are 100 percent Energy Star certified with high-efficiency furnaces, lighting, appliances and low-E windows.

“Adding the Solar Photovoltaic (PV) system is simply the next step to building a high performance home,” says Mr. Wilcox. “The economics of doing this is not as immediately compelling as some of the other energy-efficient improvements, but in our estimation, it will be. Federal incentives for solar power were just increased and Maryland incentives are also in the works, so we decided to be the first builder to install the solar panels as a standard feature.”

The solar panels will integrate with the utility company’s electricity grid, allowing excess power produced from the sun to be credited toward homeowners’ electricity bills. The standard solar system that Parkwood Homes will install is a 1.52 kilowatt system, estimated to provide about 1,872 kilowatt hours per year. Parkwood Homes says the environmental impact of these kilowatt hours is that they can eliminate 3,200 pounds of carbon dioxide that would have been generated from producing this much electricity from traditional sources.

“There’s a fairly steep learning curve with installing solar panels because we need to get the house orientation and the garage orientation just right,” says Mr. Wilcox. “It is important to us that we don’t hurt the architectural integrity of these homes, and we don’t want the panels to be too visible.”

Visualizing a home constructed from steel shipping containers requires a leap of imagination that most consumers lack, but the staff at SG Blocks LLC (www.sgblocks.com) is set to take recycling to a new level by rescuing these unused containers to convert them into a sustainable product for home building and renovation projects. The containers - used to ship imports by sea, rail and tractor-trailer - are designed to withstand the harshest weather conditions to protect their cargo. The company says that 21,000 steel shipping containers arrive in the United States every day from all around the world. Since the United States imports more than it exports, a significant number of the containers end up in this country. Often, the empty containers end up as junkyard fodder.

SG Blocks says the shipping containers have an industry life of about 20 years before being dumped, but that if they are maintained properly in a stationary location, they can be used to build houses that will last for generations. Homes made from recycled steel shipping containers are designed to withstand winds of up to 175 miles per hour and can remain standing during an earthquake. In addition, they are termite-proof, fire-resistant and affordable.

SG Blocks can be used to build virtually any style of home from a traditional single-family home to a modern structure, and even many types of low-rise multifamily structures. Since shipping containers can be fully recycled, they utilize a concept known as “value-cycling” where a product that has served a primary purpose is reused without spending significant new energy and resources to convert it for a secondary use. For example, it takes 800 kilowatt hours to recycle 8,000 pounds of steel, and only 400 kilowatt hours to reuse it.

An unused shipping container costs from $500 to $2,000. A finished shipping container with structural systems put in place by SG Block costs $9,000 to $11,000 per unit. A single-family home that ranges in size from 1,280 to 1,920 square feet would require about five or six blocks or shipping containers at a cost of between $40,000 and $60,000 for the shell, not including the finishing of the home. The finished cost of a home built from recycled shipping containers is estimated to be $150 per square foot, or $300,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home.

SG Blocks has created a demonstration house of recycled steel shipping containers to be displayed at the Ecobuild conference at the Washington Convention Center on Dec. 10 and 11.

Green building has definitely captured the attention of builders and contractors along with consumers. Since February 2008, when the National Association of Home Builders introduced a Certified Green Professional (CGP) designation, nearly 1,300 industry professionals (including builders and remodelers) have earned the recognition. The designation demonstrates the knowledge and experience of these industry professionals in incorporating green-building principles into homes without driving up the cost of construction.

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