Eco show homes

Photo: Visitors explore the back yard of the Wired LivingHome in Los Angeles. The $4 million prefabricated house has an automated energy system.

Photo: Wired magazine was a sponsor of the Wired LivingHome. The eco-conscious house’s goal was to show green as high-tech, not hippie.

The New York Times photos by Stephanie Diani


When actors Alysia Reiner and David Alan Basche embarked on a renovation of their four-story, 5,000-square-foot row house in Harlem two years ago, they did not intend for it to become a show house. But a chance meeting with Michela O’Connor Abrams, the president and publisher of Dwell magazine, led to a Web chronicle of the job on dwell.com, and turned the renovation into a marketing vehicle for manufacturers of environmentally conscious products and a chance for the couple to evangelize on green building.

In Web videos seen by some 268,000 viewers, according to Dwell, Basche, who played Todd Beamer in the film “United 93,” installs radiant floor heating to save money, as Reiner recaps how she picked through metal, wood and Sheetrock refuse from the demolition — which Basche did himself — to recycle it. During an open house sponsored by Dwell last year, 700 people toured the home, learning about its native plant garden and walls coated in plaster made from recycled marble dust and pulverized seashells.

“The building of our home became an opportunity to teach,” said Reiner. “When you build a house, you learn so much that you never get to use again.”

In letting their home function as both a laboratory and a marketing device, Reiner and Basche, it turns out, are not unique. Green show houses, sponsored by magazines, nonprofit groups and developers, are appearing across the country, spreading a message about environmentally conscious building to designers, builders and home buyers, and helping to sell building products.

Environmentalism may turn out to be the biggest thing to hit the construction industry since aluminum siding. By 2012, green building could be a $20 billion business, up from roughly $2 billion, according to a National Association of Home Builders’/McGraw Hill market forecast. But some builders are unfamiliar with the new materials and how to use them. And buyers may not know enough about them to request them.

“We read about it, we hear about it, but nobody’s really telling us how to do it,” said Greg Olson, a former contractor who develops the curriculum for continuing education courses, including a class on green building, at Kaplan Professional Schools in St. Paul, Minn.

\ Changing behavior

Creators of the new show houses hope that their projects will showcase practices that support the basic tenets of green building: clean indoor air, energy and water efficiency, and recycled or locally produced materials.

“Changing the behavior of one builder is quite honestly changing the behavior of dozens of home buyers,” said Dana Bres, a research engineer at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, a sponsor of the Concept House, an Omaha, Neb., show house that opened in June.

Suppliers of building materials and designers are eager for exposure, especially on high-profile projects like the Dwell-sponsored townhouse. In exchange for their association with the magazine, Reiner and Basche received free products from companies such as Kohler (a dual-flush toilet, with different water flow rates for solid and liquid waste), NYLoft (Maistri laminate cabinets with formaldehyde-free glues) and Runtal (radiators for a rental apartment on the ground floor of the building, where they couldn’t afford radiant heating). The couple advertised on Craigslist for someone to design their office in exchange for the publicity, and a group of Pratt industrial design students called Collective/4 offered their services.

“It’s all mushed together — altruism and the potential to market new products,” said Stephen Drucker, the editor in chief of House Beautiful magazine, of the new show houses. Some developers also are focusing their attention on design students. On an unseasonably warm day in October, eight interior design students in their 20s were given a tour of a pair of townhouses being built in Brooklyn with a hybrid solar-thermal/gas-fired climate control system, cork and stone flooring, recycled glass countertops and sorghum stalk kitchen cabinets. The houses are a joint project of R&E Brooklyn, a developer, and the Brooklyn-based green building supply company Green Depot.

“Oh, this is Warmboard,” said Jen Insardi, 27, a student from Parsons the New School for Design, stepping over an exposed sheet of aluminum-and-plywood subflooring used for radiant heating.

Natural Home magazine named the houses their own 2007 Show Houses and is designing the interior for one home. Wired magazine was a sponsor of the Wired LivingHome in Los Angeles last year. The $4 million modern prefabricated house has an automated energy-and-water regulation system and black solar panels — showing green as high-tech, not hippie.

\ Learning laboratory

At the Brooklyn townhouses, Insardi’s fellow students from Parsons’ environmental design class were invited by Sarah Beatty, the founder of Green Depot, to treat the project as a sustainable design learning laboratory. Their midterms and final exams were to design interiors for either of the homes.

“They’re going to be the ones making the decisions in 20 years,” said Beatty. “In every way that we can use this for an educational tool, it helps to drive the dialogue.” It also may help drive potential buyers and tomorrow’s designers to her store — more than 500 people, besides the students, have toured the houses.

As Rolf Grimsted, an owner of R&E Brooklyn, put it, “We had to educate consumers to want what we were starting to market and sell.”

Beatty and her partners, Grimsted and Emily Fisher, plan to put the houses on the market in 2008 for around $2.4 million a piece, a price that “seems totally doable,” according to Jessica Buchman, a vice president at the Corcoran Group. She noted that “buyers will definitely pay a premium for ground up new development.” If the development is billed as green, she added, it is “icing on the cake.”

Some green building advocates hope that their practices will catch on at the lower end of the market as well. Omaha’s Concept House is called the “Toyota of green building” by its builder, Fernando Pages. The house, which was completed in June, was designed according to what Pages called the three pillars of creating affordable green housing: flexibility (embodied, for example, by modular carpets and wireless light switches, which make remodeling and redecorating easier); construction efficiency (prebuilt window trim that takes minutes to install); and sustainability (long-lasting materials like stain- and scratch-resistant countertops and the standing seam metal roof that can survive for decades).

The house sold for $200,160, but its new owners, a librarian and a diesel mechanic, received a $99,000 grant from HUD and $1,000 from Nebraska Affordable Housing Program.

Bob Hampton, a Lincoln, Neb., developer who visited the Concept House three times, said he had used several ideas he picked up there. In the townhouses and housing facilities for the elderly he’s constructing, he used factory-framed floor, wall and roof components, which Pages said cut lumber waste from three Dumpsters’ worth to a wastebasket-full, and nontoxic soy-based spray-foam insulation. (During tours, Pages pops a little into his mouth to demonstrate that it is safe.)

To gather information for his students, Olson, in St. Paul, toured the Eco-Home, a solar-powered, doubly insulated cottage built over the last year in Duluth, Minn. The house is estimated to be three times more energy efficient than an average home of comparable size, according to Michelle LeBeau, the executive director of a nonprofit group called Women in Construction that built it in collaboration with a handful of public and private design and energy groups.

\ Green classroom

Before putting the house on the market, LeBeau insisted on keeping it open as a classroom for a year. “We took every aspect of the house and broke it down into dollars and cents,” she said. “We can say, ‘This is what doing a double-studded wall with 9-inch insulation will cost you; this is the cost of adding a solar-electric array. And this is the cost of fiberglass triple-pane windows.'” She estimated that the house cost $20 more per square foot to build than a comparable non-green one.

While the Brooklyn homes will sell to the highest bidder, LeBeau has set a $445,000 cap on the Eco-Home, a figure at the high end of the current market. As an affordable housing developer, she said, she doesn’t want to inflate other property values in the development.

In many ways, today’s green show houses recall the Homes of Tomorrow that were introduced at the 1933 World’s Fair and became a popular way of showcasing new technologies. Some of the early ones — dishwashers and central air conditioning — caught on; others, like baked enamel siding and personal airplane hangars, didn’t.

Drucker said he suspected that with the new show houses, the message would move virally. “They will build these houses. Their friends will come and be in these houses, and they’ll want a little piece of it, and that’s how it spreads through the culture.”

Drucker said he never really appreciated the benefits of green building until House Beautiful moved into Norman Foster’s hyper-green Hearst Tower in 2006. The office building is outfitted with sensors that adjust lighting according to the amount of daylight. It harvests rainwater from the roof and has formaldehyde-free furniture and low vapor paints and sealants.

Consequently, he said, he never suffered what he called a “new building” headache — the kind that arises from off-gassing finishes and furnishings like vinyl floors or standard paints.

Green building “actually can affect how you feel,” Drucker said. But until he had the opportunity to experience it for himself, he added, it “was just a lot of words.”

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