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Are environmentally friendly homes the future?



As builder Bill Harrington explains the features of the 3,650-square-foot house he's walking through, neither its luxuries nor its proximity to Lake Wylie are reasons for the pride in his voice.

"It's the details that make the difference," he says, pointing out a few of those very details: insulation made of 75-percent recycled paper, windows designed to provide as much as 45 percent of the house's heat and an air-conditioning system designed not to squander energy.

The Belmont home's price tag -- $659,000 -- suggests that such environmentally conscious houses aren't likely to be found in an average cul-de-sac near you. But Harrington hopes more homebuyers, including those seeking cheaper housing, might someday be able to purchase so-called "green" homes. "The more and more people ask for it, the more that tract builders or big builders will pay attention to it," says Harrington.

As Duke Energy petitions to expand Cliffside, its coal-powered electric plant about 60 miles west of Charlotte, many environmentalists are calling attention to the need to reduce energy use. Nearly 45 percent of energy is used in buildings, they say, and much of those resources are wasted.

The Belmont home, by contrast, when finished will use about 50 percent of the energy it would use if not built according to standards set by the N.C. Healthy Built Homes initiative. Few other Charlotte homes are built to the standards of the private-public consortium, but commercial real estate is becoming a different story.

More area builders, architects and designers are considering how to address environmental concerns in commercial real estate construction. Case in point: the Charlotte region chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council has grown to 125 members since forming just one year ago, says chapter leader Anne Jackson. The national council, a nonprofit coalition of building industry members advocating construction that meets energy efficiency and assorted environmental criteria, has more than 80 chapters (including one in the Research Triangle and one in Charlotte). But the USGBC is just now developing its criteria for homebuilding, according to Dona Stankus, who heads the council's Triangle chapter. Instead, homebuilders like Harrington have sought the comparable N.C. Healthy Built Homes label.

The few Charlotte-area examples of such green houses are all higher-end development, but other cities offer hope that more homebuyers could save on energy bills and reduce their home's environmental impact.

In Asheville, for instance, several companies have built more affordable green homes. The Mountain Housing Opportunities Partnership has built 20 green homes since 2003, with each priced between $110,000 and $155,000.

Mike Vance, the partnership's homeownership manager, says the nonprofit's mission is to provide moderately priced houses, particularly for families earning less than 80 percent of the Asheville area's median income. The Healthy Built Homes initiative "wasn't designed to exclude modest housing," Vance says.

Is Asheville's success yet another testament to differences between buttoned-up Charlotte and the greenie mountain town? "Obviously, [Asheville was] more ready for it," says Stankus of the Triangle USBGC. "But the more and more I talk with people in Mecklenburg, I think there is a culture there that is growing that is saying, 'We need to change some things, and we need to be a little more progressive about stuff like this.'"

Harrington estimates building green will add about 3 percent to the cost of the Belmont house -- expenses that its future owner will likely recoup. "It looks like any other house in the neighborhood, except by paying attention to details, the house will be more energy-efficient," he says. "It's just using basic common sense ... It's not going to the extremes of spending a lot more money."

Vance says building green does add more work that some developers aren't willing to undertake, but he suspects it will get cheaper and easier as the idea catches on.

But Ken Lambda, dean of UNC-Charlotte's College of Architecture, isn't optimistic that it will reach the great mass of homebuyers -- i.e. tract-house developments. "I can't imagine what it would take to hit that market," Lambda says. "I was going to say it would take a worldwide energy crisis, but I don't even think it would take that. People are very ingrained in the kind of houses that they live in, the kind of houses they aspire to. There are no incentives to save energy at the mass housing level in this country."

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