The Age of Green Design

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Environmentally conscious homeowners are looking for ways to create Earth-friendly homes.  

Rick and Monique Moniz are lifelong environmentalists—the kind of people who haul their groceries home in reusable cloth bags and do their laundry at night, when electricity demand is low.

So when a devastating house fire destroyed their Davis home almost two years ago, they saw an opportunity, says Monique, “to rebuild as green as possible.”

And build green they did, from the sustainably harvested white tigerwood floor in the family room to the photovoltaic solar panels on the roof.

The Monizes are part of a small but growing group of people who are embracing eco-friendly design and building practices, thanks to concerns about energy use, climate change and other environmental issues. Like people who drive Priuses and buy organic at the farmers market, they think about global warming and resource depletion when making personal decisions such as what car to drive, what to eat or what kind of house to live in.

“For us, it’s being good stewards of the Earth and recognizing that we have a responsibility to the environment,” says Rick.

Green design—also known as sustainable design and eco-design—is a growing trend in residential architecture. A whole industry devoted to green design is popping up, from environmentally friendly home building products to books and magazines. There’s even a trade organization (the U.S. Green Building Council) and a green home rating system that allows buyers to compare houses of differing “shades” of green.

Green design means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about energy efficiency: heating, cooling and powering their homes with the least amount of environmental impact possible. That means everything from positioning a house on its lot to take maximum advantage of the sun’s exposure to using solar panels to generate power.

For others, it’s about sustainability: choosing products and materials that can be harvested or produced without depleting the Earth’s stores of natural resources. Bamboo or cork floors, for instance, instead of traditional hardwoods.

For others, it’s about indoor air quality; they want nontoxic products such as formaldehyde-free insulation and natural-fiber carpets.

And for some, like the Monizes, it’s all of the above.

“I’m very sensitive to odors,” says Monique. “They give me headaches.” Because many conventional home products are made with volatile compounds that release toxins in a process called off-gassing, the couple went out of their way to choose low- and zero-VOC paints and stains. “See?” she says, sniffing the air. “No odor.”
To cut down on their energy use, the Monizes put ceiling fans in every room, bought windows treated with a see-through coating that blocks the sun’s rays and chose hyperefficient Energy Star appliances. And they opted for sustainable products, such as flooring made of bamboo, cork and Marmoleum (a natural linseed-oil product) and cabinets made of sustainably harvested wood.

Jumping on the Bandwagon
Here in Sacramento, a handful of architects, builders and retailers have jumped on the green-design bandwagon. Sage Architecture, a firm that specializes in modern design, recently joined forces with a builder to build green houses.

“There is a market for it here,” says architect Pam Whitehead, one of the firm’s partners.

Whitehead has always integrated “passive” green ideas—such as strategically placed windows to maximize cross ventilation—into her projects as a matter of course. Now, she says, clients are beginning to request things such as high-efficiency fireplaces, radiant floor heating systems and tankless water heaters.  

“People want to keep their energy bills low,” she explains. “In the past year, high energy prices have been something of a wake-up call.”

 

 

On Fulton Avenue, a store called Green Sacramento peddles products such as low- and zero-VOC paints, recycled carpet, sustainably harvested wood flooring, and nontoxic plasters and adhesives.

Owner Josh Daniels got the idea for the store—the only one of its kind in the Central Valley—after he and his wife remodeled a house using environmentally friendly products.

“We wanted a place where you could find all this stuff under one roof,” he explains.

Sneaking It In
Builder Scott Blunk, owner of GreenBuilt Construction, buys some of his materials from Daniels’ store. “When I build, I want it to be as green as I can make it,” says Blunk. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Only about half of his clients actually demand green building methods. For them, he uses nontoxic caulks and glues as well as FSC-certified lumber—that is, wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to have come from a “well-managed” forest.

For the rest of his clients, Blunk says, “I sneak it in.” For instance, he recycles wood and concrete and insulates every pipe he installs. “It makes sense, and it costs so little extra,” he notes.

Heidi Sanborn thinks Sacramento is ripe for businesses that cater to a green clientele. When she remodeled her Sacramento home, she drove down to the Bay Area to buy recycled hardwood floors, sliding doors and light fixtures from an East Palo Alto company called Whole House Building Supply, which sells off pieces of houses that are about to be demolished. Salvaging perfectly good items just makes sense, she says.

Sanborn would like to see a demolition-resale company in Sacramento. “We are throwing houses in the landfill,” she laments. “It’s disgusting.”

The Color of Money
So in this day and age, why isn’t everyone green? One answer, not surprisingly, also is green: money.

Environmentally friendly products can cost 10 or 15 percent more than conventional ones. “A lot of people don’t want to pay more,” Blunk says.

 

Even the Monizes balked at the price of certain green products. Countertops made of recycled materials, for example, were “outrageously expensive,” says Rick. Instead, they opted for granite in the bathrooms, engineered quartz in the kitchen.  

Green Sacramento’s Daniels tells eco-conscious customers to pick their battles—they don’t have to be green 100 percent of the time. “Do what your priorities and budget will allow,” he says. “You don’t have to be perfect.”

As Whitehead points out, high upfront costs for green products can be offset by lower operating costs over the long haul. Expanding-foam insulation, for instance, costs more than standard thermal batt insulation but results in a tighter house—and lower heating and cooling bills.

The Monizes expect that the 18 solar panels they installed on their roof will generate 90 percent of their power, saving them a significant amount of money.
But that’s not why they built green.

“It’s a lifestyle we’ve chosen,” says Monique. “We want to have less of an impact on the environment.”