It's Easy Being Green

Aliya Sternstein
Friday, February 24, 2006 2:33 PM

Keith Ware distinctly remembers the cab driver in Ecuador six years ago who offered to relieve him of some cooking fuel he had leftover from a mountain-climbing expedition. The driver took the canister and dumped its contents into the sewer beside the road.

This is but one example of the waste and toxicity that drove the former gym manager to renovate his Southwest D.C. condo with environmentally sensitive materials and open a store devoted to environmentally and socially responsible products. Four years ago, Ware, 48, undertook the home-

improvement project himself, placing filters on plumbing fixtures, insulating his windows, applying nontoxic paints and having a friend install toilets with dual-flushing power for, ahem, solids or liquids.

The modifications to his two-bedroom condo, which he purchased for $115,000 a decade ago, cost him $20,000. He estimates the return on his investment has been more than twenty percent off his heating, water and electrical bills.

"It's not only fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, but it saves a lot of money. Who knew that being green could be economically rewarding?" said Ware, owner of the new eco-friendly shop Future Green in Dupont Circle.

Ware is one of thousands of homeowners discovering the benefits of environmentally conscious construction. Building experts and local developers predict that, as the cost of energy rises, consumer demand for so-called "green buildings" will grow. Also, as new building technologies come into wider use, the overhead cost of developing green buildings will drop and become the industry standard.

The first local green condos cropped up in D.C. about five years ago. Now, a host of developers in Maryland, the District and Virginia are designing and selling green condos. Because green building results in energy cost-savings, healthier surroundings and more durable construction, they're the future of condo construction, say real-estate investment experts and local government officials.

"Most importantly, with oil now priced at an historic high of over $60 a barrel, it becomes far more attractive to utilize this kind of construction," said Leanne Tobias, principal of the green real-estate consulting firm Malachite LLC and a national expert in green real-estate investment.

Tobias, who has nearly 20 years of experience in commercial real estate, said she predicts the metro area will see more green condos within the next year or two, as consumers start wanting to cut down on utility bills. Energy savings are generally 20 to 40 percent relative to conventional construction.

But there are two stumbling blocks. For green condos to catch on, developers have to gain experience working with the new energy-efficient, cleaner technologies to break the cost barrier. Second, realtors and developers have to educate consumers on what they are getting when they buy green.

Right now, many people think anything "green" requires abiding by the laws of tree-hugging and granola-crunching.

But "green building" is a loose term. Some prospective condo buyers think of gigantic solar panels that energize an entire building, while others have the misconception of biodegradable carpeting laid in a couple rooms. The reality is that many green building features, such as energy-saving heat pumps, low-flow faucets and non-toxic paints, are invisible to the owner.

With so many shades of green out in the marketplace, buyers just don't get it. That may be changing.

Home builders are starting to follow a standard green grading system called LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED certification has become something of a Good Housekeeping Seal for green buildings. The grading system is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, a national coalition of corporations, builders, universities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations that is working to promote environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy buildings. Founded in 1993, USGBC recently launched a pilot program for low-rise multifamily homes.

The hope is that developers eventually will be able to succinctly describe their projects just by mentioning the USGBC LEED brand name.

Jay Hall, the acting program manager for USGBC's LEED for Homes initiative, said, "Until there's something that's recognizable to consumers, it's going to be hard for people to grab a hold of green."

In some people's minds, the word "green" equals "recycled" -- which connotes recycled garbage, he said.

"What resonates with most consumers is to call it a high-performance home. In the context of a green home, it's safe, it's healthy, it's durable and it uses resources efficiently," explained Hall, who has 20 years of experience in energy-efficient building design.

Green condos are actually greener than the greenest single family homes. With their high residential densities, they take up less space and preserve open land. In addition, urban condos are closer to Metro stations, bus stops and bike trails, which discourages people from relying on cars to get everywhere.

"Multifamily buildings are inherently green because they use fewer resources per unit to construct and to operate. They score higher in our rating system than single-family homes for that reason," Hall said.

Spectrum at Falls Church, a 189-unit development near the East and West Falls Church Metro stops, will offer many green features, including bike storage, a concrete infrastructure made from recycled materials and floors derived from renewable resources such as bamboo and cork. Also, an energy-efficient roof and central climate-control system will reduce heating and cooling costs. To promote use of the mass transit system, builder Waterford Development is purchasing five years worth of Falls Church bus passes for 100 units.

Andrew Gutowski, who is overseeing the project as vice president of development at Waterford, said the building is designed to minimize driving. With proximity to the Washington and Old Dominion bike trail and pathways to adjacent shops and offices, some residents won't have to leave the property to eat, work and play, he said.

However, Gutowski said he does not see the greenness of the Spectrum as much of a draw. He chose to market the condos' granite countertops and stainless-steel fixtures instead of the units' energy-efficiency.

"Maybe that's wrong [of us]," Gutowski said. But, he explained, the consumers "don't assign any value to green features. We hope that will change. And we're sort of keeping our eyes open. We've just done it because we think it's the right thing to do."

The downside: Waterford can't up the price of the Spectrum's units to recoup the cost of building green. The condos are priced from the $400s to $600s, with four penthouse units in the $800s. Waterford will have to cover the cost of hiring a green building consultant, as well as foot the bill for the heating and cooling system. The units deliver in the summer of 2007. Meanwhile, condo buyers at the Spectrum will benefit from a 10 percent reduction in long-term energy costs.

"Until homebuyers are willing to pay a bit more for the long-term savings, there will be few financial incentives for developers to design and construct green buildings. One way around this is for local governments to give developers bonus density for using 'green' features, and thus offset the added project costs," Gutowski said.

And that's exactly what Arlington County is doing. The government encourages green condo development through both a formal policy and an incentive program.

When condo developers undergo routine negotiations for site approval, Arlington County expects the developers to fulfill a certain number of green credits on the LEED grading scale. The number of credits varies from project to project. Formal LEED certification is not a must. In addition, developers are free to choose which green features suit their project best.

County staff reviews the project to make sure condo developers have earned enough credits by project completion, as has been the policy since December 2003.

Developers first balk at building green because it involves research, hiring LEED-accredited consultants, people to certify the projects and engineers to model energy-savings. But those are just the time and financial costs of learning a new technology and like any new technology, prices come down after a few years, say Arlington County officials.

The developer of the Monroe condo, located in the Rosslyn-Ballston area of Arlington, has had a rough time adhering to some of the LEED constraints. The biggest stressor for developer Madison Homes has been earning a LEED credit for reducing the amount of fuel required to transport materials. To comply with LEED, the company must buy recycled carpet that is manufactured within a 500-mile radius of the property. Most recycled carpet is made in a part of Georgia that is about 540 miles away, said Mark Smith, a project manager at Madison Homes who is working on the Monroe.

Another of the more tricky tenets of green construction is that natural resources not go to waste. Because Madison Homes had to knock down the site's pre-existing residential buildings, the company had to make sure the homes' old hardwood floors were reused somehow.

"People would actually come and pry it up and take it home with them," Smith said. The 79-unit complex delivers in late 2006, with prices starting in the $700s.

Arlington County grants a site-permit bonus to condo builders who exceed the standard level of greenness. If the developers can show that their projects will acquire enough LEED credits to be officially certified by USGBC, the county will negotiate a slightly higher density.

For example, paperwork submitted for a condo at 3565 Lee Highway, to be called Dominion Heights, agrees to pursue certification in exchange for four more units. If the condo fails to earn LEED certification, the developer owes the county about a $200,000 fine.

Turnberry Tower, a 247-unit development in Rosslyn near the Key Bridge, is one of the first condos in the county trying to attain LEED certification, though not for density purposes. The spacious luxury condos' water-saving fixtures and low-flow faucets will enable the building to use 23 percent less water than a building with standard fixtures and faucets. Window coatings will help reduce heat transfer, keeping air-conditioning costs down in the summer. To save energy, the heating and cooling pumps will use the constant temperature of nearby water sources. With delivery set for 2008, units in the 26-story highrise are priced from the $800s to more than $6 million.

Stella Tarnay, an Arlington County environmental planner who works with single-family homeowners, said the number of green remodeling projects in the county is on the rise.

"I have five homeowners who want to go green for every contractor who can carry out the job," she said. Tarnay hasn't witnessed the craze reach condo consumers, yet, however. "I hear homeowners demanding green and it isn't going to be a long time before condo buyers realize they have choices about the environmental performance of the homes that they are investing in," she said.

Tarnay foresees rooftop gardens, in particular, becoming very popular throughout Arlington's condo-cluttered skyline. Rooftop gardens are known as "green roofs."

A green roof, which is covered by living plants and soil, aids in storm-water management, energy-savings and overall aesthetic appeal. During downpours, green roofs act like sponges, absorbing much of the water that would otherwise run off into the storm-water system. In the summer, green roofs keep the building interior cool.

"Green roofs are a hot new trend that can do a lot to cool our urban environment," Tarnay said.

Typically, green building principles apply to new developments, but there are ways to greenify aging condos.

For example, Tarnay's colleague, Arlington County environmental planner Aileen Winquist, 33, helped her neighbors at The Arlington Condominium plant a high-performance garden that rejuvenated barren, soggy ground at the bottom of a hill, where storm-water runoff had collected for decades. The landscaping, referred to as a raingarden because it filters rainwater, eliminated the ugliness and helped improve the health of the nearby Four Mile Run stream.

Because The Arlington was built around 1950, before buildings were required to contain and treat runoff, uncontrolled surges of water from roadways and rooftops were wiping out plants and the worm populations that feed fish in Four Mile Run. Plus, the patchy earth was visible from about 10 units.

Thus, last spring, Winquist and a few owners dug a raingarden  consisting of a man-made depression in the ground, filled with native shrubs and flowers. The garden drained the runoff, so storm water now gradually seeps back into the ground, instead of contributing to the ongoing decay of the Four Mile Run ecosystem

and the Chesapeake Bay.

The effort was led by her neighbor Jim Hurley, who approached Winquist -- in her Arlington County capacity -- about building a raingarden two years ago. Only later did the two learn they lived in the same development.

Hurley, 49, an organization development consultant who has lived at the 518-unit condos for 15 years, had to nudge his conservative condo board to let him excavate the eyesore and build a raingarden.

He suggests other condo owners interested in raingardens may need to plug the property-value benefit of this kind of improvement to get their condo boards to consent.

"In my opinion, this work is worth doing on its own for its own sake and a side benefit is increased property value," Hurley said. "However, individuals who might want to champion a project like this, who are members of condo associations, might have to find a strategy that works best for their boards. And certainly a financial case can be made for undertakings like this."

His two-level two-bedroom cost him about $100,000 and is now going for more than $350,000. Hurley reports that real-estate agents who have sold units looking out onto the raingarden have told him that the improvement added value to the homes' prices.

Winquist added, "Another point that condo boards should consider is that this type of storm-water management can be a lot cheaper than traditional methods such as installing French drains or additional storm drainage inlets."

In addition to Arlington County, the D.C. city council may soon dangle a carrot to encourage eco-friendly building. In November, Chairman Linda Cropp and three other council members introduced a bill that offers incentives for the developer if project plans contain documentation showing that LEED certification will be attained by the project's end. The program would apply to offices, multi-unit residential buildings and mixed-use developments.

One condo company thinks it has a head start on the green condo competition coming to D.C.

The Alta at Thomas Circle condos, developed by PN Hoffman, will have energy-efficient air conditioning, low-toxicity paints and two green roofs.

The tops of the second and 13th floors will contribute a total 4,500 square feet of plants. The roofs should stave off repairs by decreasing exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation. Most regular roofs fail because UV rays break down the flexibility of the roofs.

Remaining studios at the nearly sold-out 126-unit Alta start from the upper $300s. Anticipated delivery is this summer.

PN Hoffman touts that the Alta is projected to be the first LEED certified condo in the District. The company is doing this now to attract purchasers for upcoming green condos.

The new PN Hoffman site explains green building's benefits, adding that the developer anticipates incorporating green features into all future buildings.

Shawn Seaman, vice president of acquisitions and development for PN Hoffman, said, "We're using it as corporate marketing right now ... and hopefully the consumers will learn from it and seek out builders who do green construction and give us a competitive advantage."

Profit-making is another green condo feature, according to residents who bought in the region's first LEED-certified condo development, Eastern Village.

Stephan Sylvan, 42, signed a purchase agreement for a three-bedroom unit at Eastern Village in Silver Spring in the fall of 2003. Between then and now, units have exploded in value by 70 to 80 percent, he said. A two-bedroom loft unit at Eastern Village currently carries an asking price of $489,000.

"Our property values have actually scared us by shooting up so much. We were afraid many people would not be able to afford to live here in the future," Sylvan said. Eastern Village's residents had all agreed at the outset that they wanted a diverse community with people from all socioeconomic levels.

For buyers questioning when to invest in green, Sylvan said, "The answer is jump quickly. For sellers, spend a little time exposing people to the world of green and you might surprise yourself by the prices you can get."

Since moving in to Eastern Village on Halloween day 2004, Sylvan, the coordinator of partnership programs for the Environmental Protection Agency, has also noticed the intangible qualities of green condo living.

"We have a two-year daughter and it feels good that the chances that she's going to be poisoned by where she lives are low," he said. "This is finally an opportunity to live my values."

Eastern Village performed exceptionally well on the LEED grading system, becoming only one of five multifamily housing communities in the country to reach Silver status. Platinum and Gold certifications, the greenest of the green awards, have not been awarded to any condos.

The 56-unit urban retrofit of an existing office building has carpeting made out of recycled soda bottles rather than petroleum, but no one would notice. Energy bills are kept under control by using geothermal heat pumps, which harness the relatively constant temperature of the subsurface of the Earth as a source of heating and cooling for the building.

The building contains low-flow shower heads and low-flow bathroom faucets. However, the kitchen water comes out full strength.

"With your kitchen faucets, you don't want to go too low with the lower-flow faucets because when you're filling up a pot, it could take 100 years," said Sandra Leibowitz Earley, a LEED-accredited professional and principal at Sustainable Design Consulting, who worked on Eastern Village and many other current local condo projects.

Sylvan gushed over his home, the first he has ever owned, saying, "There's a real sense of pride. It's like you're the first person to have an iPod in your circle of friends."

He advises the naysayers and cynics to take a closer look at buildings like these.

"The old way of thinking about green is outdated -- except for the mandatory 'you must eat granola at every meal' policy," Sylvan joked.

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