New Arlington House Meets Top Standard for Green Construction

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Set amid the brick colonials and blocky postwar apartment buildings of Arlington's Westover neighborhood, Patty Shields's new home sticks out.

The home is so angular and sleek that it appears to have jumped from the pages of a modern-living magazine. But more than looks, what sets this place apart are hidden innards, such as geothermal heating and a rainwater collection system, that make it one of few local examples of a house built green from the ground up.

In May, it became the first house in Virginia to earn the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The LEED rating system, a widely accepted standard for eco-friendly commercial buildings, became available to single-family houses in February 2008. Since then, said Green Building Council spokeswoman Ashley Katz, 321 houses across the country, including one in the District, have earned the Platinum certification, the highest available.

"I'm not a huge environmentalist," said Shields, 40, a lawyer whose practice has involved nonprofit groups and who used to deal with medical malpractice cases. "We are a normal family. We don't do anything unusual. We just live in a house that's super efficient."

That efficiency, which comes from excellent insulation as much as from sexier features such as rooftop solar panels, means that the estimated cost for heating and cooling the four-bedroom, 3,825-square-foot house is only $305. A year.

"It's really cool in the winter to get a gas bill for 20 bucks," Shields said.

This project, dubbed Metro Green, began four years ago, when Shields and her husband bought a small farmhouse on a large lot in Westover. They renovated and sold the farmhouse and kept a piece of the lot, about 5,300 square feet. There, they planned to build their dream house and enlisted the help of Kaplan Thompson, a Maine-based architecture firm specializing in green construction.

Early on, Shields, who acted as general contractor, focused on reducing runoff and pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. The driveway is built of pervious pavement, so rain trickles through to the ground below. And the roof, which boasts a redwood deck framed by the branches of a walnut tree, funnels rain into gutters that empty into barrels, which hold up to 540 gallons, or a one-inch downpour. The harvested rain can be pumped out and used to water the lawn.

Indoors, wood flooring is from sustainably harvested trees, countertops glint with pieces of recycled beer bottles, and paint gives off no noxious fumes. Natural light streams in through "curtain walls," opaque windows with the same ability to insulate as a regular wall. And in a closet off the basement au-pair suite, an unremarkable-looking heating and cooling system runs off geothermal energy captured via two 320-foot wells.

In all, Shields estimated that she spent $100,000 on green design and materials for what was supposed to be her dream home. But when Patty's husband, Wyatt, became city manager of Falls Church, a job with a residency requirement, the couple staked a "For Sale" sign out front. More than 2,500 people have toured the house since it was completed, Shields said, including prospective buyers and neighbors interested in going green.

"I don't think anyone's going to tear down their house and build a green house like that," said Westover Village Civic Association President Bob Orttung. "It's inspirational but not very practical at the moment."

Virginia's grants and subsidies for eco-friendly building lag behind those of many other states, including Maryland. But two Virginia laws effective July 1 are meant to make it easier for localities to help homeowners go green. One permits incentives for green roofs, and the other allows new ways of financing renewable energy projects.

Orttung, who got the book "Solar Power Your Home for Dummies" from the library after touring Metro Green, said he discovered it would cost $25,000 to retrofit his 1940s-era home with renewable energy, not a cost-effective investment.

Two other LEED Platinum homes are under construction in Arlington, and interest is growing in the county's Green Home Choice program, which has certified about 80 homes in six years and has 25 in the pipeline, said program coordinator Helen Reinecke-Wilt. Another certification program through Earthcraft Virginia is also growing and has given a green stamp of approval to 264 single-family houses across the state.

But like Orttung, homeowners and builders in Northern Virginia are not clamoring for the most expensive technologies, real estate agents said. They are more interested in simpler, cheaper ways to become more energy efficient, such as double-pane windows and Energy Star appliances, said Adam Gallegos, owner of Arbour Realty, which offers its clients a free energy audit.

The widespread interest in Metro Green's more radical approach to eco-building has not translated into a quick sell. It's been on the market for two months, and the asking price has dropped $120,000 to $1,175,000.

It's hard to leave behind a project she poured so much into, Shields said. But she's not finished with green building. Since the house was completed last fall, people have come to her for advice and help in such numbers that she's launched a consulting business. And she's planning to build another house for her family -- this time with solar hot water, perhaps.

"It's so cool to create something," she said. "Being a lawyer was fun, but this is so much better."

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