House Built and Designed With the Planet in Mind Shows 'Eco' Can Be Beautiful

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes, the exterior siding is made from recycled materials, the roof of recycled metal and the floors of reclaimed wood. And there are dual-flush toilets (that will each save 6,000 gallons of water annually) in the five bathrooms of the CharityWorks GreenHouse opening Saturday in McLean.

But beyond the usual building blocks of green living, 18 local design firms have made the area's first carbon-neutral show house a stylish delight, using Earth-friendly furnishings such as sleek kitchen countertops made of crunched-up landfill materials, burnt-bamboo architectural molding, milk paint and a pair of shed antlers used as curtain tiebacks.

A team of builders, architects and designers created an upscale yet cozy Craftsman-style family home that will be open to the public for three weeks. It's a green trophy house, expected to use 80 percent less energy than a comparable new one, that's overflowing with ideas for an increasingly eco-aware population.

The brainchild of developer West Group and Green Spur, a Falls Church builder of energy-efficient projects, it was conceived as a model home of sustainable living. Builders took apart a worn-out 1960s brick ranch house (recycling virtually all the building materials elsewhere) and used the corner lot to erect a two-level, 4,000-square-foot house with four bedrooms, a spa and a lap pool. It also has a geothermal heating and cooling system, two green roofs and a "smart home" system that informs the homeowner via iPhone of how much energy is being consumed.

"A lot of people think that a green house has to be some sort of exotic spaceship," says Ralph Cunningham, a principal at Cunningham/Quill Architects, the D.C. firm that designed the home. "This house is an embassy for the green movement because it's in a fairly typical suburban setting and is full of basic solutions."

To bring the green-is-the-new-black message of the house to a broad audience, the organizers decided to turn the project into a show house. They asked local designers to participate and chose CharityWorks, which raises money for community organizations, as the beneficiary.

Designers received 10 pages of guidelines for shaping spaces that would enhance the "health, safety and welfare" of the home's future occupants. They were asked to use sustainable products and reuse, reduce and recycle. And they were cautioned to choose ecologically sound woods and paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds. The project called for energy-efficient appliances and fabrics colored with no harmful dyes or chlorine bleach. Extra points were given for using antiques or repurposed pieces with no shipping involved.

The result is a functional house that is full of surprises. Designers had to dig to find the greenest solutions. They reused curtains, scouted mattresses with vegan batting and uncovered hemp rugs. There's even a virtual golf room with a High Definition Golf simulator of iconic golf courses around the world such as Pinehurst No. 2, Troon North and Casa de Campo: Golfers never have to leave the house to play (thus saving energy), though this version will set you back $58,000.

"The main message of this show house is you don't have to sacrifice comfort or luxury to live a carbon-neutral existence," says Barry Dixon, who chaired the house's design committee. Dixon also decorated the large, open kitchen and family room space, creating a pantry full of honey and jam put up at his Warrenton farm (a nod to eating locally).

Participants took up the cause with newfound relish. "It was challenging and was a learning process for me," says D.C. designer Gary Lovejoy, who did the library. "It convinced me that this is the direction that everything should be going: recycled and natural."

"Green is a learning curve on the residential side," says Washington's Victoria Neale, who did the dining room in lime and olive. "You have to ask a lot of questions, because the first thing [manufacturers] say is, 'No, I don't have anything green.' "

According to Bethesda designer Skip Sroka, who created the home office, doing a green project costs about 10 to 15 percent more, but he hopes costs will lower as eco-consciousness is raised. Sroka said the experience was different from any show house he has participated in. "Remember when we just used to say about a room, 'Isn't it beautiful?' Now we can say, 'Isn't it biodegradable, recyclable, sustainable -- and beautiful?' "

If You Go

The CharityWorks GreenHouse is at 1310 Calder Rd., McLean, and will be open Saturday through Oct. 30. Hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 online and $30 at the door.

The house is within walking distance of downtown McLean. Visitors traveling by car should use the official parking lot at 1320 Old Chain Bridge Rd. and take the free shuttle. There is no on-site parking. For more information, call 703-286-0758 or visit

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