When Arlington resident J.D. Doliner and her husband, Steve Kaufman, decided to renovate their 1925 bungalow-style house after buying it in 1999, they knew they wanted the project to be "green," meaning it would be done in an environmentally friendly, resource-efficient and health-conscious way. It would contain features such as recycled and nontoxic building materials, and some solar heating.
But going from idea to execution took time. Doliner spoke with several builders before she found one "who didn't laugh at me and try to talk me out of it or slap $100,000 extra onto the cost estimate for what we wanted done." Her project finally began in 2003 and is scheduled for completion next year.
Doliner's experience is not unusual among homeowners who seek contractors for eco-friendly renovations. "People want to do green remodeling but can't find a contractor or architect who knows about it," said Sigi Koko, a green architect and consultant with offices in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia.
While green building for new residential construction has become increasingly popular among consumers and builders in much of the country, the trend in green remodeling is less dramatic, said Rich Dooley, an environmental analyst with the Upper Marlboro-based NAHB Research Center, a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders. About 25 U.S. cities or counties, including Arlington, have green building programs that offer guidelines, advice and incentives for new residential construction. Dooley, however, said he knows of only three -- Portland, Ore., Atlanta and Kitsap County in Washington state -- with similar programs for green remodeling.
In a 2002 residential renovation survey conducted by Colorado-based Natural Home magazine, 62 percent of those surveyed who had hired a builder or contractor said that those professionals were open-minded, but either "only somewhat" or "not at all" knowledgeable about green building techniques.
Natural Home's editor in chief, Robyn Griggs Lawrence, said that although it has become easier to find green products since the survey was completed, "people still struggle to find contractors willing to go green, especially in more conservative parts of the country."
The Washington area is one of those more conservative regions, at least in contrast with eco-conscious places such as Austin, Denver, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. "Homes here are built in a standard way, so the architectural design is like that too," said Todd Ray, an architect who practices sustainable design at Studio27 Architecture PLLC, a Dupont Circle firm.
Many builders remain wary of green remodeling projects because they can cost more than conventional ones, said Joseph Klockner, president and owner of the Jos. Klockner design/build firm in Takoma Park, which performs some green remodeling work. Additionally, he said, converting an existing house into a green structure can pose specific challenges, such as orienting the house to maximize solar gain when the house already has a certain orientation.
The remodeling industry tends to operate along conventional lines, Klockner said. "With few exceptions, there's not that kind of visionary leadership when it comes to green and to bringing environmental consciousness into the process."
Doliner said that is what she found in her search for green builders. "A lot of them did not want to take the risk of using materials and suppliers that were new to them."
Still, consumers wanting a high-performance, environmentally sensitive renovation need not despair. There are numerous information sources on green remodeling; there are experienced local architects and contractors, if you look hard enough. Here is how to learn more:
* Read up on the subject. Books include Angela M. Dean's "Green By Design" (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2002) and Sarah Susanka's "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live" (Taunton Press, 2001). The magazine Natural Home also has a Web site, www.naturalhomemagazine.com. The magazine of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, ArchitectureDC, will feature an article on green kitchens in the upcoming issue. Environmentally conscious construction is a regular topic in the newsletters Green Guide (www.thegreenguide.com) and Environmental Building News (www.buildinggreen.com).
* Search the Internet. See Web sites such as www.oikos.com or www.thegreenguide.com/signup/homereno. The site www.co-opamerica.org includes lists of about 10,000 green products and businesses. Also, Web search engines can be helpful when seeking information about specific aspects of green renovation.
* Request referrals and ask advice from building industry organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org) and the NAHB Research Center (www.toolbase.org). Local chapters of home builder associations, including the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association (www.mncbia.org) and the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (www.nvbia.com) can refer consumers to members who have knowledge about elements of green remodeling, such as how to guard against mold, even if they don't specialize in the green field.
* Get a builder or contractor referral from a green architect. There appear to be more green architects in the area than there are green builders. To find the most qualified ones, contact those who have been recognized for their green designs in the media or by professional organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, suggests architect Todd Ray.
* Seek help from the government. The Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program (www.energystar.gov) labels many categories of energy-efficient home products. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.md.us/ed) holds monthly meetings on green building topics. Arlington County's Green Home Choice program (www.co.arlington.va.us/des/epo/greenhome.htm) for new construction offers information that is useful for renovation.
* Talk to friends and acquaintances who have done green home projects or who have an interest in nontoxic living and in reducing energy consumption. Doliner, for instance, found out about her architect in a conversation at an Arlington dog park.
* Ask potential builders specific questions about green building. What experience do they have working with sustainable materials? How much more will green building products cost initially? What are the potential savings over time? Which materials are likely to be the most durable and how long will it take to get those?
* Keep abreast of community events that focus on green building. For instance, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (www.arlingtonenvironment.org) held a Green Home Fair in March, which showcased green businesses and products and attracted 400 attendees. Check local libraries and community centers for similar events.
* Don't rush. Salt Lake City architect Angela Dean said, "While you don't have to be a chemist to understand green building issues," it takes time to research and become educated.
D.C. homeowner Bo Green agreed. He spent a year looking for certified lumber for his builder to install. "Green is worth it, but you have to be motivated," he said. "You need to have faith and perseverance."