Despite their low cost, each house has super-thick, super-insulated walls and windows; energy-efficient appliances, lighting, plumbing, and heating and cooling; and composting out back.
County officials issued a request-for-proposal in September 2008, soliciting a team of architects, engineers and builders to design on the small site, covering 3.44 acres. Requirements included “green” building, universal design and affordability.
“We linked ‘green, universal design, affordable’ unconditionally in the RFP,” said Josh Feldmark, the county’s director of environmental sustainability. “We wanted to show it was possible to include all three. We insisted that none be sacrificed.”
Visual appeal was important, too. “We wanted the houses to be in a beautiful community so that the [negative] image people have of affordable and green homes is shattered,” he said.
The one-level Craftsman-style houses — slightly offset on the curving street — are characterized by clean lines and muted shades of yellow, olive and slate blue.
A front porch and ground-level entrance offer easy access to the living room. A side door leads from the driveway, carport and back yard into a generous-sized kitchen and dining area. The three spaces converge in a “great room,” which is the focal point of the home. A master bedroom and bathroom are in the front of the house; two additional bedrooms, another bathroom and a laundry closet are in back.
The neighborhood sits in a gentle rolling landscape in the midst of other small communities. Walls of trees and shrubs form natural boundaries.
The Hamel Green Construction team that won the contract and built the project proposed a curved road ending in a cul-de-sac for guest parking and neighbor get-togethers, offering an inherent sense of community.
“I like the children playing all around outside. That makes it safe,” said Tugba Tuncer, who lives with her husband, who is a teacher, and their baby girl in an olive-green house with a yellow door.
Rebecca Figliozzi, standing by her cobalt-blue house, said her children — Antonio, 13, and Asia, 6 — “started playing with the others right away when we got here.”
Adults are friendly, too. “Within three days of us moving in,” she said, “most of the families came to introduce themselves.”
“Sustainable living truly makes common sense,” said Bill Hawthorne, owner of WMH Sustainability Consultants in Alexandria. “If we want to leave a healthy planet and natural resources for the next generation and the generations to come, we have to do something about our lifestyle now.”
“People certainly know what energy efficiency means, and they know about insulation and heating and cooling systems,” said Prescott Gaylord, general manager of Hamel Green. “There is a perception that only middle- and upper-class buyers know about green building, but that’s not my experience.”
The homes were marketed through Howard County’s affordable-housing program, and nine were sold before completion. The 10th remains a model. The first buyers went to settlement December 2011 and the last in April 2012. A similar development for 26 homes is on the drawing board for a site a quarter-mile up the road.
Figliozzi pointed to the round skylights over the bathrooms. “You don’t have to cut on the light” when you walk into the bathroom during the day, she said, because there is natural light.
Each house has a cone in back for compost — peelings, eggshells, etc. — and two tall clay watering barrels, one in the front yard and one in the back. “We collect rainwater, and it stays in this pot till we water the plants,” Tuncer said.
“There is no magic bullet for green living,” Hawthorne said. “The mission is to strive toward net zero energy, meaning let’s consume as much as we produce. That’s very achievable with our technology.”
The Hamel team built top-of-the-line energy-efficient homes that were awarded LEED Platinum certification, a designation aimed at demonstrating that a building has met international standards for green construction.
In addition to the energy-efficient appliances and systems, Gaylord said, the “non-sexy but essential green elements” include extra attention to detail when it comes to insulation. The staggered-stud exterior walls are eight inches thick, the casement windows limit air leakage, and the foundations feature insulated concrete slabs and edges.
“My electric bill dropped $50 to $100 a month here,” Figliozzi said.
Another resident, Sheila Rollock, called Howard County to say thank you for her low utility bill, which for six months last year averaged $83.50 for her family of five. That, she said, is roughly half what she paid while renting a three-bedroom townhouse in Montgomery County before moving to the Cottages.
The road and driveways are made of pervious concrete with bioretention beds — surface ponds that collect rainwater and allow it to seep gradually into the soil. Native vegetation — red maples, Eastern red cedars, Japanese quince — was planted throughout the community.
Kitchen counters are made of recycled glass. Bedroom carpet is Green Label certified; its padding made of recycled materials.
And the great-room flooring is polished, stained concrete. That means the concrete slab on which the house is built is finished so that it doubles as foundation and flooring. “Using the slab as finished flooring is a green building technique,” said Kelly Cimino, chief of homeownership programs for the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development.
Residents say grocery shopping is a five-minute drive away. A playground is on the neighborhood wish list, according to Figliozzi, and she expects it to be built with contributions from the residents.
The development has been recognized for its innovations, winning the U.S. Green Building Council Maryland Wintergreen Award for socioeconomic impact.
Said Feldmark: “We wanted to show that . . . government could really be on the leading edge of green living, universal design, affordability and beautiful surroundings. We absolutely were successful.”
Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.