A Closer Look at a Green Building Development. Is Living Sustainably for You?
When you hear the term "green housing development", what comes to mind? I must admit, when I first heard about it, I immediately thought of something that could be in an episode of one of my favorite IFC television shows, Portlandia. In my mind's eye, I envisioned some kind of commune full of peace, love, free-range animals, organic communal gardens, loose-fit natural-fiber clothing and houses made of mud and sticks. I had an opportunity to tour a green housing development the other day and, I must admit, for the most part, I was way off base. In fact, I was left wondering, who wouldn't want to live in a green building development?
A Unique Green Housing Development
Located off a busy arterial street and close to shopping, medical facilities, theaters and restaurants in the beautiful lakeside community of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is a unique, active adult community. This neighborhood, which is built with the 55 and older homeowner in mind, is unique because it's "green". Meadow Ranch is surprisingly quiet and peaceful and is the brainchild of award-winning ActiveWest builder and developer Dennis Cunningham.
It's not what I expected. After speaking casually with Sharon Cunningham, Sales and Marketing Director for ActiveWest Builders, I understood that it was a neighborhood built in an urban infill area and that the homes were built in an environmentally-friendly way. When I visited this gem of a community, however, I learned that it was so much more.
To look at the neighborhood, you wouldn't know it is a green neighborhood. The houses look like beautiful traditional homes. All feature an inviting front porch and careful attention to stunning architectural details. The difference between the Meadow Ranch neighborhood and the more traditional neighborhood I reside in is the lot size. The Meadow Ranch homes are on smaller lots which makes a lot of sense when considering that their target market is adults 55 years of age and older. Maintenance-free living is one of the biggest selling points of any active adult community.
It also makes sense because the neighborhood is built to L.E.E.D. standards. L.E.E.D., which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000. According to their website, L.E.E.D. "provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions." In other words, they set the standards for green building and development. One of the prerequisites listed on the L.E.E.D. neighborhood development project checklist is that it must be a compact development. Wasting space and filling it with thirsty and expansive lawns just doesn't fit in the green philosophy.
What is a L.E.E.D. neighborhood development?
Because L.E.E.D. is the gold standard by which sustainable communities are measured, it's important to know what they consider when rating a development. L.E.E.D. measures performance in the following ways¹:
- Sustainable sites. A Sustainable site discourages development on previously undeveloped land and seeks to impact the land as little as possible
- Water efficiency. The goal is to encourage smarter use of water, inside and out, because buildings are the biggest user of our potable water supply.
- Energy and atmosphere. An L.E.E.D. home is energy efficient.
- Materials and resources. Builders should use materials and resources that are found in their area rather than burning fuel to transport materials from distant locations. Also, they should avoid wasting materials and recycle excess materials.
- Indoor environmental quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spend about 90% of their day indoors, where the air quality can be significantly worse than outside. Not only do L.E.E.D. homes have improved indoor air quality, but they also are designed to provide access to natural daylight and views and improved acoustics.
- Locations and linkages. Developers are encouraged to build on previously developed or infill sites and away from environmentally sensitive areas. Homes that are built near already-existing infrastructure, community resources and transit – in locations that promote access to open space for walking, physical activity and time outdoors are awarded bonus points.
- Awareness & education. The home only operates as a green home if the homeowners are completely aware of how to use it's features properly.
- Innovation in design. Additional points are given to builders who go above and beyond the base standards.
Knowing the requirements put upon builders in order to be L.E.E.D. certified can help you to know exactly what kind of home you're getting and to feel secure in it's quality. Anyone can claim to build a green home but a true green building has many rigorous requirements that are monitored by professionals.
Building Green Just Makes Sense
When I met with Sharon Cunningham I asked her what inspired them to create Meadow Ranch. She said that they were new in town and looking for a niche. With over 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring each day, they felt an active adult community would be the answer. Then Dennis, who has a background in land use planning, began to think about building green. He was very interested in the process and, as Sharon put it, "He saw that barn."
The barn she is referring to is an old, run-down barn that was kind of a sentimental landmark to many people in the area. Around the property are two busy streets, a boat dealership, a charter school an existing neighborhood and a large, bustling Fred Meyer Superstore. Buses are easily accessed in the area. So, Dennis saw this old barn and he saw potential.
Many people thought he would knock it down but that wasn't his plan. He was still thinking about the green building movement. The more he thought about it, the more he liked it. Sharon retells the process. "He came home and said, you know, it just makes sense. There's no reason to build the old way." Using materials from the immediate area and more efficiently, building a home that is healthy for the homeowner and the environment, creating organic community gardens for the residents--it all made sense.
So, that's what they did. They relocated the old barn to the entrance of the neighborhood, repaired it and painted it. Around the barn they planted an organic orchard and other fruits and vegetables. There are composters available along the wall of the barn. Additional community gardens are near the center of the development. The barn that inspired it all is now the pride and centerpiece of the neighborhood. Pathways wind around the neighborhood allowing homeowners to walk and visit with their neighbors. The location is key. Homeowners in Meadow Ranch are always close to medical facilities, shopping, theaters and restaurants. The neighborhood is designed to make you feel as if you're in the country but you are, definitely, close to everything you need in town.
All of the homes are built above and beyond L.E.E.D. requirements with careful attention to detail. They are also designed with a resident 55 and older in mind. The halls are all wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers which gives the home a nice, open feeling. Many of the showers have no steps into them which eliminates the risk of tripping. There are often no steps to the front porch for easy access. Unique to home design in this green development is a "flex room". Homeowners can make the room into a parlor, office, spare bedroom or anything else they may desire. The home is suited to the homeowner's needs.
To ensure the houses have good air quality, they are sealed tight. In place of forced air gas heat, which can blow debris around the home, ActiveWest Builders uses radiant floor heating. No- or low-VOC carpet, millwork and paint has been used to cut back on indoor pollution. VOC's are volatile organic compounds which are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. They are found in many ordinary household furnishings. In fact, I found it interesting that the homes in Meadow Ranch have quartz countertops rather than granite. Not only is quartz more readily available in our area but it also doesn't need to be sealed like granite does. The sealant used contains VOC's. There is definitely more to green home building than I originally assumed.
Would you consider building "green" for your next home?
Is building green right for you?
The more I look into it, I find myself at the same place Dennis Cunningham was years ago. Why wouldn't you build green? The costs really aren't an issue. In our area, you will pay 2-3% more for a sustainable home in Meadow Ranch. But the homes are super efficient so you will save money in the long run. The homes at Meadow Ranch are actually 35% more efficient than the Pacific Northwest Energy Star's requirement for energy efficiency in new homes. When buying a green home you are supporting local businesses as the materials are locally sourced. And the beauty of these homes can't be overlooked. Green housing development today is a lot different than the communes I envision in Portlandia. Whether you are a Baby Boomer or a young family starting out, a home built the green way can certainly work for you.
Proximity of services are important to a green development.
¹"US Green Buiding Council." . N.p., 2011. Web. 13 Jul 2012. http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1988.
©Denise Mai, July 13, 2012. All rights reserved.
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