It's Not Easy Being Green

Many clients can't afford it. Builders are leery of it. When will ecologically sound housing reach the mainstream?

Aside from motion-sensing lights that switch themselves off when rooms are not in use, most of the house's "high-tech stuff" is confined to the basement. Carter points to a contraption that reduces radon concentration in the house, a direct-vent hot-air heater, and a unit that looks like a small furnace, which is designed to heat air coming into the building with the residual energy from air leaving the house.

Such energy-efficient ventilation will soon be required for all new Minnesota houses. Carter's home is described as Category 1, which means that it meets all the stringent requirements of Minnesota's proposed new energy code. These guidelines should have gone into effect this July, but after resistance from builders, they foundered in the state legislature and are now scheduled to go into effect in February, 2000.

The new code began as a 1991 mandate from the legislature to make Minnesota's energy regulations the most comprehensive in the nation. Modeled in part on a Canadian resource-efficiency program, the regulations would impel all homebuilders to follow the same standards for air quality and energy use that are now regular practice only among green designers and clients who can afford custom-built homes. Builders were given four years to get up to speed with the new guidelines.

Into the woods: Medora Woods and Sarah Nettleton's sketch for an ecologically sound cabin in Tofte
Into the woods: Medora Woods and Sarah Nettleton's sketch for an ecologically sound cabin in Tofte

Without legislative requirements for more efficient housing, says Suzanne Savanick of the Office of Environmental Assistance, such innovations might never reach the mainstream of the building industry. Simple energy-efficient mechanical ventilation can easily add $5,000 to average building costs, and considerably more in the case of larger homes. Such figures contribute to the charge that sustainable design is an inordinately expensive option.

"There's a perception that anything done in an environmentally friendly way is more expensive, but that's not true," Savanick says. Aside from improving air quality and reducing energy consumption, Savanick suggests, green design adds to the structural integrity of a house, thereby curbing renovation and repair costs.

But just as the construction industry slowly gears up to build more energy-efficient, durable, and healthy housing, the code has been tabled by the legislature and the mandate that started it all has been scaled back. "It's insane," says Carter. "It's just a slow-moving industry...Whenever it goes into effect, there's going to be confusion."

"It takes a jump in mindset," Savanick explains. "People think of the environment as outside. What they're building is part of the environment, too. People don't realize the connection. I have no idea how long it will take to change our thinking as a society."

If green design is still far from standard practice for most house builders, the green way of thinking does seem to be catching on. Schoessler Lynn notes that in the Frogtown and Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods, where many of LHB's custom houses are located, the most remarkable thing about the healthy ecologically sensitive housing is that it is unremarkable. "You can't tell which ones we've designed," she says, "and which ones are old."

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