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Real Green Houses

Feature article in the Culpeper Star- Exponent
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Allison Brophy Champion Staff writer

One house is a reasonable 2,000 square feet with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a finished basement situated on three acres, facing the sun, just beyond the historic Little Fork Church. At $299,000, it’s within reach of first-time homebuyers. The other, a vast 4,800-square-foot structure, overlooks Civil War battlefields at Brandy Station, and is all custom-built to include a stone-faced fireplace, wood floors and a large, lush basement with a bar. A luxury house for a retiring professional, this estate is not a starter home, and sold for around $700,000. And yet, both houses have something very important in common - they are Culpeper County’s first true “green” homes, inspected and certified to meet EarthCraft Virginia standards.

The smaller house, built by Trigon Homes, and the larger one, built by Graystone Homes, both of Culpeper, were constructed with the environment in mind and because they are substantially more energy efficient, also with the homeowner’s pocketbook in mind. In an age of limited natural resources, economic uncertainty and with the housing market not at its peak, Trigon and Graystone are getting ahead of the curve to build houses that are not only green, but of better quality.

‘We have got to do this’
EarthCraft, a partnership between the Homebuilders Association of Virginia and the Virginia Community Development Corporation, uses a detailed point system and computer model to rate and test the efficiency of a new home from start to finish. EarthCraft started as a pilot program in Charlottesville about four years ago, and is now taking hold all over the state. “We fervently believe in it,” said Karl Bren, executive director the Richmond-based organization. “The overarching thing is, look, we have got to do this.”

Last year, EarthCraft Virginia certified about 50 houses statewide, he said. This year, they’ll do between 200 and 300 houses. Apparently, green is catching on; Bren said it should start with the building industry. That’s because 50 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions come from buildings, he said, due to all the energy required to heat and cool a structure. In the near future, Bren said, building codes will eventually change to require the better, green standard. EarthCraft and its participating builders are getting out in front of that curve, Bren said. “This is what I call really, true quality building,” he said.

A better product
Paramount to the EarthCraft rating system - similar to the federally backed EnergyStar initiative - is achieving a “tight” house, said Andrew Grigsby, 38, of Brandy Station, a regional technical advisor for EarthCraft. “The main thing about the final inspection is to determine how drafty it will be, also how tight the ductwork is,” he said during a recent visit to the Trigon house, which was built as a model and passed the EarthCraft test with ‘flying colors.’

“In the U.S., the average duct system leaks 17 percent of its air to the outside. This house tested at less than .5 percent,” Grigsby said and so did the larger Graystone house. The Trigon house scored 74 points overall, meaning it is 26 percent more energy efficient than a standard-built house of its size, said Grigsby, who grew up in Culpeper and runs his own green consulting business, Commonwealth Sustainability Works. To qualify under EarthCraft, a house has to be at least 15 percent more efficient.

The Trigon house also earned points for other earth-friendly measures like placing straw over the dirt outside to reduce erosion, using EnergyStar appliances, the installation of a silt fence, and a rain gutter that spills into a pipe before emptying a distance from the house so as to reduce the likelihood of a wet basement. It’s also situated to face the sun to take advantage of “passive solar heating” - the sun that streams through the windows and naturally warms a house.

Grigsby said building green is about building a better quality product. “A house isn’t green if it’s going to fall down in a year so it’s got lots of good, construction points, just some fundamental building practices,” he said. “So it is a better product, a much better product,” added Grigsby, who spent his teen years working for various local builders. “It’s going to be more comfortable, the bills are going to be much lower, and they’re going to have fewer callbacks and a happier customer.”

Saving money
Walter Cheatle Jr., vice-president of production with Trigon Homes, said his company is dedicated to building green now and into the future. “Every house we build from here on out will be an EnergyStar-certified house or EarthCraft,” he said. “This is by no means an anomaly.” Cheatle, 32, said Trigon started small with its model so as to show that an energy efficient house can go up at any price point.

“We want every homeowner, whether they have quite a bit of money or they’re a first time homebuyer, to be able to buy into the green house program because it’s really become the wave of the future,” he said.

A huge misconception, Cheatle went on, is that it’s too cost-prohibitive to build green; while it’s “a little bit more expensive” to use better building standards, he said, it’s not so much that it will translate into a higher selling price. “We can stay right in the first-time homebuyer parameters and make it work for just about everybody,” Cheatle said. “It’s such a good program, we really believe the resale for the homeowners in the future is going to be a great benefit to them as well.”

Sonja Wise, Trigon’s marketing coordinator, said there is plenty of public interest in green builds. In fact, she said, the company’s green Web pages get the most traffic. On the other hand, it was crucial for Trigon to get an EarthCraft house built so that people could see for themselves what one looks like. “People say, ‘I don’t want a space age house.’ Well, this is a normal house so there is a lot of education that needs to be done for the consumer, but they are definitely saving money in their pocketbooks and saving the earth while they’re at it.”

Based on the “energy model” figured by Grigsby, it would cost $253 per year to heat the Trigon house. “Now, that’s the definition of affordable housing,” he said.

Green outperforms
Though the larger Graystone home in Brandy Station might be slightly beyond that definition, it tested even higher for energy efficiency - 29 percent more so than a standard-built house of the same size. Walking through the house on a recent chilly morning, there was not a touch of draftiness anywhere as the sun poured through its large, tightly sealed windows, adding to the coziness. Anthony Clatterbuck, owner of Graystone and past president of the Homebuilders Association of America, said his company had been using green building principles for a while. He was attracted to EarthCraft because of the “true third-party analysis” that is measurable and flexible.

“I have always believed that building energy efficient homes in a cost-effective manner is the right way to build,” Clatterbuck said. “I think it is unconscionable to build a home that wastes energy unnecessarily - not only do you make it more difficult for the owner to operate the house but it creates a wasteful demand on the utility grid.” While house payments don’t last forever, he said, an electric bill does.

“Every dollar you save is another that the family gets to use the way they see fit,” Clatterbuck said. Graystone has a second EarthCraft-certified home in Madison that’s priced in the $300,000 range and several more under construction. Clatterbuck, like Cheatle, said it’s cost them “slightly more” to build green, but that’s only true if the standard home is built to be energy efficient.

“One of the true advantages to us (of EarthCraft) is that it gives us the recognition that is very to hard to quantify for the type of building that we are already doing,” Clatterbuck said. “It also helps our clients understand why their home outperforms others that appear on the surface to be similar.”

Allison Brophy Champion can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 101 or abrophy@starexponent.com.

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