Sprouting Efficiency

With some help from the county, more and more local builders--including Habitat for Humanity--are going green

I was sitting between two local television journalists at a recent press conference, and I couldn't help but listen in on their conversation.

"What did you do Saturday?" asked one handsome face of the other.

"I covered the Green Festival."

"Uhh!" the first handsome face retorted. "I am so sick of all that green stuff!"

If it hadn't occurred to me before, it surely did then: This mainstream green fad is merely that, a fad. The "Green Teams" and the newscast fillers featuring all those little simple steps you can take to become more environmentally friendly will go away, to be replaced by some other graphics-friendly issue that can be summed up in a 30-second spot.

Fortunately, the real work in the greening of America is going on behind the scenes, in the trenches of local government and in the nonprofit sector.

Here in the arid west, there is perhaps nowhere better to apply green principles than in our homes. Think about the average desert home: approximately 2,000 square feet (up from an average of 1,000 square feet in 1950), an energy-sucking machine, made from materials hauled in from somewhere far away. At least we have a lot of room to stretch our legs.

When we use energy, we use water. Each kilowatt hour of thermoelectric generation, according to a Pima County white paper on green building, requires approximately 25 gallons of water. So it behooves us to reduce the amount of energy used in this region that is so famously dry.

In May, Pima County began a program to do something about this--and now, Habitat for Humanity's local chapter is joining in the effort. The group, which builds homes for low-income residents using volunteers and donations, is taking small steps to make their newest projects comply with the county's regional Green Building Program. The program is similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's 14-year-old LEED ( Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green-building rating system , except that it takes into account the unique aspects of the local environment.

"The overall concept of the regional system is to have a system that reflects our climate and region," says Rich Franz, an architect with the Pima County Development Services Department. "Water and, to a lesser extent, energy are more important in our regional system than LEED. That is because water is key for us--water equals energy; energy equals water."

The regional system gives credits for water-saving landscaping, decreased indoor water use, and not having a swimming pool, a fountain or a garbage disposal, among other things.

Concurrently, Pima County has been awarded a LEED for Homes providership by the USGBC. This allows builders to voluntarily take part in the various LEED programs with the county's assistance.

On the southeast side of Tucson, Habitat for Humanity volunteers are building a small home in a middle-class subdivision that looks pretty much like all of the other homes around it. It's not made of straw bale or adobe; it's hooked up to the grid, and there are no solar arrays casting shadows. In fact, the green aspects of the home are quite subtle. They include stub-outs for a gray-water line, a frame-in for a future photovoltaic solar system (but not the system itself), water-saving landscaping features, a dedicated space for recycling, prep for a solar water heater and other small steps.

Nonetheless, the home is much greener than it would have been had the local Habitat group not started discussing, about a year ago, ways to make their homes more energy- and water-efficient. This is the first Habitat project to be built under the county program.

"The industry is going in this direction, and a lot of the things that are incorporated into the green-building model make sense," says Patrick Pitman, Habitat Tucson's assistant director of construction. "What we wrestle with at Habitat is finding the right balance with how green we can be and still not raise the threshold on price; if you go full-blown green, there is some cost, but there are things we can do that make sense and don't have a high cost."

Pitman says that Habitat learned a few years ago that trying to build on the extreme end of green technology wasn't going to pay off. The group built a rammed-earth home and a few straw-bale homes in northwest Tucson with a group of UA students--and found that such ultra-green methods were too expensive and too difficult for volunteers to work with.

"Our volunteers like wood," he says. "We like to keep it simple and affordable, but we are continuing to tweak our product to find the green criteria we can incorporate into the build and still be in the sweet spot in terms of cost and affordability."

According to local green builder Francis Massland, a member of the Habitat committee, that "sweet spot" is liable to get bigger as green-building technologies become more affordable. Moreover, there are a lot of inexpensive things that price-conscious homebuilders like Habitat (and the rest of us) can do now--from using different techniques to apply stucco, to installing a heat shield on the roof, to planting trees in front of windows--that will save energy and water.

"Green may be more expensive on day one, but it is always cheaper on day 1,000," he says.

Despite only being in place since May, and despite a precipitous drop in new-home permits, the Pima County regional Green Building Program appears to be off to a robust start.

About 10 percent of the residential projects filed with Pima County are currently participating in the program, says Ric Hicks, a plan examiner and green-building expert with Pima County Development Services.

Hicks said there are currently four model-home plans for three different builders that comply with the program. One of those builders is Habitat for Humanity; another is the nonprofit Chicanos por la Causa. Also under review is a multifamily project with 348 units that could be part of the program. Additionally, Hicks said, several builders in town are looking to build homes under the LEED for Homes program, including an assisted-care community, a shopping center in Oro Valley and even a few fire stations.

"I speak to individuals every day, whether on the phone or in person, who want to know more about the program or want to enroll in our program," Hicks said. "There is a lot of interest in our community, and it's growing."

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