Seattle considered a bellwether

By Jon Talton
Special to The Seattle Times

Green may sound good, but will consumers pay more for a house even if it saves money over the long run? And what’s the right balance of voluntary compliance and regulation to achieve green?

After 30 years in the construction industry, Roy Hanchett says he can see into its future. And the future is green.

“I don’t see any roadblocks,” he said. “As I told the contractors, you’d better get used to it, because it’s going to be in all the building codes in the future.”

Indeed, the range of practices that go into green building — from using recycled materials to positioning of a building to maximize energy conservation — are increasingly entering the mainstream. From 40 to 50 percent of new houses will be built with some green elements, according to a survey last year by the National Association of Homebuilders and McGraw-Hill Construction.

Still, the most aggressive and effective measures to lessen the environmental footprint of housing are a difficult sell to much of the industry. Green may sound good, but will consumers pay more for a house even if it saves money over the long run? And what’s the right balance of voluntary compliance and regulation to achieve green?

Seattle’s leadership in green building makes it a closely watched bellwether in answering these questions. For international sustainability experts, Seattle “is up there with the greats,” said Sue Roaf, an architectural consultant in the United Kingdom and visiting professor at Arizona State University. “You have done really well.”

This year, 11,600 homes have been certified as Built Green by the program of the same name, operated by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. That compares with 3,107 in 2006. (There were 25,743 total housing starts in the metropolitan area in 2006.)

Experts credit several factors for Seattle’s prominence, and not all of them will translate easily to every region of the country:

• Strong government regulation and incentives.

• Partnerships among building professionals, government and utilities.

• Growing expertise and resources, including architects, developers, contractors and materials.

• Limited land for development, which lessens environmentally destructive sprawl.

• Pro-environmental sentiment by residents.

“We were basically forced by government to do compact development, and do it in a way that lifestyles are better,” said Bill Kreager, a principal with Mithun, a Seattle architectural, design and planning firm. “It’s amazing how far ahead we are, and I teach all over the country.”

One recent example is Ashworth Cottages on Densmore Avenue North in Seattle. The development’s model house was awarded the Platinum rating by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, the highest level from the nationally recognized standard. The builder hopes to gain the award for all 20 houses.

On the outside, the cottage blends seamlessly with the neighborhood. Yet the house is a revolution away from the mass-production tract housing that characterizes much of American suburbia.

For example, it features a rainwater cistern to collect water for use in landscape irrigation. Want hot water? Press a button, activating an instantaneous hot-water heater, eliminating the need for the conventional hot-water tank.

Yet, nationally the big production builders, which account for as much as 80 percent of housing construction, have been slow to embrace major green initiatives. The reason: They say consumers won’t pay higher prices for houses with the most effective green features. The construction cost differential is a point of debate, with estimates ranging from 4 to 9 percent or more than a conventional house.

Residential green faces other challenges, according to Built Green Executive Director Aaron Adelstein. Chief among them is the need for more acceptance of the value of green building by lenders and appraisers. “We need education and a data-compilation process,” he said. “The value of green needs to be proven.”

While consumer interest in sustainability is rising, no uniform standard exists as to what “green” means. Some companies see it as marketing term,” Adelstein said.

Indeed, environmentally-friendly claims that lack the third-party verification of a program such as Built Green can be fake green or “green wash.”

Being green can be complicated, with consumers deluged with information. In addition, a push for higher density, to keep development within existing urban areas, can spark nasty zoning battles.

In many places, ordinances and neighborhood sentiment stand in the way of mixed-use development, which is necessary to cut down on car use and emissions.

Still, architects and builders say, buyers who live in the houses reap substantial savings after several years, as well as health benefits from the nontoxic materials used.

These long-term savings are already being realized by businesses, which took the lead in green-building practices starting in the mid-1990s. More than 1,000 commercial buildings have received the demanding LEED certification since 2000.

“Companies want to pursue green building because they now have to appeal to a broader constituency,” said Mark Vitner, chief economist for Wachovia, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank. “They have clients, customers and regulators all over the world, including places where environmental issues are much more important than in America. It’s a sound business decision.”

Other pressures are also coming into focus. Chief among those issues are climate change, sustained higher energy prices, resource depletion and subsequent competition for resources such as oil and water. Many major corporations are concerned about the costs and disruptions.

“We have around 10 years in which to build an ‘Eco-Society’ that is capable of putting the planet, the global common good, and ‘survival’ at the top of its agenda,” according to sustainability scholar Roaf, whose Oxford EcoHouse in England is a pioneer in energy efficiency.

One place to start, advocates say, is in building. Construction and operation of buildings account for 39 percent of the energy and 70 percent of the electricity used in the United States, according to the federal Department of Energy.

Architect Kreager built a carbon-neutral home for himself in the San Juan Islands, using photovoltaics to produce solar energy and other advanced techniques. But, he said, standards such as LEED are achievable for the broader public, reducing if not eliminating their carbon footprint.

“It’s a matter of the simple things. … How you orient a house, where the glazing is, there’s no higher cost.”

Still, many house buyers will have to be convinced, even in the Pacific Northwest.

“I grew up in the suburbs, and the American dream is not to buy a ‘unit,’ ” Kreager said. “We have to convince people to spend more money on less land and less house, and see they can be delighted.”

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