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Saturday, September 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What it means to live in a green home

Seattle Times staff reporter

Green home resources

GreenWorks Realty: www.greenworksrealty.com

Northwest EcoBuilding Guild: www.ecobuilding.org

Sea Green: Seattle Housing Authority's Green Affordable Housing Program: www.seattle.gov/housing/

SeaGreen

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and indoor air quality: www.epa.gov/iaq

American Lung Association Health House: www.healthhouse.org

Environments for Living: www.eflhome.com

Until Bennie and Ed Sata moved into their certified-green home in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood this year, they were ecoconscious but considered some of their lifestyle choices "green by accident."

Ed Sata, 45, drives an older Mercedes-Benz because he likes the design, but he is proud that it runs on biodiesel. Their previous condo was less than 450 square feet, which required them to live efficiently.

When they shopped for a house, they wanted an affordable, new home with an open layout, not necessarily a green home.

But visit them in their new house — certified at the four-star Built Green level (five is the highest) — and green has become a way of life for them.

Bennie Sata, 39, is delighted with her side yard, where she grows vegetables, composts and waters everything from a rain barrel. She decorated the house almost entirely with secondhand furniture bought on Craigslist. Windows are designed so the house doesn't need lights until 10 p.m. at the height of summer. And they love their radiant floor heating.

"It's like having a boyfriend and you later found out he was rich," Bennie Sata said. "You would have liked him all along."

With green building booming all over the Pacific Northwest, buying a green home is becoming more common and, slowly, more affordable.

Now, more than 20 percent of new construction in King County in the last couple of years has been certified Built Green, said Koben Calhoun, coordinator for King and Snohomish counties' Built Green, a local eco-friendly building program. (See the EcoConsumer column on page 9 for more on Built Green.)

But with multiple green-certification programs and more on the way, plus condos and other developments touting "natural" or "sustainable" living, it's smart to learn more before you buy.

Here's a guide to sorting through the options:

What makes a house green?

Much of what makes a home green is not visible on the surface, experts say. You can't see formaldehyde-free insulation, proper ventilation or the kind of wood used for framing.

Green building advocates suggest taking a tour of a green construction site to learn more about what makes a home environmentally friendly. Check the newsletter on www.builtgreen.net, look at www.greenworksrealty.com or ask your Realtor or builder for tour locations.

Here's what you might learn:

• Energy-efficient homes will mean lower energy bills over the long term. Green homes are tightly sealed; have more-efficient heating and cooling systems; and can include passive or on-demand water heaters, solar power, gas clothes dryers, Energy Star appliances and basics like compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Indoor air quality is improved by limiting mold through moisture control and proper ventilation, and by reducing exposure to materials that emit toxins. Other components of green homes are formaldehyde-free insulation and sealers, grouts, stains and adhesives that are low in volatile organic compounds and low in toxins, and water-based and solvent-free.

Water conservation reduces bills and helps Puget Sound. Green houses may include low-flow toilets and faucets, but water conservation also applies to landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, limiting turf grass and installing a rainwater collection system.

Recyclable or durable materials can be included from the start of the building process, not just inside. Construction waste can be recycled and materials with a longer life can be chosen, including sustainably harvested wood for framing, roofing and siding.

Site impact refers to construction practices and a house's location, and includes limiting impact on critical areas like wetlands, shorelines and bluffs. It also includes conserving native vegetation and trees for landscaping, controlling erosion, limiting grading and protecting topsoil.

"A lot of what we label green is just about better quality and better performance," said Alistair Jackson, a Built Green and LEED for Homes verifier.

"If you're interested in a house that is durable, low-maintenance, it's going to be quiet and comfortable, and it's going to be healthy, not have a lot of dust problems or mold-related moisture problems — all of those are actually green features," he said.

Green-certified

home programs

The Seattle area boasts builders who take advantage of several green building-certification programs. If you're looking to buy green, certification by a green building program is the main standard of quality.

The three primary green-certification programs in the Seattle area are:

Built Green. This is the best known of the certification programs. The Seattle-area program is run by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish counties (other counties have similar programs).

Built Green certifies homes on eco-friendly principles using a one- to five-star system. Builders use a checklist to certify themselves up to three stars, while four- and five-star homes require higher green standards and a third party to verify the checklist. The program also certifies remodels.

LEED for Homes (Leadership for Environmental and Energy Design). Run by the U.S. Green Building Council, this pilot program is in its final phases before the program launches. LEED requires third-party verification for all levels — certified, silver, gold and platinum — and performance testing.

Energy Star. The standards for this program are set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, and require certified homes to be at least 15 percent more efficient than the state's energy code.

Other certification programs include the American Lung Association Health House (www.healthhouse.org), which focuses on energy efficiency and indoor air quality, and the Environments for Living program (www.eflhome.com), which focuses on energy and water efficiency and carbon reduction.

OK, but do green-certified homes cost more?

Green building has a reputation for being costly, and the greenest homes typically are more expensive than conventionally built homes. But it is possible to buy green for a reasonable price.

New green homes certified at the four- to five-star Built Green level often cost $50 to $100 more per square foot, depending on the certification level and the builder, said Realtor Eva Otto, of GreenWorks Realty, which specializes in green housing. In general, buyers will see an increase in cost of up to 5 percent for a three-star Built Green home, 10-15 percent for a four-star and up to 25 percent for a five-star, she said.

Those increases in price reflect the cost of making a home green, she said.

"What they're doing is providing energy savings and health savings to the buyer, so the buyer over its lifetime will be spending less money," she said, including "better indoor air quality, less off-gassing, the little things you can't perceive but do measure."

If designed and constructed well, a three-star Built Green Home can be built for about the same cost as a traditional one, according to Jackson, the Built Green and LEED verifier.

Some green homes focus more on specific priorities like indoor air quality or energy efficiency for an Energy Star home. But the more-advanced certification levels, such as four- and five-star Built Green homes and the LEED program, incorporate a well-rounded approach, experts say.

"The best green homes are the ones where the builder has taken a holistic approach and tried to not just throw a few little cosmetic green features on the product, but designed it in from day one," said green builder Martha Rose of Martha Rose Construction. "Getting into a conversation with the builder, you can sift through that and find out pretty quickly if they did that."

One- and two-star Built Green homes are essentially built to code, Rose said. This is actually a nod to Washington's strict energy code and to the program's efforts to bring new builders to the program.

Affordable green home choices include those in communities such as West Seattle's High Point (www.thehighpoint.com), Rainier Vista (www.rainiervista.com) and Issaquah Highlands (www.issaquahhighlands.com), which have housing for the median income, Otto said. Another option is to buy an older home and make it green, using fewer virgin materials and less transportation than in new construction, Otto said.

Green inspired

Though Ed and Bennie Sata weren't necessarily looking for a green home when they stumbled upon theirs for just under $500,000, the Satas feel compelled to make more green choices in their daily lives.

"Now that we're here, we have to be good ambassadors for the green movement," Bennie Sata said. "We have a responsibility to kind of spread the news."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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