5 ‘green’ homes that won gold

Annual awards recognize eco-minded designs

The gulf between "green" and "gorgeous" seems to be narrowing.

EcoHome magazine’s second annual design awards singled out an array of houses that are not only environmentally exceptional, but look good at the same time.

It hasn’t always been so.

"I don’t want to say that good design and green haven’t met in the past, but I think that they haven’t been considered together as much as they are now," said Rick Schwolsky, editor in chief of the magazine, which recently bestowed its Grand Award designation on five homes from around the country.

Award winners included:

  • a subdivision of affordable homes in Hawaii;
  • a passive-solar home in Carmel, Calif., that’s so energy efficient that it has no air conditioning; and
  • a major remodel of a 260-year-old home on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts that also had to meet architectural-preservation standards.

The magazine, which specializes in green products and practices for the residential construction industry, chose a panel of five judges that included architects, builders who specialize in sustainable building, and experts on green technology.

In addition to the five Grand Awards, they also named 10 winners of Merit Awards, and honorable mentions. The homes can be seen at EcoHomeMagazine.com.

Schwolsky, editor of the 4-year-old publication, said that although various organizations offer design awards for "greenness," EcoHome ups the competition by requiring that the environmental considerations of each home in the contest be certified by an independent third party.

Those third parties can include the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building certification program, or the National Green Building Program administered by the National Association of Home Builders, among others.

He said the 70 entries (up from 50 last year) represent a broadening awareness of just what, exactly, a homeowner may be seeking these days in the way of "green."

For some time, he said, the ability to cut the heating and cooling bills has dominated consumer thinking, and that’s probably still true.

"I think there’s a hierarchy of which features people value the most, with energy obviously being the top thing that people would identify with as something they might be willing to pay more for," he said.

But emerging in the public consciousness are homes that take into consideration the well-being of the people who live there.

"Issues around health, in terms of material use and assuring healthy indoor air quality — including more use of ventilation equipment and systems — that’s probably coming in as a high value, under energy," he said.

"Sustainability" is a very broad umbrella that includes considerations that still might be a hard sell, Schwolsky said.

"For instance, I’m not sure that consumers would necessarily pay more for a home that’s framed with ‘certified’ lumber" that’s produced and harvested in a documented, responsible manner, he said.

"Certainly, a lot of people will point to durability and maintenance as being green attributes (and would pay extra for such assurances)," he said.

"People think in terms of initial cost and payback period," he said. "We’re trying to get people to think long term."

Still, the many ways to produce a "green" home are evident among the contest winners, he said.

Think "green," and think of recycled content, the end-of-life disposability of products, or site sustainability, he suggested.

Among the contest winners, for example, the designers of a home in Celo, N.C., took pains to preserve existing trees during construction. Its landscape details include nearly 4,000 gallons of rainwater storage for irrigation.

The remodeling of a home built in 1747 on Nantucket Island used reclaimed oak floors and locally sourced marble countertops to minimize energy consumed in their shipment.

Schwolsky said he found it particularly interesting that, even during a recession that has pounded the homebuilding business, green certification programs appear to be holding their own.

"We’re seeing less (homebuilding) activity, fewer starts and sales," he said. "But there’s a higher percentage of homes that are being built now that bear some level of green building than was true in the past.

"Everybody, including those who wouldn’t call themselves green builders, say that when the housing industry emerges from the recession, this will be the way to build."

Some highlight from the five top winners of the 2011 EcoHome Design Awards:

Kumuhau subdivision

The Kumuhau subdivision on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Photo courtesy of David Franzen, www.franzenphotography.com (c) 2011.

With Hawaii’s reputation for expensive housing, the Kumuhau subdivision in Waimanalo on the island of Oahu got praise not only for its green attributes, but also its price tag — the five floor plans in the 45-home subsidized project cost from $225,000 to $325,000.

The community brings to mind Hawaii’s historic plantation-style dwellings, the magazine said. The contest judges applauded the developers for taking a risk by forgoing air conditioning — the homes use whole-house fans to exhaust hot air into the vented attics.

Each house uses solar panels to supply about two-thirds of their electricity; in addition, they’re wired to accommodate additional panels and a future electric car.

Rainwater collected in 51-gallon storage containers is used for drip irrigation.

The homes cost an average $121 per square foot. Construction efficiencies came from panelized metal wall framing that went up in a day, and from the installation of metal roofs.

The homes range in size from 952 to 1,731 square feet and have LEED-Gold certification. The architect was Armstrong Development, Honolulu; the builder was Armstrong Builders.

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