Eco-friendly homes multiply across U.S.

This 5,500 square-foot home is being built in Corrales, N.M., using green principles.Jake Schoellkopf / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Norm Schreifels is building a 5,500 square-foot dream home with unimpeded views of the Sandia Mountains, an outdoor dining room that faces the city lights and a handful of plazas and portals that take advantage of New Mexico’s weather.

Thick hand-hewn beams soar above the great room and windows stretch from near the floor to the ceiling to catch the mountains just beyond the river valley below.

At first glance, the home would send any conservationist into a frenzy.

But Schreifels, who runs Sun Mountain Construction Inc., wants people to take a closer look.

“We put a big house in here just so people would get mad and ask questions,” he said.

The answers all point to green building, a trend that’s picking up speed across the United States as homeowners struggle with high utility bills and leaders begin to talk about shifting the country’s diet from oil to more renewable energy sources.

Conference tours
Hundreds of homebuilders, architects and industry experts gathered recently in Albuquerque to share their ideas as part of the National Association of Home Builders’ Green Building Conference.

Dozens of them got the chance to tour the work of Schreifels and other contractors who are using better building techniques and environmentally friendly materials to create what some in the industry are describing as the future of homebuilding.

“Ten years from now it will be the way of doing it, not because it’s mandatory, just because it’s the right way of doing it,” said Armando Cobo, an Albuquerque designer who has been active in promoting the NAHB’s green building standards.

Cobo has been designing nothing but green houses for the past five years and hasn’t scared away a single client.

“It just makes 100 percent sense,” he said. “For a small amount of money, you can have a better house, more energy efficient house. Why would you want something that doesn’t meet those standards? It’s a no-brainer.”

Hidden green
And gone are the days when green-built homes teetered on the fringe of being freaky with a mishmash of recycled tires and aluminum cans and awkward solar panels.

Now, solar power systems can be hidden on rooftops, insulation made of recycled material becomes invisible behind walls covered with nontoxic paint, and more efficient heating and cooling systems are woven into the home’s inner skeleton.

Green builders also use framing techniques that cut down on waste; some look for opportunities to use salvaged materials.

The beams and other wooden accents in Schreifels’ home come from timber harvested following a forest fire in northern New Mexico. The wood is just one example of the steps Schreifels — with help from Green Builder magazine — has taken to make the home a green example.

“It gets a little more of the checking and cracking in it, but I like that,” Schreifels said of the reclaimed wood. “Every one of these (beams) would have just stayed there and rotted out.”

Some builders who cater to the masses are going green by engineering heating and cooling systems to work more efficiently, framing thicker exterior walls to provide more insulation and installing low-flow toilets and other fixtures designed to conserve water.

Green homes by the numbers
But NAHB officials admit the number isn’t high and they want more mainstream builders to jump on board.

According to the organization, about 2,600 homes were built to some kind of green standard in 2002. That jumped to 14,600 in 2004 and it’s expected to multiply again this year, said Ray Tonjes, chairman of the NAHB’s green building subcommittee.

“It’s not rocket science,” Tonjes said of green building. “It’s really about common sense.”

Both he and Cobo noted that the basic principles date back centuries to a time when people were conscious of their surroundings and built dwellings that worked with the environment.

Tonjes talked about the Nebraska dugout in which his grandfather was born and how it was built into a slope to protect against the north wind. Cobo pointed to indigenous people who built their homes with adobe bricks and positioned them to take advantage of the sun’s rays.

“That is a heritage that we should not be taking for granted and we should build upon,” Cobo said.

National guidelines
To help builders, the NAHB created green guidelines that cover everything from lot design to indoor air quality and energy efficiency. The guidelines are flexible so builders around the country can use them.

The Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico, for example, unveiled its version of the guidelines in March but with stricter requirements on water conservation. New Mexico is currently experiencing one of its driest winters on record.

NAHB officials hope to see similar programs in more than a dozen metropolitan areas by the end of the year.

“We’re going from Boston to Park City and from Durham to Las Vegas and Minneapolis down to Nashville, just all over the place,” said Warn Hubbell, executive director of the Green Building Initiative, which has already helped a handful of local associations start programs.

Political support
Support for green building is also coming from outside the construction industry.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez is encouraging builders to move ahead without mandates from the government. He also points out that he’s taking his own steps, including an initiative that requires future city vehicles to run on alternative fuel.

“We have different challenges now than we did perhaps 30 years ago,” Chavez said. “The reality is that we live here in the high desert. Sustainability has become extraordinarily important.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former energy secretary under President Clinton, signed an executive order earlier this year calling for the state to implement green building practices for all existing and new state buildings.

“It saves money and it’s a good investment for taxpayers,” said Ned Farquhar, the governor’s senior policy adviser for energy and the environment.

Saving money is also an aim of Schreifels, who expects his utility bills to be at least 60 percent less thanks to the green elements in his home.

“I think with the fuel cost and oil prices and everything going up, we’re going to have no choice down the road, no choice,” he said.