Green needn't mean small

Builders say a desire to be environmentally sound does not diminish a craving for space.

"Many small homes consume more energy" than this 6,500-square-footer, says builder Jerry Zayets. According to an official with the National Association of Home Builders, "The idea is: Make it as green as you can, even if you build a large house."

The house Joe Monfredo built in Davidsonville, Md., has seven bedrooms, 61/2 baths and four fireplaces. It's almost five times the size of the typical new American house.

And it's good for the planet, Monfredo says.

"Green" and "big" hardly seem compatible concepts. After all, one is synonymous with conservation, the other closely linked with waste. Yet some eco-conscious houses these days are not just big, they're huge, and the relationship between size and greenness is not as clear-cut as one might think.

All else being equal, a small house is more eco-friendly than a large one. It uses less raw material, emits less greenhouse gas, and is more energy-efficient simply because it's smaller.

But who's to judge how much space a person needs, asked David Goldstein, energy-program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in New York. If one 10,000-square-foot house owned by a family of four is "a bad thing," what about two 5,000-square-foot houses owned by the same family?

"It's really a matter of moral or economic judgment as to whether the home you're asking for makes environmental sense," Goldstein said. "Only the individual homeowner is in a position to know how much size satisfies basic needs, how much satisfies basic wants, and how much is silly extravagance."

For decades, Americans have believed that bigger is better. The average size of a new home swelled by two-thirds from 1970 to 2007, from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The "supersize me" phenomenon unfolded even as the average family size shrank, suggesting that people were buying bigger for lifestyle reasons, not function.

The way builder Jerry Zayets sees it, the desire to go green has not diminished that craving for space. That's why he built a 6,500-square-foot house in Washington, on the market for more than $1 million. With seven bedrooms, six baths, and a dramatic two-story entry, the house feels vast.

"I know people walk into this house and think it's the Ford Excursion of homes," said Zayets, owner of Nexxt Builders in Washington. "It's not. The energy costs of this home are less than my 1,200-square-foot rambler. . . . Many small homes consume more energy than the one I've built."

The key is the envelope of the house, Zayets said. Every surface that touches the outside is insulated with a low-density foam that sprays on like a cream but expands to 100 times its size, seals air leaks, and takes the shape of whatever space it fills, he said. Traditional fiberglass insulation must be cut with a utility knife, making it tough to use for irregular angles and crevices.

The house qualifies as energy-efficient under the federally run Energy Star program. Generally, Energy Star homes are at least 15 percent more efficient than homes built to 2004 building codes. Each has to meet baseline energy requirements that are then tested and inspected by an independent contractor.

The contractor who inspected Zayets' house concluded that the energy savings would total $2,150 a year compared with a house of a similar size built to 2004 code, Zayets said.

Monfredo also got the nod from Energy Star for the 12,000-square-foot house he constructed in Davidsonville and put on the market for $2.99 million.

The home is so well-insulated that it's draft-free, said Monfredo, who co-owns High Tec Homes in Towson, Md. It is cooled and heated by a geothermal system that limits fossil-fuel use and reduces energy costs. To better control energy use, the thermostat can be set to different temperatures in 11 zones.

"There are lots of people with money who are going to buy a house of this size no matter what," Monfredo said. "So why not be responsible and buy green?"

Generally speaking, a house is called green if it uses energy, water and other natural resources wisely and offers good indoor air quality. But there are several rating systems that attempt to measure just how green a house is.

The Energy Star program focuses solely on energy efficiency. But other features are taken into account, including water use and materials, under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. LEED was created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. Under this system, the more green features a home includes - such as solar panels or low-flush toilets - the more points it earns.

Next month, the home builders' association plans to unveil what it hopes will become accepted national standards for building and remodeling environmentally friendly homes.

None of these ratings systems dictates size. But both LEED standards and the builders group's proposal require more points - that is, more green features - for larger houses.

"The point is to make green mainstream," said Emily English, green-building program manager for the builders' association. "The idea is: Make it as green as you can, even if you build a large house."

As she started building a 4,000-square-foot house in Somerset, Md., Sally Romansky relied heavily on environmentally conscious friends for information on green design.

"I was putting it out there that I wanted to build green, but it's not like I had any clear direction or resources that I knew how to access," she said. "I got where I was by word of mouth."

Her home's foundation was laid and its frame was up when Romansky heard about Amicus Green Building Center in Kensington, Md., a one-stop shop for green design, research, construction and related products. She has been working with Brian Uher there ever since.

"Ideally, a homeowner should sit down with a consultant before the plans are drawn to discuss their goals, their budget, their needs," said Uher, a managing partner of the center. "At any stage, there are things that can be implemented. But they tend to be more expensive if you do them late in the game because change orders can be costly."

In Romansky's case, Uher started with the house's envelope. "We basically turned the house into a thermos," he said. Construction crews sprayed more than an inch of insulation onto all the outer walls to seal any air leaks and then layered shredded recycled paper on top of that to provide more insulation. The added insulation cost $6,000 to $7,000, Romansky said.

She also ponied up $42,000 for a geothermal heating and cooling system, double what she would have paid for a conventional system. But she expects to recoup that in five to seven years.

The upfront costs don't worry her, Romansky said: "Let's face it, if you can afford a big house, you can probably afford to make it green."

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