Natural Beauties

By staff November 1, 2003

Quick, what's your impression of a home built to protect the environment? A: It's a house filled with New Age crystals and incense; B: a cave suitable for the Flintstones; or C: Ugly as sin and why would any sane person in Sarasota build one?

You can forget those answers. Increasingly, luxury homes along Sarasota's waterfront and in exclusive golf course communities incorporate materials and systems called "green." Yes, these houses help protect the environment and the health of the home owners, but they don't sacrifice style. Their d├ęcor is every bit as elegant as that of any other upscale home. In fact, although green building principles may underlie nearly every square foot of a property, the result-visually, at least-is largely undetectable except for lower utility bills.

Take a tour through Pruett Builders' Villa Venezia, priced at $774,300, in the exclusive Portmarnock neighborhood of Lakewood Ranch. From the outside, it's a quintessential Sarasota luxury home: Mediterranean architecture, soaring ceilings, huge arched windows. Inside its 5,490 square feet, it's stocked with every possible amenity, including granite counter tops, wine room and marble master bath. But it's also such a model of green building that it won the gold award at the 2003 EnergyValue Housing Awards for its special windows, walls, ductwork, lighting, ventilation systems, passive solar hot water collector and energy-efficient appliances. According to the Florida Building Energy Rating Guide, this home should cost only $200 a month for heating, cooling and water heating. And it's selling well. "The green aspect attracts a lot of attention and curiosity," says Drew Smith, manager of product development for Pruett Builders at Lakewood Ranch. "When people find they can build green and get all the options, it becomes a lot more appealing."

The preference for green is a national trend. Ninety percent of home buyers surveyed in 2001 by Professional Builder said energy-efficient features in a new home are extremely important or very important, and the attractiveness of such homes is a strong selling point. Karen Childress of Venetian Golf and River Club, where green homes are rising, says, "The goal is not to design homes that look different. People who are moving here want a look that they like, and many things they like are green." For example, she says, bamboo flooring and concrete tile roofs are beautiful and green.

Kathleen Cecilian, president of KC & Associates, a national real estate strategic marketing firm based in New Jersey, says the green building movement is not just for the geodesic dome and yurt crowd. "It's more mainstream and more people expect it," she says. "It's a benefit to builder and consumer alike, and people are becoming aware of the benefits."

Charles and Toni Ambrosio immediately saw the benefits when they bought one of Pruett's green homes in Lakewood Ranch. "We are concerned about air quality," says Charles. "Our health is No. 1 and we take this into consideration for everything we do. The more you understand about what's being done to the house and materials, the more important it is. And it means energy savings, so spending extra now means savings down the road."

Green Defined

Sometimes called "healthy homes," "energy-efficient building" or "high-performance building," green building employs a combination of environmentally sound building practices. It "takes all the good from energy conservation and puts it in one envelope," says Smith.

Green houses include such features as energy-efficient appliances, systems that conserve electricity and water, air filtration and dehumidification to reduce mold and mildew, landscaping, and even the orientation of a home on a lot-a north-south placement is expected to decrease cooling bills by as much as 40 percent. According to the Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC), which certifies whether a house qualifies as green, a green home earns points for environmentally friendly design, energy, water, site placement, healthfulness, materials and disaster mitigation. A green home must attain 30 percent greater energy efficiency, conserve water and provide better indoor air quality. "If you can build a home to Florida Green Building Coalition standards you've got the best home," says Smith.

For example, a major component of green building is improved indoor air quality, achieved by creating airtight seals, introducing controlled amounts of fresh air and reducing or eliminating materials that produce potentially harmful gases called volatile organic compounds (VOC). These gases can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and allergic reactions. Over the long term they can result in damage to lungs. Some are considered to be possible carcinogens.

Some of Pruett's luxury homes at Lakewood Ranch have special filtration systems and central dehumidification to maintain relative humidity below 50 percent since mold, mildew and dust mites don't grow below 60 percent humidity. "They [the homes] don't look any different," notes Smith, "but basically the home is breathing mechanically 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like human lungs, fresh air comes in, is cleaned and filtered, and stale air is exhausted at the same time."

Of course, green building can raise upfront costs. Pruett Builders estimates that a green home costs approximately three to five percent more than a comparable home without the environmental features. "It's not much when you look at what you get for your money," insists Smith. "We started by just building healthy using research through the American Lung Association and pulling standards together; but we discovered at the same time that the house would be energy efficient, so people get two for one." In fact, a 2001 survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that the typical home buyer was willing to spend an additional $5,000 for green features that would save $1,000 every year. "It's a pretty easy sell," says Smith. "I'd say 100 percent of clients take some of the options [for green building] and we design the home to fit their priorities and lifestyle."

Developers have jumped onto the green wagon as well. Polly Webb, vice president of marketing for residential properties at SMR Inc., the developer of Lakewood Ranch, says several of the community's model homes are green. (Pruett's updated Villa Venezia II in the Blythefield neighborhood is an FGBC-certified home that's classified as the most energy-efficient and healthy green home in the Southeast by the Florida Homebuilders Association.) But Lakewood Ranch, the community, also uses green principles. The developer set specifications for the land with community-wide irrigation, littoral shelves in ponds and left land undeveloped for public use, she says.

WCI Communities, Inc., one of Florida's largest upscale residential builders, realized a while ago that green was in. In 2001, the company signed an innovative agreement with Audubon International in which it agreed to do 10 projects built according to principles of sustainability. WCI has built several green communities on Florida's east coast; Venetian Golf & River Club in Venice is its first green development on the west coast. Four of WCI's Venetian Golf & River Club models have received certification as green homes from the FGBC, and three more are under review. Says WCI's Childress, "We anticipate all will receive their certification; no other community has received certification on so many models in one place."

As acceptance increases, builders are willing to go a little greener. WCI Communities will soon break ground on what Childress calls the "ultra green" model that offers extremely high efficiency through an air handling system designed to process indoor air with ultra-violet light to kill mold and germs.

Builders have to be careful not to go too far, however, if they're going to recoup their costs. Greg Vine, who first developed Eco-Homes, Inc. at Sorrento Cay in Nokomis, admits that originally, "I was a bit too altruistic and tried to be too energy efficient, so the product was more costly than the customer was willing to pay." That soon changed. Vine joined forces with a mainstream builder, Waterford Homes, and adopted the Florida Power and Light "Build Smart" program that sets a minimum standard for energy efficiency.

Now, says, Vine, "Buyers absolutely love the concept of energy efficiency and the fact that the yard encourages birds and wildlife."

The beauty of luxury homes is now truly more than skin deep, providing a healthy "green" environment. As Webb says, "This is no longer a fringe concept, a characteristic that's unusual or strange. These homes are glamorous and meet the highest standards I've seen."


Going Green

Most features that make a home green also enhance its attractiveness and livability. Here are some of the most popular.

Natural ventilation/operable windows

Energy-efficient appliances

Reclaimed wood for beams

Marble flooring and granite counter tops

Cork or bamboo flooring

Natural fiber (wool) carpeting

Low VOC paints

Low dust-collecting window coverings

Lots of natural light

Drought-tolerant plantings, including native species

Fewer turf areas

Water-efficient irrigation/zone irrigation that groups similar plants for water

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