Going for the Green

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2007

Local homeowners may not know it, but they have just one degree of separation from movie heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.

Their link: green building components incorporated in their homes. Movie star/environmentalist DiCaprio said so on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and homeowners are saying so with more interest in energy-saving products.

Going green covers a wide spectrum of possibilities, from high-efficiency air conditioners and recycled drywall to healthier paints and more drought-tolerant landscaping.

"There was a time when most folks said they wouldn't spend $12 on an energy-efficient light bulb," recalls Brenda Talbert, Collier Building Industry Association's executive vice president. "Now they'd rather spend $12 on a light bulb than $200 on their electric bill."

The construction industry is getting the message. The National Association of Home Builders, which recently received an energy award for its own green practices at its Washington headquarters, details the phenomenon in a survey it conducted with McGraw Hill Construction.

According to the data, 2005 saw a 20 percent increase in environmentally friendly residential construction nationwide.

The results of the survey lead to a prediction that green building will jump from 2 percent of housing starts and $7.4 billion in revenue in 2005 to $19 billion to 38 billion and 5 to 10 percent of housing starts across the nation by 2010.

What a difference a few years make.

When Drew Smith opened Two Trails, Inc. in Parrish five years ago, he admits the kickoff of his green building consulting firm was somewhat underwhelming. "It was pretty slow," he recalls. "I had lot of doors slammed in my face."

Smith estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the builders in Sarasota and Manatee counties have now warmed to some form of the concept. He works with builders by first establishing "how green they want to go-anywhere from a few energy-saving products all the way to a showcase home."

"If they don't start coming on board," he says, "they might get left behind and start seeing decreasing sales. It's the way building is going. In fact, some green building methods might start showing up in building codes."

Smith credits the upswing in interest to outreach efforts he and others have made to area builders, and to Sarasota County's green building incentive program.

The county awards builders a $1,000 credit toward their permit fees for homes that have been inspected by the Florida Solar Energy Center for compliance with specific green building requirements. Priority inspections are another perk. And builders get fast-track permitting, so a green builder might receive a permit in three days while a non-green builder might wait two weeks. Although there's a limit on credits per builder per year, interest has been high in the two-year-old program, says county building official Paul Radauskas.

A lot of things came together to make it so. "For one thing, consumers are demanding energy-efficient appliances and other environmentally friendly building components," Radauskas says. "For another, Lakewood Ranch began requiring builders to build green. The county is setting an example by building all of its new buildings green, and the national consciousness is growing."

Vision Homes of Southwest Florida is building green in Gladstone Park in Sarasota, Radauskas says, as is Lee Wetherington, who is building 147 homes in Willow Chase in Nokomis. According to a company spokesman, all Lee Wetherington Homes projects in Sarasota and Manatee counties have incorporated green features for the past two years.

"The response has been so great that we now have 25 plans examiners and inspectors on staff certified as agents by the Florida Green Building Coalition to help builders by reviewing their drawings and building check lists," Radauskas notes. "I doubt if that exists anywhere else in the state."

In 2005, when Lakewood Ranch began requiring its 20 participating builders to incorporate green building practices, it was an enormous catalyst to the area's green building movement.

The plan initially met with resistance, says Bob Sisum, director of builder programs for LWR Communities, who is also chairman of both the Florida and Sarasota County Home Builders Associations' committees on green building.

"Builders were mainly concerned about the costs," says Sisum, "but we told them we'd arrange for consultants to review their plans and keep costs to a minimum."

Sisum says builders subsequently were surprised at what happened. "Once they were ordering the low-VOC [volatile organic compound] paints in large quantities, the price came down," he says. "Then we got a deal from the air conditioning folks to replace the traditional duct tape with mastic. And once Sarasota County started offering expedited permits and permit rebates to green builders, even the most reluctant builder jumped on the bandwagon. Now all 20 participate."

Sisum says the experience has had a ripple effect. "Now the developer is looking into establishing green building for the commercial construction taking place at Lakewood Ranch," he says. "And the builders who build here also build at other sites throughout the area. Since they tend to build the same way wherever they are, green building practices are spreading throughout the community."

They'll be spreading for miles around if Steve Ellis has his way. The native Massachusetts resident sold a business he started to help companies reduce, reuse and recycle their waste streams, and he's now recycling in a different way. With partner/contractor Grant Castilow, he has launched MyGreenBuildings, a firm devoted to saving older Sarasota homes and rebuilding them greenly.

Their first project: expanding a 1,100-square-foot, 1946 home at 1876 Goldenrod in Southgate into a 2,100-square-foot home with three bedrooms and three baths. They will utilize such products as blown-in insulation made of soy and a beadboard ceiling rescued from a tear-down. The project's salvageable, leftover construction materials will be sent to recycling destinations. Price for the spec home: between $750,000 and $800,000.

The time is right for his business, Ellis says. "We're seeing many baby boomer consumers who are educated, moneyed and equipped with a social conscience. Not only are they anxious to lessen the impact of their footprint on the environment, but they are impressed by how the small investment in green products now will get them big energy savings in the future."

Ellis says he can bring his company's savvy to homeowners who want to stay put. "What we're hoping to do is show them how they can improve their own homes practically, cosmetically and in a softer way."

Healthier and more economical environments are spurring civic groups to change, too. In Venice, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation's board of directors amended guidelines in July to award new construction capital grants only for projects that are certified green. They did so in hopes of reducing nonprofits' long-term building operating costs.

That's music to the ears of Dr. Jennifer Languell, CEO of Naples-based Trifecta Building Solutions and director of Florida Gulf Coast University's green building program.

The material science engineer said she felt she was a lone voice when she started advocating the concept to the local building industry in 2001. Now she is encouraged by the numbers of builders who attend her talks and the NAHB study that anticipates 50 percent of builders will be offering green options this year or next.

"I liken small builders to speedboats," she says. "They can change direction easily. The bigger firms are like cruise ships-not so easy to make a change in direction."

But some major players have made the turn, including Taylor Woodrow Homes at its upcoming Pacifico project in mid-Sarasota County and WCI's Venetian Golf and River Club in Venice. The Casa Verda model there was named the greenest home in Florida by the Florida Green Building Coalition, and all 150 homes are certified green.

While some homeowners can afford green options, others might be more inclined to adopt green ways if incentives were available.

The state is stepping up to the plate with the Solar Energy Systems Incentives Act, signed by former Gov. Jeb Bush last June and effective until June 30, 2010. It will provide rebates to customers buying certain solar energy products for home and business, and includes a matching grant package of $10 million for the research, development and commercialization of renewable energy technologies.

Further, the Florida Home Builders Association (FHBA) has joined with the independent nonprofit Florida Green Building Coalition Inc. (FGBC) to proliferate green building awareness among builders, unify standards and provide better education for everyone.

FGBC executive director Roy O. Bonnell Jr. says the coalition will publish a magazine this year with relevant articles and resources, and community workshops are planned to bring together builders, affordable housing proponents and government officials.

"Builders are starting to realize that green building is no longer a niche market, but the direction the market is taking," Bonnell says. "Builders who provide green homes will have a marketing advantage over builders who continue to build non-green homes."


An Englewood homebuilder profits from energy-efficient and hurricane-resistant designs.

Brian Bishop's idea to replace FEMA trailers in New Orleans with pre-fabricated "Katrina" cottages is turning into a whirlwind mission to replace them in trailer parks and schools, too.

Englewood manufacturer Home Front Homes made a splash last year with hurricane-resistant, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly cottages with shells that can be built in less than a week.

At $30,000 to $55,000, depending on the 50 or so styles, they were the choice of the Catholic Diocese of Venice for its 125-unit affordable housing community in Arcadia, scheduled to be completed this summer. The $20-million Casa San Juan Bosco project will provide homes for 700 farm worker families, some displaced by Hurricane Charley, plus an 8,000-square-foot community center. It is Home Front's largest undertaking.

Replacing trailers in disaster areas led Bishop to his most recent venture, working with a Pinellas County waterfront mobile home park developer to replace old mobile homes with new beach cottages.

"It would allow the transformation of trailer parks into safe, wind resistant, green communities," he says, adding that reusing existing roads and sewer lines fits with the company's ethics mission.

"It's 'EHD'-efficient, healthy and durable," Bishop says. The homes contain a fraction of the materials in a conventional home, with polystyrene and cement board walls that don't emit chemical gases and are resistant to water, termites and winds up to 200 mph.

Bishop also is working to replace school portables in Charlotte, N.C., with cottages shaped like 1920s schoolhouses, complete with bells.

The seven-year-old company has built 160 homes in Sarasota and 14 other Florida counties, ranging from 280 to 2,000 square feet with styles ranging from Florida cracker to Craftsman bungalow to the modern Sarasota School of Architecture style. It has 15 employees.

With another 200 homes currently under contract, Bishop expects the number to double next year.

Bishop and his wife, Jeanne, founded Home Front Homes in 1999 in a Venice warehouse. In November 2004, the company relocated to a facility in Englewood that enabled it to produce greater numbers of wall and roof panels.

The move was prompted by Hurricane Charley that August, which devastated Port Charlotte, where two Home Front homes had recently been completed. Both survived the eye of the hurricane with minimal damage, and the company capitalized on its growing reputation for producing storm-resistant homes.

"Five years ago, nobody wanted a hurricane-proof home," says Bishop, a self-described inventor. "Now the market has changed." -Cindy Lane

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