By Julie B. Hairston, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mar. 11--In the Glenwood Park condo development, traffic noise from nearby I-20 doesn't penetrate the tightly sealed doors, double-paned windows and heavy insulation crafted from recycled newspaper and shredded denim.
But these "green" features are meant to reduce energy costs, not noise.
With expanding public concern over utility costs and global warming, some of the most basic principles of green building are evolving into common practice at places like Glenwood Park.
Elements such as zoned and programmable heating and cooling systems, low-flow water fixtures, efficient insulation and low-maintenance landscaping are finding their way into much, if not most, new home construction.
Even more proactive measures are becoming more conventional as new products and techniques hit the market. The Glenwood Park condos' gleaming bamboo floors, made from a quickly renewable resource, and low-emission paints that minimize chemical fumes are among more cutting-edge approaches.
"Ten years from now, we're just going to call it how we build houses," said David Ellis, president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association.
A newly released survey of home builders and buyers prompted the National Home Builders Association to declare that 2007 will be the tipping point for green building, when environmentally built homes evolve from a niche market into mainstream expectations.
At the pinnacle of green building is the trademarked EarthCraft program, which has created points-based standards for design, construction, conservation and energy efficiency.
From the ground up Since 1999, nearly 4,000 Atlanta area houses have achieved EarthCraft certification, about 1.5 percent of the new houses built in the area in those seven years.
At first glance, an EarthCraft house is virtually indistinguishable from ordinary construction. But close examination reveals characteristic elements.
The landscape design favors native plants such as boxwood, ferns and evergreens over grass and flowering plants that require nourishing and watering to thrive.
Exterior walls use natural materials such as brick, stone and recycled concrete.
Inside the all-EarthCraft Glenwood Park, now under construction on the east side of Atlanta's urban core, separate heating and cooling units for different levels keep energy use concentrated where it's needed.
Low-demand Energy Star rated appliances and recessed fluorescent lighting are more efficient. In conventional houses, appliances account for large measures of wasted energy, said Dennis Creech, executive director of Southface Energy Institute.
The EarthCraft program is a partnership between Southface and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. It put Atlanta at the forefront of the green building movement in 1999, when it began with eight houses that met EarthCraft standards.
Creech expects the program's 14 inspectors will add between 1,000 and 2,000 houses to the area's EarthCraft stock in 2007.
Other states and cities have green building programs with goals and guidelines, but EarthCraft is unique in its requirement that builders submit to phased inspections of every qualified house to verify compliance. This ensures against what Creech calls "greenwashing," the practice of extending the inclusion of a few energy-saving products into a claim that the whole house is a green product.
"It's not just an assemblage of products," Creech said. "It's a systems approach."
Catherine Banich, an EarthCraft homeowner in Douglas County's Tributary development, said the energy bills for her house have been dramatically lower than at her former Inman Park bungalow. Winter heating bills that routinely topped $1,000 now run between $100 and $200. Doors, windows and air ducts in EarthCraft homes are tested for airtight standards that minimize heat and conditioned-air loss.
Banich has experienced fewer asthma problems since moving into her EarthCraft house a year ago.
"I was just constantly sick and wheezing in my last house," she said.
Consumer consciousness of environment-friendly construction has risen with energy prices.
A Green Builder Media and IMRE Communications survey conducted in late 2006 found that more than half the 10,000 builders questioned incorporate green products or practices in their construction. A similar proportion promote their environmental techniques and features in marketing.
Likewise, more than half of consumers questioned for the survey reported asking about the environmental qualities of the houses they considered purchasing.
Dina Gunderson, marketing director for Atlanta home builder Monte Hewett Homes, said promotion of Monte Hewett's EarthCraft certification is a staple of her sales campaigns.
"I market it as much as I can," Gunderson said.
EarthCraft homeowners Keith and Susan Bentley consider themselves very environmentally conscious. They drive a hybrid car, and Keith is the vice president of environmental affairs for Georgia-Pacific.
Although aware of the EarthCraft program and attuned to its goals, they didn't limit themselves to EarthCraft homes when they went house hunting last year.
But seeing the program's seal on the houses at Monte Hewett's Riley's Walk subdivision near Smyrna last year finalized their decision to buy a house there, even knowing the certification requirements add about $3,000 to the $500,000-plus purchase price of the home.
"Just to know that extra thought and extra effort had been put into the house is worth that," said Susan Bentley, a retired nurse. They also balanced the immediate cost against years of energy savings and potential resale value.
Most builders estimate comprehensive green building practices add 3 percent to 5 percent to the cost of any house.
EarthCraft certification costs 10 cents per square foot. Builders must pay a $150 annual membership fee and take a $150 eight-hour class to participate in the program.
Interest elsewhere EarthCraft's success has spawned programs following the model in four other Southeastern states: Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. All use the same inspection-sanctioned, points-based standards that permit them to employ the EarthCraft name.
"Other associations are scrambling," Ellis said. "It's not unusual for me to get a call from somebody elsewhere in the country saying, 'Can you send me everything you've got about your EarthCraft program?' " Two years ago, the National Association of Homebuilders published a handbook of green building guidelines. Three weeks ago, the association announced plans to refine the guidelines into a set of national standards for green home building.
Already, state and federal programs offer homeowners tax incentives for energy-saving and resource-conserving measures. For example, federal income tax credits up to $500 to homeowners are available for houses that meet energy-saving guidelines.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs offers $7,500 in down payment assistance on affordable-housing loans for EarthCraft dwellings.
And builders are hoping that the private sector may soon follow suit with special mortgage and insurance incentives.
But for Riley's Walk resident Joseph Williams, energy savings and the quality assurance of EarthCraft construction are all the incentive he needs.
"It's definitely worth it," Williams said.
"I tell everybody who's looking for a home, this is definitely the way to go."
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