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Newsweek.com

Project Green: This Ecofriendly House
By Anne Underwood
Newsweek

Feb. 5, 2007 issue - Michele Gries-Haber, 41, a marketing executive in Austin, Texas, composts, recycles and drives a hybrid car. So when she got married last year and decided to enlarge her house--a 1926 Craftsman-style bungalow--it was a no-brainer that she and her husband, Michael Klug, would adopt an ecofriendly approach. There was just one problem. "We had no idea what that really meant," she says. "We thought we'd put up some solar panels."

That turned out to be the least of it. Michele and Michael are now wrapping up an ambitious, $250,000 "green" remodeling job that friends warned them not to attempt in their first year of marriage--and they've done it with a film crew in tow. Next week the popular PBS show "This Old House" will start airing the eight-part series, a must-see for anyone interested in green building. It's a virtual compendium of ecofriendly design, from appliances (energy-efficient, of course) to Xeriscape gardening (with low-water, native plants). "It's the first time we've done a totally green project," says host Kevin O'Connor. "We hope it will inspire people."

One thing the show proves is that going green doesn't mean sacrificing style. Architect David Webber produced an elegant design, including a beautiful second story with cathedral ceilings, using ecofriendly materials. A new deck looks like rain-forest mahogany. It's actually Trex Brasilia, a composite made from recycled plastic shopping bags and scrap wood (trex.com). Kitchen and bathroom countertops are IceStone--a high-end, terrazzolike material fashioned from crushed, recycled glass and concrete (icestone.biz). But as cool as these and other items are, says O'Connor, "the 'wow' moments in this show are not in products."

Bragging rights hinge on this: Michele and Michael are expanding the bungalow more than 50 percent--from 1,500 square feet to 2,300--yet the renovated house will actually cost less to heat and cool. Dozens of factors contribute to the savings, including an energy-efficient air-conditioning system, tighter ductwork, ceiling fans and compact fluorescent bulbs that use 18 watts apiece instead of 75. The couple is even switching to an "on demand" water heater (rinnai.us), on the theory that it's wasteful to heat an entire tank of water 24 hours a day. How big are the savings? Richard Morgan of Austin Energy's Green Building Program estimates that an average family of four would generate $1,300 in electricity bills a year in the old house--versus $1,000 in the larger, green one. "Factor in the solar panels they've added," he says, "and the total comes down to $577."

Not only is the new house easier on the environment, but it should also be healthier to live in. The "low VOC" interior paints the couple selected are low in organic solvents, and the cabinetry and insulation that were chosen have little or no formaldehyde. "Lots of people have chemical sensitivities to these," says Bill Moore, the builder on the Austin project.

Ready to try it yourself? The National Association of Home Builders maintains a list of residential green building programs (nahbrc.org). And thisoldhouse.com is posting a list of resources next week. A green renovation can cost 5 to 20 percent more than a normal one, depending on how far you go. But the trade-offs are reduced energy costs and greater durability. And here's one more bit of encouragement. With the deadline for completion of their project falling due this week, Michele and Michael are still happily married.


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