Published August 29, 2006

High-end homes are going green in the US
Builders test the upper end of the market for buyers who want quality and are environmentally conscious

(WESTON, Connecticut) As more people make the connection between fossil-fuel burning and global warming, some home builders are testing the upper end of the market for environmentally conscious buyers who want high quality without the guilt of high emissions.

A 6,400-square-foot Craftsman-style house nearing completion here features a geothermal heating and cooling system, and solar photovoltaic panels that will provide about 30 per cent of the home's energy needs. The savings in heating and electricity costs should keep total annual energy payments down to roughly US$2,500, compared with costs of at least US$10,000 a year for an oil-heated home of that size, according to the builder, Robert Gary, owner of the Little Mountains Building Company, based in Redding.

Listed at US$2.799 million, the house also uses Energy Star-rated windows, spray-in insulation that thwarts air infiltration, and an interlocking metal roof that reflects the sun.

Gail Zawacki, the listing agent in Coldwell Banker's Westport office, said the house has attracted considerable interest from builders. 'I cannot tell you how many of them realise they have to go green,' Ms Zawacki said.

Nationwide, the number of builders using environmentally sensitive techniques and products increased 20 per cent last year and is likely to grow another 30 per cent this year, according to a survey by McGraw-Hill Construction and the National Association of Home Builders.

Mark Mazzola of First Choice Construction in Danielson has nearly finished a 6,400-square-foot colonial in Storrs, also heated and cooled by a geothermal system, with an enhanced ventilation system to circulate and clean the air through an otherwise airtight house. Mr Mazzola maintains that the house, listed at US$2 million, will save roughly 14,000 lbs (6350.6 kg) of airborne pollutants annually compared with a heating system powered by fossil fuels. 'I wouldn't classify myself as a tree hugger,' he said. 'But why muck up the environment if you can avoid it?'

Until recently, builders have been notoriously reluctant to experiment with green technologies like geothermal systems, which transfer the earth's natural heat to the home through liquid-filled pipes looped horizontally about 6 feet under ground or hung vertically in one or more wells at least 200-feet deep. In summer, when the earth's temperature is lower than the air's, the same approach is used for cooling.

The process is still foreign to many builders, and 'unfamiliarity is terrible in the construction trade', noted Guy Wanegar, who has been installing geothermal systems for 12 years as part owner of the A&B Cooling and Heating Corp in South Windsor.

Even when a builder suggests a geothermal system, most homeowners are wary because of the upfront premium that must be paid. Precise comparisons are difficult because geothermal systems both heat and cool, but in a new house, a geothermal system typically costs at least 30 per cent more than installing high-quality oil-heating and central air-conditioning systems.

Michael Moran, a builder of custom homes in the US$400,000-$500,000 range in the Mansfield and Storrs area, said that 'geothermal is always on the table' in his initial interviews with clients. 'We've come close many, many times,' he said, noting that the last system he installed was requested by, of all people, a Northeast Utilities employee. 'But generally, its cost - people have shied away from it.'

Yet, the upper end of the market may be more receptive to these technologies as soaring energy prices enable homeowners to recoup their initial investment more quickly. Additionally, the technologies may ease the conscience of buyers seeking maximum square footage, enabling them to 'maintain a certain standard of living but not to pollute', said Mr Gary, who estimates that the house here will use less energy than a house one-third its size.

Mr Gary acted as his own general contractor in installing the geothermal system here, to bring the cost down. He gleaned additional savings from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund's Solar Rebate Programme, which subsidised $25,000 of the $40,000 solar photovoltaic system. The solar photovoltaic panels sit on the perimeter of the two-acre (0.81 hectare) property and are hooked into a metering program that feeds unused energy into the electrical grid so it can be used elsewhere. The panels are expected to generate an average of 18 kilowatt hours a day. (An average home uses about 700 kilowatt hours a month.) If the energy generated exceeds the amount used, the homeowners receive a credit on their electrical bill.

The house's energy-saving features do not compromise its design but some high-end home builders still remain unconvinced. 'My experience still is that the people with money in Fairfield County want gas-guzzling cars and energy-guzzling houses.' said Peter Gaboriault, a partner in Bear Paw Builders, of Westport. - NYT