News & Views » News Feature

Clean living in the dirty city

An energy-saving solution from unusual quarters

by

comment
Imagine finding a way to save all the energy and cut most of the pollution that comes from 10,000 cars each year. Imagine if the program cost absolutely nothing to either private enterprise or taxpayers. Imagine if it didn't require any new regulations or government mandates.

To good to be true?

Now consider that a program with the potential to achieve all that is being put in place right now by the most unlikely gang of environmentalists: homebuilders.

"Construction techniques have been handed down from generation to generation for years. So I think innovation has been a little bit foreign to us," concedes Pam Sessions, president of Hedgewood Properties Inc. and the driving force behind a homebuilding certification program called the Earth Craft House.

The idea of Earth Craft is to adapt to Atlanta's massive homebuilding industry the "smart building" principles that have taken hold over the last decade in the environmental and engineering communities.

Is this another of those high-profile, low-impact campaigns hatched by an industry that has a PR problem when it comes to the environment? Apparently not. Of course, the proof ultimately will be in the energy savings. But Earth Craft certainly seems motivated by sincere, even passionate, intentions.

"If it weren't a real program, if it were just greenwashing, it would do a lot of harm to our industry," says Sessions, who's been a homebuilder for 15 years. "We have quite a number of crises right now [in Atlanta's environment]. Homebuilding has a huge impact environmentally, so we're doing our share to make that impact positive."

Sessions isn't just any homebuilder. She's slated to be named president of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association in October. And she's committed her company, which builds 400 houses a year from the Morningside neighborhood up the 400 corridor to Cumming, to construct only Earth Craft homes from now on.

Just a couple of years ago, that would seem a radical concept. Maybe, it still is. But Sessions' path was cleared indirectly by another business-leader-turned-passionate-environmentalist. Five years ago, Interface Inc. chairman Ray Anderson became an apostle of an environmental philosophy and organization called the Natural Step, which preaches that businesses should practice "systems thinking," focus on the causes and effects of their practices, and operate in harmony with the Earth's cyclical processes. Sessions found in Anderson's philosophy some answers to her own concerns about the environment and how she could have a positive impact on it.

"I don't think I even realized how much possibility there was to do things in a better way until then," Sessions says.

Her epiphany led her to Dennis Creech of the Southface Energy Institute, an nonprofit environmental organization that consults for businesses, utilities and government agencies on eco-friendly building techniques.

"There is a revolution going on in taking a systems approach to building," says Creech, who contrasts that with the idealistic days when young engineers would slap solar panels on a rooftop and declare the building environmentally friendly.

The two organizations — the homebuilders and Southface — and the two individuals — Sessions and Creech — worked together to develop a certification program for builders to be able to claim that their homes would be healthier for the environment, as well as for the people who live there. Its features run from siting, construction and tree-preservation techniques, to using non-toxic and energy-efficient materials. It's billed as "a blueprint for healthy, comfortable, affordable homes that cut energy and water bills and protect the environment."

But both Sessions and Creech say the most hopeful sign for the program is that it works financially. One reason is that a $3,000 boost in the house's cost can be offset by a federal "green mortgage" program, which helps homebuyers by reducing the required down payment on certified homes. While monthly mortgage payments may then be higher, they're theoretically canceled out by lower energy bills. Plus, of course, the higher quality house has a higher resale value.

Sessions says the company's projections have more than panned out in the first Earth Craft home to be occupied: The owner is reporting utility bills below half those of his previous home, which was 30 percent smaller. Using more conservative projections, Creech and Sessions figured that building all Atlanta homes using the full slate of Earth Craft housing techniques would result in a reduction of certain air pollutants equivalent to taking 10,000 cars off the road.

For more on the Earth Craft House, see www.southface.org.

Add a comment