Inside America's Most Eco-Friendly Homes

Photo: istockphotos
Dan Harding shows us 4 incredible GREEN Homes.

Eco-friendly is quickly evolving from a state of mind into a state of living. Environmental awareness and activism are slowly but surely etching their ways into our collective psyche. Glimpsing solar panels on neighborhood rooftops is an increasingly common experience, the first generations of hybrid cars are sold faster than they can be made, and hardly a product is invented these days without having some sort of green variation.

These are excellent marks of societal advancement, but the real shebang, the real green living landmark, will come when we all find ourselves in eco-friendly housing. When things like passive heating and cooling, daylighting, sustainable lumber, heat recovery ventilation, low-flow, low-VOC and low-impact building move beyond household names and into the households themselves. According to Whole Building Design Guide, buildings account for nearly 70 percent of the electricity the United States consumes on an annual basis, ratcheting up 39 percent of our total energy. Buildings emit nearly 40 percent of our total carbon dioxide emissions as well.

Granted, much of this consumption stems from commercial or industrial buildings, but reducing society's consumption of fossil fuels demands an all-hands-on-deck approach in which the smallest home is as important as the largest manufacturing plant or data center.

The need for energy efficient homes is pressing, to say the least. That's why governments around the world are trying to incentivize homeowners to upgrade. And so the green building movement is on, catalyzed by a combination of government incentive and eco-friendly will. A handful of homes in America are leading the way, pioneering approaches to green building that may soon become the standard rather than the standout. Here is a small sampling of these groundbreaking eco-friendly homes:

Bill Gottfried's “Greenest Home in America”

If you don't know who Bill Gottfried is, you probably know what he's done, such as founding the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and masterminding the LEED ratings system for energy efficient homes. More specifically, Gottfried renovated a 1,440-square-foot Oakland home into what was then (by LEED standards!) the greenest home in America. The finished remodel scored 106.5 points on the LEED scale, blowing past the minimum score of 80 for Platinum status. Eco-friendly features include cellulose wall insulation, low-flow toilets and fixtures, locally built cabinets, solar hot water, solar electricity, graywater system, rainwater collection system (flushes the toilets) among others. Read more about the Great Gottfried's green home here and here.

The SAGE Home

Beating Bill Gottfried at his own game, the SAGE home in Eugene, OR won the USGBC's Outstanding Single Family Project award for 2009. Designed by Arbor South Architecture, the home earned a whopping 109 points on the LEED for Homes (LEED-H) scale—the highest point total west of the Rocky Mountains. Although it was just a demonstration home for the architecture firm, it exemplifies the possibilities inherent to green building. Think of everything that Gottfried's own home has with a few variations, including advanced double 2x4 walls, foam insulation, high efficiency electrical heat pump and natural cooling, heat recovery ventilator, Energy Star appliances, reclaimed lumber flooring and recycled cork floors, recycled paper countertops, siding reclaimed from a local amphitheater and zero-VOC paints throughout.

Bear Creek Dome

The Bear Creek Dome in North Branch, Minnesota may hold a familiar shape made popular in the 1950s, but geodesic domes are still quite rare in homebuilding despite their exceptional energy-conserving benefits. Those benefits include incredible strength while using 60-percent less lumber than a traditional box home, excellent air flow and natural heating and cooling efficiency. The Bear Creek Dome has radiant floor heating, 16 inches of insulation in the dome and triple-pane tempered glass windows. The home also has a centrally located wood fireplace that heats the entire home in winter (ducting carries wood heat to bedrooms on the loft level).

Wis Tavern Chicago

The city of Chicago has ambitious plans to become a green city, and no building better represents that ambition than the historic Wis Tavern, which has been converted into a live/work space for the owners of punk music label, Smog Veil Records. At 3,800 square feet, energy-upgrading the building was no small feat. Yet in the end the one-time tavern evolved into the first Gold certified LEED-H home in Illinois. Some of its eco-amenities include extensive daylighting, a green roof, a slew of recycled materials (including recycled glass terrazzo floors made in part using blender-ized chunks of old vinyl records), energy efficient appliances and more. Note that about 92 percent of the waste incurred during renovation was recycled. Yet most unique about the Smog Veil building is its energy production. That green roof is also equipped with photovoltaic solar panels and the first residential wind turbines in Chicago. Combined with a geothermal heating and cooling system, these renewable enterprises alone account for half the annual electricity needs of the building.

Okay, so I have to admit that any one of the homes listed here would be well beyond the confines of the average homeowner's budget. Indeed, asking today's Everyman (or woman) to achieve such green home standards may seem as farfetched as asking a minimum wage worker to fund the next NASA space mission. Yet costs are coming down fast and the aforementioned homes are setting inspiring examples that will slowly lead to broader dissemination and affordability of green building products and practices. In truth, relative to how much it would have cost to build any of the above homes without taking eco-friendliness into account they don't cost that much more already.

Furthermore, while these are some of the greenest homes in America, so-called going green can start much smaller, say, with some of the retrofit projects the federal government is currently offering tax credits.

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Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting.  He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University, and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.