Here in Charlottesville, where architects seemingly outnumber traffic lights, the concept of building “green”—or environmentally friendly—homes, schools and city buildings is an idea whose time has come.
Whether you chalk it up to rising electricity prices or greater public awareness of the toxic chemicals in traditional building materials, there’s no denying that the trend of green building is on the rise. Just this year alone, the City of Charlottesville, UVA, Piedmont Housing Alliance, Habitat for Humanity, the Charlottesville Waldorf School Foundation and countless local architects, designers and home builders are unveiling plans to offer Charlottesville an eco-friendly makeover.
So, what’s this trend all about? Experienced green designers like Greg Jackson, principal of TOPIA Design, says green building “really tries to work with natural systems and be more in harmony with them.”
This sounds simple enough, but as with any new idea, there are challenges and critics. After all, green building sounds like something only committed environmentalists or wealthy eccentrics would try. Can you really cut your electricity usage (and bills!) in half by making your home energy efficient? Can you improve the learning ability of schoolchildren if their classroom is made from nontoxic materials and filled with sunlight? And, in the booming real estate market in Charlottesville, can “green” homes be affordable?
The architects, builders, thinkers, city officials and residents below offer an enthusiastic “yes” in response to these questions and more. Read on for a glimpse at the green side of Charlottesville.
Good for the earth, good for the wallet
Making affordable housing environmentally friendly at 10th and Page
To some, the grassy vacant lots at the intersection of 10th and Page streets are signs of a neighborhood in decline. To Katie Swenson, the lots are rife with possibility. In a move that will transform the intersection, Swenson, the executive director of the Charlottesville Community Design Center, has plans to build eight new affordable homes at 10th and Page with the Piedmont Housing Alliance.
“We’ve worked as a team to upgrade our homes so that they’re affordable over the long term,” explains Mark Watson, PHA’s director of project development. Together, Swenson and Watson have turned the notion of building “affordable” housing with inexpensive, poor quality materials on its head by constructing affordable homes that are high quality, environmentally friendly and energy efficient.
All of PHA’s new homes in the 10th and Page neighborhood will meet the federal Energy Star standards for energy efficiency and make use of “green” building materials both in the exterior and interior.
The first wave of PHA homes were completed in February. Jesse and Ronica Turner snapped one up and moved in shortly thereafter. Jesse, who grew up around the corner from his new home on Anderson Street, has seen the neighborhood go through many changes. “This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city,” Turner explains. “In the ’30s and ’40s, this neighborhood was populated by professional blacks. For my wife and I to be here, I think it sends a positive message that there are people who care and are proud to have homes in our neighborhood.”
The Turners had no idea they would be living in an energy-saving, environmentally friendly home when they first began house-hunting, but their decision is already paying off. “When I compare to bills we’ve had in the past, I’ve found that it’s incredibly efficient,” says Jesse. “During the summer months, with the AC on all day, our electric bill has only been about $100 to $110 a month, and that’s for a three-storey house.”
New windows, careful duct work and extra insulation add up to big savings for the Turners and make it easier to balance their monthly budget. “It’s a comfortable feeling knowing what your bills will be month to month,” he says.
“There’s a lot of pride in home ownership,” adds Ronica Turner, who paid $185,000 for her home. But in the 10th and Page neighborhood, 72 percent of residents are renters. To encourage home ownership, PHA has three homes under construction and 13 more on the way.
In addition to being energy efficient, the PHA homes have several environmentally friendly features, such as cellulose insulation made from recycled newspapers, bamboo flooring, nontoxic lumber and eco-friendly siding.
“In the framing of the house, we use as little lumber as possible,” says Charlottesville Community Design Center’s Swenson. “And we use as little dimensional lumber as possible.” This building method saves trees and has the added benefit of helping to cut down on construction costs.
John Meggs of NatureNeutral, a local green building supply store, explains some of the environmental benefits of using rapidly renewable resources, like bamboo flooring. “Bamboo regenerates in six years, whereas a tree takes 40 to 60 years before it is ready to be a premium hardwood flooring product.”
PHA will also avoid using lumber treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA), a common chemical mixture of pesticides including copper and arsenic, and instead have chosen nonarsenic pressure treated wood. This non-toxic choice “doesn’t have the heavy metals in it,” says Meggs, and is also “very price-competitive” when compared to traditional lumber.
The new homes are also designed to reduce long-term maintenance costs, ultimately making the house more affordable. “Most of the low-income clients we serve don’t have the disposable income 10 or 15 years down the line to replace the system,” explains Watson. “We want to put in materials that last a long time.”
But it’s not always easy building green, and as Swenson and Watson inspect the construction progress of a new home at the corner of 11th and Page streets, they see a number of errors, such as open crevices that should be sealed for better insulation. “There’s a tendency for contractors who have built a million homes to build them the way they always have,” says Watson. But he remains unruffled by the need to keep a close eye on the progress of each home.
“We hope this has a ripple effect,” says Watson of PHA’s new eco-friendly homes. “If the builders do it once, they realize it’s not that difficult.”
“It’s an extreme blessing to be in this neighborhood,” says Ronica Turner. “Luck is great, but blessings are awesome, and we are truly blessed.”
Making the global grade
Charlottesville Waldorf becomes the “Greenest School in America”
Get ready, Charlottesville: The “Greenest School in America” is about to be unveiled. The Charlottesville Waldorf School will feature straw bale construction, geothermal heating and cooling, a “living roof” comprised of plants and be constructed entirely from nontoxic building materials.
The new Waldorf School, situated on a 13-acre property on Rio Road, will accommodate 250 students and be the largest and most ambitious green building project in both the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
“The ‘greenest school’ is a really high bar that we love being challenged by,” explains Sarah Tremaine, co-chair of the Charlottesville Waldorf School Foundation. “But we are committed to educating other schools. We really want to be surpassed.”
The new Waldorf School will take advantage of the natural world—everything from the ground temperature to the seasonal angle of the sun—to be the most energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable school in the country.
The visionary design team, led by local architect Ted Jones, has focused on making the environmentally sustainable school fit Waldorf’s educational philosophy in both principle and practice. Just as Waldorf schools view the natural stages of a child’s development holistically, Ted Jones and his team have looked at every facet of the site design, taking into account everything from rainfall to CO2 emissions.
“Not only is it a great idea given the health and environmental benefits,” explains Tremaine, “but there is already an emphasis in the curriculum on the natural world, it’s really in the fabric of the education.”
A driving force behind the Waldorf School Foundation’s commitment to eco-friendly construction is the link between the quality of a classroom environment and a student’s academic performance.
In 2001, the Heschong Mahone group studied classroom quality and standardized test scores from thousands of students. The study found that students with the most natural daylight in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster in math and 26 percent faster in reading over the course of the school year than students with the least daylight. In subsequent studies, the Heschong Mahone group found that indoor air quality could also benefit the health of students, teachers and school administrators.
Raising the money to make the school a reality is the next challenge for the Charlottesville Waldorf School Foundation. “We’re on a tight budget,” says Tremaine. “We’re just in the beginning phase of the capital campaign.”
The Waldorf School Foundation has set a $6 million fundraising goal in order to break ground on the new school in 2005. The costs associated with building the “Greenest School in America” are formidable, but Rob Weary, a board member of the Charlottesville Waldorf School Foundation, is confident that an eco-friendly school is worth the expense.
“Charlottesville is a great place to demonstrate that the cost premium is only 2 percent, much less than most people think. But the payoff down the line is much greater,” says Weary. The payoff for the Waldorf School Foundation will be low energy and maintenance costs, much lower over the long term than a conventional building of similar size.
Sitting in his Downtown office, architect Ted Jones and Greg Jackson, a designer and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) champion for the Waldorf School, discuss how they were able to integrate health and environmental concerns into the school’s design. “Our first priority in green design is a responsibility to the site,” explains Jones. The finest aspects of the property have been preserved in the architectural design, including the oldest trees on the property, an open meadow and a grassy knoll for students to play on or plant the vegetable gardens that are part of the school’s unique curriculum.
Jackson explains the intention behind the eco-friendly design: “We want to do something that brings health and well-being to people and the environment.”
The enterprising design team has also included large windows in every classroom for sunlight and has designed the building to be as south-facing as possible. From the very beginning, the design team searched for ways to improve the school’s eco-friendly design, Jones says. “Green building is not simply about fixing problems but bringing possibility into our world.”
The home front
Local developers create eco-friendly guidelines for the booming building market
What makes a “green” house green? This is a question the Blue Ridge Home Builders have been working hard to answer.
“We formed a Green Building committee about a year ago and we have been meeting monthly to come up with guidelines and specifications for green building,” says Katie Hayes, executive vice president of the Blue Ridge Home Builders Association.
The fruits of their labor will be a set of new standards to govern green home building in Charlottesville. The new requirements are based on the Earthcraft green home building program in Atlanta and cover everything from energy efficiency to environmental sustainability. “Our hope is that this will become a Virginia state green building program,” says Hayes.
By July 2005, the Blue Ridge Home Builders expect to showcase several eco-friendly demonstration homes. “Several of us want to build demonstration houses that would be certified under the committee’s new rules,” says Linda Lloyd, a member of the Green Building Committee and developer of the Quarries LLC, an eco-friendly development in Schuyler. “I’m trying to do it for under $200,000,” says Lloyd, “to show that yes, you can build something that is green and affordable that has some design interest.”
“I’ve been gradually increasing the green-built portion of the houses we’re building,” says Doug Kingma, a member of the Green Building Committee and owner of Kingma Developers, Inc., which builds a handful of custom homes each year. Many eco-friendly features that once seemed avant-garde now come standard in his homes, such as blowing in extra insulation to increase energy savings.
When asked if he has witnessed an increase in customer interest in green building over the past 13 years, Kingma answers quickly. “Absolutely,” he says, adding, “the key is to spend a few dollars now to save even more later.”
Kingma built a solar-powered eco-friendly house earlier this year for Steve and Carolyn Brown on Overlook Drive in Sherwood Farms. The house is a “zero-energy house with a geothermal heating loop,” says Kingma. “It is very conventional looking from the outside, but it’s radical on the inside.”
“Our electric meter actually runs backwards during the day,” says Steve Brown of his solar home. “Over a 12-month period, the goal is to have a net zero electricity bill.” Brown, who recently moved back to Charlottesville, says, “We knew we wanted to build a home and have it be as sustainable as possible.”
To that end, the Browns have invested in solar panels for their roof, compact florescent lighting fixtures that use 25 percent of the energy of regular incandescent light bulbs, super-efficient Energy Star-rated appliances, and a geothermal heat pump that uses the earth’s temperature to help heat and cool their home.
“I think this is one of the first solar net metered homes in the area,” says Brown. Being one of the first to take the solar plunge comes with special challenges; one of them is that the State of Virginia provides little financial incentive for solar homes to give power back to the grid.
But at the end of the day, the savings on energy bills have made Brown happy with his investment. “We use 50 percent less energy than other homes of the same size,” says Brown of his 2,100 sq. ft. home.
Making the transfer
New Downtown Transit Center incorporates green alternatives
The new Transit Center currently under construction on the east end of the Downtown Mall will be more than a stylish place to catch the bus. It will also be the City of Charlottesville’s first green building certified under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“We are taking a common sense ‘green’ approach,” says Muscoe Martin, speaking from the Philadelphia office of Wallace, Roberts & Todd, the architectural firm behind the Transit Center design. To provide a glimpse of the green innovations to come, Martin, a LEED-accredited professional for the Transit Center, describes some of the center’s green features. “We’re using a geothermal heating and cooling system,” explains Martin. “We’re looking at all the plumbing fixtures as ultralow-flow fixtures. We’re also looking for local building materials, within a 500-mile radius, and using recycled building materials wherever they’re appropriate.”
When complete, the 12,000-square-foot-large Transit Center will be the new hub for bus travel Downtown and house the Charlottesville/Albemarle Visitor’s Bureau, a coffee shop, and small newsstand and concession businesses. It will also provide amenities like bike racks, bike lockers and showers. Eco-friendly interior details, such as the use of natural light, nontoxic paints and nontoxic carpeting, will improve the indoor air quality for visitors and employees.
To date, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) has invested $3.5 million to build Charlottesville’s new Transit Center, and more federal funds are expected to be on the way. “FTA sees this as a flagship project,” says Bill Letteri, chief of facilities for the City of Charlottesville, “not just because of the innovative design but also the LEED certification.”
In addition to having a low environmental impact, the Transit Center’s green design also has the potential to save the city big bucks on long-term operating and maintenance costs. These savings will be sure to please both thrifty taxpayers and local environmentalists.
The location of the Transit Center at the east end of the Downtown Mall and its creative reuse of existing property is what makes the project particularly sustainable. “We think the greenest aspect may be its location,” says Martin. “It’s assisting with the reurbanization of the Downtown Mall.”
The Transit Center may be the City’s first “green” building, but if all goes well, it won’t be the last. “The whole green building concept is something that is a very high priority to the City, “ says Letteri, adding, “and something we hope to incorporate into future projects.”
On the Edge
The city’s first eco-friendly housing development sets up shop in Woolen Mills
Charlottesville’s first eco-friendly housing development, at the northeast corner of Riverside Avenue and Chesapeake Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, is being designed by the Rivanna Collaborative, LLC, a group of architects and designers who plan to break ground on the first of their homes next spring.
The 10-home eco-community, called RiverEdge, includes two houses that will be built and sold by Habitat for Humanity as affordable housing. All of the structures will be designed as sustainable homes by Rivanna Collaborative and could utilize locally sourced materials, responsibly harvested wood products, low-flow water fixtures and passive solar strategies.
The two Habitat for Humanity homes will make the RiverEdge development a mixed-income community, and Habitat bought the two lots from the Collaborative for $13,000 each, a small fraction of their value. The bargain is “very unusual” to Overton McGehee, of Habitat for Humanity. “A lot of developers have been resistant to having Habitat homes in their neighborhood,” he says.
“We’re interested in looking at an energy system for the entire complex,” says Collaborative member Alison Ewing, such as a geothermal system that all 10 homes could utilize. Other plans include creating a common space for all new residents to share that will run along the edge of Riverview Park, a new path to the park and eco-friendly landscaping with native plants to cleanse rainwater and runoff before it flows into the Rivanna River.
Two of the Collaborative members, Alison Ewing and Chris Hays, live across the street from the property and were inspired to build an eco-friendly community after building their own eco-friendly house just a few years earlier on Chesapeake Street. “We were very interested in making sure that this property was developed in a way that would be consistent with our own design aspirations,” says Ewing
At first glance, the narrow, sloping swath of property seems an unlikely place for the Rivanna Collaborative to build eco-friendly homes with a starting price of $350,000. The property is adjacent to the Riverview Park parking lot, a police-patrolled low-income housing complex, and down the street from a suburban development comprised of dozens of closely knit, nearly identical homes whose value is nowhere close to RiverEdge’s asking price.
Yet the serious design minds of Rivanna Collaborative are determined to give the Woolen Mills neighborhood a green makeover. Construction on the first of the RiverEdge homes will begin as early as next spring. “This is an opportunity for us to be expressive as designers,” says Ewing.
The local Blue Moon Fund sees a green future
It comes as no surprise that in the forward-thinking, design-minded town of Charlottesville, even philanthropists are interested in green building. The Blue Moon Fund, a local foundation located on Park Street, has made the support of both local and national green and affordable housing projects a top priority.
At the national level, the Blue Moon Fund is supporting a new “Green Communities” initiative, spearheaded by the Enterprise Foundation, an affordable housing advocacy organization that has secured $550 million to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly affordable homes over a five-year period. Of the 30 percent of its giving that the Blue Moon Fund devotes to urban issues, about 20 percent is a grant to the Enterprise Green Housing Initiative. The Fund sees the initiative as having the potential to “transform the affordable housing industry,” says Kristen Suokko, strategic program advisor for the Blue Moon Fund.
Blue Moon Fund-supported projects may also transform the affordable housing community locally. “We have a special commitment to the local community,” says Suokko. For example, Suokko cites a recent grant to Charlottesville’s Habitat for Humanity, explaining, “We have assisted in their [Habitat for Humanity’s] purchase of Sunrise Trailer Park in Belmont, to be developed into mixed-income affordable housing.” None of the current residents in Sunrise Trailer Park will be displaced; instead, they will be beneficiaries what Suokko hopes will be “a model of green design.”
The Sunrise Trailer Park will be developed into 60 to 80 units of townhouses, condos and apartments, sold both on the open market and to buyers who qualify for assistance from Habitat for Humanity. “We intend to offer everyone who lives at Sunrise an affordable home ownership opportunity,” says Overton McGehee of Habitat for Humanity. “We’ll develop it in stages so no one has to leave.” The project is still being planned, but construction could start as early as next spring.
The most eco-friendly aspect of the Sunrise Trailer Park development may be its convenient location to the city and to public transportation. “One of our frustrations is that two-thirds of our homes have been 15 miles or more from Charlottesville,” says McGehee, “It’s not sustainable for a low-income family to commute 20 miles.”
To put the importance of a city location near public transportation in perspective, McGehee says, “The challenges of green building are less daunting than finding land that is close to town and to jobs.”
Habitat for Humanity is seeking to raise the $1.7 million necessary for the land and site development and has secured $650,000 in pledges and donations. Three other foundations, in addition to the Blue Moon Fund, are supporting the redevelopment of Sunrise Trailer Park,
The Habitat homes built at Sunrise Trailer Park will feature Hardiplank siding, a green alternative to wood and vinyl, extra wall insulation for energy efficiency and even carpet made out of recycled milk jugs.
“The beauty of a lot of these things is that they pay for themselves in energy savings,” says McGehee of Habitat’s sustainability aspirations.
“Green building is largely perceived as a luxury or an expensive exception to the rule, when it actually can be affordable and have significant economic benefit,” says Suokko. “You can’t just look at the surface and say it’s too expensive.”