Home greening grows in North Oakland

By CHRISTINA SALERNO

Plopped like a giant blue Lego on a street lined with craftsman bungalows, Stephen Shoup’s house is hard to miss in this Temescal neighborhood. The square building has no windows in the front, and even the doors are painted a dark blue.

But it draws a distinction for another reason: this blue house is actually green. Its floors are made of bamboo – a renewable and fast-growing wood source – and the walls are colored with an environmentally-friendly non-toxic paint.

Stephen Shoup pulls open the door to his eco-home

Stephen Shoup pulls open the door to his eco-home

The spacious backyard is blanketed with thousands of pebbles instead of water-thirsty grass, and serves as the location for a small home office made from a refurbished metal shipping container that once sat at the Port of Oakland.

The “greening” of homes such as Shoup’s is a trend that builders, homeowners and city officials say is growing rapidly across the Bay Area. They say it is driven by eco-conscious consumers and worries about the economy, which has prompted some people to remodel their homes to save a few bucks on their energy bill.

“It has been a dramatic transformation,” said Brian Gitt, executive director of the Berkeley-based non-profit Build It Green. “For years, green building was on the margins but in the last 12 months it has gone mainstream.”

It has become so popular that several local governments and cities are rushing to join the effort, including Oakland, Gitt said. “Every city all of a sudden wants to be the greenest city,” he said.

City planning officials in Oakland are drafting a green building ordinance that would mandate a certain level of environmentally-sustainable elements in all new construction. The ordinance language is still being revised, but is on track to for consideration by the City Council by early next year. It would require developers to meet a certain number of “GreenPoints” that are awarded for specific building features. The point-system, created by Build It Green, has been adopted to differing degrees by several other cities in the Bay Area, including Berkeley and Hayward.

North Oakland developer Roy Alper, who headed up two multi-unit “green” projects –
including the Temescal Place lofts and Gate 48 condominums on 48th Street – said he believes the ordinance won’t hamper development in the region. In fact, he said, it might make developers compete a little harder to win a higher environmental rating – a good marketing tool in the Bay Area.

“It establishes a minimum standard that is not too aggressive.” he said. “A developer with modest effort can meet it.”

Alper knows the selling power of property with a green label. Temescal Place, on Telegraph Avenue, has several environmentally-friendly elements, including reclaimed floors, natural lighting and a 30,000-watt solar photovoltaic electric system on the roof – one of the largest in Oakland.

Shoup turned this shipping container into a home office

Shoup turned this shipping container into a home office

During construction of Temescal Place, a woman driving past the site watched as workers erected the solar system. She stopped her car, climbed out, and announced that she wanted to buy a unit. “He told her, ‘I’m the construction manager,’” Alper said, laughing. “But she did end up buying one.”

Other builders want a slice of the action, too.

Build It Green holds classes to teach building professionals how to incorporate green techniques into home building. The two-day, 16-hour classes started a few years ago with just a handful of participants. Now, the sessions are drawing more than a 100 people. The courses cover topics such as renewable energy, air quality, landscaping and marketing, and “we can’t do enough classes,” Gitt said.

Steven Edrington took one of Built It Green’s courses before undertaking his most recent project, a remodel of two homes on 43rd Street in North Oakland. The 1930s-era homes were completely refurbished using what Edrington calls “green on a budget.”

Steven Edrington looks at his low-formaldehyde cabinets

Steven Edrington looks at his low-formaldehyde cabinets

Home owners don’t need to spend a lot of money to make their homes efficient, he said. Edrington’s kitchen cabinets came from IKEA for $3,000 and are low-formaldehyde, he said, an option that could have cost much more from a specialty cabinet maker.

Most conventional cabinets are made of plywood with glue, particle board or fiberboard –
all of which can release formaldehyde gases, a chemical used for embalming that releases small amounts of toxins in the air. Low or no formaldehyde cabinets use solid wood instead, or “prime board,” a particle board made out of wheat straw and held together with formaldehyde-free binders.

Edrington painted the houses and varnished the floors with materials that don’t contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, breathable gases that release small levels of toxins into the air.

The downside to toxic-free paint is that it takes much longer to dry than traditional paints, Edrington said. The paint on the outside of his houses took about two weeks to dry after its application, he said.

Paint is the most popular remodeling item sold at EcoHome Improvement store on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, said Taja Di Leonardi, founder and managing partner of the business which opened in 2005.

“From the beginning, paint was our strong point and draw,” Di Leonardi said. The store has an all no-VOC “paint bar” where customers can view paints and socialize with cookies, teas and music. The color palette includes paints with names such as air, petal, grain and water.

The no-VOC paints used in Edrington's house

The no-VOC paints used in Edrington

Several major paint manufacturers now offer low or no-VOC paints, but Di Leonardi says she prefers purchasing materials, including paint, from sellers that are solely focused on environmental products. That guarantees the quality, she said.

Both Edrington and Shoup, of the blue house, said that adding environmentally-friendly elements to their houses added about five percent to the total cost, a figure they say is typical for green materials.

Customers frequently ask Di Leonardi about the cost of building green versus regular materials. “My answer always is, ‘It depends on your budget.’ If you go in with a budget, eco will be more expensive, but so will everything of quality. If you go in with quality budget, eco will be a good match,” Di Leonardi said.

Tile can be purchased from retail big-box stores from about $2 a square foot to $10 a square foot. A recycled glass tile from a store like Di Leonardi’s sells for about $20 a square foot, alongside other less expensive options such as linoleum. Di Leonardi said the materials cost the same amount to install but that the recycled glass will last longer, eliminating the need to rip it out and start over in five to ten years.

On the high end of green remodeling, solar power is one of the most expensive features to install. It costs about $12 a watt, with an average home system costing about $20,000, according to the Solar Guide, an online industry news source. A solar thermal water heating system typically costs about $5,000 and the cost can be recouped within about three years.

For those without budget constraints, there is virtually no limit to the number of green elements that can be installed. An example is perched in the Oakland hills neighborhood of Rockridge, where developer Mike McDonald recently completed a 4,600 square-foot “eco-home.”

The high-tech house has features such as rooftop solar panels, a rainwater collection system and electronic touch-pad to control its window shades, among dozens of other functions. McDonald wouldn’t disclose the total cost, but said his house averaged about $600 to $800 per square foot, including the technology and design.

Mike McDonald's 4,800-square-foot eco-house in Rockridge

Mike McDonald's 4,600-square-foot eco-house

 Shoup – who is hesitant to put the “green” label on his own one-story home – criticized the concept of an eco-mansion, saying it is simply too large to be considered truly green. “Green is lofts. Green is multi-family. It isn’t single-family residential,” Shoup said.

McDonald said he believes his house is a model of how large homes should be built to minimize their impact.

“The greenest thing in the world do to sustainability-wise is to have a small footprint,” McDonald said. “We never claimed this house to be anything other than what it was, which is a large home that is highly designed and highly sustainable.”

He continued: “The bottom line is this: Large homes are going to be built by people who have the means. It holds itself up as an example of a larger, custom home that is incredibly sustainable.”

Gitt said the ultimate goal in building with an eye towards green should be comfort. That comfort can mean saving money on energy bills or healthier living, he said.

“People don’t want to breathe chemicals. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” Gitt said. “Building green is not just an ecological issue, it is a huge health issue.”

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