Two new homes push the limits of green construction-in very different ways.
When Susan Mahan of Bethesda adds up her utility bills each month, she understands why a growing number of people want to live in “green” homes. Mahan says the monthly total for gas and electric for her 5,000-square-foot colonial has gone as high as $1,200. “This house was perfect for raising our seven children and seeing them off to college, when the costs of maintaining this house were not crazy,” she says. “If I was looking to buy now, absolutely I would look for a home with alternative energy sources.”
The increasing interest in green building has been sparked by concerns about the environment and the skyrocketing costs of heating and cooling traditional homes. Although building a green home can be expensive, the prices for alternative energy systems are declining, and federal, state and county tax breaks are making green construction even more attractive.
Rob Nehrebecky, an architect and co-owner of ECO living Homes in Bethesda, says many people still mistakenly view green buildings as exotically designed, out-in-the-woods homes, when, in fact, green construction is infiltrating the urban and suburban home marketplace. “People who live in the Bethesda-Kensington area are interested in green design, and that interest is primarily motivated by two important issues: a healthier indoor environment and the bare-bones cost-effectiveness of having an energy-efficient home,” Nehrebecky says.
Several Bethesda-area architects and builders are pushing the envelope and building ultra-green spec homes. For example, husband-and-wife architects Marcie Meditch and John Murphey of Chevy Chase have designed the Bethesda Zero house, which they say will be cost free for utilities, with the exception of water. Meditch and Murphey bought a lot shaped like a pie wedge in Bethesda’s Bannockburn neighborhood, tore down the existing house and are now bringing their dream of sustainable housing to life.
“Most green homes have been built as a statement, and that statement costs thousands and thousands of additional dollars,” Murphey says. “We are building our vision—a home that combines beauty, sustainability and, equally important, affordability.” The 4,680-square-foot home, scheduled to go on the market in May for about $1.7 million, is expected to be LEED Platinum Certified—the highest rating for green buildings. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a third-party certification program created by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization.
In net-zero design, the owner buys an energy system that generates its own power, such as solar or wind, instead of using traditional energy sources to run the house. People call this “going off the grid.”
“The financial advantage is that you have paid for your home’s heating and cooling and the electricity upfront for the life of your home at a fixed price,” says John Spears of Sustainable Design Group in Gaithersburg. “You become immune to price increases of the utility company.”
The green technology of the Bethesda Zero house, which includes photovoltaic solar panels, solar hot-water panels, a geothermal heating-and-cooling system, and an insulation system that far exceeds traditional building standards, costs $78,570, Meditch says. But, she says, when you eliminate some extra and expensive design elements, such as bay windows and crown molding, the sale price will not exceed that of a traditional Bethesda home. “It’s all a matter of choice,” she says. “We choose to keep the lines of the Bethesda Zero house simple and elegant—making simplicity a virtue. This pays off by costing less to build, and the money we save by not adding fancy trim is used for the Bethesda Zero house’s alternative-energy systems.”
Not everyone is convinced that it’s possible to live a normal life in a net-zero house built for a reasonable price. “I find little of what’s being called green actually practical,” says Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Builders in Bethesda. Scott visited the Bethesda Zero house and says it seems to be a well-designed and well-executed house. But he doubts people will be willing to make the design and lifestyle trade-offs he thinks will be needed to have a net-zero house. “I have become a convert where insulation and energy efficiency is concerned, but the idea of a net-zero house is laughable,” he says. “The person who buys this house will be someone who uses recyclable shopping bags at Whole Foods and then loads their groceries into an SUV. Of course you can make it cost almost zero dollars to run your house, but are you going to give up TV and your computer to be green and cost-effective?”
Murphey strongly disagrees. “It is no longer true that the only way to achieve net-zero energy balance is to do without modern comforts; that mind-set is really obsolete,” he says. “It ignores 40 years of improvements to insulation, mechanical systems, lighting technologies and photovoltaics. The whole point of the Bethesda Zero house is to prove you can achieve net-zero energy use without having to sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle, including your TV and computer. We have built a house that will appeal to the typical Bethesda family as well as a house that is super efficient.”
The Bethesda Zero house features a contemporary design, and Meditch and Murphey use light and windows to fuse the inside of the house with the outdoors, unlike Bethesda’s typical colonial. Its design is straightforward and is shaped by its site location. A visitor entering the front of the house will step into a great room that combines the living room, dining room and kitchen. A powder room, mudroom and a master bedroom with a full bath also are located on the first floor. “We have designed this house as a lifetime home,” Murphey says. “This means a couple can live downstairs on one level if they desire or need to…Because this house will be zoned, an owner can shut off the [heating-and-cooling system for] three bedrooms as well as a study upstairs when the children have left home…and turn it back on when the family comes home to visit.”
Peter Guida, owner of Bethesda Bungalows, a home-building firm, is also focused on green construction. But his take is different. Meditch and Murphey are building a home that is modern in design, with net-zero energy costs as the principal goal. Guida says he believes that how a house looks is equally important. “We live in an architecturally conservative area where the modern home is not in great demand like it is on the West Coast,” Guida says. “The Bethesda Zero house will be stunning when it is done, but I am building homes more in line with the conservative architectural genre of the area.” Though he views the Bethesda Zero house as an amazing testament to going all-out green, Guida also believes smaller homes that maintain their character (bungalows and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired prairie-style homes) are the future green of Bethesda. “A bungalow or a prairie style house maintains its character even when you build small,” Guida says.
Guida is building The Incredibly Green Home of Chevy Chase in the Bradley Hills section, just off Bradley Boulevard. The house will be 4,761 square feet, including the basement, and Guida also is seeking LEED Platinum certification. The Incredibly Green Home’s focus is on conserving energy as well as using it efficiently. “For various reasons, such as lot orientation and size, we are not using solar on this house,” Guida says. The home will be well insulated and use a geothermal system for heating and cooling. Though the costs to run this green house will be far lower than a traditional home, it will remain on the grid 24/7. “We are giving the homeowner the ability to significantly lower their utility bills,” Guida says. “The goal is [that] the utility costs should be half of what the normal Bethesda-Chevy Chase house is. With the temperature set at 68 degrees in the winter and 70 degrees in the summer, [the] heating and cooling bills should come to less than $250 a month.”
Energy efficiency combined with traditional design is more desirable than net-zero, Guida says, because “the netzero house looks like an industrial complex, very modern with the whole front of the house’s roof covered with solar panels, among all the colonials in a neighborhood. It simply doesn’t blend in. Our house blends into the neighborhood, and we still can achieve a LEED Platinum rating.”
The Incredibly Green Home is scheduled for completion in August. Guida believes its green elements will increase the price of the house by about 15 percent, but that the money saved long-term in energy costs makes it more than worth the investment. The home has three floors, including the basement. An asymmetrical house, it is being built with only one hallway. This allows light to enter each room from three or four directions, creating more visual space and a sense of connection to the outdoors. The main floor has an office, a formal dining room and, toward the rear, a wide family room that connects to a gourmet kitchen. A patio off the back leads to a Japanese-inspired garden, which provides a secluded and intimate exterior environment. Three of the bedrooms are upstairs, and a fourth bedroom, a rec room and a home theater are in the basement. The asking price is $2.3 million.“My house is a high-end custom home located where you can walk into [downtown] Bethesda. Our cabinets alone are $50,000. The trim is also expensive, but adds to the house’s character,” Guida says.“ Why is my house more expensive? Probably the location of the lot is the biggest reason.”
Scott, the owner of Mark IV Builders, is also skeptical about The Incredibly Green Home. “Guida is on the bleeding edge of green,” he says. “The bleeding edge is where builders cross over the cutting edge and simply go too far. Their choices cost too much. The homeowner doesn’t get enough out of it, and so it doesn’t make sense.”
Replies Guida: “Yes, the house may cost more up front but the payback is so fast that the costs make sense. This is not only not the bleeding edge; this is the wave of the future.”
Bethesda resident Louisa Jaggar has written for The Washington Post, Real Simple Magazine, and PBS.