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When the word green pops up at cocktail parties in Fairfield County, it’s more likely to be in the context of a lawn or trousers embroidered with blue whales than home design.
“In this part of the county, the homes are so expensive and lavish that a lot of people don’t give a hoot about energy costs,” says Steven Winter of Steven Winter Associates, Inc., an architectural and engineering firm in South Norwalk that consults on green design and construction.
“I think there’s a perception that new materials that haven’t been around for a long time are more expensive and riskier,” says John Rountree, a Westport architect involved in solar home design.
But the situation appears to be changing. This last winter, heating bills for homes and offices nearly doubled — and that was after a mild winter. Even Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was moved to lash out at state utilities and call the electricity prices “out of control.” With local concern rising, architects and builders are seeing a newly heightened crop of ecology-conscious homeowners.
Then there are the kids. “What may be driving the change is children coming home from school saying, ‘We’ve got to treat the earth better,’ ” Winter observes. “But there are opportunities to be good to the planet and have good housing. Frankly, a green, energy-efficient house isn’t just environmentally friendly. It’s also healthier and more comfortable.”
Adds Rountree, “Green materials are becoming much more mainstream today, with many more resources available for locating and purchasing them.”
When it comes to building the better “eco” house, however, there seems to be no one school of thought, nor any central office for wise design. Talk to ten architects and you will hear ten different theories.
So where should a person turn if suddenly stricken by a greened conscience? It’s not like the late 1970s, when the whole country, shaken by the Arab oil embargoes, plowed a lot of attention into solving the nation’s energy crisis. With plentiful tax breaks offered, innovation soared and so did interest in actually applying it. When the tax breaks were rolled back in the 1980s, and the oil supply returned to normal, the country stopped paying attention to the need.
“You’ve just got to look around to find the new technology that suits your designs,” says Rowayton architect Robert Everett. He is now employing a variety of measures to boost climate-control efficiency, such as capturing warmth in the upper floors and moving it back to the basement. “No, I didn’t go back to college to learn these things,” he says with a smile. “You just have to investigate to find out what’s out there. We’re all searching.”
For existing homes, green renovation might best begin with an energy performance audit, which is conducted by firms like Steven Winter Associates and ranges in cost from $400 to $800. For new homes, it’s wise to talk to a green architect or builder.
Totaling up the actual dollar savings of any given energy-saving design is often difficult. Most methods require an up-front investment that realizes savings only in the long run. But what about listening to your children and saving the earth? Here is a sample of the latest technologies being adapted by some of the smartest architects in Fairfield County.
Darien. The natural beauty of this stretch of the Gold Coast is now being preserved in part by, of all things, synthetics. On Bluff Island, the South Norwalk firm of Robert Cardello Architects is designing an environmentally friendly, 7,200-square-foot house with radiant heating, argon-filled windows that reflect light off the water and a synthetic slate roof. As stocks of old-growth, large-dimension lumber thin, a broad selection of synthetic and recycled products is coming to market and providing attractive alternatives: engineered lumber using smaller-dimension trees and composite material; products made from salvaged and recycled materials; and synthetic building materials such as polymer slate and shakes from companies like DaVinci, and vinyl polymer exterior trimboards from companies like Azek.
Cardello has also designed an 8,000-square-foot shingle-style house, currently under construction, that uses paperless sheetrock. “Mold is the new asbestos,” he says, “and this is a new product in response to it.” Because mildew and mold can form in traditional drywall, green builders and architects are turning to products like Georgia Pacific’s DensGlass — a paperless, all-gypsum board for use in garages, basements and bathrooms.