October 9, 2007

Homeowners riding the green wave

For Andrea Kantelberg, "green" isn't just another one of those warm, fuzzy buy words exploited by slick marketers eager to cash in on the latest craze. The same might be said for Mitch Abrahams, Martin Blake and others like them in Greater Toronto's development industry – people for whom green is a way of work and a way of life.

And increasingly, they have allies among homebuyers who – despite being skeptical about products being labelled green – are making it known they want residences that are safe, cheap to operate and enviro-friendly.

So while the trees may be changing colour, the great push of 2007 toward greening our homes and lifestyles will only gain momentum through fall and winter, Kantelberg, Abrahams, Blake and other industry leaders say.

"(Green priorities) will absolutely soon be the norm because we can't carry on as a world without making some serious changes," says Kantelberg, who has won awards for her numerous eco-friendly projects, including a Smart Environments award from the International Interior Design Association. "That's not preachy, that's reality."

Kantelberg, who lived in Holland between the ages of 8 and 14, says she grew up recycling and eating healthy, organic foods. "So designing green interiors was just a natural segue."

Owner of Kantelberg Design, a five-person boutique shop, she has worked on projects for Tridel, including the 1,900-square-foot Eco-Suite in Tridel's Element project.

That showcase unit features eco-friendly wallpaper and water-based, low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Her projects use recycled steel and drywall and local materials such as quartz or porcelain countertops instead of granite.

But building on the green trend and doing right by the environment all requires attention to economics.

Blake, vice-president of project implementation for Daniels Corp., fully agrees that the greening of the condo and new home construction industry is a good thing. "But the challenge is to make sure it is affordable as well," he says.

One way Daniels has been able to make costs work for clients is by building its subdivisions before the homes are sold, he says. Most GTA builders do it the other way round.

The strategy allows the builder to purchase materials in bulk and pass on savings to buyers, he says, adding that Daniels also scraps many costly cosmetic upgrades in favour of energy-saving materials and appliances.

The extra initial costs of quality windows or beefed-up insulation can easily be recouped within a few years of lower operating costs, Blake says. "But it's not just the energy and cost savings that count, it's also a tangible benefit to the environment."

And as these messages gradually permeate the public consciousness, the green trend only solidifies itself.

Alas, there's still a long way to go. A recent Ipsos Reid survey of Canadian homeowners indicates many are still not convinced that going green will save them money, and almost two-thirds think that when a company calls a product green it is usually just a marketing ploy.

"There is a lot of skepticism about green products out there and men are even more skeptical than women," says home improvement expert Jon Eakes, a spokesperson for insulation manufacturer Icynene, which commissioned the poll.

So how can homebuyers cut through all the noise to ensure a product billed as environmentally friendly is just that and not simply more greenwash?

Abrahams, president of the Benvenuto Group, a residential condo developer, admits it isn't always easy. "Sometimes there is more marketing than substance," he says.

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, says consumers must look carefully at products and homes being peddled as eco-friendly, saying many don't live up to their billing.

"Some of their green stuff reminds me of the developers who name their subdivisions after the very natural features they have just obliterated – you know, Wildflower Lane," Smith says. "We're living in an era where every manufacturer claims to be green and buyers are vulnerable to unsubstantiated builders' claims."

It doesn't help that the construction industry itself is still grappling to define what it really means to build green, he adds. "We're at the very beginnings of this debate," he says. "I think buyers have to proceed with caution and carefully examine these claims."

That means homebuyers should look for recognized eco-brands such as LEED, Energy-Star and Green Globe when it comes to assessing whether a home – or any other product – can live up to an eco-friendly billing, Smith says.

Buyers should also look for homes with built-in features such as smart thermostats, solar water heaters, extra insulation, energy-efficient windows and smart fabric blinds (fabric is more energy efficient for windows).

Most of the ratings systems such as LEED and Energy-Star focus on energy efficiency, but Smith predicts that over the next few years, a system to create eco-standards for building materials will also evolve.

This will rate materials according to their levels of toxicity or whether they are organically produced. Currently, there is a rating system for lumber called FSC – the Forest Stewardship Council – the "gold standard" for enviro-wood, Smith says.

Then there are the consumers who say they would purchase environmentally safe products, but only if there is no price difference and they can still get the upscale products they want.

"It's great to say in a focus group that you care about the environment," Blake says. "But are you willing to give up your granite countertops (which have often been transported from Europe)?"

Blake agrees with Kantelberg about the importance of buying and building local. "No more imported Kentucky limestone; why don't we just go with what the local environment has," he says. "There has to be a recognition of the cost and the impact," he adds.

So is using granite for your countertops eco-friendly? "Forget about it," Kantelberg says. "People may perceive it as a natural product, but it is not a renewable product."

The granite is often mined in Italy, and the weight and the long-distance shipping mean huge costs for the environment in carbon emissions, she says.

"For all those reasons, it is a poor choice," Kantelberg says. "There are so many products, such as recycled bottles, that are good alternatives."

Smith agrees, calling stone countertops "an environmental disaster. The energy alone used to power the water-cooled saws needed to cut marble is gigantic," Smith says.

Abrahams of Benvenuto Group says buildings also have to be constructed with an eye to how they will "perform" down the road.

What kind of eco-friendly homes will hit the market in 15 years? And how will communities build to save energy?

Smith, Abrahams and Blake all foresee more localized solar and wind power for our homes and more use of geothermal systems for heating and cooling.

And most new homes will be net-zero homes, meaning they consume less power than they generate through renewable sources.

Abrahams also says that making more efficient use of land and cutting the need for carbon-based transportation is crucial, using Benvenuto Group as an example for taking an "eyesore" sunken parking lot near Eglinton Ave. E. and Yonge St. and turning it into energy-efficient condos.

"I think intensifying is key to the whole green movement," he says.

See Also:

Window Blinds and Your Health

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