Mainstreaming ‘green’
Green building begins to gain traction in La Plata County

SideStory: High-performance housing: Local green building series starts

A new stick-built home takes shape last week in Skyridge. Green building, which uses traditional construction to create environmentally friendly buildings, is gaining momentum in La Plata County. However, the local market remains relatively behind the times due in large part to a lack of demand from buyers. The Homebuilders Association of Southwest Colorado is currently working to change that trend./Photo Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

Green building is gradually setting a foundation in La Plata County. Though new local construction is nowhere near an environmental tipping point, attempts to encourage green building are forging ahead. Several groups and projects are spearheading an effort to create a critical mass for conservation construction.

Durango is no stranger to environmentally responsible construction. A strong core of grassroots builders have furthered natural building locally and focused on building homes from natural materials available in Southwest Colorado. As a result of this dedication, the Southwest figures prominently in the evolution of straw bale building, and La Plata County has twice played host to the Natural Building Conference.

However, green building is a different phenomenon and has yet to set widespread roots in La Plata County. Unlike natural building, green building involves working within conventional building styles to create environmentally friendly structures. Green buildings are built with nontoxic materials to exceed normal building codes and enjoy high energy efficiency. The result is a structure that will last longer, cost less money to heat and cool than conventionally built homes, and offer a healthy living environment for its occupants.

Greg Mantell-Hecathorn is a local custom home builder, green building advocate and president of the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Colorado. “The bottom line is green buildings mean financial savings and the personal benefits of encouraging energy efficiency,” he said. “There are also obvious upsides to building houses without toxic materials.”

Mantell-Hecathorn’s relationship with green building stretches back to the mid-1970s in Fairbanks, Alaska. At that time, he was among a group of builders who answered the extremes of winter with highly insulated homes that eventually saved owners hundreds of dollars a month in heating costs. However, the extra up-front expense was not recognized as a value at the time.

Mantell-Hecathorn said Southwest Colorado is currently in a similar position. The local elevation and climate demands a higher standard of construction and energy efficiency. However, many builders are still focused exclusively on the bottom line when they break ground.

“The problem in La Plata County is that without a collective mass of builders, it still costs a lot more on the front end,” he said. “Many suppliers don’t really stock green building supplies, and homeowners don’t really have the ability to buy a competitively priced green building.”

Those trends are beginning to change, however. In the last two years, the local building industry has started to swing toward greener alternatives, according to Mantell-Hecathorn. Strong evidence of the phenomenon is the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Three Springs project just east of Durango. Three Springs builder, the Tierra Group, has made a huge commitment to green building and as a result, was honored with the 2007 Colorado Built Green® Builder of the Year and Colorado Built Green® Home of the Year awards.

Closer to Durango, a massive, new solar array is evidence that efficiency and conservation are beginning to trump inexpensive, traditional construction. The building housing Mercury Payment Systems, in Tech Center Plaza just west of downtown, was recently the recipient of a major solar retrofit. The building’s owners – Bob Wolff, John Wessman, Daryl Crites and Russ Smith – responded to changing times with dozens of solar panels and what is now the largest, permitted solar array in Southwest Colorado.

Smith, who is also a broker with Prudential Triple S Realty, commented that while the move did not make short-term financial sense for the owners, it represented a philosophical commitment.

“From a business perspective it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense,” Smith said. “You don’t just go around spending $300,000 on something with an eight- to 10-year pay off. The fact is, we thought it was the right thing to do.”

In his work as a real estate broker, Smith has seen this kind of consciousness growing exponentially in La Plata County. The buyer now has higher expectations with respect to a building’s carbon footprint. Noting that Durango experienced 40 percent fewer real estate transaction in 2008, Smith added that green buildings are also defying the current housing market slowdown.

“I think anything new has to have a green building component or it’s outdated before the finish work is done,” Smith said. “Responsible redevelopment of property also has huge value in this market. The buyer is more sophisticated than ever.”

And it is the buyer that drives the building market and determines the types of materials that are stocked in the lumber store, Mantell-Hecathorn added. Reaching a critical mass for green building begins at the grassroots, and in La Plata County the shift is under way.

“The demand has to come from the public,” he said. “The builders and the real estate community are actually the last to get on board. Once the buyer asks for green building, they will build it.” •



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