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In Portland, Living the Green American Dream

By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Christian Science Monitor
April 26, 2005


In Portland, living the green American dream
More young urban professionals are forgoing square
footage for eco-friendly homes.

Bryan and Chris Higgins didn't set out to save the
world. But one look at their home, built on a tiny lot
with tall windows and radiant floor heat that result in
low utility bills, and it's obvious the young couple has
a mission: to leave the lightest footprint possible on
mother earth's soil.

Mr. Higgins, an architect, and Mrs. Higgins, a civil
engineer, are proud to own just one car and walk to work
every day, dropping their daughter Frances off at child
care along the way. They love their energy-efficient
kitchen appliances and feel fortunate to live in a place
that cools so well they don't need an air conditioner,
even on Portland's 90-degree days.

The Higgins are at the forefront of a boom in green building.

Much of it is being driven by a generation of young
professionals interested in anything "earth friendly" to
create their own urban oasis. Call them GUPPYS - green
urban professionals who are young.

In some respects, it is the 1970s all over again, except
its adherents wear Merrills instead of earth shoes and
bamboo floors and recycled glass counters have replaced
woodstoves and solar panels as signature elements.

And perhaps nowhere does the fervor take on a deeper
shade of green than in the Pacific Northwest, in cities
from San Francisco to Seattle, where the climate is
relatively mild and environmentalism is a virtual
religion. Indeed, Portland, Ore. - which already draws a
large number of 25- to 34-year-olds - may be the new
capital of the ecohouse movement.

"A lot of people move here seeking many things, not the
least of which is life in a greener place," says Ethan
Seltzer, professor of urban studies and planning at
Portland State University. "Oregonians may not be
getting the biggest paychecks, but they are getting
access to a natural environment that provides them with
a lot of benefits. So it's not surprising that you see
more solar lighting and eco roofs here."

Well-educated young people are disproportionately drawn
to Portland, according to Joe Cortright, economist and
coauthor of "Young and Restless: How Portland Competes
for Talent," a study of the migration of 25- to
34-year-olds across the US. "In focus groups people said
Portland is a place where you can live your values, and
environmentalism is clearly one of them."

Mr. Cortright sees this playing out across the country
as well. In places where young professionals are
migrating - Portland, Ore.; Phoenix; and Charlotte,
N.C., to name a few - the job market gets extremely
tight, forcing much of the creativity into
entrepreneurial positions. It is those people who may
push the mounting interest in building green over the
edge and into mainstream.

Many young professionals looking to buy or build their
first house - or empty-nesters wanting to downsize or
remodel - see building green as much more than a
movement. It's a responsibility, and it's becoming
irresistibly chic.

"Building green is both a very practical,
self-interested activity, in terms of lower operating
costs, and it also has a deeper spiritual value to many
people taking responsibility for the impacts they have,"
says Alan Scott, an architect in Portland who has been
involved in the green building movement for years.

Portland groups such as City Repair, which brings
several hundred people together to work on natural
building projects dotted around the city, have tapped a
market that is clearly on the upswing.

Part of its allure is that "green" is no easy name to
come by. It is akin to a status symbol, and it must be
earned. Even the Higgins hesitate to call their house
green, despite its many environmentally sensitive features.

Aiming for 'net zero energy' spent

A green building must attempt to produce net zero
energy, which many achieve through solar paneling, eco
roofs, and smaller spaces. It must use mostly recycled
or renewable materials - anything from glass countertops
and used lumber to wool carpeting and bamboo floors.
Even the energy spent to transport the material to the
site is considered; recycled glass, for instance, loses
its "conservation" value if a lot of fuel was used to
haul it there.

It is no surprise, then, that green homes are less
accessible to those who cannot afford the pricier
materials and construction expertise. It is still the
domain of the wealthy - or at least yuppies with
disposable income.

But as the owners of green homes know firsthand, the
cost difference is largely superficial. Any up-front
costs are recaptured over time because these buildings
use so little energy. Portland General Electric, for
instance, reimburses houses that generate more power
than they use. An award-winning green house in Cannon
Beach, Ore., with its solar panels and eco roof (a roof
planted with greenery to deflect heat and improve
insulation), is actually making money this spring.

"There are such significant selling advantages to
building a green building that if the up-front cost
differential is eliminated you will see a lot more green
development taking place," says Leanne Tobias, founder
of Malachite LLC, a venture founded to provide services
on sustainable or green development in Washington, D.C.
"As energy prices continue to inflate, the advantages
for building green become even greater," she says.

"Green building will be mainstreamed, a far greater
share of new construction will be green construction,
and there will be a great deal of interest in
retrofitting existing buildings so that they are more
energy efficient."

More resources available

Though such breakthroughs as solar paneling and eco
roofs have been in the works since the '70s, actual
adaptation has been slow. Even five years ago the kinds
of recycled materials available today weren't on the
market. But California's energy crisis, the 2003
blackout in the Eastern US, along with swelling gasoline
costs, have served as a wake-up call to homebuyers.
"[We are being] forced, in a good way, to take note and
be proactively involved [in green building], says Darr
Hashempour, vice president of energy solutions for
PinnacleOne, a construction consulting firm in Los
Angeles. "This isn't a fad. Building green is now a fact
of life."

Not everyone characterizes the green momentum in such
optimistic terms. "There clearly is an upward swing, but
if you're talking about any real penetration into the
mainstream, I don't think there's been any," says Lester
Lave, an economics professor and director of the
Carnegie Mellon Green Design Initiative in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Lave has been pushing for greener building since he
moved to Pittsburgh in the late '60s, and he admits his
patience has worn thin. "When I put on my economics hat,
I think it is reprehensible for people to build
buildings where they're focusing only on first costs.

There's no excuse for it."

 

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