Homeowners and architects are realizing what Mother Nature’s known all along: It’s better to go green.
Even at first glance, Peter Pfeiffer’s house in central Austin, with its limestone porch and broad, oak-shaded entry way, makes an implicit promise that something special is waiting inside. And once you make it through the front door and start to inspect the inner workings of the structure itself, you might find yourself making a few promises — like never thinking of home building in quite the same light again.

Built on three levels, the more-than-4,000-square-foot house hugs a sloping city lot in a well-heeled midtown neighborhood. But integrated into the stacked surfaces of stone, Galvalume sheathed roofs, and Hardie siding are the tough sinews of the “greenest,” most environmentally friendly house in Austin.

For Pfeiffer, an architect at Barley & Pfeiffer with 25 years of green home design under his belt, that’s no idle boast. Austin’s Green Building Program — which aspires to kindling widespread demand for just this kind of work — bestowed its five-star title on Pfeiffer’s home. And no less an industry icon than the National Association of Home Builders tapped Pfeiffer as its 2003 Green Advocate of the Year, a new award that highlights the tectonic shift underway as more and more builders begin to cater to an environmentally conscious clientele.

Just last year, the NAHB Research Center tracked 13,224 new green homes, which was a one-year, 70-percent leap in green starts compared to the previous 12 years combined. “There’s been a methodical increase in the interest” surrounding green building, says the center’s environmental analyst Rich Dooley. And it goes way beyond Austin. One high-profile case in point: The Henry, a new 123-unit residential high-rise in Portland, Oregon’s downtown Pearl District, freshly emblazoned with a gold certification from LEED — Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design — for features that include using the heat trapped on rooftops to warm residents’ water.

Manufacturers know a good thing when they see it, or poll for it, too. Whirlpool, for example, found that half of consumers would willingly pay more for green design if it made a house last longer and be healthier to live in. For a company that markets upscale, power-miserly refrigerators, that was no idle question.

Aside from designing a great place to live with a wife and four kids, Pfeiffer’s home makes the simple architectural statement that green building is within practical reach for a broad swath of the home building — or redecorating — public.

To start, you can lay to rest any tie-dyed images you may have of living green. Forget about straw bale walls. Put aside those costly plans for passive solar panels — at least for now. Don’t even mention a yurt, and laugh off the notion of abandoning the electric grid — along with your washer/dryer combo, coffee maker, microwave, and any other power-hungry appliances you may have plugged in somewhere.

Then keep in mind a personal and professional maxim from Pfeiffer’s world: “You can live well and live green.”

On a tour of his home, Pfeiffer shows how it can be done.

A network of integrated gutters sluices rainwater into above-ground tanks to serve various tasks like watering plants and yards. The house is built at an angle to catch the prevailing southeasterly breeze through a screened porch. The air conditioning system is circulated through a heat exchanger with the pool water to bring the temperature back down. Wide overhangs — designed to provide the maximum shade in the hottest months — extend a roof sheathed in a dull metallic Galvalume that reflects heat away from the structure. The oaks strung along the western side of the house look good, and they also keep the temperature down on grueling hot Texas afternoons.

Then there are all the little green touches: exposed rafters crafted from recycled wood, drought-resistant zoysia grass, and the synthetic trim made of recycled plastics. A large stairway dominates the center of the house, working as a chimney by pulling air up and out top-floor windows.

“This is pretty cool, huh?” says Pfeiffer as he points out the architectural highlights. “I figured if I were going to blow my wad on it, it might as well be my grand experiment.”

Being the defending green architect champion of the city is pretty cool, too. But you don’t have to slug it out with Pfeiffer’s house — you can live a tighter-budget shade of green and still do plenty for the environment (see “What Makes A Green House?” on the opposite page).

Counseling one client in his office, Pfeiffer and his colleagues work at cutting back one of their signature overhangs to make way for a tree on the site of a lakeside home.

“That’s a big tree,” he says. “If there’s a way we can hang onto it, I’d like to try it.”

One of the most important single aspects of green architecture is site selection, says Pfeiffer. Natural shade cuts down on air-conditioning needs, he counsels, a factor that helped him limit the number of A/C units to three in his own home, compared to the four most houses his size would need. And he’s quick to economize whenever it’s practicable. Instead of multiple water heaters, his house has one, and that one does extra duty providing hydronic heat — another penny-pinching move.

Being thrifty, though, doesn’t necessarily make these custom-designed homes cheap. In the tech-hot Austin economy, most of the clients that come his way are prepared to plunk down anywhere from $125 to $250 a foot. And architectural fees typically run 8 percent to 14 percent of building costs.

By keeping the design practical, Pfeiffer estimates that you can expect to get a payback on the specific green add-ons in two to five years — money that comes primarily from maintenance and savings on water, gas, and electricity. That kind of quick return is one reason why, until now, the architect has stayed away from adding pricey solar panels. But with a new Austin rebate program recently announced, Pfeiffer says he’s ready to start adding solar to the house.

Pfeiffer built his green house so he could reap a long-term dividend. Anyone needing proof need look no farther than the driveway, where the architect has carefully positioned a cornerstone with the construction date — 2001 — chiseled in.

“Hey,” he says with a self-deprecating smile and so-sue-me shrug, “I built this house to last.”

In Pfeiffer’s world, green never fades.

austin, texas-based kenny braun is an award-winning fine-art and commercial photographer. his work appears regularly in regional and national publications.
what makes a green house?
the u.s. green building council (www.usgbc.org) developed the leadership in energy and environmental design (leed) rating system to provide some basic standards. whether you choose to get a formal rating, or just want to follow their guidelines, consider these top concerns:

sustainable sites — 14 points. points are awarded for erosion control, storm water management, and access to public transportation.

water efficiency — 5 points. conserving water through efficient irrigation and miserly toilets is a plus, and rainwater collection systems earn some points as well.

energy and atmosphere — 17 points. earth-friendly heating, air, and ventilation systems may cost more up- front, but they’ll pay back over the years.

materials and resources — 13 points. are you planning to recycle most of your building material waste? that helps. so does using recycled building materials in the structure.

indoor environmental quality — 15 points. adding fresh-air ventilation and opening up outdoor vistas make for a healthier house.

innovation and design — 5 points. go past the minimum code requirements and look for some cutting-edge ways to add green to your project.