Modernist Without the Markup: Sustainability on a Budget

Nearly a decade ago, a Washington, D.C., family set out to build a sustainable home for around the same price as a conventional one. Think it can't be done? Here's how they succeeded.


| September/October 2007


Building an eco-friendly dream home for about the same cost as a conventional home seemed daunting when my husband, Luke, and I bought three acres of Virginia forest nearly eight years ago. Our purchase came just before the dot-com crash (Luke owns a software company); shortly thereafter our funds would have evaporated.

Believing fate was on our side, Luke, our two children and I set out to build an environmentally conscious home for no more than
5 percent above the cost of a conventional one.

We set our goals high; we wanted to use green products, but they had to be cost competitive—within 5 percent of a comparable mainstream product. Luke and I vowed to limit waste by choosing a clean design style, ordering supplies conservatively and salvaging whenever possible. As a conservation policy consultant, I'm passionate about the environment, and our subcontractors began to understand my ardor when I climbed inside the Dumpster one day to retrieve a good piece of drywall.

The plan takes shape



To disturb the natural landscape as little as possible, Luke and I planned for site preservation six months before construction began. We hired a professional arborist, RTEC Treecare, to assess the health of all trees within 50 feet of the project footprint. The company surrounded the entire impacted area with tree protection fencing and helped strengthen trees within 20 feet of the disturbance area with root aeration mats.

We worked with the company to develop a set of tree-protection rules, including financial penalties for violations, and made all contractors sign it before entering the job site. These tree-protection measures cost $34,000—about one-third of our total landscaping costs—but I consider it money well spent. It was an additional expense, but by contrast, our neighbors just finished construction without any tree-protection measures. They spent nearly $10,000 to fell three 100-foot trees killed by construction impact. We kept our beautiful trees—and their cool shade.







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