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

  • 1st Floor
  • 2nd Floor
  • Basement
  • The classic 1950s designs of the vintage chair and table blend well with the bedroom's new eco-friendly and recycled-fiber décor.
    Michael Shopenn
  • Zaneen Lighting's playful Medusa sconce is energy efficient—in three years the owners have not had to replace a light bulb. The chaise is a favorite place to read and enjoy the fireplace.
    Michael Shopenn
  • Artist Anthony Brock's "Body of Paint" on recycled plastic hangs as if it were designed specifically for the space. The glass table and recyclable Panton chairs were purchased through Design Within Reach.
    Michael Shopenn
  • A childhood friend of Luke's built the 8-square-foot table out of stainless steel and certified sustainable maple and walnut.
    Michael Shopenn
  • The homeowners hired an arborist to inventory existing species, relocate large trees, install root-aeration mats and put up tree fencing. After the house was finished, regrading approximated the land's natural contours. A terraced rain garden slows runoff from the driveway.
    Michael Shopenn
  • A custom, stainless steel fireplace the owners designed runs on natural gas. The blue sofa fabric by Knoll—which looks and feels like leather—is actually recycled polyester and nylon and wipes clean with a damp cloth.
    Michael Shopenn
  • The fireplace has a recycled-concrete material, which is key to retaining and radiating heat in the great room during winter. The blue, Cassina "Dodo" chair reclines flat and has an optional footrest.
    Michael Shopenn
  • The kitchen has FSC-certified maple and wheatboard cabinets, and its counters are made of soapstone, a beautiful, stain-resistant surface that retains heat.
    Michael Shopenn
  • The breakfast room's oval Saarinen Table—designed so no one gets stuck sitting over a leg—was given a restored Formica finish. Natural hemp slipcovers on the chairs, in Galbraith and Paul's "Donuts" fabric, feature hand-applied natural dyes.
    Michael Shopenn

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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