Building environmentally friendly homes gets a boost as two O.C. projects win green certification and more cities enact green building standards.
By JEFF COLLINS

Building environmentally friendly homes gets a boost as two O.C. projects win green certification and more cities enact green building standards.
By JEFF COLLINS
The Orange County Register
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The brownstones going up next to the Orange train depot look pretty much like most other townhomes being built these days: boxy, three-story affairs with modern, airy kitchens, deluxe master suites, walk-in closets and price tags north of a half-million greenbacks.

But take a look at the top floor. Here, where pigeons roost, rows of black solar panels are affixed to gray asphalt rooftops, converting sunshine into enough juice for one-fifth to half of each home’s electricity needs. That’s a potential savings of up to roughly $40 a month on the average electric bill.

"There’s not only a social conscience, but I think people see the benefit financially in terms of having solar-powered (homes)," said Bill Holford, Southern California regional president for The Olson Co., a Seal Beach-based homebuilder developing these homes in a project called Depot Walk.

Earlier this month, Depot Walk became the first housing project in Orange County to get "LEED" certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning that the homes meet a wide array of environmental building standards.

It’s just the latest in a small but emerging trend in which more cities are developing green homebuilding standards and more developers are following them.

Brookfield Homes’ Colony Park development in Anaheim received a "GreenPoint Rated" certification, using guidelines developed by a California group, Berkeley-based Build It Green ? the first such certification in Southern California, Brookfield officials said.

The two projects are among five green home developments currently under way in Orange County and three green rental developments.

In addition, five Orange County cities have adopted voluntary green-building guidelines for developers or homeowners, some following the LEED or GreenPoint Rated standards, and three others are looking into it.

Still, that’s just a fraction of the cities in the county, and just a fraction of new homes here are being built to environmental standards. Moreover, homebuyers themselves aren’t clamoring yet for green homes, some builders say.

But consumers will eventually start demanding it, too, as environmental awareness grows, developers say.

"The whole industry is going that way," said Bill Montgomery, multifamily acquisitions president for SARES-REGIS Group, which plans to build all future developments to LEED standards, including rental complexes in Anaheim and Irvine. "Over the course of time, I think it’s going to become a bigger issue for the consumer.

More than just conservation

Green homebuilding is about much more than just low-watt light bulbs and conserving energy. Developers get points from rating agencies for building in already-developed areas rather than on raw land, for being near public transit sites, schools or theaters and for water conservation.

They get points for having bicycle storage, using recycled building materials and recycling building site waste rather than sending it to landfills.

They also get credit for using wood that grows faster, like bamboo, and avoiding wood from trees that are endangered.

And developers also are rated not just on how well-insulated and sealed projects are, but also on improving interior air quality through measures like using non-toxic paints.

Depot Walk meets many of those standards, Olson officials said. And because it’s just feet from a train station, residents there will have an easy time commuting without a car, Holford said.

"That’s a big plus from a buying standpoint, that you don’t have to get on the freeway and commute an hour, two hours a day to work," he said.

Shades of green

Like Depot Walk, Colony Park and three projects by John Laing Homes have a lot of green features, such as insulation and Energy Star appliances, non-toxic paints and fluorescent lights.

But unlike Depot Walk, they do not come equipped with solar panels. While Depot Walk and Colony Park homes are 15 percent more energy efficient than the state requires, for example, John Laing’s Celadon in Irvine is only 10 percent more efficient.

Environmentalists note that there are varying shades of green. While Colony Park and Depot Walk energy savings exceed state standards by 15 percent, John Laing’s Celadon exceeds them only by 10 percent. Still, environmentalists welcome any effort to reduce the impact homes have on the environment.

"The Sierra Club has been preaching this stuff for 10 to 20 years," said Paul Carlton, environmental activist and a co-founder of Friends of the Foothills. "It’s gratifying that people finally are doing it."

Saving green preferred

Developers say green building adds a little bit to construction costs ? estimated at $2,500 per unit at Celadon, and 3 percent to 5 percent at Colony Park.

But buyers aren’t necessarily demanding green. And some would rather save green (as in cash) than go green.

Buyer Daphne Sakhrani, 36, already liked Colony Park for the price, design and proximity to schools. The savings she’ll get from energy conservation is "one of the pluses," she added. But she’d still be interested in buying a condo there even if the project weren’t green.

Home shopper Alex Kapitan, 31, of Costa Mesa said he’s not inclined to buy a home just because it’s green.

"The best bang for the buck is the way to go," Kapitan said.

John O’Brien, a Brookfield vice president based in Costa Mesa, conceded that buyers aren’t that motivated about going green. And the housing slump probably has slowed progress in green residential development, he said, since builders are reluctant to take risks when the market is soft.

A half dozen or so green developments is a tiny fraction of about 130 housing tracts now selling in Orange County.

Still, he said, green building will catch on eventually.

"A lot of cities are passing regulations right now that will require it," O’Brien said. "So I think it will continue to evolve and increase where, yeah, sometime in the next five years, it’ll be widespread."