Monday, November 05, 2007

Unaffordably GREEN?

A house custom-built to meet the highest specs for energy
efficiency and environmental design generates plenty of interest,
but so far no offers.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer November 4, 2007

FREEPORT — The custom-crafted kitchen cabinets are made in
part from sunflower seed hulls, the ceramic floor tiles, from
recycled car windshields.

Sunlight streams through south-facing, triple pane windows,
creating electricity and hot water, too, in solar panels on the
metal roof.

From its sprayed-on wall insulation born of recycled newspaper
to the gravel driveway that soaks up stormwater, the new house
in the Cranberry Ridge subdivision here is designed to minimize
its impact on the Earth. This house is so green that an industry
trade group has certified it as the most environmentally friendly
new home in New England.

Over the past year, hundreds of people have visited the
Cranberry Ridge house, one of only four in the country so far to
win the top rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Much
has been written and said about the building process and what it
takes to design a five-bedroom house that earns platinum-level
LEED certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design.

Missing in all the publicity is this question: What will it take to
sell such a special property?

The Cranberry Ridge house has been listed since March at $1.1
million. Last month the asking price was reduced to $895,000.
That's a cut of nearly 20 percent, and it pretty much wiped out
the builder's profit margin.

As of last week there were still no offers.

It's not for lack of interest. Rebecca Reardon, the broker at
Legacy Properties in Brunswick who is overseeing the sale, said
she has had more inquiries about Cranberry Ridge than any
home she has listed. She has lost count of the questions people
have asked during 10 or so open houses and industry tours.

Yes, it's a tough time to sell homes, with the sluggish market.
But this home faces additional challenges.

For one thing, it's bold to ask $1 million for a southern Maine
residence located in an old woodlot, without the hint of a water
view. And at 3,200 square feet, this house is big, perhaps too
large for the market it's meant to attract. Buyers in this price
range, too, may balk at a property with minimal landscaping and
an unpaved driveway, regardless of the environmental rationale.

But if they can see past these issues, potential buyers will find a
home of exceptional comfort and performance, with incredible
detail paid to energy efficiency and air quality, and the fit and
finish of a yacht. With some bargaining, they can grab this
prototype house for less than it cost to build it.

The general contractor and owner is Wright-Ryan Construction
Inc. of Portland. The firm has a strong interest in sustainable
building techniques. It recently built a LEED-certified science
center at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham and broke
ground last week for a LEED-certified administration building for
the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The LEED program for homes is newer, however, and Wright-
Ryan wanted to gain experience with the process. By chance, an
employee owned a five-lot subdivision on the road to Wolfe's
Neck Woods State Park.

Wright-Ryan surveyed local real estate brokers on market
demand. It enlisted Richard Renner Architects of Portland, which
designed a house that pays homage to the traditional roof lines
and dormers of New England, while accommodating solar panels
and overhangs that shade the summer sun.

Excavators broke ground in May of 2006. The house was
finished and offered for sale by the builder last October, at

Sales were taken over in March by Legacy Properties, an affiliate
of Sotheby's International Realty. The price was boosted to $1.1
million. That reflected the $230-a-square-foot cost, which
includes everything except land. The 2.6-acre lot is valued at
roughly $200,000.

Reardon has been marketing the home at open houses, on the
Internet, through high-end real estate magazines and direct
mail. She estimates six out of 10 of the families and empty
nesters who come to look are from Maine.

In the process, Reardon has had to become knowledgeable
about the inverter in the basement that ties the solar electric
panels to the utility grid, and the radiant heating system that
warms the locally harvested birch floors. Visitors who admire the
Spanish designer plumbing fixtures in the kitchen also may learn
they use 40 percent less water, and that the counters are hewn
from Maine granite.

Some people, she said, are curious about the gravel driveway
and the wooded yard. Reardon uses these moments to explain
the environmental reasoning. At Cranberry Ridge, she is an
educator as much as a broker, and it is a process.

"Being the first of anything," she said, "it takes longer to catch

But not all brokers have an emotional attachment to this project,
and their assessment, while polite, is more direct.

Polly Nichols is a broker at Re/Max Heritage in Yarmouth. She
showed the house to a client last year, who found it too
expensive. Nichols loved the craftsmanship and the feel inside.
Her biggest concern was the setting.

"I think the location is what's going to kill them," she said.

In this price range, Nichols said, buyers want to be either on the
water or have exclusive privacy. A farmhouse on the abutting
property is visible from the Cranberry Ridge house. And there's
uncertainty about what will be built directly across the road in
the subdivision.

"People don't want to cough up $1 million and see a McMansion
across the street," she said.

Nichols, who is acquainted with the builder, said she knows the
house has gotten a lot of positive feedback in the industry. But
the extra costs of a LEED-certified home, she said, aren't
worthwhile to many buyers.

That view is put into a national context by Michael Kiefer, a
certified eco-broker at Green D.C. Realty in Washington, D.C. His
business focuses on green real estate practices; he reviewed the
Cranberry Ridge house online.

The added cost and time involved in building to LEED standards
translates into higher prices, Kiefer said. Some of the costs, such
as those related to energy performance and building standards,
make sense to most buyers. But other measures, such as natural
landscaping, cut the home's value, he said. Solar panels also
raise questions. Buyers worry about maintenance, and
aesthetics, when hardware is mounted on the street side of the

The overriding problem, Kiefer said, is that the industry has yet
to figure out how to translate LEED standards into a set of values
that the average homebuyer can understand. LEED homes must
have consumer appeal, like driving a hybrid car.

"Toyota has done a much better job marketing green cars than
the U.S. Green Building Council has done marketing LEED
homes," he said.

But building and marketing environmentally sensitive homes to
mainstream buyers is a long-term process. Tom Wright, a
partner at Wright-Ryan Construction, said Cranberry Ridge has
been a positive experience.

Wright's crews have been trained in more-efficient ways to frame
homes and prepare sites for construction, for example. These
techniques save money, and have led Wright to conclude that a
LEED house doesn't have to cost more than a conventional
home, once rules and processes are incorporated into standard
building practices.

Wright said his biggest regret is building a five-bedroom house
that's more than 3,000 square feet. He initially wanted to go
with three bedrooms and 2,400 square feet, but local agents
suggested a bigger house would sell in South Freeport.

"I think that was a mistake on our part," he said.

Despite that, the home has attracted national attention, and the
publicity has been good for Wright-Ryan and its subcontractors.
It could translate into new business.

But now winter is coming. As temperatures and the housing
market chill, one of the most Earth-friendly luxury homes in the
country sits vacant.

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers


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