Greener Pastures
From grassy roofs to natural lighting, there are more ways than ever to be environmentally friendly

In the immortal words of Kermit the Frog, "It ain't easy being green."

A wise amphibian indeed, but going "green" - that is, building a home or office that is environmentally sustainable - isn't actually so hard these days, thanks in large part to the efforts of Atlanta-based nonprofit Southface, which serves to educate builders, developers and homeowners on the finer points of eco-friendly construction.

Headquartered in Atlanta and funded through membership fees and sponsors, the organization is governed by a volunteer board of directors who hail from day jobs at Home Depot, the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, Georgia Power and various consulting, construction and development firms.

Scott Lee is the multifamily program manager for EarthCraft House, a collaborative effort of Southface and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association that helps private citizens build more environmentally friendly places to live, or to renovate their existing homes to match EarthCraft criteria.

Lee said there has been a major surge in recent years among Atlanta-area homeowners and businesses seeking Southface's help to battle high energy costs with greener building practices.

In Gwinnett County, however, such interest has remained relatively lacking.

One small step

This county may be a little late to the green party, but it still has something to brag about: The Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, a one-year-old building in Buford that took a monster stride toward a more eco-friendly mind set in local construction, and was recently recognized for it with a rare Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The first green building in the county, it's still the only one with the all-important pedigree of LEED certification, a rating system that determines just how "green" a building is. The county's three other eco-friendly offerings, the Gwinnett County Police Training Facility in Lawrenceville, the YMCA in Norcross and the Crestwood Building in Duluth, are still awaiting certification.

Located in Buford, the environmental center is surrounded by more than 200 acres of green space, and serves as a near-perfect blueprint for the concept of sustainable living. From conception to construction to completion, no energy-saving, pollution-preventing or aesthetically pleasing detail was overlooked.

It's alive

One important and oft-used means to green-ify a home or office is the installation of a vegetated roof. Otherwise known as green roofs or eco-roofs, they're either partly or fully covered with soil and plants.

Atlanta's City Hall has one. So does the Gwinnett Environmental Heritage Center building - and an impressive one, at that.

"It is the largest sloped vegetated roof in the U.S.," said center spokeswoman Sheila Fowler. "And it's planted with about 40,000 seedlings."

The reason for the sloped roof, she added, is "to demonstrate for the residential builder or developer or homeowner that this could be an application that was used in a residential building."

Having a green roof offers benefits aplenty.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the vegetation absorbs air pollution and assimilates large amounts of rainwater.

Lee said other upsides include a reduction in heating and cooling costs and a depletion of the "heat island effect" - a phenomenon in which urban development and high population leads cities to become hotter than the region they sit in.

"It's really one of those things that helps out the surrounding sites of the community as a whole," Lee said.

Fortunate sun

Like many green buildings, the Environmental Heritage Center facility forgoes fluorescent bulbs whenever possible, using natural light instead.

Fowler said the structure's abundant use of clerestory windows is one feature that allows for more sun.

"It's an open-truss construction," she said, "so the sunlight travels a long way in the interior spaces. ... So really, on a sunny day, you can't tell whether the lights are on or off."

Lee said clerestory windows are usually installed up high in a room, "where you don't get direct heat gain into a space from the sun shining in, but yet you're still able to have natural lighting entering the room."

Light shelves, which reflect onto the ceiling, are also effective, he said.

Aside from saving you a bundle on the next electric bill, Lee said the use of natural lighting can have a less tangible - but perhaps even more important - benefit, especially for businesses: increased output from workers.

"There's lots of studies that have shown that people are more productive in a well-daylit environment than they are (when they're) bombarded with fluorescent lighting," he said.

Another important feature of a green home or office is the use of reused or recycled materials.

The components that went into building the $16.6 million Gwinnett Environmental Heritage Center facility, for example, are strange bits of genius: The carpeting came from recycled tires, the ceiling panels were made from recycled paper and the granite blocks came from - get this - (unused) tombstones.

"It's very cool," Fowler said.

Going green isn't cheap

If this all sounds expensive, that's because a lot of it is.

However, Lee said the long-term savings on utility costs typically outweigh the initial price tag.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, for example, the Environmental Heritage Center building uses 75 percent less water and 35 percent less energy than similar buildings.

For businesses, going green could be a great PR move, Lee added.

Of course, not everyone can be expected to jump right off the couch, cobble together some materials and go build a new house or office building just for the sake of Mother Nature. That's why EarthCraft also specializes in renovating existing homes.

One affordable method of making an existing house more eco-friendly is the use of rain chains instead of a traditional gutter system. With rain chains, water can drip down over metal cups or coils, which "allows for a more natural flow back to the ground," Fowler said.

Green roofs can also be installed on existing homes.

The price of installing a green roof rests on the types of vegetation planted and the size of the building in question, among other factors.

According to the EPA, the up-front cost of a green roof runs about $8 per square foot, which includes materials, preparation and installation.

Green roofs typically don't require the same kind of care as a lawn, but because of the drought, Fowler admits they've have had to water the Environmental Heritage Center roof "a few times."

"But we've watered it with reused water," she added.

Again, no detail overlooked.