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NEWS/ARTS | Vol. 22, No. 5, April 15, 2010
(Green Matters '10)

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Greening the Emerald Coast

by Ryne Ziemba

Local Design In Northwest Florida is Steering Toward Sustainability

In spring of 2001, Christina Ott built a pottery studio in the backyard of her parents' Gulf Breeze home. The studio, which she dubbed "Toad Hall," was made using cob, a building material which is a mixture of clay, sand, and straw.

She received an instant buzz of interest, getting calls and emails from all over inquiring about the studio. Ott says that while many people were supportive of the building project -- she estimates about 40 people came out to help her build it, there was also skepticism about the structure. Many, she says, didn't think that "Toad Hall" would last through the first hard rain.

"Here in the U.S., not many people are aware of earth as a building material except in deserts. Nonetheless, it has stood the test of time all over the world with some cob buildings still being lived in after 1,200 years or more," Ott explains.

The structure did survive the first hard rain. It even survived a direct hit from a large oak tree that fell on top of it during Hurricane Ivan, which only dented the studio's metal roof.

Christina has since moved away from the Northwest Florida area and has started Barefoot Builder, a busisness which teaches many natural building techniques like the cob method.

"As far as I know, my pottery studio was the first cob building anywhere in Florida since the Spanish Colonial period," Ott says, referring to a cob building in Tallahassee that was built by the Spanish during that period.

Christina Ott and others in Northwest Florida are proving that more is possible here than previously thought or expected when it comes to ecological design and sustainable development.

the ecohouse

Dave Robau, executive director of the Gulf Coast Energy Network, finished building a house named the EcoHouse at Tiger Point. The house meets the standards of the EnergyStar rating system, the LEED rating system by the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Florida Green Building Coalition's Green Home Certification Standard.

The 2,900 square foot home features insulated concrete forms, EnergyStar rated windows, and spray foam insulation.

The EcoHouse also has a geothermal heating system, which heats and cools by circulating air from holes dug in the ground, a tank-less water system, and CFL/LED lighting. The house has a gray-water system, which uses waste water from the shower to flush the toilet instead of wasting potable water.

While it is obvious that Robau has a true passion for his house and for sustainability, building the house was no easy task. He says that such a task requires a great deal of pre-planning.

"You start with orienting the house to take advantage of solar orientation and using the site's natural drainage and incorporating these elements into the project," Robau says about the design for his EcoHouse.

And while he admits the project was not exactly easy to pull off since not many contractors in the area have experience with constructing green buildings like this, Robau says that there are ways to make the process easier.

"There are a host of tax incentives available for homeowners interested in building eco-friendly homes," he adds.

Robau has some advice for those interested in making the transition to sustainable living that he says can save money and resources.

"Remember, the smallest things can have the largest impact. Add insulation, do your HVAC check-ups, and change out your lighting."

Robau suggests that people interested in resource-efficient construction only use contractors that are USGBC or FGBC members, because they are more familiar with the new techniques and technologies.

local steps forward

Kelly Wieczorek is the Director of Sustainable Design at Bay Design Associates Architects, as well as the president of the newly formed Northern Gulf Coast chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable building design and construction. She thinks that our community is coming around to the idea of sustainable construction in our area.

"Public projects for the last two years have been required to be either LEED certified or certified by another green building standard," Wieczorek states.

Bay Design Associates Architects just recently completed the Gulf Power District Operation Center, one of just a handful of LEED certified buildings in our area.

While one might expect such buildings to be more costly, she says that the Gulf Power building was finished $1 million under budget.

The design company is now working on a building for Escambia County that is being built on Fairfield Drive. This project, which is expected to be finished in June, will contain a pervious paving system in the parking lot that will filter rain water and a green roof complete with benches and plants.

"It's going to be the largest green roof in the state of Florida," Wieczorek remarks. She claims that those technologies might not have been possible without the $1 million grant they received to build the structure.

"The grant was really meant to test things out to see how they can be used in other areas," she adds.

As the president of the local U.S. Green Building Council, Kelly Wieczorek is a big proponent of the LEED rating system that the non-profit created. She says that the good thing about the LEED system is that it operates on a points rating, so that others can actually understand what kind of percentage of energy is saved on a building.

"You really want to see that what you're putting this money into and what you're hoping to get out of it is going to count," she explains.

She point out that there are several tax incentives and benefits available for homeowners to help them make their new or existing homes more energy-efficient.

 "The best way to start is to educate yourself on what's out there," Wieczorek says. She encourages members of the public to attend monthly meetings of the Northern Gulf Coast chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Sheree Cagle, Ed.D., will be the principal for a new elementary school being built downtown, which will be the first school building for the Escambia County School District to earn LEED certification.

Cagle states that the school, which will combine the older Hallmark and Allie Yniestra Elementary schools, will use the components of LEED certification: energy conservation, alternative energy resources, indoor air quality, water conservation and recycling of materials in the students' curriculum.

The building, she says, will even have a science lab on the roof to assist with teaching students about sustainability.

"This building was designed to be an educational tool just like a computer is an educational tool -- it will enhance education," she explains.

planning sustainability

There are some, though, who say that it's not just what you build, but also where you build that makes a development sustainable.

Christian Wagley, owner of Sustainable Town Concepts, a consulting company that works with architects, builders, developers, and communities, says that buildings which are up to code, but located far out in the suburbs, aren't really as sustainable as they seem due to the large amounts of gasoline that people end up consuming in transit.

"You can build or renovate an 'average' building in an urban area where we can walk, bicycle, and use mass transit, and it can actually be much more environmentally-friendly than the 'green' building in a suburban location that requires a car to reach.

"Plus, the creeping spread of suburbia -- what planners call sprawl -- is destroying our forests and farms and sending more stormwater runoff into our waterways as it spreads outward into undeveloped areas," Wagley explains.

While he did express that he thinks sustainable buildings are a good step toward a more ecologically-conscious community, Wagley thinks that people need to also look just as carefully at how a city is planned.

He says that making a community more accessible to walking can have a very positive impact on the local environment.

However, Wagley adds that Northwest Florida has some major hurdles ahead in becoming this kind of sustainable community.

"The irony is that the most sustainable form of development is basically illegal to build because of way-outdated zoning and development codes," he says.

Wagley explains that the development codes are currently geared toward limiting densities, not sustainability, and that the codes force people to live apart from where they work, shop, and go to school, thereby forces more driving and development.

He claims that the best way to overcome this hurdle is to completely throw out the outdated development codes.

"Montgomery, Alabama recently did this, adopting a form-based code that regulates the design of development and less so the use.," he explains. "This helps to create more places built for people, places that are walkable and human-scale, which, in turn, greatly reduces our impact on the environment."

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