Taking the LEED

Green Building Finds Shape in Telluride
By Martinique Davis

To combat Telluride’s winters, high-efficiency windows and closed-cell foam insulation, keep the cold out.
To combat Telluride’s winters, high-efficiency windows and closed-cell foam insulation, keep the cold out.

If buildings possess an aura, the glow emanating from the house at 580 West Pacific Avenue in Telluride would be colored green. Elements of “green,” as in earth friendly and impact conscious, are manifest throughout the home. It’s in the checkerboard flooring, which was crafted using leftover wood from a window factory, and the exposed beams crisscrossing the ceiling, which were engineered from wood scraps that would have otherwise wound up in the landfill.

Degrees of green also exist in many of this home’s not-so-obvious details, such as its energy-saving in-floor heating system, dual-flush toilets designed to use only as much water as needed, low- and no-VOC wall paint, Energy Star-rated appliances—even in the light switches, which are programmed to turn on lights at levels lower than 100% power.

Yet there is another, more encompassing dimension to this building’s “green” label that is imperceptible, at least in the material realm. This house is branded with the country’s leading green stamp of approval, bestowed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

It’s the first such LEED-ranked home built on Colorado’s Western Slope, and the fourth to be LEED certified in the state. Designers and owners Bruce and Jodie Wright, of One Architects in Telluride, explain that the LEED accreditation process helps raise awareness for green building practices here in Telluride, as well as across the country. “What LEED does is get everybody in the design team on the same page early on; from the lighting installers to the landscapers to the builders, everyone goes into the project understanding how to raise the bar,” says Jodie Wright.

LEED was created by the U.S. Green Building Council eight years ago as a benchmark for new commercial construction projects. It has since evolved to encompass other kinds of development, including schools, private homes and even entire communities.

To become LEED certified, a building must receive a certain number of points established by the organization. Points are earned by employing a variety of eco-friendly practices, which range from planting drought-resistant plants in the yard to installing high-efficiency water heating systems inside. A third-party verifier must then examine the building for it to qualify for certification.

To qualify as a Silver LEED-certified home (the second of four LEED levels), the Wright’s project incorporated a blend of large and small green building blocks: The house has been outfitted with high-quality windows, low-energy lighting, an efficient boiler, effective indoor ventilation system, and concrete and wood floors instead of carpet—all elements that make it a healthier home, both for its inhabitants and the environment. While many of these design elements may, at first glance, seem to make a LEED-built home healthy for the planet but devastating for the budget, many of the energy- and materials-saving building techniques lead to some initial lower costs and even more long-term savings, the Wrights say. An example of up-front savings included using 2×4-inch studs for framing the walls instead of the traditional 2×6-inch boards: Because the Wrights opted for super efficient-insulation, they could then save a significant amount on wood by building thinner walls. And because energy consumption has been pared down to a minimum in nearly every appliance, fixture and device in the house, the long-term savings accrued through reduction in energy bills is significant—especially in today’s climate of ever-climbing oil and energy prices.

Hot button issues, such as rising oil costs and global warming, have helped catapult the green building trend from the obscure (think earthships and straw-bale houses) to the fashionable. “If you mentioned something like ‘solar panels’ to a client ten years ago, people would physically lurch. Now, it’s not like that at all—clients are suggesting those kinds of things to us,” says architect Jodie Wright. “It’s been a slow turning of the tide, but I think it’s finally here,” she says of the green building movement.

And while “green” is definitely “in,” LEED accreditation for homes is still uncommon, although its popularity is growing. In the 2006 pilot year of the LEED for Homes program, 3,100 houses registered for the council’s consideration; as of press time in 2008,10,250 new home projects were already registered.

Mike Frisoni is an independent energy efficiency consultant and LEED rater based out of Mancos. As a certified rater, Frisoni is the “third party” who verifies that the mandatory measures required by LEED have been met, and he also confirms that the eco-conscious pledges a builder agreed to on paper (to receive points toward accreditation) were actually acted upon in the building process. He says that the percentage of homes being LEED certified is small: There is only one other home in the region, also in Telluride, to have received LEED certification. “It’s the highest bar of the land, so owners look to it if they want their home built to a high performance standard, and builders may want to wear that feather in their cap…Why they back off [achieving LEED certification] is because they perceive the added costs as unnecessary,” Frisoni says.

Hiring a third-party verifier and completing all the paperwork required by LEED will, inevitably, add costs to a project. That’s the reason David Holubetz of Montrose-based Bluesky Builders has not pursued LEED certification for custom homes he has built in the region, which have nonetheless followed stringent green building practices. “You’re adding a lot of cost to the project, and a stamp of approval is really all you’re getting. For many projects, that just doesn’t make sense,” he says.

Yet Holubetz—who has been using green building practices for 15 years and helped the Town of Telluride develop its Green Building Code—is quick to acknowledge that programs like LEED are exceptionally valuable when viewed in the larger, nationwide context. He admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the program when it first came out: “It was just another set of rules, another body to answer to, requiring more fees and more paperwork,” he says. Yet when he learned more about the program, his sentiments changed. “Where it really can be powerful as a catalyst in the building world is that it does hold your feet to the fire and makes sure that different areas are addressed and satisfied. For some of these construction companies that build 2,000 houses a year, LEED can make a huge impact. At some point, you just need to do whatever it takes to get people thinking and doing the right thing,” Holubetz says.

In Telluride, many homeowners are familiar with the term “built green,” and most builders already subscribe to some form of green building code. Therefore, the impact of a program such as LEED for Homes isn’t as significant here as it is in other parts of the country, Jodie Wright says, where rampant suburban sprawl continues to tax natural resources and contribute to toxic living conditions. “In Telluride, people are well educated in green building and the consequences of their carbon footprint, so that puts LEED in the baby-step category here,” she says, explaining that as designers of Telluride’s first LEED home, they actually didn’t have to make radical changes to their established design process. “But on the national level, I think it’s made huge leaps by making people more aware.”

Ben Humphrey, an intern for One Architects, received accreditation as a “LEED Certified Professional” last summer. He agrees that building a LEED home in Telluride, where many builders already prescribe to Telluride’s Green Building Code or programs such as the state’s Built Green Colorado, may have little tangible effect on the local environment. Endorsing the LEED brand can, however, help initiate a ripple effect that can carry the green wave to other builders, designers and homeowners across the country. “Telluride is an easy place to accomplish the goals of LEED, since people tend to build that way anyway. The challenge is to implement LEED on the national level…building a LEED residence in a suburban subdivision presents a much bigger mountain to climb than building one here,” Humphrey says. “What LEED does is create a brand identity for green building, and that’s how the program is furthering awareness. In that sense, it’s a brand that’s definitely worth buying into.”