Building: Northern Virginia - February 2008

The Green Outdoors

The Green Outdoors

Going green. These days the phrase is more than buzzworthy. It’s downright trendy. And there’s good reason. Landfills are full, contaminated runoff into the aging, overwrought sewage lines – and eventually into the Potomac and Chesapeake – is moving beyond a concern and into a crisis, and continued development means breeding hotter surface conditions. A green home uses less energy, water and natural resources. It creates less waste. And it’s healthier for the people who live inside.

But what about outside?

Green trends on the exterior of the home may not be as sexy as bamboo flooring and limestone concrete countertops, but they are just as important in reducing our environmental footprints. We went looking for some trendy up-and-comers in the green outdoors, and spoke to a few area professionals for their take on the topic and some things to keep an eye on.

Let It Rain

“Outfall” is a word builders are hearing more and more often in places like Fairfax and Arlington Counties and Andrew Moore, president of Arlington Designer Homes, Inc., is one of them. Rain gardens, he says, catchment basins that contain runoff, holding rainwater on the property and allowing it to drain slowly and naturally into the soil, are the big buzz. The term may inspire romantic imagery, but it’s a utilitarian concept.

“Obviously,” says Moore, “people try to make them as beautiful as possible, but the driving force is runoff reduction. I believe Arlington County is leaning toward a zero percent outfall. They want to make sure that whatever runoff an undeveloped property normally has remains the same once development is finished.”

The benefit really isn’t homeowner-driven, but those whose homes boast these useful retention areas can take pride in the fact that they’re helping to stem the environmental impact. Rain gardens reduce the stress on over-taxed drainage systems and ultimately the level of pollution in area rivers, lakes and the like.

As with any new feature, particularly those that are becoming mandated, there are growing pains as laws evolve. “Issues come up,” says Moore. “I will put a rain garden into someone’s house – and that’s incorporated into the systems that are approved by the county. However, after that point, whose responsibility is it to maintain? The county? The homeowner? How do you maintain the systems that were originally approved? These are the questions we’re hearing.”

Sagatov Homes builds green, and Lou Sagatov – with 32 years in the building industry overall – is now serving as chairman of the new NVBIA Green Committee. Stormwater management, he agrees, is big news in Arlington. Sagatov had recent success on a project using products such as those from Richmond, VA’s ACL Environmental, which uses modular plastic water storage cubes to create an underground rain tank.

“It was a huge area,” he remembers. “Eight or 10 feet wide by 15 feet long by eight feet deep. Gravel wasn’t going to work. The [AFC product] looks sort of like egg crates and uses a filter fabric. It allows a tremendous amount of volume to seep naturally into the soil.”

The area is usually covered by rocks and doesn’t change the look of the yard too dramatically. “You can use pretty rocks as a cover,” says Sagatov. “You can’t plant into it, because there’s no soil underneath but you can plant around it and beautify the area.”

Moore says that as rain gardens become part of the mandatory framework, builders and engineers will likely begin to create methods of screening. “I’ve seen people looking into putting them under patios and such,” he says, “but municipalities are discouraging that; the general feeling is that [the camouflage] would restrict their usefulness. Hopefully someone will come up with a compromise … where we can put a catchment basin under a 500-square-foot patio that we were going to build anyway. Then we can just leave grates or whatever the engineers come up with.”

Sealing the Deal

Builders may be looking to keep rain water from migrating off the property, but that doesn’t mean they want it coming into the house. High-tech mastics and tapes – new products now hitting the market – are doing the job well. Keeping the house dry isn’t a new idea, so what makes it green?

“It isn’t so much what they are as what they’re doing,” Sagatov explains. “Water infiltration does a number of things. One: it is a source for mold, and two: if water is getting in, then air is getting in, too. Then we don’t have a good seal on the outside and we’re not able to control the indoor environment … from a green standpoint, we’re not managing the moisture and we don’t have a good air-seal package.” He cites DuPont as a company to look to for quality products in this arena.

Sagatov stresses that green building means really paying attention to building science on a level where most people do not. “What’s happening in the environment you’re living in is important. Tapes, flexible pan-flashing for doors and windows and other types of flashing materials that we can put on the outside of a Tyvek – these products are not very sexy or glamorous. They’re not solar panels. But they’re very important. Keeping the water out, heat and air-conditioning loss, these are very big issues.”

Over Your Head

Ever check out an aerial infrared photo of a city block? The daytime sun bakes the asphalt, the concrete, the rooftops. Come nightfall, this stored heat is released back into the atmosphere, creating something of a heat bubble. And the perpetual loss of green space to development only exacerbates the problem. Plants and soil are Mother Nature’s air conditioner; evaporation and vegetative transpiration are what put water and oxygen back into the atmosphere. How do you combat it? Perhaps even eventually fix it if the trend keeps catching on? Green roofing – and the advantages are many.

At press time, Sagatov was amid completion on Arlington County’s first-ever residential green roof. Mostly flat – it will have a 2 percent pitch – and covered with sedum, a beautiful green succulent that will be able to handle periods of both deluge and drought, Sagatov says it will be interesting to see how the spec house is received.

“We are using a J-DRain system,” he says, “which is designed to hold a certain amount of water using a gravel-like engineered growth medium into which the greenery is planted. It has a way for excess water to move off the roof but will also be absorbing a certain percentage.” This makes green rooftops yet another effective way to decrease outfall.

“There is a big initiative toward decreasing the heat sink that roofs create,” he says. “In the commercial world, there are so many of these flat roofs out there and it’s a natural thing to start greening them up. The thing I think we’re going to see in residential, is that you can go green on pitch roofs, as well.”

Changes to the local building height restrictions could help, too, as green rooftops that increase useful living space will only add both recreation-based and value-driven incentives to create them. In the case of this home, Sagatov’s initial plans for a walk-out patio off the staircase, where people could sit and enjoy the outdoors were thwarted by the current regulations. They proceeded with the green plans, anyway. “The homeowner will at least be able to enjoy knowing it’s there.

And the Walls….

Green means sustainable. Durable. Low-maintenance. That rules out many forms of exterior coverage that have come in and out of vogue over the years. What’s ‘in’ these days is fiber cement siding.

“It’s a huge trend,” says Andrew Moore of products such as HardiePlank, “and it’s wonderful. It lasts longer, requires less maintenance. People are getting away from things like cedar or wooden clapboard and heading toward cement board, which will last practically forever. Products like this are more permanent.”

Sagatov agrees. “The durability is something like 40 or 50 years,” he says. “With a lifespan like that, you won’t be seeing it in the landfill very often.” And he’s noticed that his company’s homes built with cement fiber board, some seven or even 10 years old, still don’t need repainting. “The primed version is finished on six sides, and due to its construction, doesn’t absorb water the way a wood product would. Because of that, we’re able to paint it with latex and it holds up very well.”

Decidedly Different Driveways

In green building – and in Northern Virginia really all building – permeability is a word that comes up again and again, and it’s something many developers believe you’ll be seeing more of in hard surfaces.

“I don’t know if that means permeable concrete,” says Sagatov, “but we’re going to see people looking at permeability and trying to do things with the hardscapes.” The education curve is always a factor, he says. “Our subs aren’t really doing [permeable concrete] yet. It’s going to take awhile for that to occur.” In the end, he says, that means using less impermeable products. Instead of having an entire driveway made of concrete, for example, “we’ll have two cement strips where the car would move and park and in between a gravel or stone that will allow water to pass through rather than roll off the site.”

Moore has done similar projects with great success, layering gravel, sand, “and then cinder blocks with roughly three-inch by three-inch squares in the middle. We’ll fill that will top soil and sprinkle grass seed in there and you end up with a stable driveway that looks as much like grass as possible. You can still see the pavers, but it’s quite attractive.”

Best for the county, perhaps, is that the rain goes right through. “Something that might have been 800 square feet of impermeable asphalt or cement has become 800 square feet of driveway that absorbs water,” says Moore. “It’s the same idea of expanding the area for seepage and we have had no issues whatsoever with shifting.”

Like an increasing number of builders, Moore is passionate about building green and tries to bring the concept to every level of his business. As consumers become more savvy, both builders reports an increase in customer education about green products for both ecological and financial reasons. It would benefit the industry to get onboard. “There are very simple, cost-effective things that every builder should be doing,” says Moore, firing off a few suggestions like recycling the cardboard at job sites, caulking sill-plates, planting native species. “Not because it will make you any more money necessarily, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Sagatov sees his goal on the NVBIA Green Committee as one of education – of builders, county officials, of the general public. For his company, green is now standard. “All of our new homes are green and we’re looking for ways to incorporate that into the renovation projects, as well.”

As builders look to gain a marketing edge, says Sagatov, they’d do well to note green’s buzz, to create interest in their companies by incorporating green elements and educating clients to the benefits versus the cost, to “continually evaluate building science and green building, looking for elements that are practical as well as beneficial.” 

Up On the Roof: J-DRain Adds Beauty & Ease

Before the development of man-made composites, green rooftops relied on gravel, which was effective for drainage, but placed an enormous weight on the structure and was labor intensive to haul up. Enter J-DRain, which creates a space below the plant and soil level where rain water can be stored and excess water shed off the roof.

“In addition,” says Janet Faust, an environmental horticulturalist and Greenroof Product Manager for the Atlanta-based JDR Enterprises, Inc., “the retention cups hold rain water for the plants to utilize and the filter fabric prevents the soil from migrating off the roof. All of these features are adhered together as a total Greenroof drainage system. This makes the installation process much quicker, easier and less expensive.”

Indeed. It took three people about six hours to install the 3,000-square-foot area on Atlanta’s City Hall.

It’s light, too. And it lasts. The J-DRain GRS product weighs 69 pounds per roll; each covers 200 square feet. “Since plants and soil cover and protect the roof membrane from damaging UV rays and extreme fluctuation of temperatures, it is estimated that the Greenroof membrane will last up to two to three times as long as a conventional roof,” says Faust.

As waterproofing is required whether you go green or not, it’s not an additional expense. With a J-DRain, extras include the drain, plant and soil layers. These costs are easily recouped, says Faust. “Greenroofs provide economic benefits to the homeowner by providing reductions in heating and cooling operating costs. Smaller one- and two-story buildings can reduce solar heat gain by 95 percent and reduce cooling needs from 25 to 50 percent.”

In business since the early ‘80s, JDR’s work in the green-roof market has been on the rise in the last five years. “We have seen an increase in questions about specific residential projects, especially in the last year or so.” Such interest wasn’t unheard of beforehand, Faust adds, “but today they are calling with actual projects and blueprints in hand.”