A Green, Dream Home

One Minnesota couple builds an eco-friendly house.

By Violet Law

Soon after he bought a Toyota Prius two years ago, Jeff Gallo began to contemplate taking green living to the next level: his house.

The timing was right. Gallo, a photographer in Minneapolis, was newly married and planning to buy a place. While he was looking, Gallo attended a summit on sustainable housing called by mayors from around the Twin Cities—the first of its kind in the area. After that, he was hooked. Gallo and his wife, Salena, resolved to build their green home on a lot they bought in Minneapolis.

Little did they know that shepherding a LEED-certified home from design to construction would turn out to be a learning process for everyone involved—from the homeowner to the sub-contractor.

“It was rewarding for us,” says Gallo. “It has a ripple effect [on our neighbors]. People are extremely curious. What do you mean by green? What does that entail?”

Building green requires paying a little bit more attention to detail, says Randy Hansell, senior green building consultant with Earth Advantage Inc., a non-profit in Portland, Oregon that runs green-building programs for builders and homeowners in the Northwest.

 “Because you’re building a little differently and using different materials and energy-efficient equipment, there is an effort upfront to incorporate a strategy to achieve the goal,” says Hansell.

The US Green Building Council (GBC) is set to launch LEED guidelines for homes (LEED-H) during its GreenBuild conference in Chicago this November. But more than 1,000 homeowners, like the Gallos, are ahead of the curve. They have participated in the GBC’s pilot project to build homes that will be certified as green homes by the council.

The LEED-H guidelines not only incorporate strategies of most existing green home building programs, such as Energy Star, but also require documentation and third-party verification prior to certification. Some of the guidelines include using natural ventilation, low-maintenance landscape design, and non-toxic building materials and furnishings.

In order to execute these green strategies, setting goals is key, says architect Jackie Millea of Shelter Architecture, the Minneapolis firm that designed the Gallos’ house.

“Doing a LEED project, you always have to come back to what your goals are,” says Millea. Some homeowners aim for the best possible indoor air quality by shelling out for the latest technology; others may have a tight budget. A truly green home, says Millea, has to be both environmentally and economically sustainable.

The Gallos saved cash—and turned up some fantastic finds—by asking around and surfing online in their search for building materials. The arched lamp shades in their open kitchen are made of recycled traffic lights. And a portion of the gym floor from a former country school house in a nearby Wisconsin town is now laid down on their bedroom.

As devotees to the green-living cause, the Gallos are ferociously hands-on. When the gym floorboards were shipped in, “we had to clean those by hands,” Jeff recalls.

However, building a sustainable house requires contractors who believe in green building. Many still find the relatively higher cost of green materials a major hurdle.

“For builders, it’s always a cost issue,” says Charlie Lomondo, an Arnold, Pennsylvania, contractor who is switching to more nontoxic materials due to his own health concerns. But he says he knows many of his colleagues prefer conventional building materials. “There’re some that are so entrenched in the way that they do things that you couldn’t change their mind with a hammer.”

After extensive searching, the Gallos settled on a contractor who had no experience in building homes—only remodeling them—because he embraced their green goals. Salena helped out, acting as project manager to ensure that the sub-contractors, who were also new to using green materials and building techniques, followed the couple’s plan.

 “With a green home,” says Jeff, “you need to take more ownership of it.”