Not Easy Being Green? 

Uptown, Memphis' much-lauded experiment in New Urbanism and public-private partnership, was designed with lush, common green space. But soon, with help from the FedEx Institute of Technology, Uptown is going to get a little greener.

FIT's new Center for Sustainable Design is planning to build a model "green" house in the area, meaning it will be more energy efficient and meet higher environmental standards.

"In the 20-plus years that I've been an architect, I think this 1,500-square-foot house will be one of the most important projects I've worked on," says Jim Lutz, the director of the center and the architecture professor spearheading the project. "Energy costs are predicted to go up 70 percent this winter. That will have a huge impact on every American but especially lower-income Americans."

Sustainable design focuses on how to do more -- how to build, heat, cool, and light -- in a world with diminishing non-renewable resources.

"Energy is a big part, but we're also talking about the building materials themselves," says Lutz. "What are you using for the walls? For the floor? What was the energy source used to create them? Can they be recycled? Can they be re-used?"

Lutz's seminar students will be involved in every step of the project, from the planning to the building. Currently, the group is researching building materials, something Lutz calls "backing into" the project.

"It's a different mindset from most architects. Usually, it's here's the plan; what will we use for siding? What is the floor surface? What's the roofing? Now we're doing the opposite," says Lutz. "We're designing around those."

Every decision has a potential impact, even down to the landscaping in the front yard. Are the plants indigenous to the area? If not, they might need more water to grow.

"This is a bad place for allergies," says Lutz. "Even the plants we select for outside can make a difference."

Under U.S. Green Building Council standards, "green" projects should use materials that are manufactured or produced within a 500-mile radius, but the students are looking for materials within a 100-mile radius of Memphis.

"It makes sense that if something originates in your backyard, there's probably a good reason to use it. We have to find out what those products are," says Lutz. In addition to lower transportation costs, less energy is used in transporting materials to the site.

One local product that might be used is a photovoltaic panel, which converts solar energy into usable energy. Memphis' Sharp plant in South Memphis is the country's largest producer of the panels.

And unlike some environmentally friendly products, a green house doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing style.

"We want it to fit in with the rest of the houses in the Uptown project. I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have is that if it's energy-efficient it has to look like it landed from another planet," says Lutz. "We're trying to build an entry-level, market-rate house that looks like your neighbor's but is 30 to 50 percent more energy-efficient."

In early November, FIT's Center for Sustainable Design held a trade show featuring green building materials, equipment, and systems.

"It's not just for our use but for local architects, interior designers, homeowners," says Lutz. "We'll save them the legwork. It we make it easier, people might be more inclined to use the information."

Call it the greenhouse effect, but I hope people take advantage of Lutz's research. The general climate seems to be changing in favor of environmentally friendly products. And I mean the actual climate. Last week, we saw record-high temperatures and people wearing shorts. I don't know if you attribute that to global warming or just a fashion anomaly, but I think it's a little scary. Not to mention all the natural disasters of the past year. It's beginning to make science fiction look like science fact.

The Center for Sustainable Design's single-family residence should be finished by early 2007 and will remain on display for about six months. After the house is sold, Lutz' team will continue to monitor it for a year to study how its materials and systems hold up.

"We're focusing on doing this at the entry level," says Lutz. "A few years ago, Vesta [Home Show] showcased a house that dealt with the same issues, but it cost $1 million. When you've got deep pockets, some of these things are easier to do. We're trying to make it happen for people on a budget."

That's the kind of green we can all understand.

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