Practically green

Small is beautiful — and green.

And Barry Bialik’s “compact cottages” lend visceral meaning to the concept of shrinking your carbon footrpint.

“Everyone’s fascinated by tiny houses,” says the south Asheville resident. And if some “green building” amounts to a mere marketing strategy, Bialik notes, he provides a pedigree. “We can build to NC HealthyBuilt-certified standards. It’s like you can get the same dog by going to the pound, or you can pay a little extra [$1,000 buys the certification process] and get the papers.”

A look at his company’s website, CompactCottages.com, reveals a range of options. “Our base cottage with everything runs in the mid-$50’s,” according to Bialik. Buyers can choose just a basic shell or an “almost done” structure including insulation, dry wall, doors, windows and electrical wiring.

Another local builder offering modest-sized dwellings is Bill MacCurdy of Sun Construction & Realty. MacCurdy has plans for an enclave of six 950-square-foot houses on teeny lots (one measures just 40 feet by 90 feet) in the Chicken Hill neighborhood. Each home will be certified HealthyBuilt and solar-ready.

Who’s buying these tiny houses? “First-time homebuyers, step-down buyers and people who are just fed up with how big everything has gotten,” Bialik reports. “They’re designed to be growable: A window can be converted to a doorway, and rooms can be added on.

“Once you’re prepared to live in a small house, 640 square feet is not as small as you think — it’s the size of a small apartment,” he notes. And at this scale, construction takes just 60 to 75 days from the time the permit is issued.

It seems one never knows what doors a micro-cottage may open. One first-time homebuyer on a tight budget wanted to purchase land in West Asheville. The owner was asking $25,000; the buyer had just $16,000 to offer. But when the seller heard about the plan to build a tiny house, Bialik recalls, he agreed to the lower price. “The guy had seen the compact cottages at my booth at S.E.E. Expo and thought it was a really good fit for that piece of land.”

Harnessing the sun’s power

At first glance, Ed and Vickie Hauser’s residence looks like a typical three-bedroom ranch. Yet a closer look reveals that it’s what green builders call a “net zero” home: Powered by a rooftop solar array, the house produces slightly more energy than it consumes.

For Ed, a retired environmental biology professor, it was a question of principle. “We wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and help defeat the progress of global warming,” he explains.

In 2003, the 2,100-square-foot home was designed for maximum energy efficiency, with a ground-source heating system, structural insulated panels for the walls, extensive insulation, careful sealing of doors and windows, and a vinyl energy wrap. Energy Star appliances, compact-fluorescent lights and a passive solar porch complete the picture, slashing energy costs by two-thirds compared with the comparable-sized condo they left behind.

Then, in 2007, the Hausers worked with Ben Yoke at Sundance Power Systems to design a photovoltaic system that would generate more electricity than they consume. The surplus is sold back to Progress Energy, bringing in about $2,100 per year, says Ed.

“The industry has evolved,” notes Yoke. “Ten years ago you couldn’t really interconnect to the grid in N.C. and do ‘net metering’ — not legally. Now you can, and most of the systems going in use the grid as if it’s a big battery. So his system produces an average of 26 kilowatt-hours per day, and his house consumes 25. On a cloudy day, his house is likely to produce less than it consumes, so he’ll draw off the grid.”

Although solar installations are becoming common locally, zero-carbon-footprint homes are still rare. “There are maybe three or four in Buncombe County,” says Yoke.

Still, Hauser is pleased with this shift in the industry. “The Clean Smokestacks Act and other political forces have pushed the energy companies to add [renewable] sources to the grid as an alternative.”

“If you have middle-class income or above and you’re building a house, most people can afford to do this,” says Yoke. “Your house might be a teeny bit smaller, [but] it pays itself off so quickly, it’s just become the thing to do. And the fact that this house makes more money than you spend on the power bill means you can spend more money on the mortgage,” rolling the additional front-end costs into your financing.

Ed predicts the extra investment will have paid for itself in nine to 10 years. “And I’m told I can sell the house [easily], with the demand from people looking for [green] homes in this price range.”

Nest Organics spotlights sustainable living

In the world of commerce, there’s greenwashing — products claiming sustainability when the veneer is pretty thin — and then there’s deep green, says Truly Ball, co-owner of Nest Organics.

She and her daughter, Sarah Easterling, launched the Lexington Avenue store about four years ago, showcasing extensively researched items with a high sustainability quotient. Ball, whose family has operated Ball Photo Supply here for decades, says her business “is the largest of its kind in the Southeast and unique in many ways. Most of our products people could only find online before we opened.”

The inspiration came when Sarah was preparing for the birth of her first child. “There were so many things that she couldn’t find,” Truly recalls. “She was spending her whole pregnancy on the computer, looking for [nontoxic] products for her babies and for her home.”

“We passionately support locally made products, and we carefully vet our vendors,” Truly explains. Consider the small company that makes their cotton crib mattresses. “The cotton is purchased and milled in S.C., and it’s certified organic. Every product has a history. We try to look at that history and see if it fits.

“A big part of our job is to educate people,” she reveals. “Greenwashing is huge; for just a few dollars more, you can get the real thing.”

To help bridge that gap, Nest Organics offers regular classes, including a “Nesting Party” that teaches parents-to-be how to diaper, swaddle and “wear” a baby, as well as chemicals to avoid.

Opening the store required a leap of faith: Truly mortgaged her home to get it going. “It’s definitely had its challenges, and we have to recalibrate all the time, but we’re doing OK.”

— Susan Andrew can be reached at 251-1333 ext. 153, or at sandrew@mountainx.com.

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