The Mark Twain Museum in Hartford was the first building in Connecticut to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and the first LEED-certified museum in the United States. The construction of such environmentally friendly “green” buildings is becoming an increasingly popular trend.

Twenty years ago, only people in a handful of states thought twice before throwing away an aluminum can or a glass bottle. Five years ago, trips to the gas pump were often and expensive for almost all Americans who owned cars.

Today, recycling is almost universal in this country – with people placing plastic bins filled with bottles, cans and cardboard on their curbs once a week – and hybrid cars are becoming increasingly popular and resulting in fewer trips to the gas station.

For many architects and builders, the next frontier of environmentalism is in the home. But beyond saving the environment, energy-efficient, “green-built” homes can save their owners money and provide cleaner indoor air quality. The trend hasn’t totally caught on yet, but architects and builders are betting it will and are educating themselves in the different aspects of green building.

“As an architect, I’m mostly interested in creating healthier environments for people to live in,” said Ashli Slawter, an architect at KV Designs in Old Saybrook.

Green building includes many components. Some, such as using Energy Star appliances to cut down on energy usage and slash utility bills, are fairly well established. But green building starts with the design of a residential or commercial building, where an architect takes into account the site. Tree and plant placements and the angle of the sun can help a building stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, without turning the thermostat up or down.

Building a green home also can help improve indoor air quality. By selecting materials that have low levels of volatile organic compounds – which are suspected of causing some health problems – the air can be kept cleaner, especially in a building that is tightly sealed to conserve energy.

Other aspects of green building include selecting materials that last longer than the natural wood to which most people are accustomed. Some of those materials can save money by requiring less maintenance and can extend the life of a house. There are also materials that are environmentally friendly like engineered wood, which is a composite of lumber yard leftovers. Fast-growth wood, like bamboo, is also better for the environment.

Getting the Word Out

Slawter, along with several other Connecticut architects and builders, attended a seminar on green building at last week’s Build Boston Residential Design 2005 conference in Boston.

The presenters of the seminar, “Negotiating a Green Mindset,” identified some reasons why homebuyers, builders and architects might be reluctant to use green design. Slawter talked about some of those issues, such as cost concerns, at the seminar.

“Usually what holds people back is if it costs more,” Slawter said in a later interview.

People will pay what they can afford and might be reluctant to invest in improvements like better windows, which can cut down on energy usage.

“It’s really cost-driven,” Slawter said.

Barry Rosa, the New Homes and Land Division director and vice president at Prudential Connecticut Realty, has seen the same trend.

“I haven’t seen a wholesale adoption of green building in Connecticut,” he said.

Much of the reason for that lies in the cost. Alternative materials can be two or three times as expensive as traditional materials and builders have to ask themselves if a buyer would be willing to cover that cost when buying the home. The answer is often no, Rosa said.

Some new materials, like laminates, also look different from what most buyers are used to, Rosa said. He added that he has seen homebuyers mistake laminates for particle board and think it was a cheap material, rather than a more expensive, superior material.

But overall, buyers are becoming more educated on green building, thanks in large part to the Internet, Rosa said.

“Buyers are generally better educated than they were two years ago,” he said.

Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient design is easier for homebuyers to understand, largely because they realize it will save them money in the long run. But awareness about new materials and new technology in building is going up, he said.

“People are trying to get the word out on that,” Rosa said.

Slawter also thinks green building – just like hybrid cars or wearing a seatbelt – will get more popular.

“As energy costs go up and people get more in tune to it, you’ll see [green building] more,” she said.

Green design is also something that is a fairly new subject in architecture school. Most architects who are 40 years old and younger learned about it in school and are leading the industry in that area.

“We have a pretty good understanding of it,” Slawter said. “Younger architects are sort of driving the bus on this … It’s something that architects are slowly going to slide into.”

Builders are also learning more about green building. The National Association of Home Builders recently released a general set of standards for green building, and the Home Builders Association of Connecticut will explore the possibility of writing state standards this summer, according to Bill Ethier, executive vice president of the Connecticut association.

There is also a bill on the table at the state Senate that would require certain state-financed construction projects to meet or exceed the Silver Rating of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s rating system. The U.S. Green Building Council developed the LEED program to provide a framework for assessing building performance.

There are between 30 and 40 LEED-certified buildings in Connecticut, noted Bob Maddox of the Connecticut Green Building Council. The first was the Mark Twain Museum in Hartford. The museum was also the first LEED-certified museum in the country.

This is the fourth year there has been a bill regarding green building before the Legislature, and this year it looks like it might move forward, Maddox said.

“It just might pass this year,” he noted.

Maddox’s organization is also working to promote green building in Connecticut. The Connecticut Green Building Council was founded in 2001 to promote energy efficient, high-performance homes. The council most recently launched a schools initiative, an attempt to get Connecticut’s schools greener. The initiative is funded by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.

Like Slawter and Rosa, Maddox thinks green building will start to catch on more in the state and the country.

“Connecticut was a little slow to get started, but it’s playing catch-up,” Maddox said.

The ABC television program “Extreme Home Makeover” recently featured a green-built home and exposure like that will help to educate consumers, said Maddox, who has lived in a green home himself since 1994. He opens his house for home shows and generally gets a good response from people on the tour.

“People love it,” he said.