EarthCraft celebrates 10 years in green home building

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Monday, March 16, 2009

Samuel Matchett is not an outspoken environmentalist. He is not a smart-building expert. He just liked the way the house looked and felt when he decided to buy the first EarthCraft home in 1999.

In 10 years, EarthCraft House, a green-building program of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and Southface Energy Institute, has spread to six Southeast states. More than 5,200 EarthCraft homes have been built; 43 percent of them are in metro Atlanta.

Matchett, an attorney at King & Spalding, closed a door and the sound of a waterfall in the backyard disappeared. The three-story house was silent even though it’s in a busy part of Buckhead near Phipps Plaza.

“I’m not far from the street [Peachtree Road]. Have you heard any traffic?” he asked.

EarthCraft homes, familiar because of the stamp-like logo showing a house and a leaf, undergo testing to make sure they are airtight, which differentiates them from many other homes.

Leaky homes are inefficient and can have poor air quality. And they’re costly. Matchett saved an estimated $774 on his energy bill during the first year compared to a conventional home built at the same time, according to Southface.

Today, the savings would not be as great because building codes have improved thanks in part to green initiatives like EarthCraft. But EarthCraft homes are still considered 28 percent more efficient, Southface says.

The program was started after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contacted the National Association of Home Builders about creating standards for energy-efficient construction. As the nation’s largest home-building group at the time, the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association was awarded the job of coming up with a green-building template.

Pam Sessions, CEO of Hedgewood Properties, chaired the committee that led to EarthCraft, and her company built the first five EarthCraft homes, all next to each other on small lots in Buckhead.

“It became apparent it was as much about quality as the environment,” Sessions said. “You’re approaching construction as a system rather than independent components.” By closing gaps and installing proper ventilation, the only air entering and leaving an EarthCraft home should be by design.

In metro Atlanta, 128 active builders have been trained to build to EarthCraft standards, the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association says. That’s about 12 percent of the association’s builder members.

James Hackler, former director of EarthCraft House, said unlike other green-building programs in the country, EarthCraft has excelled at branding. “It really married the technical guts to the marketing,” Hackler said.

The word “craft,” for example, was chosen to emphasize craftsmanship, he said. And the brown-and-black logo resembles a stamp, which is easy to understand and remember.

David Ellis, executive vice president of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, said EarthCraft is a selling point and “in this environment builders are looking for an advantage, as are consumers.”

But that doesn’t mean EarthCraft homes are being snapped up while others are not in the downturn. Sessions said she has about 50 EarthCraft homes available for purchase. Her company used to employ 100 people full-time but is now down to “a handful,” she said.

Matchett bought his EarthCraft home because he was weary of commuting to Atlanta from DeKalb County outside the Perimeter.

He quickly sold his suburban house and lived in a Brookhaven apartment while trying to figure out where to buy his next home. While driving to work he saw the five Hedgewood Properties homes under construction and liked their “classical look.” It was only after he became serious about buying did he learn about EarthCraft.

“I like the idea of being sensitive to the environment and doing things in a smart way,” Matchett said. “And I was proud to be the first person to purchase an EarthCraft house.”

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