Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rural Housing Issue to the Forefront

Ecoterror attack brings rural housing issue to the forefront
By Jeff Switzer, Herald Writer

When ecoterrorists torched a pocket of multimillion-dollar luxury houses near rural Echo Lake, it highlighted an ongoing debate in Snohomish County over how to keep suburbia from shifting into the rural areas.The county is considering stricter limits on the number of houses built in rural areas, and might require builders to preserve and replant trees when constructing new neighborhoods on the county's scenic back roads.The rules target rural cluster subdivisions, where houses are built close together and large swaths of open space around them are preserved.The Street of Dreams, struck by arson, was part of a future 48-house rural cluster near Maltby called Quinn's Crossing.A banner left at the Street of Dreams arsons said "McMansions in RCDs r not green," believed to be a criticism of rural cluster developments.

In these projects, large homes often are built on suburban-style lanes and cul de sacs instead of being more spread out on traditional rural homesteads.The arsons raise the profile of the debate, but don't push the county toward any course of action, County Council chairman Dave Somers said."We can't respond to terrorist attacks," Somers said. "We need to do what's right for the county."The fires "make it much harder to take a reasoned look at land-use," Somers said. "It detracts from the debate about what is appropriate in terms of rural and urban development."

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Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tiny House Cramps Style?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Enlarge this photo


This 230-square-foot rental on Lake Union used to house your columnist, who didn't feel especially confined.

Renting for $800 a month, it may not be the cheapest house in Seattle. But I bet it's the tiniest.

At 230 square feet, it's no bigger than some tool sheds. In fact, that's what it was before someone converted the wedge-shaped shack into a stand-alone home, complete with amenities of houses 10 times the size. It has a bathroom with a shower, a dishwasher, a four-burner stove, a pantry, built-in dressers. Even a closet.Seattle's Smallest House — I don't actually know if it's the very smallest, but the city planning department doesn't keep a list by size so I've decided to call it that until you readers prove otherwise — is so micro and oddly-shaped it's a bit of a tourist attraction.

At one end, in the kitchen, it's less than 5 feet wide. It sits on a dock on Lake Union. Duck Boat tour operators sometimes point it out as they gurgle by.

Whoever lives there becomes a Seattle curio. Strangers float by and lob questions. What's it like in that skinny place? Isn't it claustrophobic? What did you do with all your stuff — throw it in the lake?

I know all this because I used to live in Seattle's Smallest House. It was in the 1990s, when apparently I owned nothing bigger than a toaster. A friend called the other day to say it was for rent.

That espresso hut you used to live in is available, he said.

I went by and peered inside. Empty, it looks smaller than I remember. When I lived there I don't recall lacking for space. The walls never closed in. At 230 square feet it was plenty big to have guests over for dinner. Once I even hosted a Fourth of July party for two dozen (could they possibly have all come inside?).

Looking back it makes me wonder: Why are the rest of our houses — including the one I have now — so gargantuan?

Richard Waits, a 52-year-old furniture maker, has been mulling the same thing. He lives in a 10-by-12 cabin on Vashon Island. That's right — only 120 square feet (though it doesn't have a bathroom, so it isn't a complete house).

It was described in a rental ad as "tiny and magical." Waits says living small is cathartic. You free yourself of your junk. You spend little time cleaning. You don't use much energy.

He never feels cramped, except "when my four grown kids visit me all at once." To him it's the mega-mansion trend that seems freakish. And maybe temporary.

"Everything being huge is a part of our culture, but I think it's a part that's shifting," Waits said. "I would encourage everyone to try a little downsizing. Not just because you should, but because it feels good.

The house I live in now is 2,500 square feet — the U.S. average, but 11 times larger than Seattle's Smallest. Yes, I'm now married with two kids. But it's also true we have rooms nearly 230 square feet that we scarcely use.

When I was peeking in at Seattle's Smallest and its 3-foot-wide bathroom, I wondered: What if I moved back here, family in tow? Would we go crazy? Or could we fit?

I guess I'd go crazy. But there's a guy in California, Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., who sells and lives in 100-square-foot houses. He says that while micro is not exactly the new mega, the space you need truly is a state of mind.

"You can only take up 12 square feet at a time," he told American Profile magazine. "Everything beyond that is just elbow room."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

Hospitals GO Greener to Improve Bottom Line

Composting, recycling can cut their costs


Jim Overton admits he isn't very popular at home when his two daughters want to go somewhere.

From his Bothell home, he rides his bike the few miles to work as a registered nurse at Evergreen Medical Center in Kirkland -- and pretty much everywhere else he needs to go. So, he expects his girls, ages 13 and 10, to do the same or walk.

"I've tried to scale back on that and drive them places more," Overton said.

When he went to Evergreen 12 years ago, Overton was impressed that some of the hospital floors had recycling systems. But other floors didn't, and he discovered it was individuals making the effort.

So Overton began sending e-mails. First to co-workers, then to department heads and other hospital administrators, suggesting ways to do more. Last spring he formed the "Green Team," three registered nurses who met quarterly to develop environmental programs for the hospital. Now, 10 of his co-workers are members of the voluntary team.

Hospitals have long been seen as one of the top waste-producing industries. In 1998, the American Hospital Association and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed on goals to reduce the effect of health care facilities on the environment. The goals included nearly eliminating mercury-containing waste by 2005 and reducing hospital waste 50 percent by 2010.

Evergreen and other hospitals in the Seattle area are taking steps to not only protect the environment, but cut costs, as well.

Overton's "Green Team" expanded the hospital's battery recycling program and collected 1,200 pounds of batteries during the past year. The hospital also collects used and unused-but-opened medical supplies, such as oxygen and blood tubes considered "contaminated" under U.S. regulations. The supplies are sent to Third World countries where they are sterilized and reused for patients there.

The team put up more recycling signs and bins and got the hospital's recycling container emptied three times a week instead of two. Containers for used needles are sterilized and reused, instead of being thrown away with the needles.

Overton started an internal Web site so staff could learn to become more environmentally friendly.

The team gives a monthly "Green Stewardship Award" to a staff-nominated co-worker who gives extra effort to the hospital's environmental progress. Local restaurants donated gift certificates as prizes.

Other Seattle-area hospitals are improving their bottom line by going greener.

  • Virginia Mason Medical Center's cafeteria has no garbage cans, since 100 percent of the cafeteria's waste is recycled, said Steve Grose, administrative director for process improvement. The hospital composts 750 pounds of food a day instead of grinding it in garbage disposals, which had needed 4,000 gallons of water a day. The water savings pays for the bags and composting, he said. In January, Virginia Mason began recycling 70 percent of the plastic used in about 70 surgeries a day.

    The hospital hopes to eventually eliminate garbage cans throughout the hospital and recycle everything.

  • The University of Washington Medical Center recently started a paper-shredding program with Weyerhaeuser that the hospital estimates will save $70,000 a year. Surgical instruments are now disinfected with a less hazardous chemical. In 2006, the medical center began buying 100 percent renewable energy from Seattle City Light, which cost the hospital an extra $40,000 a year, but was worth the added expense, said hospital officials.

    In two years, a water reuse system at UW Consolidated Laundry has saved 12 million gallons of water for a cost saving of $140,000 in water and $79,000 in natural gas.

  • Swedish Medical Center estimates saving more than $ 1 million since 2001 by recycling, said Michael Smith, the hospital's waste compliance manager. Swedish eliminated blood pressure monitors containing about 180 pounds of mercury -- and recycles all paper, cardboard, metals, batteries, lamps and printer toner cartridges, he said.

    Food composting will begin at the end of March. It is working on a better way to dispose of expired medications and chemotherapy waste.

  • Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center recycled more than 40 tons of computer monitors in 2006 and composts food, saving about $8,000 on water a year. Using new technology for cleaning and sterilizing surgical instruments, which uses more high heat and steam, Children's saves 4,100 gallons of water per day and more than $18,000 per year.

    At Evergreen, Overton said even though progress has been slow, and the hospital hasn't kept records to compare its improvement, administration has been responsive to his efforts.

    Next week, he will propose a part-time position dedicated to making the hospital greener. He has been voluntarily implementing the current programs in his spare time.

    "I call it baby steps -- you come up with an idea and you don't hear back right away," Overton said. "They're business people and that's their first focus when it comes to the hospital. I'm passionate about health care, but I'm also passionate about the environment."

  • P-I reporter Cherie Black can be reached at 206-448-8180 or Read her To Your Health blog at

    Selling Green Homes Isn't Golden Yet!

    (Photo from the Washington Post)

    Builders who are adding increased efficiency and eco-friendly features into homes attract lookers but not many buyers.

    More builders are adding "green" features to their new homes. It is a strategy born out of necessity.

    In October, the Trilogy division of Shea Homes rolled out a program dubbed Shea Superiology for its 1,500 to 2,000 new homes this year. The homes will have environmentally friendly features such as increased insulation and energy-efficient electronic appliances. KB Home this year also began including appliances awarded the federal Energy Star rating for high energy efficiency as standard in homes, even though they cost more than those without the designation. And Pulte Homes Inc. is adding more insulation and energy-saving appliances at some of its subdivisions in the southwestern U.S.

    Interest in green homes was high at the International Builders Show in Orlando, Fla., where the National Association of Home Builders declared Feb. 14 "Green Day" and announced a national green building program that enables builders to achieve certifications they can advertise to the public. The numerous environmental sessions included: "Ride the Green Wave or Be Swept Away."

    The push for environmentally friendly construction comes as the housing industry remains mired in a deep and protracted slump, with single-family housing starts off more than a third from 2005 and widely expected to keep sliding this year. To stand out from the crowd, big home builders are going green for the first time or are expanding their existing programs -- a departure from previous practice, when environmentally friendly building was mainly limited to a niche of smaller builders. But results so far are mixed: some developments report increased traffic but no pickup in sales. Other builders say sales are on the upswing but it is too early to tell whether it is at a faster pace than their comparable, nongreen developments. And the higher cost of green construction is proving a hurdle for some companies.

    Overall, as much as 10 percent of all housing starts, at a market value of $38 billion, are expected to include environmentally friendly construction by 2010 -- up from 2 percent of starts, or $7.4 billion, last year, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The trend is also getting a boost from the federal government: The Department of Housing and Urban Development has in the last year sponsored "concept homes" in Omaha, Neb., and Charleston, S.C., that include various green features.

    "We definitely think (green building is) a selling point, and we think it's here to stay," says Jeffrey Mezger, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based KB Home, which built about 23,000 homes last year.

    There is some evidence that the green push is working. In KB's Orlando division, for instance, officials say 35 percent more buyers have opted for upgrades such as better-insulated rooftops and higher-efficiency washing machines since the program started.

    Consumers have also responded favorably to Shea Homes' new green program. Although sales prices of the homes with environmentally friendly features run 3 percent to 4 percent higher than those of comparable properties, buyers told the Scottsdale, Ariz., builder in surveys that they would be willing to pay more for a green home in return for energy savings. In one Phoenix-area subdivision, Encanterra, Trilogy officials say they have sold 83 homes since opening it in November, or twice as fast as the local market.

    And in California, OCR Solar and Roofing Inc., a contractor that installs solar panels, says that at least two of its builder customers switched to making solar power a standard feature rather than an upgrade when they were each midway into building tracts in Northern California late last year.

    But home builders face substantial financial hurdles. KB Home, for instance, posted a 32 percent drop in revenue to $6.4 billion in 2007, and analysts expect revenue to decline 41 percent this year. A spokeswoman for Shea's Trilogy, a unit of J.F. Shea Co., Walnut Creek, Calif., says it is too early to compare sales against nongreen Shea homes.

    Among other obstacles, green building can be costly. Industry experts figure that features such as energy-efficient appliances and better insulation can add 3 percent to 5 percent to the cost of a home. Ed Nardi, president of Cresset Group, is constructing three condominium projects in the Boston area with features including thicker windows and less power-consuming heating and air-conditioning systems. But he says the Boston market is so soft that his company is unable to pass on its added 2 percent to 3 percent costs for going green.

    Such costs have taken a toll. Pardee Homes, a Seattle-based builder that is owned by forest-products giant Weyerhaeuser Co., is backing off a green program it started last year to include Energy Star appliances as a standard feature in its homes. It costs about $50 more for an Energy Star dishwasher than a conventional model. Dan Fulton, Weyerhaeuser's president, cites falling home prices for the move, although he stressed the company remains committed to an overall green strategy.

    Environmentally friendly building doesn't always result in immediate new sales. At its 78-home Timber Creek development in Las Vegas, which opened in April, Pulte Homes had retrofitted in January the models to be certified as green under local green building standards. Features include ultraefficient air conditioners, dual-pane windows with a metallic coating that blocks out the sun's heat and low-flow toilets.

    The Bloomfield Hills, Mich., builder says visitor traffic to the development has since increased, with customers drawn in part by estimated monthly savings of $60 to $80 on their power bills because of increased insulation in the Nevada heat. Still, Pulte officials say it is too early to tell what impact the move will have on sales; to date, 50 of the homes in the Las Vegas development have sold.

    Overall, Pulte remains on a downward track, with analysts expecting another 27 percent drop in revenue this year after a 35 percent decline in 2007 to $9.3 billion.

    Meanwhile, some environmentalists accuse builders of hypocrisy in labeling homes as environmentally friendly. Authorities suspect ecoterrorism in fires Monday that gutted three homes and damaged two others under construction in a Seattle suburb where the builder was promoting the green practices used in constructing them. The development in Woodinville, Wash., had been opposed by some residents and environmentalists for being too close to sensitive areas like a pristine stream.

    Nonetheless, a whole cottage industry has sprung up to help builders design green. Hilltribe Homes, an Ontario, Canada, green designer, said that after starting business in December, it has signed a contract of approximately $500 million to provide services for a development of 6,500 green homes in Victoria, B.C.

    Meanwhile, Cherokee Investment Partners, a private-equity fund in Raleigh, N.C., in December opened a show home that has been certified by the builders' association as the first green home built in an existing development. Officials of the equity fund, which specializes in socially-responsible investments, say they built the five-bedroom, $500,000 home with traditional-looking designs to show other builders it could be done.

    Among its features: a wheat kitchen cabinet coated with a cherry veneer, and solar shingles that match the look of shingles of older homes in the neighborhood. Jonathan Philips, senior director for the firm, has moved into the home and says builders from all over the country have come to tour it.

    "This green revolution is coming, whether the builder likes it or not," says Ed Sullivan, chief economist for the Portland Cement Association, an industry trade group based in Skokie, Ill. "The consumer wants it."