Haute Tech Right At Home

Visitors to the Tech House in Sarasota are greeted by green gadgetry that delivers energy efficiency and environmentalfriendliness - a much-desired blend of form and function.

By JUDY STARK, Times Staff Writer Published April 15, 2006You can't see lots of the items that make the Tech House energy-efficient, hurricane-worthy and high-tech. They're inside the walls and ceilings: insulation, wiring, pest control, air filtration.

Even the things you can see are hidden in plain sight, evidence that living in a sustainably built home means no reduction in comfort or style. Among them:

* Solar pool-heating deck tiles. Water is piped under the tiles, where it absorbs warmth from the sun and returns to the pool. Free heat!

* A laundry room with reinforced concrete walls and ceiling - your hurricane safe room!

* A keyless entry system that "reads'' your fingerprint and, upon recognizing it, unlocks the door. Handy!

The Tech House, a joint venture of Sarasota-based Vision Homes of Southwest Florida and the Sarasota Home Builders Association, is also certified "green'' by the Florida Green Building Coalition. That designation is becoming the badge of honor among builders who want to appeal to buyers concerned about the environment, their kids' asthma and their utility bills.

But there's also something about this house that will appeal to builders. The Sarasota Green Building Resolution offers financial incentives to builders to go green. Expedited permitting, for starters: They'll get their permits in a matter of days rather than weeks. They'll get priority inspections during the building process. And they'll get a 50 percent reduction in the cost of building permits up to $5,000 per year per builder. This home is the first in Sarasota County to be built under the provisions of the resolution, which the county approved last year.

That's the kind of green that makes builders see green.

The Tech House is in a 72-homesite neighborhood called Trillium. With three bedrooms and a den in 2,684 square feet, and a three-car garage, it's priced at $889,000. The high-tech and energy-efficient features add $4,000 to $5,000 to the cost of the house, estimated Madai Ramirez, director of marketing, which homeowners can expect to recoup in lower energy bills.

It's not just buyers who have visited the house in the last month. Many who come are looking for ways to retrofit and remodel their existing homes. "And the energy-efficiency features are more important to them than the high-tech,'' Ramirez said. "Energy efficiency is top of mind.''

Visitors are familiar with the idea of green building, "and they ask a lot more detailed questions,'' Ramirez said.

That was true in Hillsborough County a few weekends ago when Nohl Crest Homes opened its green model, the Windermere, at FishHawk Ranch. About 1,600 people toured the home the first weekend, "and they surprised our salespeople with their knowledge and understanding of what it means to build a green house,'' said Judy Preston, Nohl Crest's vice president for marketing.

Just this week, Tampa officials met with environmental activists to explore ways to require that public buildings meet environmental standards and to create incentives for private builders who go green.

So this Tech House, like the Nohl Crest model, may be a house whose time has come. Other noteworthy features:

* The flapperless toilet. Instead of a tankful of water, there's a semicylindrical plastic tub inside the tank that dumps when you flush. Because the tank doesn't hold water all the time, there's no need for a flapper to create a tight seal. Flappers get unseated, they corrode, they leak, the toilet runs, water is wasted.

* A motion-activated garage venting system. When a car pulls in, or when you're out there painting or making sawdust, an exhaust fan automatically turns on to disperse fumes.

* Two 30-gallon water heaters, one for upstairs, one for down.

* Icynene foam insulation sprayed in the attic. Stand between the second-floor home theater and the bathroom and look into the cutout panel above. The insulation keeps the attic 30 degrees cooler than a comparable uninsulated attic, estimated Drew Smith of Two Trails in Sarasota, which promotes sustainable building. He certified the home for the green building coalition, of which he is a founder. He says the attic is only 4 to 5 degrees warmer in summer than is the rest of the house. (Check out your own attic, by contrast.)

* Block walls injected with expanding foam insulation to increase their energy efficiency and deaden sound inside.

* Two air-conditioning systems with a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) value of 17.6; code minimum is 13.

* Water and air purification systems; in-wall pest-control treatments; hot water lines insulated from slab to wall (usually insulation stops at the slab).

* Wiring for a permanent generator to provide hurricane power-outage backup.

There are high-tech toys as well. In the home theater, one button lowers the lights, rolls down the shades and starts the show. The whole-house sound system allows everyone to hear the same music, or occupants can choose what they want to hear in different rooms.

That fingerprint-reader keyless entry system, installed here at the garage, could just as easily be at the front door (www.ekeyUSA.com). Yes, it's a cool toy, but handy for kids who lose keys and forget codes, people with limited use of their hands who have trouble with keys and anyone burdened with bags and babies.

Their "gosh-wow'' factor aside, the value of some of these bells and whistles is that they can help residents live in their homes more easily now and stay there as they age.

To be certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition, builders must score a minimum of 200 points in eight categories: design, energy, water, site, health, materials, disaster mitigation and general.

Vision was "90 percent of the way there,'' Smith said, when he talked to them about certifying the home. "I find that most of the builders I talk to now don't realize how close they are'' to attaining the score they need. They get 100 points for fulfilling the requirements of the statewide energy code, and can earn additional points for such things as adding a ceiling fan or more insulation or drought-tolerant landscaping. (The yard here is certified Florida-friendly by the Florida Yards and Gardens program, and there's a rain barrel to recycle stormwater runoff.)

Smith is working now with names familiar in the Tampa Bay building community - Hannah Bartoletta Homes and Marc Rutenberg Homes - on plans for green homes. "Once builders start building green, they generally do it across the board, in all their houses,'' Smith said. Training of trades and increased buying power of sustainable building materials are other considerations in deciding to go all-green.

Judy Stark can be reached at (727) 893-8446 or stark@sptimes.com.