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Originally published Tuesday, March 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Homebuilders, critics disagree about what construction deserves environmental label

"Environmental excellence! " promised the signs that were posted in front of homes torched by arsonists, who left their own sign scoffing...

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Environmental excellence!" promised the signs that were posted in front of homes torched by arsonists, who left their own sign scoffing at the homes' supposed green credentials.

The developers were only one part of a green trend, used to sell everything lately — even mega-homes in subdivisions.

So-called green construction can bring a premium price, experts say — up to 5 percent more in large projects — so it's not hard to see the economic incentive. In Washington, total market share for green buildings is about 11 percent, including both the public and private sectors, and it's growing fast, said Rachel Jamison, green-building coordinator for the state Department of Ecology.

Jamison said the Street of Dreams homes were "very fine examples of the greenest of the green homes."

But experts caution that green building is a young industry, and it's still up to buyers to make sure they're really getting green.

There is no single standard for green construction. The state has its own standard for buildings built with public money. The Master Builders have a Built Green program in counties across the state. And there are many others, from Energy Star Homes Northwest to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings to construction blessed by the American Lung Association.

And the complexity grows from there. There's a whole other system for the materials used in green-certified buildings, such as lumber.

Aaron Adelstein, director of the Built Green program for King and Snohomish counties, sees plenty of confusion for consumers to sort out.

"This is just where organic food was 10 years ago, before there was a national standard," Adelstein said.

The homes torched Monday were certified under the Built Green program, and their ratings ranged from three to five stars, the high end. Points are awarded for factors from energy efficiency to indoor air quality, building materials and more.

Third-party certifiers verify that buildings rated under the program were constructed as advertised.

It's up to the builder to decide which points to pursue from a checklist of options to earn certification, and builders are free to skip some points altogether.

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Chris Mendoza, an environmental consultant in Olympia, sees a market ripe for manipulation.

"Anyone and their grandma can say they are green," he said.

The designer of one of the homes, Alan Mascord of Portland, said the house he designed — called the "Copper Falls" house — "was never intended to demonstrate the 'state of the art' in 'green' construction."

Instead, it was meant "to take a significant step toward environmentally friendlier construction by showing that even a dream home could be 'Built Green,' " he said in a statement.

Still, others criticized the idea of being able to put any kind of green label on a single-family home that approaches 5,000 square feet.

"If you ask me, 'Should you build a house this big?' I'd say no," said Rob Knapp, an expert on sustainable design at Evergreen State College.

Peter Goldman, a former King County prosecutor turned Seattle environmental lawyer, said he'd been frustrated enough with bogus environmental claims among green-certification systems for forest products to work with green forestry companies on a deceptive-advertising lawsuit.

But he sees no justification for the fire.

"I completely repudiate any act of any crime to make a political point," Goldman said.

"The future is an educated public making wise choices about what is truly green. You don't police the marketplace with arson."

Seattle Times reporter Amy Roe contributed to this story.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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