RALEIGH — Jonathan Philips was quietly designing a normal suburban house with his wife when his boss caught wind of the project and pounced on the blueprints.
"We hijacked the process," joked Tom Darden, chief executive of Raleigh-based Cherokee Investment Partners, a private equity firm focused on redeveloping polluted land. "They were going to build it anyway."
The family ended up with a statuesque 4,300-square-foot brick house in north Raleigh, but one that hides a high-tech laboratory in energy efficiency.
The driveway recycles 95 percent of rain runoff. The heating system warms water flowing under solar-paneled roof shingles. The kitchen cabinets are made of pressed cornstalk, the countertops of recycled glass and the hardwood floors of logs dredged from the Cape Fear River.
To the environmentalist, it's salivating. But to the casual homebuyer, it's Martha Stewart living.
There's nary a hint to the casual observer that beneath the exterior of bricks — fired locally in a kiln powered by sawdust — is a home built using nearly every imaginable green tool available to the environmentally conscious homebuilder.
"We know, if we want to have mainstream green building in our lifetime, we can't ask people to drastically change the way they live," said Philips, Cherokee Investments' senior director who quickly became a co-conspirator in the overhaul of his home's plans. "There are so many areas where we can make changes by combining sustainability and luxury living."
Cherokee, which is a financial partner in the 450-acre Magnolia redevelopment plan in North Charleston and the smaller Midtown revitalization project on upper King Street in Charleston, hopes the house proves such technology is cost effective and easily adopted by large-scale developers.
It also might serve as an empirical example to banks that spending more on green building pays off by saving energy, conserving water and creating less waste.
"They need to know that at the end of the day, they have a better asset if they have a green building," said Dave Williams, president of Shorebank Pacific, a Washington-based commercial bank focused on sustainable development. "That's a bit of a stretch for traditional bankers to think about. We're seeing it starting to happen, but I say we're in the very earliest stages."
Nationwide, only about 3 percent of homes have been certified green by a local home building organization's standards, though percentages are much higher in some parts of the county, particularly in the West, said Calli Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders.
The number is growing. The U.S. Green Building Council, which operates the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design energy-efficiency program, has certified only 400 homes on its strict, four-tiered scale. But there are more than 10,000 in the pipeline, which is three times as many as last year, said council spokeswoman Ashley Katz.
Building green generally adds anywhere from 1 percent to 10 percent to the cost of a conventional home, Schmidt said. "The big-ticket items are new appliances, solar panels, a green roof — but there's payback," she said, specifically citing lower utility bills. "You can also do some small things, and some make a huge difference."
Philips' home takes green building to an extreme — it even includes redundant heating and other systems aimed at showing off everything that's possible. He acknowledges the house probably cost 25 percent more than other homes in his neighborhood.
"It's over and above what any normally motivated person would do, but there are individual parts of it that would be very rational to do," Darden said.
Large windows, the leaky culprit of most home energy loss, illuminate the entire first floor even in the fading afternoon sun. The manufacturer of the argon gas-filled windows claim the panes are 35 percent more efficient in the winter and 41 percent in the summer.
Special plumbing captures cold water usually lost from faucets and shower heads while waiting for it to heat and returns it to the water heater. A pipe drilled 300 feet into the ground allows air into the house that stays about 56 degrees year-round, allowing cool air into the house during humid North Carolina summers and takes less energy to heat during the winter.
Outside, native and drought-resistant plants minimize irrigation needs. Trees were placed to block afternoon sun during the summer, but allow more light into the house during the winter when the leaves fall.
The house even generates enough electricity to power itself and sell 450 kilowatt hours back to the power grid each month, enough electricity to power an average family home for more than a week. Progress Energy said it is the second most productive energy-generating house in the state.
"I really think this is going to be a revolution in thinking about environmental issues and the environmental impact of our lives," Darden said.