The United States has 5 percent of the world's population, but consumes 22.8 percent of the world's energy, more than any other nation, according to the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington scientific think tank. Household power accounts for nearly a quarter of this usage.
That said, building with the environment in mind is among the fastest-growing trends in home construction today.
"As any industry crosses from being less involved to more involved, it means the rest of the industry will be forced to follow, and the green homes of today will become the standard homes of tomorrow," Harvey Bernstein, vice president of industry analytics and alliances of McGraw-Hill Construction, wrote in the June Residential Green Building SmartMarket Report, a joint National Association of Home Builders and McGraw-Hill study. Bernstein said green building will reach a "tipping point" this year.
With the effects of global warming looming large, Americans are becoming more aware of the impact their lifestyles have on the environment and the planet as a whole. Second-home buyers are no exception.
"At my city apartment, I don't have any say when it comes to the type of appliances, windows or other major factors that impact energy use or the environment," said Scott Nally, a Jersey City native living in Manhattan who is building a "green" second home using reclaimed materials on a remote lot he purchased several years ago in the Poconos. "Up until now, my ecologically conscious choices were limited to energy-saving light bulbs, biodegradable cleaning products and organic foods."
Nally, who concedes he was "anything but a tree-hugger" until environmental concerns recently became mainstream issues, said that he is now committed to living off the grid - his finished home will have no public utility connections. "At a time when environmentalism is fueled as much by financial considerations as by an earnest interest in helping the environment and being socially responsible, I'm skeptical about whether the trend will last."
Although there is no doubt that a new environmental revolution is under way and many homeowners and home builders have jumped on the bandwagon, skeptics like Nally cite the short-lived push toward solar energy in the 1970s triggered by skyrocketing oil prices and undermined by their subsequent drop. Others point to the higher initial costs of green construction - generally 11 percent to 25 percent more than conventional construction - considering most home buyers are unwilling to "pay now to save later."
Despite skepticism, energy-efficient building will likely continue to gain favor as the residential construction industry scrambles to put its marketing machine to work to capitalize on the trend, all in the interest of the other green: increasing profit margins.
Terms like "eco" and "sustainable" are trendy in the corporate world and mainstream developers have begun emphasizing green features in their homes - from energy-efficient windows and appliances to low-flow toilets and showerheads - as concerns about energy prices grow and housing sales remain flat.
Michelle Kaufmann, a Princeton-educated former apprentice to Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, who built the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is on a mission: to make green architecture accessible and affordable to the masses.
Kaufmann, who founded the environmentally friendly home design company Michelle Kaufmann Designs in 2002, practices what she preaches. She and her husband, eco-builder Kevin Cullen, constructed their own Glidehouse - an allusion to the home's many sliding doors and sunshades that regulate light and temperature - on a small lot in the bucolic town of Novato, Calif. The Glidehouse is now one of five sustainable, highly efficient modular home models the company sells.
Not to be confused with the poorly built, trailer-style homes usually associated with the term "prefab," Kaufmann's designs are quality creations, incorporating eco-conscious offerings such as solar power, bamboo flooring and recycled-glass tiles. The houses can be customized to buyers' preferences, taking into account desired amenities and square footage. (Kaufmann's houses cost between $185 and $250 per square foot, depending on the model and location.)
The size of green second homes can be a hot-button issue. Buyers often want to build big, preferring more spacious retreats, but those passionate about environmental protection say smaller houses are more environmentally responsible. Larger homes require more building materials, occupy more space, and use more energy.
Some environmentalists feel no second home can truly be eco-friendly. Last year, Richard Faesy, who oversees the New York and New England pilot program for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, told the New York Times, "The greenest second home is one that is never built."
"I don't agree with that. I think it's unrealistic and a bit extreme," Nally says. "People are always going to have the desire to own second homes. In my mind, it's more about doing whatever you can to make a difference."
"Even a small change in habits or lifestyle can have a positive impact on our world."
On the Web
For more information:
U.S. Green Building Council
The U.S. Department of Energy
Michelle Kaufmann Designs
The National Geographic's Green Guide
Green Homes For Sale
Got a second home story you'd like to share? E-mail Shannon Roxborough at ForeignPassport@aol.com