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Practically green
A Baltimore builder and developer have a mission to prove that environmentally conscious homes can be affordable homes.
By Laura Wexler
Photographed by Kirsten Beckerman

In December 2004, Ben Forstenzer experienced every homeowner’s worst nightmare: his house burned down, leaving little more than his guitar and computer to salvage from the wreckage. Within a month, Forstenzer had not only decided to rebuild, but to rebuild green. “I thought, if I’m going to be putting something back up, I want to be responsible,” says Forstenzer, an ACLU education advocate and saxophonist for the Baltimore AfroBeat Society, who lives on a secluded lot off Greenspring Avenue in Woodberry that backs up to the Jones Falls watershed.

Many builders would have set Forstenzer’s modest budget— $250,000 for a 2,700-square-foot home— against his desire to build an environmentally conscious house and declared the idea impossible. But Prescott Gaylord and Brad Rogers, founders of Baltimore Landmark Homes and Baltimore Green Construction, saw the project as an embodiment of their mantra: “practical, affordable green.” “I reject out of hand the theory that green equals more expensive,” says Gaylord, a 33-year-old Lauraville resident with a background in environmental consulting and management.

Like anyone on a budget, Forstenzer had to rank the priorities that would guide his home’s design— natural light and flexible living space were his top choices. But he also underwent an additional decision-making process: deciding upon his home’s green features. Early on, his wish list was long— recycled cardboard interior walls instead of dry wall, recycled cotton carpets, walls of windows and a solar water heater on the roof— but budget constraints forced him to whittle down to fundamentals.

One of Forstenzer’s most basic wishes was to build his home without wood framing. Through his Web-surfing, he discovered structural insulated panels (SIPS), which sandwich tightly packed Styrofoam between two strand boards, creating walls that are both sturdy and extremely well-insulated. But Forstenzer wasn’t keen on Styrofoam— he’d prioritized building with renewable resources— so Gaylord and Rogers went in search of an alternative. Their research— a big part of the green building process involves uncovering products and techniques that haven’t entered the mainstream yet— led them to a Texas company that manufactures a product called Agriboard, which uses wheat straw (the remains after the edible part of the plant is harvested) as the insulating core for the panels. It was more expensive than typical SIPS— given that only one company manufactures it— but the extra money was worth it to Forstenzer. 

Another of his key priorities was avoiding vinyl siding. He’d seen a documentary that investigated the effects of the chemicals in vinyl and that, combined with the fact that his sister was a cancer survivor, made him leery. Gaylord and Rogers suggested fiber-cement siding, which is made of cement, sand and recycled cellulose fibers and is extremely durable. Forstenzer’s last basic green choice was an on-demand water heating system, which saves energy by only heating water when it’s needed. The initial outlay was several hundred dollars more than a conventional water heater, but in time, the unit’s increased energy efficiency will pay for itself.

Just over a year after his home burned down, Forstenzer moved into a new house on the same site. If you didn’t know his home was green, you wouldn’t guess by looking. You can’t see the SIPS packed with straw— they’re covered with dry wall and painted a warm yellow. Outside, the fiber-cement siding is painted a rustic blue-gray and looks like clapboard. And the on-demand water heating system is tucked in the basement. Bamboo floors and a kitchen countertop made from recycled wall tiles and an old chalkboard are the only visible hints of green design.

But the fact that the house doesn’t “scream green” is, according to Gaylord and Rogers, exactly their point. “Green is not all things, all the time,” says Rogers, a 32-year-old Radnor Winston resident with a background in urban planning and smart growth. “It’s working with where you are and what your priorities are.”

As evangelists for the affordable green home, Gaylord and Rogers have a plan for converting Baltimore’s masses that goes far beyond building custom houses like Forstenzer’s one by one. They’re creating a handful of pilot projects they hope will grab public attention.

In late February, the partners broke ground on a Patterson Park rowhouse they’re renovating in partnership with The Loading Dock, a local nonprofit building materials reuse facility, in which they’ll use only reclaimed materials— everything from tiles to flooring to studs. “We liked their motto— ‘you can build a house out of what other people throw away’— and we wanted to put it into action,” says Gaylord.

He and Rogers also are designing a clerestory tower to be implemented in green renovations of rowhouses. “The clerestory works to do three environmentally sensitive things all at once. One, it lights the stairwell in both floors of the house. Two, it acts as a thermal siphon for passive solar cooling, pulling hot air up and venting it out,” says Gaylord. “Third, we’re installing a solar batch water heater in the southern slope of the clerestory.”

Within a few months, Rogers and Gaylord will put up for sale a 1,000-square-foot bungalow in Hampden that underwent a green renovation. “It has a big front yard for a garden, an open floor plan with efficient space design, excellent insulation, skylights to bring in natural light, a corn stove— they won’t even have to use gas to heat the house,” says Rogers. “Small homes are a hot thing that no other builder seems to be pursuing here. They’re inherently green.”
Gaylord is also the builder for Herring Run Watershed Association’s new environmental education building in Belair-Edison, which has registered for the U.S.

Green Building Council’s silver certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and, once complete, will be the “greenest” commercial building in the city. Among its many green features, the building will capture storm water on its roof— which will be a green roof— and pipe it into the building to be used for nonpotable interior use.

Recently Gaylord and Rogers moved from their cramped quarters in a storefront on The Avenue in Hampden to a three-story rowhouse they purchased a few blocks east. There they’ll house their development and construction businesses, along with City Life Realty, whose agents will soon be certified ecobrokers able to educate homebuyers about a range of green living features, from energy-saving appliances to public transit options.

City Life Realty works chiefly in Baltimore City, believing that “urban living is green living,” says Rogers. “Our mission is to introduce people to a wide variety of neighborhoods— not just the hot ones— as a way of filling in existing homes and planting people in a permanent way.”

For now, Gaylord and Rogers’ biggest project— their green dream, so to speak— is in the proposal stage: a development in Station North called Banneker Square that features 16 three-bedroom artist live-work units built from recycled metal and reclaimed shipping containers and costing about $220,000 each.
“I hope in five years to not be on the cutting edge of building,” says Gaylord. “I hope all builders are building with practical green techniques for all of their projects. Baltimore should expect it— not be overwhelmed by it.”

Baltimore Landmark Homes, Baltimore Green
Construction and City Life Realty are located at 814 W. 36th St., 410-889-3193, http://www.baltimoregreenconstruction.com

 

MARCH/APRIL 2007

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