Pay zero in heating bills

Futuristic 'green' buildings are fighting global warming, offering perks to residents and workers, and, for some progressive homeowners, cutting power costs to nothing or almost nothing.

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By Ann Monroe, MSN Money

Amory Lovins lives 7,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. Winter temperatures there can drop to 40 degrees below zero.

His monthly heating oil bill? Zero. That's $0 -- no dollars and no cents.

It's not that Lovins doesn't use his furnace: He doesn't even have one. When it's really cold, he does use a couple of wood stoves, paying about $125 a year for wood.

His household electric bill? None. In fact, the power company pays him. How about carbon-dioxide emissions? The building is roughly carbon-neutral, Lovins says.

He is certainly not freezing. Far from it. He grows bananas and other tropical fruit in a greenhouse inside his home. Check out this house

How does he do it? It's a mix of technology, design and the right priorities.

Super-insulated windows (recently upgraded from the equivalent of 8 sheets of glass to that of 14) warm the house, and 16-inch insulated walls keep it that way. Extra-efficient appliances and lots of natural light mean that his solar panels produce much more electricity than $5 worth a month he needs. What does he do with the surplus? Sells it back to the power company.

And the kicker: Lovins' entire energy system cost only about $6,000 more than a standard household heating system would have cost. That extra investment paid for itself in less than a year.

Lovins built the house in 1983 to prove a point he's been preaching for decades: We don't need oil or nuclear power, and we don't need to give up our comforts, either. All we need to break our dependence on oil -- and stop global warming -- is thoughtful design, good technology and a bit of intelligent regulation. Slide show: America's 'greenest' buildings

What's more, he argues, far from being an economic threat, going "green" will spawn hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs, bringing us unprecedented economic prosperity.

Lovins is a Harvard-educated experimental physicist who has won widespread recognition, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (a so-called genius grant). More to the point, his ideas, once viewed as impossibly optimistic and utopian, are now being adopted by hardheaded organizations ranging from the Pentagon to Coca-Cola to Google. Indeed, the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit think tank that Lovins founded and runs, gets up to two-thirds of its income from consulting work for governments and corporations.

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And now, though Lovins' house is extraordinary, it's no longer unusual.

Green building -- creating structures with less impact on the planet -- is the hottest new topic in the real-estate industry. The U.S. Green Building Council established its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards just seven years ago, and already more than 16,000 projects in 69 countries and all 50 U.S. states have received or are aiming for LEED certification.

In New York City, at least two major building projects -- Bank of America's new office building near Times Square and the Visionaire apartment tower in Battery Park City -- are aiming for the bragging rights conveyed by a LEED Platinum certification, the highest possible. The Visionaire's predecessor, the Solaire, is a LEED Gold certified building. Green luxury? See New York's Solaire

Sure, a big part of the boom in green building comes from concerns about global warming. An equally powerful motivation, however, is economics. Green buildings may cost a bit more to build (though costs are coming down fast as the movement gains traction), but they save an enormous amount in operating costs. Hawks on the penthouse roof?

Meanwhile, energy and cost savings in one area can translate into extras in another. The Visionaire, for instance, will filter tenants' air year-round and humidify it in the winter -- energy-consuming perks absent from most apartment buildings. Even so, the developers expect the building to use 35% less energy than comparable nongreen buildings. Their energy-saving tricks include lots of natural light and motion-sensing indoor lighting. The building will also save on water costs by recycling water from bathrooms and kitchens. Fabulous view, 'cool' factor

Bank of America has still other benefits in mind. Although the jumbo bank is looking for energy-cost savings in its new tower, its main reason for going green is not to save money on the building but to improve both the quality and the health of its staff, company officials say. Based on studies of earlier green buildings, bank officials believe that by using low-toxin building materials and supplying superclean air and lots of natural light, they'll dramatically cut down on sick days. New York's tallest 'green' skyscraper

Company execs also believe that the chance to work in one of the greenest buildings in the city will attract the kind of bright, committed employees they're looking for.

You can't overemphasize the emotional appeal of green buildings, says Cynthia Macleod, a business consultant. She's her own best example: With her husband, a builder, she is constructing a 2,100-square-foot off-the-grid house in the hills of Vermont. "There's

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a social, community element to it," she says.

To build the house's straw-bale walls, for instance, the couple will hold a house-raising party. Sure, the house will save them money, Macleod says. With local and recycled materials, wood from their own land, and a little help from their friends, they expect the total cost to be about $70,000. Far more important, though, is "greater quality of life" that she says comes along with reducing their impact on the earth.

Green building isn't something you can do on a whim. But as the movement expands, you may find its some of its attractive features are closer to you than you think. The next time you go on a job interview or look for an apartment, why not ask about the building's green features? You'll be spreading the word -- and you might just end up with natural light and super-glazed windows of your own.

Produced by Peggy Collins / Graphics by Hakan Isik

Published Feb. 8, 2008