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Del Sur's LEED Platinum Ranch House receives national attention

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Green building has been coming into increased prominence across the San Diego region -- and everybody's talking about it. But one development is attracting attention on a national level, too: the Ranch House at Black Mountain Ranch. It's further proof that going green is not only in fashion, but also makes developers look good.

Black Mountain Ranch is a development that has been, like any major residential and commercial project, in progress for several years. The coastal community is located between I-5 and I-15 near Rancho Santa Fe, in what's known as the future "urbanizing area of the city."

The Ranch House is within the top 5 percent of greenest buildings in the world.

This year its Ranch House, a multipurpose community building, received the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Platinum rating for its community center building, which puts it within the top 5 percent of greenest buildings in the world. It also is the first new construction, private enterprise building to achieve Platinum rating in California.

When the nearly 4,700-acre Black Mountain Ranch project was begun, including the second and last phase of Del Sur, green building was still a bit of a marginalized concept. It came to be a part of the project's planning in part to help garner support from the community and to get it off the ground.

"As the result of a proposition from 1985, we had to focus on gaining support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club," says Bill Dumka, senior vice president of developer Black Mountain Ranch. In exchange for their support, Dumka says, the company agreed to conduct a series of educational programs on the environment and other measures that at the time were forward thinking.

Now, garnering a LEED certification also helps developers by providing third-party endorsement. Black Mountain Ranch said it wants the Ranch House's high standards of green to be a showcase and resource for the rest of San Diego.

Del Sur's Ranch House features cork and salvaged timbers in the flooring, among other reclaimed or rapidly renewable resources. Photo: Reed Kaestner Photography

The building incorporates recycled materials, itself including wood from an old barn and pier, to recycled waste from blue jeans used for insulation. It also relies solely on environmentally friendly power options, from sun and wind.

Green building is incorporated throughout the Del Sur project, not just the headline-making Ranch House. Because there was no LEED certification program for residential buildings when the project started, the developers created their own. Homebuilders in the development are required to follow a set of minimum criteria for sustainable building, including the landscape architecture. A minimum of 20 percent of homes are to incorporate photovoltaic, or solar, energy systems, and half of the landscaping must be drought tolerant. A weather-based irrigation controller is mandated, which makes water management more efficient. Homes must have a design that supports ideal cross-ventilation and some appliances that are energy and water conserving, including the city's standard low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets.

left CAPTION=This rear exterior shot shows the roof-based solar energy system on the roof. Photo courtesy PowerLight Corp.

"All houses are designed to meet the state of California's Title 24 and low-flow toilet requirements for the city of San Diego. If you put our requirements and all of that together, you get a very green house," Dumka says. "Compared to houses in the rest of the country, they are probably amongst the greenest."

Dumka said he's not convinced that builders are incorporating additional green elements to the construction outside of what's required by contract, although most are claiming that they do. He's worried that with the recent housing market downturn, builders may feel they have to cut corners a bit.

Still, while Dumka's group required 20 percent photovoltaic inclusion, builders like Shea Homes and Standard Pacific Homes (NYSE: SPF) were actually already doing 40 percent on their own, he said.

Plus, as anyone following green building knows, the stereotype of higher expenses can be turned on its head if you look a little more closely, or a little more long term.

"At an event recently, I talked to a woman whose electric bill was $5 per month. At the same table was a woman whose bill was $30 per month," Dumka says. That shows that being energy efficient can mean cost savings, too."

Recycled beams from an old pier in Portland were used as ceiling trusses and supports. Photo: Reed Kaestner Photography

But Del Sur isn't the only project in the news for going green. While the following buildings have not yet achieved a LEED certification, they are incorporating green into construction and registered for a LEED ranking.

Zagrodnik + Thomas Architects (ZTA) has been at the forefront of some of these sustainable projects in the area. It is currently involved with construction of a new building for the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center and the Learning Resource Center for Miramar College, which is temporarily on hold as it obtains additional monies before moving forward.

As going green gets easier and more prevalent, it will be important for builders to differentiate themselves by going for the highest LEED ranking possible if they want to stand out -- and set a strong example.

As Dumka said of the decision to take the green elements in the Ranch House to the highest level: "We got to the point where we realized we were doing extreme building, and then we started thinking in terms of publicity value. There was value in elevating from gold to platinum in terms of marketing and notoriety."

Indeed, the Ranch House has received its share of media mentions, and consumers are driving companies to not just think -- but to act -- in an environmentally responsible way. Dumka said consumers now need to back up their own demand for green with action as well.

"They've seen warming issues, lived through brownouts and blackouts and know that at the gas pump they're paying a lot," Dumka said. "Politically, it is the consumer that's forcing industry to think about it. Now I think the industry has joined the crowd, and it's just a question of when are consumers going to act with their pocketbooks to reinforce what they're saying politically. But that is happening. We've watched the business happen in the last two years since we got started -- green products, press and green consultants. It's exploded. It's the next thing."

Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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