Green, with some shades of grey

Oak Parkers install new greywater system

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Justin Voccola

Medill News Service

When Oak Park resident Ana Garcia-Doyle was expecting her third child a few years ago, the digital marketing consultant and her husband, Jim, wanted a house with more room. But when they tried to sell their home, they found no buyer.

So, they went to Plan B: An expansion of their home, in the form of a "green renovation." The eco-friendly makeover included adding more windows to their home; converting to a geothermal-energy system that makes use of the earth for heating and cooling; using recycled and environmentally conscious building materials; and installing what's known as a greywater system.

The family's adoption of green values, while more extensive than most, nonetheless reflects a growing nationwide trend. More people are investing in green homes, which are specifically designed to provide durability, sustainability, water conservation and energy efficiency.

Green homebuilding doubled in three years to 17 percent of the market in 2011, according to a recent report from McGraw-Hill Construction; the trade publication projected green homes will climb to between 29 and 38 percent of the market by 2016.

The buyers of such homes aren't just idealists, either. New data shows that while green homes cost more to build, they later command a substantially higher price and offer homeowners a solid return on investment.

Because green homes typically cost an extra 3 percent to 5 percent to build, according to Jason LeFleur, regional director for the Illinois chapter of the U.S. Green Council, the higher price they later draw can provide a net return of between 4 percent and 6 percent for homeowners.

For the 42-year-old Garcia-Doyle, return on investment wasn't much of a concern.

"We did a green renovation because it is the way we wanted to live," she said. Her two-story home is now in the final stages of the rehab.

During a tour a few weeks ago, Garcia-Doyle pointed out the many features of her green home.

"One of the things we did was add more windows. So we can maximize our exposure to natural light," reducing the need for electric lighting, she said before pointing to the floor.

"All of the floors are going to be stained with zero volatile organic compounds. So the chemical content of the compounds is nil," she added, as she reached down to pick up a wood tile. "This piece of tile is made in Italy. We chose the tile because it is made from recycled wood."

Garcia-Doyle is particularly excited about the home's new greywater system. Greywater is "the use of pre-used water" for other household applications, she noted.

"The equipment cost us $2,000," she said. "The expectation is that we will save up to 27 percent of our water use."

Standing in an upstairs bathroom, she pointed to a set of pipes. "The pipes funnel water down from the tub into the greywater tank, located in our basement." The greywater tank then filters the water to remove contaminants like hair and shampoo, she said, and 'then pushes the water up through a different pipe into the toilet."

Thanks to outdated plumbing codes, greywater systems are banned in the state of Illinois. But Garcia-Doyle and her husband successfully petitioned the state, and received a variance to install one in their home. She is only the third homeowner in the state to have a greywater system.

In the future, Illinois homeowners may not have to jump through as many regulatory hoops to follow Doyle-Garcia's example. Legislation has been proposed that would update codes and clear the way for greywater use; the measure is slated to be reviewed next May.

She still can't water the yard with greywater, however. Garcia-Doyle said Illinois, for now, doesn't permit the use of greywater to irrigate plants. That's in contrast to the arid western states of California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, which are considered more advanced in their handling of greywater issues.

Although Garcia-Doyle, her husband and three children under the age of 12 have had to relocate during the renovation, she is confident that her green investment will yield dividends.

"It was not an easy decision," she said. "But we will have all these future benefits to look forward to like not having to pay a gas bill."

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