Philadelphia design firm goes for the green building

Philadelphia design firm goes for the green building

by Staci Giordullo

Philadelphia developer Tim McDonald is on a mission. "We don't want to be known as 'green' architects, just good architects," he says.

As a founding member of Onion Flats, an architecture and design firm that specializes in environment-friendly blueprints, he is well on his way. Currently, the firm is involved in the development of eight LEED residential projects in the Philadelphia area, including the 2,600-square-foot home located at Berks and Hewson Street in Fishtown.

Overall, Philadelphia has 25 residential projects that are LEED certified or in the midst of the certification process. Another local green building resource, the Keystone Green Building Initiative, also provides tools for those looking to build a sustainable home.

Filled with Energy Star appliances, flooring comprised of bamboo and recycled materials and a green rooftop with a rainwater collection system, McDonald and his team want the three-bedroom, three-bath house to be an inspiration. "Ultimately, what's the point of putting all this 'stuff' into the house?" he says. "It needs to be a warm and welcoming home - a place where people want to live."

According to McDonald, building a LEED-certified home requires creativity on every level. "On our end, it's learning to think differently, think better and learn a new way to build," he says. "You have to question every assumption you've had in the past and go back to the basics."

The house is on the market for $594,900, closely mimicing the list price of other comparable homes in the neighborhood. Which combats a popular myth; it doesn't have to cost more to build or buy a LEED-certified home. "We're committed to building [LEED] homes for the same cost as a conventional home," says McDonald, whose brother, Johnny, is in charge of selling the property.

McDonald is including a new three-wheeled electric car with the purchase of the house. Valued at $10,000, the Zap Xebra produces 98 percent fewer pollutants than gas cars and costs approximately one to three cents per mile to operate. "You'll even be able to park it and charge it right in front of your house thanks to the parking ordinance the city just passed creating electric-only parking spots," McDonald says.

However, the path to LEED certification hasn't been an easy road for everyone. Ari Barkan was the first in Philadelphia to register his Fairmont property to be LEED certified, but development of the building has been delayed due to neighborhood politics. Barkan's original plans included a 700-square-foot chocolate shop and parking on the first level and his apartment on the second. "I've been working on this project for three years," Barkan says. "The zoning board approved the plans, but a neighbor is appealing that decision and I don't know why."

McDonald says he anticipates that the LEED certification process will get easier and quicken as the methodology is adopted by developers across the country. "It's a challenge, but in a good way," he says. "It will take time before LEED becomes second nature."

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