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Thursday, May 8, 2008

A beautiful day in Fields Neighborhood

--- Why building green can be affordable too

By Margaret Plevak/Contributor

Philip and Agatha Elmes' East Troy house earns high grades in energy conservation and green building techniques.

Their windows are designed to take advantage of the sun's warmth in January while staving off its rays in July.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Living spaces are designed to be open, comfortable and environmentally friendly.
A high efficiency fan hangs from the ceiling, and paint on the walls contains low volatile organic compounds.

The home's location speaks of environmental conservation too: swaths of native prairie grasses and surrounding wetlands that naturally filter rainwater, farmland vistas and clustered neighborhood houses.

Going green is an undeniably growing trend in home building.

According to Green Built Homes, a program of Wisconsin Environmental Initiative that certifies new homes and remodeling projects based on sustainable building and energy standards, more than 2,700 homes in the state have been certified as Green Built since 1999.

The latest trend--particularly in the Midwest--is the eco-village: not just one, but a community of green homes built to harmonize with natural surroundings.

One example is Fields Neighborhood, a cluster of Green Built condominiums tucked between undulating hills and Main Street in the village of East Troy.

For those interested in learning more, there will be a tour and open house at Fields Neighborhood Saturday, May 17, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Agatha Elmes first read about Fields Neighborhood in Conscious Choice, an urban lifestyle magazine. She and her husband, who lived in the Chicago area, visited the homes for a closer look, and were met by the eco-village's founder, British-born Christopher Mann, who moved to East Troy with his wife more than 20 years ago. Mann co-founded the nearby Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a research and educational facility that teaches bio-dynamic and sustainable organic farming.

Mann wanted Fields Neighborhood to be affordable as well as green. Lou Host-Jablonski, an architect at Design Coalition, the Madison firm which designed the homes, noted that while green materials often cost more than conventional ones, judicious use of them can keep costs down.

"If there's a secret to building green affordably, it is to use less," Host-Jablonski said. "That is, to design 'just right'--as big as needed and no more. For example, the (Fields Neighborhood) duplexes ... are 1,200 square feet in floor area, with a one-car garage. Not 1,500 or 2,000 square feet with a two -or three-car garage, or whatever else might be a 'conventional market' conception."

The Elmeses thought the home--and area--a good fit, and in October of 2006, became the community's first, and as of yet only, residents.

When fully built out, the community will have 74 multi-family duplexes and single-family homes. Currently six units are available for immediate occupancy. The Elmeses believe more residents will settle in as word grows.

There is occasional confusion about Fields Neighborhood by a few people who still associate MFAI's organic farming with the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

"(Fields Neighborhood) was so closely related to the institute that Phil talked to somebody and they thought this was a commune," Agatha Elmes said.

An Amsterdam native, Agatha Elmes shops for organic produce and frequents local farmers markets in season.

A chemist whose job brought her to the United States, she now works for local Uriel Pharmacy, which creates natural-based products.

She also weaves at a loom set against a bank of windows in the couple's open living room.

Philip Elmes admits Fields Neighborhood will draw people who are environmentally conscious, but says it will attract anyone who appreciates nature.

"We're not making a 'statement' to anybody. This suits us well. Take a look at our view. It's incomparable. You'll never see a bunch of 'yupscale' housing on the other side of this wetland," he said, referring to the approximately 1,000 acres of land held in protective trust--in part through MFAI's efforts---that adjoins their property.

A licensed real estate broker and self-described small-scale real estate developer, Philip Elmes likes both the house's solid construction and its little details--like woodwork with Prairie-style design.

He teaches workshops and seminars on real estate development and rehabbing homes, and because of his experience, the couple chose to purchase an unfinished two-story model home and use a bit of sweat equity. They laid bamboo flooring, installed a tankless water heater and created a downstairs guest bedroom suite when their two children or grandchildren visit.

They also added a whirlpool, a high-tech Danish wood-burning stove and Amish-crafted doors.

Philip Elmes hails from Hyde Park, Ill., where his father, an attorney, rehabbed the family's first home. Since he was a boy, he's spent summers at Delavan Lake in a cottage his grandfather built around 1912.

While the couple still frequent the Chicago area, they've found much they like about Walworth County, especially East Troy, an area that offers a developing culture of artists and craftspeople, an old-fashioned town square and a thriving rural community.

It's a way of life that shouldn't disappear, said Mann, who created an eco-village in Sussex, England, and is currently helping to expand farmland preservation trusts in Europe. He fears land-grabbing developers could turn the agricultural land of Walworth County into the urban sprawl of big box stores, strip malls and McMansions--unless residents take a stand.

"I don't think people are quite aware yet of losing this until they wake up and realize it's not what they wanted," Mann said.


See for yourself

Fields Neighborhood is hosting a tour and open house Sat., May 17, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (262) 763-8477, ext. 43.



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