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Green convert thinks outside the box

He built a unique home and wants to help others add efficient, healthy features.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

The home at 216 84th Ave. NE has 2,000 square feet atop the original, tiny house, which became a garage.
Darren Brinkley, who has started REAL Building, said: "I wanted something different." He and a business partner achieved that.

ST. PETERSBURG - As his environmentally sustainable home nears completion, Darren Brinkley is considering growing business for REAL Building, the consulting company he created to help people go green.

"It'll start to snowball once people start to become aware," he said of requests for environmental products and services. "People will almost start demanding it."

Brinkley came to the concept in just that way. The graphic designer moved to the area five years ago from London and wanted to build his own home. The more he learned about how to build the home he wanted, the more he realized that the home would be healthy, energy efficient and environmentally sound. So he decided instead of merely being a consumer in the green marketplace, he'd be a provider.

Standing in the nearly completed kitchen of a home he built with business partner Taylor Ralph at 216 84th Ave. NE, Brinkley said: "I wanted something different."

Different it is. The nearly 2,000-square-foot home sits over the remnants of a 700-square-foot block home that was on the lot when Brinkley bought it a year ago.

Brinkley didn't want to tear down the old house and add to a landfill when the old building was still viable. Instead, he turned the original home into a garage and supported the new above it from 24 wooden pillars. It gets greener from there.

The new home is built from insulated panels but is a sealed unit with no leaks, Ralph said. It is designed with windows to capture winter sun yet overhangs to fend off summer heat. Large doors open onto front and rear decks to create a breeze when temperatures allow.

"A lot of green building goes back to basics," Brinkley said. "You start thinking efficiency and you start building the way houses used to be."

The home also has a rainwater collection system with a 1,000-gallon cistern attached to an irrigation system. Toilets are dual-flush and low-flow, with a stated goal of using 30 percent less water.

Features do get high-tech. Ceiling fans are of a special design from the Florida Solar Energy Center. And the heating-cooling system comes from the ground up through a geothermal heat pump that uses 1,200 feet of buried piping to regulate indoor temperature and also produce hot water.

"Our initial estimates are that utility costs will be about $100 a month," Ralph said, "which is pretty crazy for a house this size."

The house has three bedrooms and two baths, but there's a large loft above the kitchen that could become a master suite. Brinkley plans to use that as REAL's office while he lives in the model home.

There are nonenergy green features, too, like the obligatory bamboo floors, but also a birch ceiling sliced from logs rotisserie style to prevent wasted wood. All finishes, from paints to stains, are soy-based and give off no volatile compounds.

"The health aspect is more important than the energy efficiency," Brinkley said.

The green flows freely in spending, though. After paying $155,000 for the original home, Brinkley said, the new one has cost about $150 per square foot. Add 25 percent to that to account for the labor he and Ralph put into it.

"Being green doesn't have to cost any more," he said. "There are thousands of things you can do to improve the health and efficiency of your house, and not all of them cost thousands of dollars."

Those suggestions are the real aim of the business, not building homes, he said. While REAL is bidding on a Tampa townhome project and talking to contractors and developers about others, Brinkley really wants to be a consultant to those who want to be green but don't know how. There is a demand also, he said, for guidance away from faux-green products.

The two men say in the eight months they've been building the home, they've fielded questions from passers-by. Most are impressed with the normalcy of the home.

"There's a preconception about green buildings that they have clay walls and grass roofs," said Brinkley, who designed the model. "It doesn't have to be like that. It can look like any other house on the street."

Paul Swider can be reached at or 892-2271.

[Last modified November 13, 2007, 22:56:32]

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