Real Estate Round-up

Houston's green building pioneer: Defying Reliant Energy

Houston's green building pioneer: Defying Reliant Energy

It’s the summer of 2009. One of the hottest Houston has ever experienced.

The house is large, well over 3,000 square feet. To make matters more interesting, the home has soaring ceilings reaching 33 feet.

And the electric bill?

It’s scary just to think about it. Reliant Energy is licking its chops. Could the bill be over $1,000? It has happened, you know.

The homeowner opens the Reliant envelope, hands trembling as he fishes out the monthly bill.

No problem. It’s a mere $109.

This is a true story. The house is real. And so is the $109 energy bill.

It’s all part of the handiwork of Houston architect LaVerne Williams, a pioneer in the green building movement in Texas. Williams, founder of a 35-year-old boutique architecture firm called Environment Associates, was into green before green was cool.

Williams designs homes that go beyond energy efficiency. We’re talking about homes that are equipped, through design and solar energy installations, to produce nearly as much energy as they burn.
Some of the super-edgy owners of Williams-designed homes want to go totally off-the-grid. It’s a modern independence from The System they are seeking.

No electric bill, no water bill and grow your own food on your own land. Seek sustainability. Leave a light footprint on the earth. It can be done and it is happening across the nation.

But most of Williams’ clients are a bit more mainstream. And it’s paid off.

His work is getting more recognition as the green building movement becomes something that even the nation’s largest home builders are addressing with more efficient home design and better building materials.

Tips From the Master

Some of the simpler things to remember if you are building a new house can help a lot if you address them at the very beginning.

“Take advantage of the natural benefits of the site,” Williams says. Situate the new house to block out the sound of nearby highways the best you can and make sure views from the home take in the best vistas available — a pond, a field or a mighty oak.

Then, there’s the sun. “Sun is something you absolutely have to work with,” Williams says. Avoid placing windows on the east and west sides of the home to keep the summer sun from pouring in.
If western windows are a must, make sure to shade them with awnings, overhangs and trees.

Williams also suggests situating the house to take advantage of natural breezes, facing the proper direction to capture the most common summertime winds. This opens the door for more frequent use of outdoor living areas and sitting on the front porch.

If you want have a lighter touch on the environment, then think about the building materials for your new home, Williams says.

Can some of the wood, stone or earth on the home site be incorporated into the construction of the new dwelling? When possible, purchase all of the building materials from local suppliers and lumberyards.

Shipping building materials more than 500 miles is not environmentally friendly, Williams says.

Williams advocates rainwater harvesting — equipping the house with cisterns and recycling mechanisms. Rain that falls on the roof can be collected and used for gardening or indoor uses.

House of Sun and Water

One of Williams’ most outstanding homes is Tonalacalli, a house in the Hill Country southwest of Austin. (Translation: Tonalacalli means “House of Sun and Water” in the Nahuatl language of Mexico.)

Tonalacalli has a massive rainwater harvesting system that supplies all of the water for the 3,000-square-foot house. It has no water well and no municipal water hookup. Sixteen solar panels on the roof provide most of the electricity for Tonalacalli.

Indoor air quality at Tonalacalli was protected with the use of special paint and the absence of carpet.

The house has a water permeable gravel driveway, an outdoor shower, abundant natural day lighting and concrete walls. Stone walkways were built with stone excavated from the home site.
Flooring in Tonalacalli comes from 200-year-old recycled timber from Texas. Central Texas mesquite was used for stair treads and stair rails were fashioned from mountain juniper that grew on the home site.
For his efforts, Williams is getting some long-deserved recognition on the national level.

Tonalacalli is one of the first homes in the nation to be certified as LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

And the home was featured prominently in EcoHome magazine.

The common stereotype casts Houston as a low-level also-ran in green building. But with his growing national reputation in the green niche, LaVerne Williams is changing that perception about his hometown.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of

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At dusk, the entrance to Tonalacalli
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LaVerne Williams, founder and CEO of Environment Associates, Architects & Consultants of Houston
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Designed by LaVerne Williams and located in the Hill Country, Tonalacalli (House of Sun & Water), one of the first LEED Platinum homes in America
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High ceilings, ceiling fans and windows for optimum air circulation
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The walkway from the house to the garage Photo by LaVerne Williams