Mark Steur almost died of kidney cancer in 1994. When his doctor told him the cancer's cause was environmental, he thought of his career in construction.
"I figured out that it was the formaldehyde in plywood," Steur said. "I was cutting it and breathing it for many, many years, as a carpenter and a contractor."
The discovery changed how Steur, owner of Graystone Designs, would design and build houses -- including his own. The Steur family's 6,600-square-foot home in the Sundance Ridge Preserve, south of Steamboat Springs, is an innovative example of "building green," a design and construction ethic intended to reduce a home's amount of toxic chemicals, energy use and impact on the environment.
"There are hundreds of materials going into houses that are really toxic, and really bad for you," Steur said. "Formaldehyde and PVC (polyvinyl chloride, a common plastic) are really pervasive. We're surrounding ourselves in toxic chemicals."
The Steur home has many tangible examples of building green. Most of the wooden beams in the ceiling of a large family room came from standing dead trees, rather than live trees. The roof is made of 85 percent consumer-recycled, high-density polyethylene, a plastic used to make milk bottles. Steur said that while most roofs must be torn off a home and taken to the dump every 10 to 15 years, his roof -- which looks like black slate -- has a 50-year warranty, can withstand 100 mph winds and has a "Grade A" fire rating.
The polyethylene is produced by an Illinois company called Carlisle SynTec.
"When this roof finally does come off, they'll be able to recycle it," Steur said.
Nearly all of the walls in the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs are finished with clay, rather than paint. Steur said he gave the clay a shaded, faux-finished appearance by mixing clays with different tints.
"You kind of get this hand-plastered, Old World look," Steur said of the mint-green, Colorado red and Santa Fe tan hues used in various rooms.
When paint is needed, Steur said, only paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds are used -- again to reduce chemicals such as formaldehyde.
"Chemically, it's a very clean house," he said.
The environmental ethic extends to small details as well, including the use of metal cables for electrical wiring, which prevents PVC-laden plastic sheathing around wires. In the kitchen, shelves inside the cabinets are made of "wheatboard," Steur said, a board made from wheat chaff. The entire home uses a single, high-efficiency water heater, and is heavily insulated from top to bottom. Plenty of large, glass windows let natural light and heat into the house, along with providing panoramic views of the Yampa Valley and nearby Blacktail Mountain.
But for Steur, the innovations come with a high price.
"There's a lot of different details that can increase the cost quite a bit," he said. For a home with his improvements and materials, Steur said, the cost can reach $250 per square foot. When the home is completed in June, Steur said its value will be close to $3.5 million.
Those looking to improve their home's energy efficiency at a cheaper cost have several options, local builder and energy consultant Rick Wildrick said.
"The first thing I tell people is look at your attic insulation. Most of the homes built in the '70s and '80s have substandard attic insulation," said Wildrick, owner of Craftsman Homes of Colorado, Inc. "If you're trying to save money, new windows can help an awful lot."
So can caulking around doors and windows and insulating your basement.
"Most people don't have an insulated basement. You lose a tremendous amount of energy through your basement walls and floors," Wildrick said. "You can put the best furnace in a home with bad insulation and you're going to lose money. The leakier your home is, the less efficient it is."
Good insulation, windows and caulking can save homeowners significant money in a time when natural gas and propane prices are soaring, Wildrick said.
"You can't control how much energy costs -- the only thing you can control is how much energy you use," he said. "It's the difference between going mountain climbing with a windbreaker or with an arctic-weight down parka."