From the beginning, Maurice Levitch Associates’ Seventh Haven project in Berkeley, Calif., wasn’t just about being green; it was about building two homes that can meet the needs of its future occupants while educating a community and helping to continue its positive push forward. The result was a pair of California Built It Green Green Point Rated infill homes replete with not only sustainable attributes, but also low-maintenance products, energy saving features, and age-in place details.

The 2,000-square-foot homes, erected on an infill lot within walking distance of public transit and shopping areas, were the company’s first green-built new homes, adding to a portfolio of sustainable and traditional design/build remodels. Maurice Levitch, AIA, took advantage of his first ground-up project, using Premier Building Systems’ Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) to create an envelope tight enough to require mechanical ventilation and designing a passive solar layout that floods nearly every room with light. The run-down house that had occupied the property was deconstructed rather than demolished, with some of the existing materials used to create trim and fireplace forms in the new units.

In addition to the super-tight envelope SIPs provide, the houses are outfitted with a range of energy-saving details, such as insulated headers, Marvin Low-E2 aluminum-clad windows, a solar thermal system, Energy Star-rated appliances, CertainTeed Landmark Solaris reflective roof shingles, and radiant heating. Each also is pre-wired for future solar installation.

The homes’ overall layout also provided Levitch ample opportunity to optimize efficiency, including a centrally located water heater that ensures the shortest possible pipe runs and 24-inch overhangs that shade in summer months and provide protection from the elements. Many of the rooms have light on four sides: through windows in three exterior walls and via a transom on the interior wall that brings in light from the hall. Velux Ventilating Electric Skylights and light tubes through the SIPs roof bring in additional natural light.

Knowing that homes typically cannot sell on green features alone, Levitch also paid close attention to and marketed the structures’ durability, low-maintenance, and aging-in-place—including a first-floor bedroom, wider doorways, and no-step entrances. “I definitely feel this differentiated this project and myself from the rest,” Levitch says. Indeed, these attributes, as well as the promise of lower energy bills, attracted an older couple who purchased one of the homes for $876,000, about twice as much as others in the area.

Levitch says building green is really about giving buyers what they want. If they’re interested in quality construction, for example, then he promotes elements such as ventilation. Other sustainable attributes are brought up and integrated gradually as part of a larger group of benefits.

Throughout the project, Levitch leveraged the opportunity to boost community education, interaction, and improvement. He met with neighbors before the project began, a proactive approach that eased typical infill project tension and boosted awareness of and excitement for his sustainable approached. The homes were featured on the PCBC conference tour in 2008; the day before, Levitch hosted a behind-the-walls walk-through for community members. The second house, which is currently being rented, will be part of the Build It Green home tour next month.

“Even though people are in tune with it here, touching it and feeling it is huge,” Levitch says. “I think education is huge, and it’s a huge part of green building.”

The architect also is adamant about seeking certification for green homes to prevent greenwashing and is even a Green Point Rater himself. “Certifying to the Build it Green third party certification to prove you’re doing these things legitimizes the whole green building effort we go through,” he says. “Showing what you’re doing is important.”

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.