Florida real estate mogul Frank McKinney has been building homes for the super-wealthy for 20 years. Recently he decided to start building them green. Acqua Liana, the largest and most expensive home to aspire to LEED certification, is scheduled to be finished in February. The $29 million home is being built on Florida’s luxurious Manalapan beach. At 15,000-square feet, the house is three times as large and 25 times as expensive as any home trying to earn certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. McKinney estimates that building a green Acqua Liana cost 7 to 10% more than a non-green house of this type. But can it truly be considered green? We caught up with Frank to ask him a few questions about his latest project – read on for an exclusive interview.

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What would a house look like if you spared no expense to make it green?

This one includes $120,000 worth of solar panels that generate as much electricity as two average-size homes consume. The residence’s water system treats and recycles enough gray water to fill the average swimming pool every 14 days. There are enough indoor pools, ponds and misters to reduce the interior temperature two to three degrees below that of neighboring properties and enough reclaimed wood was used in construction to equal 10.5 acres of Brazilian rain forest. During construction, over 340,000 pounds of debris and trash was recycled. Additionally, the home has an automated bio-feedback system that will calculate its energy efficiency in real time.

But is it green? It’s impossible for any homeowner to justify such luxury. But as McKinney points out in our interview, these houses are being built anyway. Why not direct some of that big money to energy efficiency and responsible site maintenance? And who else can afford to use solar panels extensively?


What was the motivation for building green?

I’ve been doing these beautiful works of art on the ocean for the last 20 years. The green movement in America, to use a baseball metaphor, isn’t in the first inning, the second or the fifth inning. It’s at the national anthem. Trends start at the top and when we were presented with the opportunity to turn a home into a certified green home, we felt that it would be a worthy challenge to take. The ultra wealthy are going to be moving to minimizing their carbon footprint.

Nobody is doing this at our level.

With the huge penalty that we face with the size of the house, we start 24 points below zero.

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You were aiming for a platinum LEED certification. What happened to that goal?

I wouldn’t aim for something that’s unattainable. With the size of the house we start 24 points below zero. Had we not had that penalty, we would be certified gold — and had I known a little more about the process.

I think it’s a little bit arbitrary. I was willing to run the gauntlet of dealing with this point penalty system. There’s a reason that nobody at our level is doing this.

I love the USGBC. I think it’s the greatest thing since AL Gore. It is the standard. The benchmark is the LEED-H program prescribed by the USGBC. We helped them develop their criteria.

I only have one problem and that is that this penalty [starting 24 points below zero because of the house’s size] is discouraging to most users or builders. It’s a bit arbitrary. It’s 15,000-square-foot house but it sits on 1.6 acres. I could fit ten houses on there, imagine the impact if I were able to build with that density across America… It’s one house on 70,000 square feet.

The green movement in America has been around in the mainstay of consciousness for maybe two years. It’s so new, that given a little time, I’m sure that the example that we’re setting, and the applications, the technology… will certainly set a standard. I’m happy to be setting the trend there. We are going to work with the USGBC on this.

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What rating are you trying for now and when do you expect it will be granted or denied?

We are two points away on Acqua Liana from silver. A part of the rating process, you won’t know until the house is finished and all the blanks are filled in on this checklist. We can project where we’re going to be but that kind of varies. We’re fighting for every little half a point that will get us to silver. When we present them an innovation design point there’s no answer in the manual, that’s something that will be determined. I will be thrilled if we get certified at all.

Do you have your LEED accreditation?

No, [our green consultant] does.

How did you attempt to minimize on-site waste?

It’s not simple. You can imagine a job of that size will have, I can tell you here, it will have 60 plus 30 yard dumpsters removed during the life of the job. That’s potentially a tremendous amount of waste.

We’ve contracted with a waste management property that picks up our dumpsters and takes them back to a facility and sorts through them to separate the good from the bad. In the beginning, 75% was being recycled, and the last report was 81% of our materials – this is the bulk materials.

The small stuff that we do, the sodas and energy drinks that the guys have on-site, it’s small, but the cradle to cradle approach should be applied. We have recycle bins right there on the site to collect all of that. And we set that out on the street. No other builder takes the time to take out the workers’ trash to recycle. We dismantled a temporary stair for another job piece by piece and we’re using a recycled set of stairs to get from the first floor to the second floor. Most of the debris that we make, 80% is recycled

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You’re importing sand, is that correct? Where did the sand come from? Are you planting greenery that can grow in sand?

It’s interesting. To build on the ocean you need a permit… Anything that is seaward of the control line must be beach quality sand. Let’s say that they’re doing an excavation project down in Fort Lauderdale. Beach quality sand — truck it up and we’re restoring the dune with the native material.

That’s another thing that we have to do. There’s eight particular mandates form USGBC and one is responsible site stewardship. And what we’ve done because of the threat of washout from hurricanes, we have planted sea oats and sea grasses, dune sunflower, and these are plant material that’s highly salt tolerant and its root system is quite deep. And it’s what you would see on an actual dune. That’s what we’ve repopulated our dune with and it looks beautiful.

The average American household consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. How much electricity is Aqua Liana expected to consume? Is there any way to quantify the energy consumption of the house?

Don’t know it in kW but I can tell you in terms of electric bill….for a 15,000-square-foot [house], $4,500 would be the average electric bill.

Our electric bill, when you combine the solar application, the inflated wall panels, the insulation in the attic, our electric bill will be hovering around 800 bucks. That’s a 70% reduction. It’s not that the folks who buy the house can’t afford it, but the footprint they’re leaving is no greater than a half a million dollar house that would be 3,000 to 35,000-square-feet. We’ve signed up for net metering, selling electricity back to the provider. January, February, and March we will have a zero electric bill. The home owner will be credited money toward their future bills. We love the evergreen solar panels. They’re great, they’re efficient, they’re cheaper. Efficiency when it comes to energy is where we’re headed and having an electric bill of zero is in the future.

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This post will spark debate among our readers about whether this project can truly be called green. I’d like to give you a chance to answer them by playing devil’s advocate for a minute.

You are building a residence that will require vast amounts of energy and generate substantial waste during construction, and then after it’s occupied, consume far more electricity than any single homeowner should ever claim to need.

I just gave you all the facts that say this is unequivocally untrue. You can take the purest approach that says I’m going to eat my granola and hug my trees, or you can have the realist approach that says since 1970 the average home in America has grown by 40 percent.

If those folks [my buying public, the ultra-wealthy] are going to continue to buy big houses, why not build them green? Why not take what the uneducated blogger is going to see as a monstrosity – they’re not going to stop building them. The way they were building them used a tremendous amount of waste. If they are going to be buying big houses, why not build them green? Why not take the footprint that that house is going to leave and reduce it from the goliath footprint?

Add on top of that the water reclamation, the money that we are spending to make sure that the city water resources aren’t being tapped into.

If you’re the purist then I can’t debate you because I’m going to be wrong whatever I say. Why not go through the trouble and the expense to set the standard by which others can follow? And it’s a lot of trouble and expense. Every great idea starts out as a blasphemy. This is the way that our country needs to go and if we can set the example, doing what I do for a living, which is make big houses, then that’s as good as I can do.

Will you continue to build mega-mansions that aren’t green?

It’s like riding a bike. You don’t go back to your tricycle. Everything that we’ve learned because it’s so new — all the technology behind the greening of a home and the greening of America — I would be foolish to waste what our team has learned and say, well that was a fun experiment. This is something that I fully believe in. I feel that it would be, as a businessman, it would be irresponsible of me not to apply what we’ve learned — not just me, I have a team of 20 – and say let’s do better next time, let’s use better solar panels… We’re so early in this that the technology is changing overnight and I want to be a part of that trend, that wave.

There’s no blasphemy. There’s no oxymoron here. I’m not going to stop what I’m doing. I have a 9-year-old and she’s concerned about the environment. I’m going to make sure that for that generation we’re going to set an environmentally responsible example.

+ Acqua Liana

+ Crystalina