Going Green at Home
Good Moves for New and Existing Abodes
With current U.S. population surpassing 303 million, consumption of food, energy and other resources is booming. The threats posed by global warming, deforestation, drought, high fuel prices, air pollution and disappearing natural resources all have contributed to an explosion in “green” building.
A survey by McGraw-Hill Construction, called the Green Building SmartMarket Report, suggests that green residential housing will comprise as much as 10 percent of the market by 2010, estimated at $38 billion. “Green has gone mainstream,” observes the U.S. National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).
Ted Ning, executive editor of LOHAS Journal (for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability), an online informational resource for goods and services focused on health, the environment and sustainable living, thinks that fuel costs are certainly part of the reason, but saving the planet is also high on the list.
“I think perhaps many people, especially the enormous ‘Baby Boomer’ group, are especially conscious of how their grandchildren are going to live when they grow up. I think that this has always been an innovative generation; they are not selfishly just considering themselves, but are conscious of how they can have and leave a better world,” says Ning. He also directs the annual LOHAS Forum conference scheduled for June 18 to 21 in Boulder, Colorado.
The term green can mean many things, but the bottom line is about conserving resources during the building process and long after it is completed. Joanne Theunissen has served on the NAHB committee on green building, the Green Built Michigan board and the Michigan Green Builders Task Force—the first such statewide initiative in the United States. As an experienced residential builder and co-owner of Howling Hammer Builders, Theunissen points to some basic tenets that must be observed in order to consider a new home green.
First, it is important to select, prepare and develop the lot to reduce environmental impacts, such as erosion or impact on a forest, and to improve energy efficiency. “Your house is part of the original environment; is it wooded? Figure out the best place to site it while leaving old trees in place. A green builder won’t strip a site,” counsels Theunissen.
Another consideration is to position the living space toward the south/southwest in order to use passive solar to help heat the home in cold winter months. Bathrooms and closets should be positioned on the north side and, if possible, bedrooms as well, advises Theunissen.
To maximize efficient use of resources, use materials that are local, renewable and/or recycled. “Make sure your builder carefully estimates how much material they will need in order to minimize waste,” says Michelle Kaufmann, founder of Michelle Kaufmann Designs, an Oakland, California-based firm of architects and designers. She advises that “Buildings using traditional techniques have consumed almost 40 percent of the world’s total energy, 25 percent of its wood harvest and 16 percent of its water.”
Energy efficiency is key, especially in these times of volatile oil prices. Energy consumption occurs both during the construction process and after the owners have moved in. On average, today’s green buildings realize a conservative 20 percent in energy savings.
Paul McRandle, deputy editor of the National Geographic Society’s The Green Guide, says that the most important driver to building green today is monthly savings on energy utility bills. He believes that those who are thinking of going green at home are not swayed by an occasional dip in oil prices.
“People really are aware of the pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic, the emissions we create by using electricity on the grid and our dependency on oil,” says McRandle. “I believe that with the rise in oil prices, we’ll see conventional builders incorporating green practices.”
Solar heat is becoming an increasingly popular green alternative to oil or gas-fired furnaces. Traditional—and often ugly—solar panels are rapidly being updated and are now made to look and perform better.
According to Kaufman, solar technology also has been getting much more efficient, powerful, and streamlined in design. As a result, it’s much easier to have these systems be visually quiet, rather than sitting conspicuously on a rooftop. Japan’s widespread use of solar power shows what’s possible.
Justine Sanchez is an instructor at Solar Energy International, which provides educational and technical assistance to enable us to apply renewable energy technologies. Sanchez says that using a solar hot water system and an electric (photovoltaic) system to generate electricity in a passive solar home design, with well-designed overhangs (to assist with heat and cold retention) can make a big difference in energy costs.
“These not only can lower your utility bill, but also contribute a strong environmental action. For every kilowatt-hour (kwh) we use, an average 2 lbs. of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. So for every kwh we don’t use, we save 2 lbs. of CO2 emissions,” says Sanchez.
Using geothermal heat, where pipes are run beneath the frost line to pick up the Earth’s natural heat at 52º Fahrenheit, helps to both reduce the power needed to heat water in winter and lowers the water temperature in summer. This is “a little pricey upfront,” notes Theunissen, “but you’ll get payback within 5 to 8 years, in the form of lower energy costs.”
Other energy-efficient building components include spray-in insulation, tinted window glazing and sun shades to let sun and breezes in or out, depending on the time of year.
Water efficiency is increasingly urgent, so green buildings include low-flow water fixtures and on-demand tankless hot water heaters. Theunissen points out that the latest in toilet technology, dual-flush toilets, which use 0.8 gallon for a small flush or 1.6 gallons for a full flush, can achieve “pretty tremendous savings.”
Indoor air quality is another consideration when building a green home. New buildings are made more airtight these days, and experts agree on the need for proper ventilation to prevent the buildup of indoor pollutants. To ensure that an adequate amount of outdoor air enters a home, it helps to open windows as often as possible during good weather. At a minimum, “Heating and cooling systems should have high-quality filters to capture fine particles and should be changed monthly,” advises Glenn Fellman, executive director of the Indoor Air Quality Association.
Some builders focus on indoor air quality almost exclusively, designing and building homes that are pollutant- and allergen-free for people with allergies or asthma. But every family will benefit from a home with fewer toxic chemicals.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), for example, are present in thousands of consumer products, including paints, wood stains and sealers, solvents and stain-resistant carpets. These VOCs evaporate from many commonly-used materials, float around the house, and contribute to the production of smog and ozone pollutants, notes Kaufmann.
There are many things a person can do to make their indoor environment healthier. Consumers should use hard flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpets, which contain toxic glues; they’ll also want to use low-VOC paints and replace polyurethane foam-based furniture with natural alternatives.
“Polyurethane foam is full of flame retardants, which are being called the next PCBs (a deadly toxin). Try using wool, which is naturally flame-retardant,” says Ning.
effective, but they aren’t worth the risk, considering
how toxic they can make the indoor air—even long
after using them.
Some of the things touted as green today were well-known and widely-used for centuries. Our ancestors knew that it made sense to position and glaze their homes in order to maximize sun exposure in the northern climes, and minimize it in the South. Paints were made of natural compounds such as vegetable dyes and milk, having little odor. They made their floors of hardwood and they conserved water, because they had no indoor plumbing.
“Green building is common-sense building,” says Theunissen. “There are some new sciences, but good building is 80 percent there already.”
Building green not only makes sense for saving the environment, it also makes sense for contractors and architects. Kaufmann observes that green building is taking off because savvy builders are following what home buyers want.
“Home buyers are becoming more interested in knowing how their homes are made, how sustainable they are, how energy efficient they can be. With energy prices rising, sustainability is no longer just an interest of the ‘granola people’ living in the straw-bale homes,” says Kaufmann.
McGraw-Hill’s report says that 90 percent of the home building community surveyed claimed that they were participating in green building activities. But let the buyer beware, as “a lot of builders are professing to be green who aren’t,” says Theunissen. “Make sure yours has attended certification programs, courses and seminars,” she advises.
The price of building green can be off-putting to the average consumer who wants instant gratification. “Some elements of a green home cost more. Some do not,” says Kaufmann. For example, many well-designed items based on sustainable principles, such as well-placed glazing, bamboo floors, low-VOC paints and energy-efficient fixtures and appliances, do not cost more.”
Some items, like photovoltaic solar panels, do add to the upfront cost, but will save money over time. “For example, if you were to purchase a solar system for $20,000, the mortgage on that for a 30-year period might be $100/month. However, that $100 might equal what the higher electricity/power bill might have been, so in fact, in this scenario, the solar system does not cost more over time,” notes Kaufmann.
Not everyone is prepared to build a new home, nor does everyone have an unlimited budget for adding a solar system. But targeted government rebates, as well as greatly reduced energy bills, go far in offsetting the average 10 or more percent higher initial costs for going green. In addition, many of these measures work equally well to help a homeowner make their existing house greener.
“There are good practical things that anyone can do. Regardless of income, you can still go green,” says Theunissen. “Water conservation is one more example; there is no excuse not to try. Every house being built or updated should be at least partially green.”
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