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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Getting Started in Green Building — A Primer for Beginners

What is Green Building?

Green building is the next step in quality.

Green building is an approach to construction that can be applied to public and commercial buildings as well as the houses we live in. It guides every step of design and construction, from choosing a building site to installing a heating system. Green building is alternately described as “sustainable” building, and ultimately this may be a more accurate way of looking at it.

Green buildings are as varied as the people who live in them. There is no single template for a green house. But even though green houses may look different from the outside, their designs are based on three broad principles:

Energy efficiency. The house uses as little energy as possible. Whenever feasible, renewable forms of energy should replace fossil fuels, which by definition are not renewable.

Conservation of natural resources. This broad objective recognizes that resources are finite. There is only so much timber, ore and water to go around, and what resources are available to us should be used thoughtfully. Seen through this lens, durability, low environmental impact and low maintenance all become important attributes for a house.

Excellent indoor air quality. Green homes are designed to be healthy houses. A green home shouldn't have moisture, mold, or radon problems. Building materials, furnishings, paints and finishes should not contribute toxins and irritants to indoor air. Even with clean air though, houses need mechanical ventilation that assures a steady flow of fresh air.

Why Is Green Building Suddenly Such a Big Deal?

There are a lot of reasons why green building is suddenly a big deal.

Sustainable building isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it has certainly taken root in a way that earlier efforts to change residential construction did not. Chalk it up to the coalescence of many things.

Energy costs are one key. The frenzy in passive solar design that began with the energy crunch of the 1970s fizzled when fuel prices declined. We lost a powerful incentive to build more-efficient houses that were cheaper to heat and cool. Building energy efficient houses was pushed to a side rail and forgotten. But now that energy prices have gone back up, we have a much better understanding of how tenuous our foreign supplies of fossil fuels have become.

Global climate change is another factor. Melting glaciers, disappearing Arctic ice, droughts and fierce storms—we’ve all read about them, and many of us have experienced them firsthand. Researchers attribute at least some of these phenomena to a gradual increase in greenhouse gases, which is causing the planet to warm up. Houses are part of the climate-change equation because they consume a great deal of energy. So when scientists talk about our “carbon footprint,” we now have a direct correlation between what we do and the world around us.

We know more about how houses work than we used to. Building scientists who study the mechanics of why houses behave the way they do have helped promote designs that are more durable, more comfortable and healthier than conventional houses. This increased technical prowess has made it possible to apply sensible building practices to all kinds of architectural styles.

Do Green Houses Cost More to Build Than Regular Houses?

Green is often less expensive when all things are considered.

Sustainable building often seems more expensive than conventional building. Many of the building materials that make houses more durable and easier to heat and cool aren’t cheap. Complicated systems that allow a certain amount of energy independence--photovoltaic and solar hot water panels, for instance—can be very pricey. Common sense would tell most builders that it costs more to spray 8 inches of polyurethane foam in the roof than it would to install fiberglass batts.

But appearances can be deceiving. Take, for example, a decision to upgrade from double-pane to triple-pane windows. The windows will add thousands of dollars to construction costs. But they could eliminate the need for a warm-air register in front of each window, and the savings in labor and duct installation could offset the additional cost of the windows. In addition, the lower heating load means the size of the furnace can be downgraded. End result? Lower overall construction costs.

Savings can come in other ways. Spending more money for more durable materials is cheaper in the long run because they won’t have to be replaced as often. Considering life-cycle costs, rather than focusing solely on initial costs, can yield some surprising results.

Green building isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. As long as the basics are there, the house can be upgraded over time. If solar panels are an intriguing long-term option but not in the cards right now, for instance, pre-plumb for the panels and install them when the budget allows.

Do I Need A Specialist to Build A Green House?

Anyone can build green, but better builders find the transition easier.

In theory, any contractor could build a green house because the step-by-step process isn’t dramatically different from the ones used for building any other kind of house. It’s not like asking a lawyer to dig clams.

But in practice, there is a learning curve. Builders need an appreciation for at least the basics of building science—the role of air and moisture barriers, for example, or why there should be an effective drainage plane behind the siding. Builders well schooled in traditional techniques may not have spent any time thinking about those things, or understand green house theories incompletely.

Construction is not an industry that changes quickly. Many builders do things a certain way because that’s what they were taught and that’s what they know. It takes time and effort to learn new approaches, and some builders may not think they can afford either.

As time passes, though, builders will have to learn more sustainable design or they’ll be out of business. Consumers know more than they did about the subject even a few years ago, and they will increase pressure on the construction industry to produce houses that are more durable and energy efficient.

In the meantime, it would be smart to hire someone with experience. Look for an architect, designer or builder who knows about sustainable building. 

Can A Big House Be Green?

There’s no doubt that houses have been getting bigger. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 26 percent of all new single-family houses built in 2007 were 3,000 square feet or larger. In some prosperous markets a 10,000-squaref-foot house doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

At the heart of the green building movement is the idea that resources are finite, no matter how much money you have. Lowering consumption is an important benchmark in sustainable building, and that thinking extends to the materials that go into a house as well as the energy that’s required to heat and cool it. A large house that’s energy efficient and healthy is certainly better than one that wastes energy and is loaded with contaminants. 

Where To Start?

The first step like any project is to do your homework. Explore the many resources available today and educate yourself on the many Green options out there. The home you are planning to build will be a personal reflection of you, so find the Green things you like the best and fit them into your plan. In the end your reward will be a home you will love and be proud to call your own.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Choose Your Builder

If you're in the market for a new home, you should shop for your builder as carefully as you shop for your home. Whether you are buying a condo, a townhouse, a house in a subdivision, or a custom built house, you want to know that you are buying a good quality home from a reputable builder. Here are a couple of tips to help you choose a builder.

Make A List of Possible Builders

Once you have thought about the type of house you want, you will need to find a builder.
  • Contact your local home builders' association to obtain a list of builders who construct homes in your area. You can find your local HBA at You can also look on, NAHB's official new homes listing website.
  • Look in the real estate section of you local newspaper for builders and projects. Looking through the ads and reading the articles can help you to learn which builders are active in your area, the types of homes they are building, and the prices you can expect to pay. Make a list of builders who build the type of home you're looking for in your price range.
  • Local real estate agents may also be able to help you in your search. Ask friends and relatives for recommendations. Ask about builders they have dealt with directly, or ask them for names of acquaintances who have recently had a good experience with a builder.
Do Your Homework

Once you have a list of builders, how can you find out about their reputations and the quality of their work? The best way to learn about builders is to visit homes they have built and talk with the owners. 

  • Ask builders on your list for the addresses of their recently built homes and subdivisions. Builders may even be able to provide names of some home owners who would be willing to talk with you.
  • Drive by on a Saturday morning when home owners may be outside doing chores or errands. Introduce yourself and say you are considering buying a home from the builder who built their home. Talk to several owners, and try to get a random sample of opinions. The more people you talk with, the more accurate an impression of a builder you are likely to get. At the very least, drive by and see if the homes are visually appealing.
  • When you talk to builders and home owners, take along a notebook to record the information you find and your personal impressions about specific builders and homes. Doing so will help you to make comparisons later. Some questions you can ask people include: Are you happy with your home? If you had any problems, were they fixed promptly and properly? Would you buy another home from this builder?
  • Usually, people tell you if they are pleased with their homes. And if they are not, they'll probably want to tell you why.
Shop For Quality and Value
Look at new homes whenever you can. Home shows and open houses sponsored by builders are good opportunities to look at homes. Model homes and houses displayed in home shows are often furnished to give you ideas for using the space. You may also ask a builder to see unfurnished homes.
When examining a home, look at the quality of the construction features. Inspect the quality of the cabinetry, carpeting, trimwork, and paint. Ask the builder or the builder's representative a lot of questions. Get as many specifics as possible. If you receive the answers verbally rather than in writing, take notes. Never hesitate to ask a question. What seems like an insignificant question might yield an important answer.