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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.

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