Green Building – What is it and why is no one talking about it anymore?

Having been active in building custom homes since 2003, we’ve seen the Green Building interest go from unheard of, to enormously popular, to the backburner. By saying “backburner”, we are really saying a relative backburner considering the amount of requests during the peak of interest. Why would this be the case given a population that generally understands the importance of conserving energy, protecting our planet and being conscientious about resource efficiency? In this write up, we’ll try to spell out what green building means, the confusion, and how it should still be important to you.
When green building first started getting press, it quickly got into the public eye. It became a trendy thing to build “Green”. As a builder, we started getting requests in almost every meeting about incorporating green features into a house. Products were constantly coming out claiming to be green and certification companies started offering programs to identify what made a house green and how green it actually was.
“What is green”, you may ask? Actually, maybe you don’t think you need to ask because there is plenty of confusion on the matter. Without going into too much detail, green building is a wide ranging concept based on many things including energy efficiency, resource efficiency, reducing the carbon footprint of the new construction, air quality and building conservation techniques/considerations. So, not only were we worried about how much energy a house would ultimately use, we were worried about things such as how far away the items used in the house were transported from the supplier to the house. The reason for such a consideration is that if you get a product from the other side of the world instead of from a manufacturer within 50 miles (for example), think about the difference in the amount of fuel and emissions between one location and another. That is just one example of the green building scope. There were countless others such as: house orientation, trees on site, VOC emissions, life span of products used, recyclable products used, water conservation, etc. The point is that what people were expecting (solar power, thick insulation, Low E Windows, Energy Star appliances) was more abstract.
If you consider the answer to the question in the paragraph above, you start to get an idea of the “Green Building” conundrum. The problem is that almost all homes could be considered to be “Green” if spun with some marketing efforts. When comparing a home built to code of today versus a home built to code from 20 years ago, the houses are indeed very Green in the sense of energy conservation. But, as we said, Green building is not only about energy conservation. What does an interested buyer do to truly find a Green Home? A good idea for solving the issue was to get a certification of the home. The certification could take into account all of the elements of green and put a score to it.
Green certification really makes a lot of sense for those truly interested in green. Unfortunately, there was not just one go to source. While LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) may have been the most common name we heard, there were many other programs with different programs and means of rating. In essence, you were taking a complicated subject and then throwing in degrees of understanding based on the rating source. Unfortunately, one way to hurt interest in something is to make it too confusing.
Another complication related to green standards evolving is that a green home of today may not be a green home of tomorrow. As mentioned earlier, as Building Codes get more stringent the homes are required to be more efficient and with tighter envelopes. The answer to that per the Green certifiers was to always stay a step ahead of the building codes. Now, we take a confusing concept and make it into a moving target. Rules are constantly changing so that even the builders might have a hard time keeping up.
Try talking about what makes a home truly “Green” with homebuyers and you will quickly find out that it’s an information overload. There is already enough to decide on in building a home, therefore introducing such a highly nuanced topic can be overwhelming. However, we did uncover a number of common observations. One note is that most people do want to be careful in their treatment of the environment as long as it is not extremely costly. Most people do want to conserve energy and water as long as the payback period will be reasonable. And, people do want a method to verify that these green methods were used properly. For those interested in verifying that there home meets a testable standard, a good way is to have a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) certification on the home. For a relatively cost friendly fee, a certifier goes through a series of tests to determine a HERS number rating on the house. The lower the HERS score (numerically speaking), the better the house’s energy efficiency. For example, a home with a score of 65 is 35% more energy efficient than a standard code built home while a home rated at 85 is only 15% more efficient than a code built home.
So, apart from a HERS score for energy efficiency how do you know how green a house is? That question was the reason for the certifications. Two popular programs for the all around green quality of a house are the aforementioned LEED and the NGBS (National Green Building Standard) certifications. Both deal with several factors including: site/location factors, efficiency of resources used, energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor environment quality. LEED has been around since the 1990’s and has been refined many times over the years. Meanwhile, NGBS is the first and only rating system to receive approval by the American National Standards Institute. The NGBS system ranks the home on levels of the testing score to give a comparative rating of one green home versus another.
Whether one obtains a simple HERS score or a full certification such as NGBS, they are increasing the marketability of their home. In one national study, it was also found that 73% of respondents said they would pay more for resource efficient homes. When listing the home with a Realtor, the agent can use many of the green features in the MLS, marketing flyers and other promotional areas. It is advisable to get an agent that understands green building and features. A Realtor can also help a buyer find a green home. It is critical to have an agent that understands green features. This agent can help find the right home features, aid through the home search process or even help identify green builders in a new construction scenario. The National Association of Realtors has a Green designation for Realtors that have gone through the Green certification process; this is a good place to look for an informed green agent.
If you are building a home, obviously it will be helpful to find a builder that has a green designation and/or experience in the green certification process and green construction techniques. A good place to find a green builder is with your local Home Builders Association. The HBA may have lists on hand of certified Green builders. If not, they will certainly have a list of builders that are committed to the building craft that could be interviewed regarding green construction.
If you have any specific questions on green construction, please let us know.

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