When I first started writing about green building in 1988 — when we called green building “energy efficient building” — building a green structure cost decidedly more. The new-to-market CFL light bulbs cost upward of $12 each (they are now $0.99). “Natural” paints were $50 a gallon (they are now $15), and cans of spray foam cost three times what they sell for today.
Green building was perceived as either an endeavor for hippies whose green projects looked like something from the “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie set. Or it was perceived as custom trophy homes whose owners bragged their innovations saved 30 percent on their fuel costs, even though it meant conditioning an 8,000-sq.-ft. space for two people with 3,000 gal. of fuel each year.
In fact, 20 years ago, average consumers and homes were frozen out of green building for reasons of cost, not for reasons of desire. When asked: “Do you want to burn less fuel and live in a home free of toxins?” Most people would surely answer yes. But if the follow-up question is “Will you pay $20,000 more for that privilege?”, most people couldn’t afford to answer yes, even if they wanted to.
Ever hear the phrase “Design, at scale, is free”? Essentially, it means if you create one-offs and prototypes, you will need to charge for those products at exorbitant one-off and prototype prices. But if you design an innovation and mass produce it, at scale, you can sell it at mass-produced rates.
Today, especially over the past five years, we enjoy the benefits of green product design at scale. In nearly every product area, manufacturers no longer charge high prices for exotics or prototypes; instead, they charge commodity prices for products that would have been four or five times more expensive a few years ago, and 10 times more expensive 25 years ago.
Paints, adhesives, caulks, sealants, finishes. Driven as much by government regulations as by consumer concern for indoor air quality, you can now find a wide variety of low-cost green paints, adhesives, caulks, sealants and finishes. And when I say green, I mean low-toxicity products with Energy Protection Agency-compliant VOC levels, or no VOCs at all.
Carpet. Green carpet — compliant with national and/or state indoor air quality standards — is widely available for commodity pricing. If you want pesticide-free woven New Zealand wool carpets, you will pay a bit more, but that will soon change as well.
Products containing formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and there is a concerted push to remove it from building products, or to have it emit at dramatically reduced levels. Formaldehyde-free products — batt insulation for example — are now widely available at commodity prices.
Lumber/wood fiber. Nearly all wood fiber in North America falls under some sustainable harvest third-party standard (FSC, SFI, ATF, PERC or CSA), so you are probably buying green wood whether you know it or not. However, the only one of these that sells at a true premium is FSC. Suffice it to say there are green alternative products available in nearly every sector, and prices are clearly trending toward commodity levels.
All structures should use two categories for determining how green they are: toxicity and sustainability of their components; and the performance outcome of the thermal envelope. Freely available on the Web and in trade journals, you can obtain high-performance thermal envelope designs that can — when properly built — dramatically reduce fuel consumption for heating and cooling. These designs can be implemented at slight increment costs — costs that can easily return the investment in fuel savings in under five years.
So, does it cost more to go green? It can, but it doesn’t have to. With design-at-scale green building products and thermal envelope designs, you can build economically and responsibly for any budget.