Demystifying Green Building

It’s virtually impossible to live a day in the United States without hearing about the most recent green building project, new green building guidelines, the formation of a new green building organization or the need to control the effects of global warming. It’s no surprise, then, that the National Association of Home Builders has taken a leadership role by partnering with the International Code Council to develop a uniform residential green building standard (see sidebar belows).

The NAHB/ICC mission is to help builders and architects construct strong, durable homes that are safe and affordable and that have a smaller impact on the world’s limited resources. Pick up one of the many green-related trade magazines and newsletters and it’s easy to see how much traction the green movement, and also the NAHB/ICC effort, has today. Glance at the magazine rack at the book store and make note of all the consumer magazines publishing their green issues.

Media outlets across the country see an increasing number of news releases related to green, such as the newest LEED for Homes-certified house being completed. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system is a benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings of every type.

As builders and architects are bombarded with so much news about green building, it could become overwhelming and difficult to know which green guidelines to follow, or how to take that first green step. Ray Tonjes, chairman of the NAHB’s Green Building Subcommittee, and custom home builder from Austin, Texas, believes once a builder begins thinking about green building practices, it becomes second nature.

Tonjes says becoming a green builder or architect can begin as simply as specifying Energy Star-certified appliances. “When making choices, we will always gravitate to those green products that intuitively take less energy to manufacture and transport,” he says. “We are all interested in less maintenance and more durable materials. That’s a no-brainer.” To take the first green step, review the illustration on the opposite page, and read below for Tonjes’ list of basic green practices to get you started.

Basic Ways To Be Green

Design. “We start off with awareness in the design process,” Tonjes says. “For instance, I’m in a warm climate and it’s important to shade your west- and east-facing windows, or minimize east- and west-facing windows, or buffer the west by design features like a garage on the west side vs. using a main living area as a buffer. The benefits include cutting down on solar heat gain.” This can have a huge effect on energy costs, as it makes it hard on the air-conditioning system. Another design trick is to align certain areas of a home to take advantage of the prevailing breezes for natural cooling, Tonjes adds.

Lighting. Another low-hanging fruit on the green tree is lighting. “Include better day lighting in your design, but also consider going to compact fluorescents throughout the home, or in the future, LEDs [see LED]. It takes less electricity for the same amount of light, and fluorescents also generate a lot less heat. It’s also not quite that simple as replacing bulbs. You’ve got to be sure you’re getting the same quality of light, which can require an additional cost. However, we’re already seeing a trend of consumers going to compact fluorescent bulbs because of the publicity and availability at places like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart,” he says.

Energy codes. “What we’re seeing all over the country is, to be on the cutting edge, you must place an emphasis on adhering to more stringent energy codes,” Tonjes explains. “There’s an opportunity for builders to take advantage of emphasizing how their homes exceed local energy codes.”

Materials. Choosing the right building materials can mean lower maintenance over a lifetime. “For example, fiber cement siding lasts a long time, and there are a lot of composite wood materials for exterior accents. A lot of building products use recycled materials to be manufactured, and they hold paint very well, and don’t rot. The concept here is lower maintenance costs over a lifetime of a building, which represents less energy consumed,” he notes.

Water. Fresh water is increasingly in short supply in the United States. The biggest impact on water conservation a builder or designer can make is in landscaping and irrigation, Tonjes says. “Use a type of landscape design called geoscape. It uses native plants that are more tolerant and require fewer chemicals, fertilizers and water. If you’re going to irrigate, there are better techniques such as drip irrigation, or using a controller that takes into account how many days it has been since a significant rainfall. Landscape irrigation accounts for a tremendous amount of waste.”

To see How Homes Become Green (.pdf)