Shades of Green

How does someone who is interested in Green Building get started? I was involved in helping to develop NARI’s green building education program. We had a similar problem when we tried to organize and sort out a clear approach to learning about building “green.” The issue we faced is similar to the one that all people or organizations face when looking at the topic: where do you start?

Green Building is an ever growing topic with literally millions of pieces of information to be discovered. Our task force group spent many hours devoted to discussing how to approach the topic. As we sorted out how we wanted to approach the topic, the obvious starting point was the planning and design phase of a job.

We brainstormed questions that a good designer would ask as he or she approached a project. The very first question that should be asked is: are your clients interested in green concepts for their home? It is quite possible they are interested but have no idea how to approach the issue. This client will most likely take more time to educate on the subject and may or may not want to invest in the final outcome. However, I do feel it is our responsibility as builders and designers to be able and willing to educate our clients about the pros and cons of Green Building.

Questions can center around the indoor air quality of the home, comfort, energy use, savings or all of the above. For most people this will trigger more questions and give the remodeling professional a great opportunity to distinguish themselves as knowledgeable and capable leaders in the movement towards more environmentally conscious building practices.

Simple questions potential customers might ask include: are there temperature differences between rooms? Do you feel drafts from under cabinets, at windows, standing near the tub in a bathroom? Other considerations that designers need to ask themselves at this point are: how many people live in the house? How many pets and what kind? Is moisture an issue? Do the windows have condensation? Are there water stains in the house?

Depending on where we as building professionals are entering the process, we can then move into the design phase. This will allow us to incorporate a number of Green concepts into the project. If we are entering the process after the plans are complete, we can work with the existing design to “green it up.” It is very possible to apply a great deal of energy-saving and interior design ideas to most remodels. The only catch in all this is that the designer and the builder need to be aware of the areas where Green Building techniques can be applied and where the customer can see these choices as beneficial to their project.

How to begin the green process

The question you might ask is: how do I do this? I don’t know anything about building science, fly-ash or low-VOC paint. There are many paths to understand these concepts. Local Green Building classes, associations such as NARI, local utilities classes, conferences such as ACI or West Coast Green, the Internet, books, magazines and partnerships with other professionals are just a few of the ways that you can start to gain a clear understanding of Green Building.

One method to jumpstart this process is to sign up for NARI’s Green Education Program. The program covers a wide spectrum of topics that will give you a good overview of how to build Green. These topics include: Introduction, Application problem solving/ Site Planning, Basic Building Science, Indoor Environmental Quality, Deconstruction vs. Demolition, Foundations, Structural Framing, Roofing, Insulation, HVAC, Electrical, Renewable Energy, Appliances, Plumbing, Exterior Finishes, Interior Materials and Finishes, Landscaping and Marketing Your Green Business. The program is offered by NARI as a teleseminar and we will launch both east coast and west coast versions soon. It is currently an education program with plans to be a certified program within the year. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with how green building fits into every phase of construction on each job, from the initial design to the final landscaping. We recently completed a pilot program with participants from across the country. We were aware in the development process that “regions” would play a part in how different topics were presented. One of the more interesting parts of the program was asking how the building process was different in the various parts of the country. After integrating vital information from professionals in varying climate zones, we came away with what we hope is a comprehensive and universally applicable curriculum for the class.
The energy was exciting and I truly believe after being a part of the development and presentation of this program that I learn as much as a presenter as I do when I’m a participant.

One other great way to get started is to partner with local experts. In our location we have a great resource in Matt Golden with Sustainable Spaces ( He has put together a team of experts who can diagnose, suggest the appropriate solution and implement it if you want. His company offers a “Green-Up” building service which comprises of a three hour test and a comprehensive report that deals with the issues you or your customer might have with a home. Look for these partners at association meetings: ACI workshops,(Affordable Comfort Inc. ) or EEBA ( ). Both of these sites have links and information that can be valuable resources for all. You can also check in with experts in the field. Most will be happy to share their knowledge with you.

My library of books is rapidly growing. There are many that are wonderful and full of great information. “Builder’s Guide” written by Joseph Lstiburek, Ph. D P.Eng. is part of a series of books that have been written for the four major climate zones in the US with a fifth book coming out soon for the Marine Climate. “Green Remodeling: Changing the World one Room at a Time” by David Johnston and Kim Master, and “Residential Energy: Cost Savings and Comfort for Existing Buildings” by John Krigger and Chris Dorsi are great resources that I have personally found helpful. One effective website that I’ve come across is “Green Building Guidelines: Meeting the Demand for Low-Energy Resource-Efficient Homes”. (

It is critical that we present ourselves as educated professionals in anything we bring to our business and our customer. The area of green building is no exception. We would be doing a great disservice to our customers to “throw money” at problems they might be experiencing. On a site visit, if the client says that they have a 100K BTU FAU but are still cold, should they install a 150K BTU FAU unit? Questions like this beg us to start thinking outside of our normal way of going about the construction process. In other words, we aren’t just there to ask them to sign on the bottom line. If we are put in a position to sell or not sell our client brand new windows without knowing what the other issues are in the house, are we really helping them make the best decisions in the end? Above all, education is the key to knowing the answers to these questions.
As we begin to implement these items, how do we know how green our projects are? We can use a third party rater to check our project for compliance. We can download a self-assessment test online to check our job beforehand. ( This is a handy tool to design with and to keep our product consistent. Areas of significant focus include demolition and how much of our job is recycled or reused, foundation, are we using fly-ash (derived from burning coal, fly ash is a valuable additive that makes concrete stronger, more durable and easier to work with), structural framing, are we using “Advanced Framing Techniques” FSC certified wood, I joist, SIP’s, and where it is appropriate to use recycled lumber for non-structural applications. Exterior finishes can be greener using FSC certified wood, or by using fiber-cement siding materials. Green plumbing application include: water heater jackets or tankless heaters, pipe insulation, re-circulation pumps with timers or aqua stats, and replacing toilets with ultra low flow units. Electrical applications might include: installing compact fluorescent bulbs, air sealed recessed cans, lighting control systems, and using whole house fans to replace air conditioning (where climate appropriate). Another simple way to be more in tune with green building is to install only Energy Star appliances. Insulation might comprise of upgrading to exceed energy code requirements and using alternate insulation products like cotton or spray foam. Applying green practices and products when dealing with window choice might include double pane installation as well as low-E coatings. You might also want to include specific window coatings based on the orientation of the home. Heating and air-conditioning is a much abused area that has many opportunities for improvement. You can use duct mastic on all joints, install duct work within the conditioned space, use sealed combustion furnaces and water heaters, venting fans and hoods to the outside, use load calculations to size HVAC units, install a separate garage exhaust fan, as well as heat recovery ventilation units. Renewable energy might include pre-plumbing for and installing solar thermal, pre-wiring for a photovoltaic (PV) system, installing a radiant barrier in the roof, using a cool roof, incorporating passive solar heating, installing overhangs or awnings on south facing windows, and planting deciduous trees on the west and south sides of the property. Indoor air quality is huge and with some carefully thought out finishing selections, we can positively affect our clients’ health. You can utilize low or no VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paints, no or low VOC adhesives, engineered sheet goods with no added Urea-formaldehyde, seal all exposed particle board or MDF, install a whole house vacuum system, use FSC certified wood flooring, use “recycled content” tile, and install natural linoleum in place of vinyl. You can also install “recycled content” carpet with low VOCs.

There is certainly a lot to pay attention to but once you are aware of green possibilities through education and a little experience, it will all become a part of your routine approach to a job.

Even without all the technical expertise, its possible to start thinking and doing like a green professional right away. Whenever you come across new information or updates on what you already knew, educate your staff. Make this an ongoing process throughout the year. If you make this a habit, your knowledge will grow exponentially and your company will move closer to becoming a full partner in the green building process. Another quick way to get started is to recycle, if you aren’t already doing so. Begin with the paper and cardboard in your office and move towards recycling 75 to 80 percent of what comes out of your demolition. On the job, you can use low VOC glues and paints as well as formaldehyde free materials (insulation). Looking for more ways? How about making sure to air seal everything, seal ducts, encourage the purchase and use of Energy Star appliances, use advanced framing concepts and with this, sustainable harvested wood whenever possible. If you’re feeling really adventurous, then why not expand into the plumbing phase of your project by using low flow and water saving plumbing devices. You could also install sealed combustion gas fired units whenever possible to add to your green builder’s arsenal.

In the NARI program, a Green Remodeling professional is described as: “A remodeling professional who considers sustainability and maximizing nature’s resources and energy in an efficient and responsible manner in the conduct of their business.” The goal of the program is to be inclusive of the entire construction process, from the design to the construction to the final finishing phase of the job. Another part of the process that is acknowledged with this statement is the important aspect that you are all businessmen and women. You need to charge a fair price and run your firms like the businesses they are, not non-profits. Your motivation to be greener might be to gain more business or it might be to positively affect the local and global community.

Whatever reasons you choose in the end, it is important to look at the big picture. Incorporating green building materials and practices has the potential to be beneficial for your business and the environment at the same time. It is somewhat rare to find those two intertwined in such a way; why not see what benefits green building can have for you?

Download Before & After Plan (PDF)

Green Building Products:

  • CertainTeed’s DryRight Fiber Glass Insulation
  • Heat Transfer Products’ Phoenix Water Heater
  • Ainsworth’s 0.8E Durastrand OSL Rimboard
  • Sto Corporation’s Powerwall Stucco
  • Watt Stopper/Legrand’s Light Sensors
  • HB&G’s PermaWrap PVC Columns
  • Moen’s ChoiceFlo Water Filtration System
  • YOLO Colorhouse Paints
  • IceStone’s Recycled Glass Concrete Countertop
  • Marvin Windows and Doors’ All Ultrex Series