Sustainable Home Building 2.0

Admit it. Someone mentions the phrase, “sustainable home building” and your mind creates images of wood-burning stoves, and toilets that don’t quite flush. Sure, the environmentalists might have a point when they talk about finite natural-resource reserves, but eco-friendly homes just don’t have the amenities your high-end customers are seeking. Building green, you think, will simply turn your black ink red.

This is not the case anymore. Aided by the success of both local and national energy-efficient home building initiatives, backers of broader-reaching sustainable efforts are seeing growing interest among both buyers and builders in further improving home comfort and performance. Local government officials also are getting involved, with a number of municipalities encouraging or enforcing sustainable practices in their building codes.

And, there are more resources than ever for builders interested in constructing sustainable homes. Many local home builder associations — including groups in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston and Denver — now have operational green building programs, offering guidance and, in some cases, marketing assistance.

Where these programs don’t exist, builders can turn to a vast network of information online or in a growing library of books on the topic. Building-product manufacturers, too, are providing more low-impact, high-performance building materials for those seeking alternatives to standard offerings.

Sustainability defined

Learning just what the phrase “sustainable design” means is the first step toward developing a green building practice.

“Universally, ‘green building’ has evolved into a term that indicates resource efficiency and environmental consciousness,” says Ray Tonjes, president of Austin-based Ray Tonjes Builder Inc., president of the Texas Homebuilders Association and chair, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Green Building Subcommittee. “The word ‘green’ is used in a lot of different industries. It’s becoming synonymous with being good stewards of our environment.”

Until recently, many environmentally conscious builders focused on energy efficiency to limit impact on surroundings, and many local and national programs had the goal of boosting the efficiency of their community’s, or the nation’s, housing stock. Reducing energy use is a key component of sustainable building. However, the real vision is broader, encompassing an improved indoor environment and conservation of the full range of resources used to build a home, from the amount of wood in its framing to the energy used to transport that material.

Today’s sustainable building programs generally break their efforts into three distinct categories: energy conservation, resource conservation and indoor-air quality, according to Kim Master, LEED, a senior associate of the Boulder, Colo., Green Building Guild and operational manager of What’s Working, a national resource center for sustainable home building. However, specific strategies for meeting performance targets in each of these categories vary widely, because local conditions and codes can be so different from place to place.

The NAHB’s “Green Building Guidelines,” released in January 2005, is one of the newer efforts to offer guidance to builders who want to build more sustainable housing. The group prepared this new document, available free on its website (see sidebar on pg. 37 for information on this and other web-based resources), primarily for local home builder associations to use in setting up their own green building programs. Group officials say their document’s flexible and voluntary nature makes it a good starting point for local associations, regardless of their location.

“The goal was, we didn’t want ‘green’ to be mandatory for our membership; we wanted it to be voluntary,” says John Loyer, construction, codes and standards specialist for the NAHB’s Energy and Green Building Department. “We believe that it is voluntary programs that lead the code, and not the other way around. Once ‘green’ has been mandated, the price can go up, because the consumer isn’t controlling it — the code is.”

LEED for Homes

As another indication of the growing interest in boosting the sustainable housing movement, the U.S. Green Building Council launched a pilot version of its new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes rating system in August 2005. This effort is similar in many ways to the group’s successful rating systems for various types of commercial construction and renovation. However, USGBC officials say they also recognize the impact local codes and conditions have on how home builders do their jobs, so the program is aimed to support community-based green building groups, rather than serving as a direct-to-builder resource.

“(The market) is larger than new commercial construction, and there are so many more players in the market,” says Jim Hackler, program manager, LEED for Homes. “We don’t see being able to do direct support.”

In the pilot effort, USGBC says it will be working with 12 local and regional groups to identify a limited number of projects. The local groups will help selected builders understand LEED requirements and provide feedback to the national group with suggestions and recommendations. Hackler says a final version of the rating system should be available in about one-and-a-half years.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star Homes effort has been active for several years, focusing strictly on boosting residential energy efficiency. This is a national program that rates a home’s actual performance characteristics against either the 1993 Model Energy Code or the local state’s energy code, whichever is more stringent (see Q&A with the EPA on pg. 22).

Start small

Successfully meeting the requirements of any of these programs could prove a difficult challenge for a builder new to sustainable design, regardless of the level of flexibility a selected program might provide. Experts suggest those interested in building greener houses start small, and get familiar with individual products before attempting a fully sustainable building project.

“I would not recommend jumping right into it,” says Dan Green, vice president and principal with Newton, Mass.-based developers and builders, The Green Companies. “I’d recommend a staged approach. Just try some of the new products. I try to put them in my house first before I sell them.”

The next step is to understand how these various products work together. True sustainable design considers a structure holistically, rather than as a collection of independent systems. At its best, the process begins with how the property is sited on its lot, so solar heat gain is maximized in cold months and minimized in summer. Insulation and glazing are chosen to tighten the building envelope, allowing for smaller heating and cooling equipment, and air filtration is improved to ensure the indoor environment doesn’t suffer as a result.

Educating crew, and consumers

Those with experience in the field emphasize that educating both workers and customers is crucial to any builder’s green-home building success. Ray Tonjes says he runs informal lunch-hour sessions with his crews to help them understand the underlying principles of sustainable building and the positive impacts they can have.

“That guy out swinging a hammer is doing it the same way his father did before him. If (the crews) don’t understand why they’re changing things, then they won’t do it,” he says. “(But) when they buy into it, they take a lot of pride in it.”

Home buyers also need educating, experts say, to help understand that sustainable homes don’t have to be either more expensive or less comfortable than more traditional structures. Those in the field urge builders to focus their marketing efforts for these houses on better air quality and lower energy bills than on larger environmental goals.

“When we talk about how to build green, we actually don’t mention environmental things. We talk about comfort,” says the Boulder Green Building Guild’s Kim Master. “Green building can appeal to anyone, as long as you market the benefits to what that person is looking for. We just call it ‘better building.’”