Green design and building. How do you respond to these words? For many, they are a rousing anthem calling for our best work and providing opportunities to transform our clients’ lives while improving the planet for future generations. For others, the words can elicit significant negative reactions. I have run across the latter more times than not, from some otherwise accomplished, intelligent and capable remodelers.
In an informal survey of some of my remodeling colleagues from across the country, I have compiled what I affectionately call the “Top Five Myths of Green Design and Building”:
- 1. It costs too much.
- 2. It doesn’t improve comfort or really perform.
- 3. I can’t sell it; it doesn’t represent value to my clients.
- 4. I can’t make a difference; I am only one person.
- 5. I don’t know enough about green; it is way too complicated.
I’m going to address each of these in the next five “Green Remodeling” columns. I’ll begin by examining the greatest myth of all: It costs too much.
It certainly is true there are myriad green products and techniques that are more expensive than their standard cousins. Many of these might be referred to as “green bling.” For example, although they provide significant merit, renewable-energy systems, such as solar photoelectric, solar-thermal panels, and geoexchange heating and cooling systems, cost more. Some might argue these elements should only be entertained after one’s home is what a building-scientist colleague refers to as solar- (or geo-) load ready. In other words, first reduce the home’s energy demand as much as possible so the tangible benefit of these renewable-energy systems can be derived and fine-tuned to provide only as much energy as necessary.
Using simple, low-cost building techniques, like proper air sealing and improved insulation, can lead to a high-performance renewable-energy system, in some cases being less expensive than conventional systems. The impact of current tax incentives, grants and rebates multiplies this leverage. Regardless of one’s political stripe on climate change and fossil fuels, we all can agree the greenest, cleanest and cheapest energy is the energy we don’t have to add to our buildings.
As a baseline green strategy to get a home to solar- (or geo-) load ready, design itself is a no-cost approach all of us should employ. Consider building orientation at the earliest stage of the project. For example, position a new master-suite addition so the home can take advantage of existing solar opportunities for passive or active solar collection. This is a high-leverage green strategy that doesn’t cost a thing. Even if solar-power systems are not in the scope of work now, creating a building form that is future ready is not only smart, but it is good business. Who do you think the clients are going to remember when, several years down the road, they recognize the wisdom of you positioning their addition in such a way they can capitalize on renewable energy?
Another baseline green strategy is the Not So Big-inspired remodeling design approach. Sarah Susanka first championed the Not So Big House in 1998 and recently released her Not So Big Remodeling book. Helping our clients recognize through intelligent, thoughtful, inspired design they can have everything they want but in a smaller, more efficient package is a green strategy of the highest order. I’m comfortable with the paradox inherent in this truth; the greenest thing we can do is build Not So Big.
Other green-building strategies, such as advanced framing techniques (AFT) and optimal value engineering (OVE), were developed by the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1970s during the first oil embargo. The intent was to rethink Western platform-style framing, which, in the name of speed, had structural redundancies. By using AFT, OVE and continuous load path framing, one can remove and replace up to 30 percent of a building’s structural framing with insulation. This not only costs less on the front end, but also costs our clients less on the back end because it minimizes ongoing operational heating and cooling by creating a more efficient building shell.