Green Building Advisor North Pole AK
North Pole, AK
Homebuilders are gradually constructing more environmentally friendly homes around the United States, but deeper-green environmental building is still slow to emerge. One sure way builders will include more environmentally friendly features is by informed consumers asking for them more frequently.
According to interviews we conducted, homebuilders are not yet reporting increased consumer demand for aggressive green-building approaches, but they are responding to energy efficiency, health (mold resistance) and low-maintenance needs. Today's homebuyers appear better educated on quality, comfort, energy and health in housing. The Internet deserves some credit; consumers are doing online research prior to remodeling, purchasing homes or custom building. Internet searches provide pieces of the green-building picture - such as improving energy savings, purchasing environmental products, creating kitchen recycling centers, and building decks with recycled-content material - but they offer less coherent information on big-picture benefits and the true cost of building environmental homes. Homebuyers need better information on what to look for in green homes. A significant problem is the lack of impartial national guidelines describing what comprises environmentally high-performance homes.
This lack of standards hampers consumer awareness and reduces builder trust of new approaches in construction. Guidelines now exist for various portions of the green-building "package," yet there is no coherent standard focused on environmental homes as systems. Builders have legitimate concerns about the effects of changing basic practices. Will new approaches really provide long-term performance? Will they get sued due to product failures? Will environmental building greatly increase their construction costs, rendering their products less competitive? Currently, consumers appear to be getting uneven value for their investments, depending on where they reside. With a very mobile population, inconsistancies in branding and incentives programs have a downside.
If you sell a home in one area, the green-home criteria used to approve it may differ from those in the next state, let alone on the opposite coast. So the relocating person faces uncertainty and may not be getting a good value for their investment. This effect is like having myriad auto mile-per-gallon rating procedures depending on location, creating consumer confusion and a nightmare for automakers. Consumers need simple-to-understand information on how environmentally beneficial technology, emerging green-design practices, and modern construction know-how come together to create green homes. Technology Review An environmentally designed green home is comprised of many features, some of which are new and others that rethink traditional home construction.
I first heard the term "green building" in 1988 while employed at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center in Maryland. We would often have brown-bag jawbone sessions debating where housing technology was heading. I recall a colleague, John Spears, coined the term during one such session. Since the 1970s I had researched energy efficiency, solar applications and indoor environmental systems, and recognized building components cannot exist in an "interaction vacuum" from one another. The building science and systems aspects begged explanation by physical principles, as well as by social, economic and even spiritual fundamentals. This emerging vision of buildings as systems - not just pieces and parts - helped form and refine the green-building concept. A green home consists of an integrated, holistic system designed to satisfy the following needs:
Health of the occupants is maintained or improved;
Reduced consumption of non-renewable resources is achieved;
Durability of the completed structure is maintained or enhanced;
Safety and security of the occupants is improved;
Value is increased via investment in selected improvements;
The building provides net enhancement of its community;
Lower environmental impact compared to business as usual;
The designer, builder, financier, owner and occupants all realize net benefits. To meet these needs, green homes include the following minimum design and technology features:
Energy efficiency improved by 30 to 50 percent compared to code for heating, cooling, hot water, lights and appliances;
The building site is respected, and minimal damage occurs during grading and preparation;
Where possible, the building is oriented to take advantage of natural energy sources;
Storm-water runoff is reduced significantly to protect local surface-water resources;
Native vegetation is conserved on-site, or reintroduced to limit irrigation needs;
Indoor environments are enhanced by moisture-resistant construction and designed to control entry of radon and other soil gas and outdoor pollution sources;
Effective natural and mechanical ventilation systems are installed that can be easily controlled and maintained by the occupants;
Highly efficient plumbing and mechanical systems are installed, accurately sized for their loads;
Water conservation measures are employed to reduce potable water use by at least 50 percent;
Homeowners are provided with an operating manual, helping them better understand the features of the home and how to maintain it in top working order;
Construction materials are selected that, together:
Reduce pollution during their manufacture, packaging and transport to job site,
Have low emissions of irritating, hazardous or toxic chemicals or particles,
Are obtained from local sources (inside a 250-mile radius),
Employ higher amounts of recycled materials while maintaining functionality,
Can be recycled at the end of their useful lives in the home, and
Can be maintained at low cost without using harmful chemicals. In well-designed green homes many of these approaches are harmonized. This happens best when architects work with consultants to assist in analyzing interactions between measures to maximize their benefits while eliminating features that don't work. Engineering analysis determines proper sizes of mechanical systems so initial construction costs are not excessive. An example interaction is as follows: A builder installs better insulation and improved windows and doors. Also, the builder has a crew seal up the air leaks and test HVAC ducts resulting in an efficient mechanical distribution system. These improvements result in a 25 percent annual utility-bill reduction. The builder invests $2,700 in the energy efficiency features.
The green-building consultant calculates that the home needs a much smaller furnace and air conditioner and shorter ducts, saving $2,200 in initial cost, compared to an inefficient home. Hence the net cost of the greener home is only $500 - not $2,700 - using holistic design and interaction calculations made for proper equipment sizing. The home's energy bill is reduced from $1,600 to $1,200 per year, so the investment will be paid off in less than two years from the $400-per-year cash flow to the owner. Careful consideration of systems interactions usually results in lower relative construction costs in green buildings. Builders produce a better product at lower costs, which meets the needs of an increasingly savvy and value-oriented consumer that wants health, durability, less maintenance and lower energy bills. What Builders Think Is Working I interviewed several North American builders on condition of anonymity, asking probing questions about what they thought of green building and whether they were producing green homes now. It became clear that unlike five to seven years ago, there is greater awareness among builders of the term green building, while there seem to be clarity issues about what the term actually means. In most cases builders identified green building with higher energy efficiency, and to some extent also with improving indoor air quality. One medium-sized homebuilder in Colorado stated they are going green because they don't really have to add anything expensive to get "credit." Going green is "pretty much a marketing device," and so they went along for the ride. That builder said, "more consumers are asking for energy savings and (also) ventilation systems to avoid mold, so why not call it green building and get in the program; we then compete better with other builders who don't come into the (local green-building) program." I learned that builders pretty much view energy efficiency as a prescriptive list, including adding insulation, improved windows and doors, using "house-wrap" to better seal walls, and installing higher-performance heating and air-conditioning systems. Beyond energy efficiency and radon gas and moisture abatement, builders appear to have a relatively poor grasp of advanced green-building principles - including the value of systematic design. Mold problems are a great concern among the builders I spoke with. Ironically, science suggests holistic building design can virtually eliminate moisture and mold problems in homes.
Builders also indicated there are often restrictions on what they can do to prepare construction sites and, for example, only recently have better storm-water requirements and grading principles become commonplace; both are key green-design approaches. Builders are skeptical about the durability and marketability of some high-recycled-content building materials, with the notable exception of cellulose insulation, which they seemed to like despite its somewhat higher cost. By and large, they remain wary due to past failures of some green materials, which resulted in lawsuits against the builders who used them. Some have tried green products when manufacturers offered rebates and on-site training assistance with new materials. Smaller builders appeared more willing to innovate, but more likely to want financial and legal indemnification or hand-holding support when they perceive risks from new techniques. A big deal to builders is the "sorry state of subcontractor labor" now available in markets with active housing-permit activity. It is currently very difficult to get skilled labor, and all labor is more costly, despite many laborers only knowing basic construction techniques. Construction laborers often get little more than on-the-job training through observation and suffer from limited supervision. Building labor - skilled or not - exists in a seller's market, while the housing industry is economically hot. One builder commented that while they would like to move quickly into green building, they have their hands full just getting basic things done right to meet code requirements. Another issue is when construction-bidding processes impose "Darwinian value-engineering." If a builder wants to do something new or different but can't find a contracting firm able to provide reasonable bids on a job, the new "something" may be considered dead-on-arrival and possibly never tried. One conclusion is: For green building to go mainstream, greater effort needs to be expended on training and information support, including trade groups expected to provide skilled labor. I also interviewed green-building program developers, including Dennis Creech, President of Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, and Ann Edminster (formerly with Natural Resources Defense Council), who now chairs the U.S. Green Building Council residential program. Creech and Edminster were happy to go on the record with comments on good program design, key technologies and future thoughts. Creech helped the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association create the EarthCraft homes program launched in 2000, now boasting an annual build-rate of 1,000-plus homes and serving wide segments of the market, from affordable to high-end custom homes. Creech indicated EarthCraft is on track to reach 10 percent of regional housing starts within five years of launch. Creech states, "Since the definition of green homes remains a bit fuzzy to consumers, and since strong consumer demand is critical, green builder programs need to educate consumers as much to the benefits as to the technical features of green home building." The program boosts credibility both through improved quality control (via third-party certification) and impartial consumer information. EarthCraft has been successful in enlisting regional sponsors to fund the program - once they recognized the business advantages. Local governments are excited too, since the benefits address regional challenges like air pollution, water quality, landfill waste and the need for new power plants.
Atlanta's major corporations eager to help include Georgia-Pacific, DuPont and Home Depot, who are all interested in marketing green materials. Creech indicates buyers most value indoor health benefits, followed by low maintenance, better comfort, quieter living and low energy bills. He says that despite rapid acceptance of programs like EarthCraft, the national green building market still faces many challenges in going mainstream. He indicates "good green design considers the building as a system -- but pieces of (green building) may enter the mainstream sooner, including moisture and mold control along with preventing quality problems through the systems approach." Some products getting attention include low-E windows, high-efficiency HVAC, recycled carpet, engineered wood products and fiber-cement siding. Creech indicates that EarthCraft does not push very new products, but rather gets builders to look at the "state of the shelf" in green building, and he says that the "shelf is filling up with good stuff." Edminster echoes many of Creech's observations, adding that homebuilders need to better involve the design community in green projects. She observes that a "formulaic approach to (housing) products in the marketplace is a problem, and builders need to invest more in intellectual capital during their projects, which ultimately will reduce materials costs and provide better customer satisfaction." She says the market creates "green creep," where builders "become greener than last year," sometimes without really knowing about it.
This is a positive market aspect, but builders still appear glacially slow to adopt innovations outright. Some major builders are adopting pieces of green building that address specific problems, in particular, aspects of better quality control. Examples include: Pulte Homes, now working with the national Department of Energy's Building America program to improve performance by as much as 50 percent and US Home, which retains consultants assisting on a California Zero Energy Home project. While these firms have not embraced green building across the board, they are exploring options that may put them ahead in the future. How About Building Codes? We pointed out that homebuilders frequently identify green building with higher energy efficiency and better indoor air quality. These issues have been on the NAHB's radar screen since the mid-1980s, albeit mainly as challenges to status quo rather than new opportunities to market a better product. That vision is gradually changing, but some builders and association managers are still concerned green building could be a harbinger of new rounds of environmental regulations and codes. Trade associations have historically opposed energy and environmental regulations, since their concern is always about increased costs of compliance.
A national voluntary standard for green building could actually help builders with getting code approvals. If properly implemented and managed by a reputable organization, building officials might be willing to accept program participation (or builder certification) as deemed-to-comply, with codes resulting in inspection waivers for selected portions during the construction process. Without a process based on consensus standards or guidelines, introducing potentially more complex designs, materials and the systems approach in green building might result in code-approval challenges. Building officials need to be well-educated on green building as much as builders and consumers, especially if the market continues to expand. Overview of Benefits and Costs The homebuilders and program managers we interviewed indicate there is a fairly narrow range of net costs for implementing basic green-building techniques. Experience shows that improving the environmental efficiency of a design must start early in the process, rather than trying to make changes at the end. This often is the most cost-effective way to green a homebuilding project. For a new home including basic green-design features - like good site design, energy efficiency, improved indoor air quality, water conservation measures and a mechanical ventilation system - case studies show costs have been minimal. Builders indicate their cost levels could wind up between 0 and 3 percent of the building construction cost (not including land). For a new home including advanced deep-green features, like advanced insulation systems, super-windows, zoned mechanical systems, solar hot water and PV electric panels, recycled building materials, special finishes and zero-emissions paints, rainwater catchments, etc., costs rise in relation to additional complexity. Advanced green homes may provide their own power and hence be off the typical power grid. If this is the goal, then avoided costs of connecting to the utility company can be traded off against the increased costs of the deep-green home and its systems.
In some cases, going off-grid has saved $10,000 to $50,000 in one-time utility fees for electricity transmission lines. These costs can be higher than normal when the home is located in rural or forested areas. Like any up-front costs associated with green building, careful planning and consideration tailored to each individual house plan can make the process - and the final result - more than worth it. Bion D. Howard is a principal with Building Environmental Science Sun, 01 Sep 2002 00:00:00 Bion Howard Foundations: Edison's Concrete Homes http://www.smart-homeowner.com/node/8982
In 1902, after realizing that his quest for perfecting the iron-ore refining process was doomed, he was determined to salvage something from that folly, at least. Instead of selling for scrap the heavy equipment and huge crushing rollers he had developed, he decided to use them in his new portland cement business. Within four years his new cement plant near Stewartsville, N.J., was ready to come on-line. During construction of that plant, Edison had difficulty securing fire insurance for what would have been a mostly wooden structure. But by using several concrete structures, he solved that problem and thought he had solved even more. At that time, the huge demand for wood, increasing costs of masonry and growing concerns about fire safety (think San Francisco quake and Chicago fire) made Edison think that concrete would make an ideal home construction alternative. Thus, he came up with a mechanized process by which houses could be mass-produced at a very reasonable price. With typically few but powerful words, he announced his entry into homebuilding: "I am going to live to see the day when a working man's house can be built of concrete in a week -- If I succeed, it will take from the city slums everybody who is worth taking." Edison came up with a method of molding and pouring an entire house in one fell swoop - except for foundation footings and slabs. Everything from the walls to staircases, window sills, plumbing pipes, electrical conduit, crown molding, picture frames and anything else a buyer wanted came in one pour. He reasoned that one experienced crew working six days a week could pour one house every two days, or 144 homes in a year. But he still had a few kinks to work out. One of the first problems was getting the right mixture. He discovered that after flowing several feet, the heavier aggregate in his mixture would separate from the lighter materials. After quite some time, he finally found that bentonite clay would give his mixture a jelly-like consistency that stabilized quickly, and that problem was solved. Another problem was venting his forms. This fix was relatively easy, as Edison simply added cloth traps to the roof and the highest points above each wall to allow air to escape as the concrete entered. However, there were several problems that he could not overcome. While he came up with a simple floor plan that could be easily modified by assembling the forms differently, it was the forms themselves that were complicated and cost-prohibitive. One set of forms had upwards of 2,500 moving parts, and builders would have to spend about $175,000 to ramp up for operation. And while he did attract enough attention to get investors to build a small neighborhood in Union, N.J., none of the houses sold, despite the asking price of $1,200 (about one-third the average price at the time). Apparently, no one wanted to live in a house designed to rescue poor slum dwellers. There are 12 of these homes still standing, and they are occupied. Some residents love the insulating qualities and low maintenance, while others bemoan the difficulty in remodeling and renovation. At least one resident has a leak that defies detection, and while she can get contractors to come check it out, she says they never come back. This venture was not a complete failure, as Edison's portland cement mixture was actually quite a fine and successful product. In fact, Yankee Stadium was built with it in 1923, and those residents don't seem to have any complaints.