GREEN BUILDING IN A NUTSHELL
by Lorraine Anderson

Imagine a building that’s in tune with its surroundings, that’s durable and uses little in the way of resources, and that contributes to the health and well-being of its occupants. If your home doesn’t fit that description, you’re not alone. Such buildings are still more the exception than the rule.

But that’s changing, particularly in the Northwest, where nothing less than a green building revolution is under way. Whether you’re looking for a home to buy, planning to build a custom home, or want to remodel or retrofit your current home, you’ll find an expanding range of green choices available to you. There are also more cash and tax incentives than ever before for Oregon homeowners to go green.

What’s Green Building?

Green building refers to combining multiple strategies to make a home friendly to its occupants and the earth. The ideal green home sits on the smallest foundation necessary and is oriented to take advantage of the sun’s energy and the cooling effects of prevailing breezes. It uses efficient framing techniques and eco-friendly materials, saves water and energy, and has indoor air that is free of allergens and pollutants. Its landscape uses water wisely, incorporates appropriate trees and shrubs to assist in heating and cooling the house, and offers habitat for wildlife.

Green building can also be described as a whole-systems approach to the design, construction and operation of buildings that minimizes ecological impact and maximizes economic performance. Since the early 1990s when the term green building was coined, green building practices have increasingly entered the mainstream. Green building certification programs such as Earth Advantage, Energy Star, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes are setting standards and educating consumers and builders alike about key features of green building.

Why Build Green?

Modern buildings consume more resources and contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of industrial societies, including transportation. Worldwide they consume a quarter of all wood harvested and account for a sixth of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Construction and demolition debris takes up as much as 30 percent of landfill space in North America.

The building practices of the past have resulted not only in degraded ecosystems but also in compromised human health. Mold, dust mites and chemicals found in conventional building materials, products and furnishings pose health risks to those with allergies and asthma.

Green buildings offer an alternative. Whether you employ just one green building strategy such as better insulating your attic or go all the way and build a net zero home (a home that produces as much energy as it consumes), your choice will contribute to a more livable planet.

How Much Does It Cost?

Although you might expect a green building, like an organic vegetable, to cost more than its conventional counterpart, building green doesn’t necessarily cost any more than building conventionally—it may even cost less. For example, the Center for Health and Healing at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification, its highest level, and had project costs 10 percent below typical costs for a comparable building. Plus it qualified for financial incentives for its sustainable features and expects to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in operating costs, thanks to its wise use of energy.

Similarly, a green home that’s carefully designed to take a whole-systems approach can realize savings in a number of ways. For example, it can save money by using salvaged wood for flooring or concrete from a demolished patio to build a retaining wall. Siting it to harvest solar energy will result in a supply of energy that’s free and forever. Using the low-VOC paints (low in volatile organic compounds, the stuff that makes paint hazardous to breathe) offered now by all major paint manufacturers costs no more than using traditional-formula mid- to high-quality paints. Even those green features such as solar electric and solar hot water that cost a lot up front eventually pay back your initial investment in energy savings over time.

Besides, state and federal tax rebates and/or cash incentives from Energy Trust of Oregon are available for these aspects of a green home:

solar electric and water-heating systems

high-efficiency water heaters and furnaces

energy-efficient appliances

energy-efficient windows

duct sealing and insulation

attic insulation

whole-house ventilation

waste water heat recovery

Visit www.energytrust.org and www.energy.state.or.us for more details on what qualifies and how to claim these rebates and incentives. If you plan to stay in your current home, Energy Trust will send a home energy auditor for free to assess energy-saving measures you can take.

Choices That Make a Difference

During the initial planning of your green building or remodeling project, keep these three objectives in mind: energy efficiency, air quality, and conservation of natural resources. These will guide you as you make the hundreds of choices required along the way.

Sometimes you’ll need to weigh cost and environmental tradeoffs: replacing your old aluminum windows with high-efficiency vinyl windows will trim your use of electricity or gas for heating, but the manufacture of vinyl produces dioxins. On the other hand, environmentally friendly wood-framed high-efficiency windows may be out of your price range. Decide what’s most important to you and realize that no choice is perfect.Siting. Place the long axis of your house from east to west to maximize your solar resources, and aim to minimize disturbance of your site at the same time. Consider whether a smaller home will meet your needs. If you’re working with an existing building, scope out your south exposure and whether you have enough solar access to make electricity or heat water. Think about how much time and energy you want to devote to maintaining your landscape.

External structure. Durability, thermal efficiency and resource efficiency are the goals here. Your home’s enclosure should control air leaks, heat loss and moisture intrusion while at the same time allowing in ample daylight and fresh air. Framing should be done with the minimum amount of material required for structural integrity. And materials should be chosen to minimize environmental impact and maximize their ability to be reused when the building has reached the end of its life. Certification systems such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for wood products can help you compare materials.

Operating systems. Consider whether you can make use of on-site energy and/or water resources. Investigate which type and size of heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system best meets your needs. Design your plumbing system to minimize your use of both energy and water.

Interior. Choose finishes (like carpet and paint) carefully to avoid introducing indoor air quality problems. Consider how the finish is manufactured and how it needs to be maintained. Choose energy-efficient appliances: refrigerators, dishwashers and clothes washers in particular can make a big difference in your energy demand. Here, the GreenGuard (for meeting air quality standards) and Energy Star (for meeting energy standards) certification systems can inform your choices.

Operations and maintenance. Pay attention to how your home is working (including energy and water bills) and make needed repairs right away. Set up a routine maintenance system and choose green products when you repair, clean, and operate your home.

Hiring a Professional

The process of building, remodeling or retrofitting a home is a collaborative one where you’ll rely on designers, contractors and tradespeople to bring your vision into form. If there are design decisions to be made and drawn, hire an architect. This person can help you incorporate aesthetic qualities as well as practical details and will translate your dreams and ideas into plans and specifications that contractors can understand.

Because green building takes a whole-systems approach, it works best when professionals collaborate as a team from the beginning. Have the contractor and maybe even an interior designer and/or landscape architect present during design meetings to suggest efficient construction details, spot conflicts and estimate costs. Keep dated notes of meetings and decisions and review them regularly with the architect and builder.

Ideally you’ll hire a designer/builder with green building expertise. Look for membership in the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and/or the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild as an indication of active involvement in the green building movement. Also check for green building credentials such as LEED Accredited Professional, Certified Sustainable Building Advisor, Energy Star Performance Tester or Verifier, and Built Green Verifier. Be sure to check references and ask to see examples of work.

If you’re retrofitting your current home you may manage the project yourself and hire tradespeople directly. Energy Trust maintains a list of trade allies, contractors who are qualified to do work on behalf of its Home Energy Solutions program. Although you can also have energy efficiency work done by nonparticipating contractors licensed by the Oregon Construction Contractors Board, trade allies make doing the paperwork to claim incentives much easier.

For More Information

Every autumn, communities across Oregon participate in the Oregon Green and Solar Home Tours. Go to www.solar-oregon.org scroll down for the link to green and solar tours for a current list.

On the tour or when visiting a supporting business, be sure to pick up the free annual Green + Solar Building Oregon magazine. It’s packed with information about green building and cash and tax incentives, and with case studies of green homes and commercial buildings.

Check out the articles and fact sheets on the web site of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild at www.ecobuilding.org.

Two recent books are also great sources of information:

The Northwest Green Home Primer
by Kathleen O’Brien and Kathleen Smith (Timber Press, 2008)

Green Remodeling by David Johnston and Kim Master (New Society Publishers, 2004)

Lorraine Anderson is a freelance writer and editor living in Corvallis. She copyedited "The Northwest Green Home Primer".

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