Green Building Development Q&A

QUESTION

“I’m starting to hear and read more about “green building”, and how efficient and economical these homes can be without taking a lot of natural resources to create. Can you tell me what builders are doing incorporate features that are environment friendly, and what features homebuyers should be looking for? What kind of real savings does building green generate for the consumer?” – C.T., Pleasanton

ANSWER

“Building green” refers to building homes that use natural resources to their full potential in creating an energy efficient dwelling. These homes use materials, systems and components that do not require lots of energy or resources to create, and that use a minimal amount of energy to sustain. Examples of green building include homes that use solar or wind energy for electricity or heat, and homes that are constructed from recycled materials. However, the list does not stop here.

Green building is definitely on the horizon for the future of construction, but it has not yet taken over mainstream thinking. The reasons that many of the green systems and components are not being fully utilized in today’s construction are the initial costs, lack of easy integration of components, and the lack of motivation for builders to do so. In some cases, there are also aesthetic concerns such as the visibility of solar panels or passive heat components.

Before builders will embrace and utilize many green components, they have to be convinced that the demand is there, and that the initial costs of gearing up and incorporating the components into their homes will pay off. For every new component or major building system that builders use, there is a learning curve for not only the builder, but the manufacturer and sub contractors involved in its installation. Many of the individual components of green building have never been fully integrated into a particular home or development, which presents little or no history on their actual acceptance or performance.

Today, most homes being built meet certain energy standards to be classified as an “Energy Star” home. These homes include energy efficient features such as high insulation values in the floors, walls, and ceilings, tight sealing ductwork for all furnaces, double or triple pane windows, and energy saving appliances and fluorescent lighting. Yet, building green goes much further. Building green means making the entire structure and mechanical systems so energy efficient, that they consume less energy and resources than conventional housing.

As an example of this, consider the amount of trees needed to produce the wood necessary to construct a house. What if you could use recycled materials, or wood scraps to build the house? Think of the natural resources we could save. Well, some builders are using this alternative today, and they do it by using structural insulated panels.

Insulated structural panels (ISP’s) are panels used to frame walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs that are basically a sandwich of two wood panels made up of wood chips glued together, with a dense layer of rigid insulation in between. These panels are designed to interlock, and can be assembled and mass-produced to almost any design. A house built using SIPs will be at a minimum 50% more efficient that a house built with conventional framing. Straw bale construction is another option for creating an extremely efficient shell of a house, however its use has not been developed to consistent standards that allow it to be easily mass-produced.

Once the structure is built, a photovoltaic system can be installed to generate most or all of the house’s electrical needs. You can then add solar heating for the interior of the house and water heater. You can also heat the house using stoves that burn corn kernels, or generate your electricity with a wind generator. Decks, porches, and outdoor structures are being built with recycled plastics and wood fibers. Builders are also devising ways to recycle gray water (water from sinks, washing machines, and tub and showers), to be filtered, and used to irrigate the landscaping around the house.

The options for green building seem to be ever expanding as the industry develops new technologies for recycled materials, and better systems and designs of current innovations.

Next week, I will tell you about an ambitious green building project of historic proportions that is in the process of being developed in Northern California. It is being designed and built by some innovative industry members from the Bay Area, and has the cooperation and support of local and state governments. The goal of the project is to build a small, truly affordable community that contains a mix of residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial uses that meet the energy and renewable resource requirements of California’s EPA’s Million Solar Homes Initiative, and many of the programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Once completed, this project will become a model for the industry to follow.

Scenic Mountain Developements

It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, great innovations are made where people and the environment can both benefit. Imagine a community where people can live, work and shop, while at the same time enjoying clean air, low utility costs, and low housing costs. Now imagine this community in Northern California. Most developers and builders would say this is impossible, but one developer, Scenic Mountain Development, LLC, of the Bay Area is in the process of designing and building one of the most ambitious green building projects ever considered in the United States.

The project is called Sierra Meadow Village and is being developed in Lassen County, in a town called Herlong. Herlong is about 40 minutes north of Reno, and about 30 minutes south of Susanville California. The goal of the project is to build a small, truly affordable community that contains a mix of residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial uses that meet the energy and renewable resource requirements of most federal and state programs. Once completed, this project will be historic in proportion, and become a model for the industry to follow.

Sierra Meadow Village is being built on a portion of land that was donated by Sierra Army Depot to Lassen County for public use and development. The overall Village design emphasizes a diverse mix of land uses within walking range of each other, smaller lot sizes along with public gathering spots, and a main community park, all interconnected by a comprehensive street and walkway system. The commute will be short enough for residents to bicycle to jobs, businesses, or shopping. Yet, the true innovations of this development are the way it will be constructed, and the energy efficient systems that will be used in all aspects of the development.

To discuss the innovations of this project, I spoke with Gene Grillo, president of Bullseye Homes, and project manager for Scenic Mountain Development. Gene began by saying, “The beauty of this project is that it employs extensive creativity in its design to exceed most current energy requirements, while using cost saving and green technologies in most phases of construction. And we can do this because we have assembled a team of the best electrical, mechanical, and solar engineers to assist us in the design of this development.”

“The green technologies we will be using include biodiesel for construction equipment fuel, fuel cells, photovoltaic solar and wind power generation to bring electricity to the homes, and solar water and space heating. The buildings in the development will be constructed with energy efficient envelopes by utilizing the Structural Insulated Panels for the exterior skin of the buildings yielding higher than standard insulation values. These panels will be manufactured on site, which will eliminate transportation and handling costs.”

Gene stated that construction innovations will include the use of helical piers to support the residential units. Helical piers resemble huge metal screws that are turned into the soil, and act as foundation supports. Heating options include the use of solar radiant heating in floors, the use of Biomass heaters which use corn pellets for fuel, as well as energy efficient furnaces and duct systems. Solar lighting will be used for all external applications, and interior lighting will be supplied by a combination of fiber optics, and low consumption halogen and fluorescent fixtures. Supplementing interior light will be multiple window openings, skylights, and solar tubes. There will also be the option of gray water recycling where water from sinks and tubs can be filtered and used for irrigation.

When I asked Gene why most builders are not using these technologies, he pointed out, “Most builders do not want to change how they do things unless they are forced to by market demands. The also don’t want to invest time and money needed to be able to incorporate this new technology into their construction without real justification.”

“However, we realized the tremendous opportunity in combining the innovative technologies available today to create a new level of housing that produces very little impact to the environment. The biggest achievement of this development is that the housing will be affordable not only in terms of their purchase prices (condos will start from the low $100,000.00, and homes from the low $140,000.00), but the yearly utility savings will have the ability exceed their mortgage costs.”

Grillo mentioned that part of Scenic Mountain Development’s ability to be cost efficient in building this development is that they are near the near the technological center of the photovoltaic and SIP development. This means access to the skilled labor necessary to install these green systems and components. They are also getting support from Lassen County and the Army.

The project is scheduled to begin construction within the next few months, and when it is finished, it will be a model for the rest of the nation. For more information about this development or the innovative technologies being used, you can contact Gene Grillo at 1-530-827-2001 or 800-495-3544.