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.

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