Green building — and its remodeling equivalent — isn't as new a concept as you might think it is. Depending on where you live, you may have only recently discussed it with your colleagues or had a client ask about it. This may even be the first time you've given it any real consideration. But builders and remodelers in a few markets — most of California and parts of the Pacific Northwest, and Atlanta, to name a few — have been practicing it for years. Slowly but surely, however, the country as a whole is embracing the trend of environmentally responsible building practices. It's probably no accident that the upturn in the popularity of green in the housing industry coincides with the general public's growing interest in natural and environmentally friendly products across the board.
Of course, not every homeowner's reason for embracing green is completely altruistic. With fuel prices rising in recent months and a tightening economy, energy efficiency is a big draw for new-home buyers as well as people looking to remodel.
Eco-friendly products, such as cork flooring, are gaining popularity with consumers, though price is still a concern for some.
The growing popularity of Energy Star — the energy-efficiency program managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy — is a testament to that. Jonathan Passe, communications coordinator for the residential branch of the Energy Star program, says that approximately 165,000 new homes — roughly 10% of the nation's housing starts — were Energy Star–qualified last year. Consider that over the 10-year life of the program roughly 600,000 of these homes have been built, and it's clear that its popularity is growing. Passe says that around 200,000 Energy Star–qualified new homes will be built in 2006.
“The purchase of Energy Star–qualified products is on the rise,” Passe says, “and more and more manufacturers are participating.” He adds that user searches on the Energy Star Web site for things such as energy efficient products and instructions on how to seal up homes are increasing.
Darlene Gayler's experience confirms the notion that energy conservation is an important issue with today's homeowners. “They are usually interested in the energy-efficient products,” says Gayler, who co-owns Gayler Construction, in Danville, Calif., with her husband, George. “However, they usually are reluctant to give up the pretty things that aren't green,” such as countertops, cabinets, and flooring. “It's hard to get them off of oak and hickory.” Not helping matters is the fact that the green alternatives are also generally more expensive; people may be willing to give up a little bit aesthetically for the good of the environment if it saves them money, but won't if it adds costs to what is already an expensive endeavor. Gayler Construction has had clients who have shown interest in doing an entire project green, but “cost made it impossible at a certain point,” according to Gayler. Recycling
Passe is hopeful that more energy-efficient products will become increasingly mainstream as demand increases. “When recycled paper [first] came out, it was more expensive, and the quality wasn't as good,” he says. Now, almost all paper is recycled, and it's impossible to tell the difference.
Recycling lumber is one way to cut costs while protecting the environment.
Speaking of recycling, reusing building materials is another way to make a project green while simultaneously saving that other green — money. ReStores — building materials recycling centers affiliated with Habitat for Humanity — offer used doors, windows, light fixtures, cabinets, ceramic tile, and lumber at significant discounts in more than 450 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The ReStore concept originated in the early 1990s, and the fact that it's enjoying increased popularity nationwide is a testament to the growing interest in environmentally responsible building.
Habitat is also getting into the act through local affiliates building energy-efficient homes. “An increasing number of affiliates are using these techniques,” says Kate Pride Brown, Habitat spokeswoman. Habitat affiliates across the country, in Olympia, Wash., Austin, Texas, and Green Bay, Wis. regularly build green. In fact, the Metro Denver Habitat affiliate recently built a “net zero energy” house, and the affiliate in Butte, Mont., completed one with photovoltaic panels.
As much success as ReStore and other recycling programs are enjoying, there's still a lot more that can be done. It's estimated that as much as 80% of a house can be recycled, but the ReStore Web site cites an EPA statistic that states that just 20% to 30% of all construction and demolition waste in the U.S. is recycled each year.
Regulations Play a Part
The general public's increased awareness of green building will help further the cause, but extenuating circumstances may force the industry's hand. Dennis Allen, president of Allen Associates, a green builder and remodeler in Santa Barbara, Calif., says that dwindling landfill space and an extended drought in the late 1980s led to changes in California codes (which are probably the “greenest” of any state). “I'm sure those kinds of issues have popped up elsewhere,” he says, and it's a safe bet that they will continue to.
Allen says legislation is another likely driver of increased green building. In 1978, California adopted Title 24, establishing energy efficiency standards for construction. These rules are updated every so often, reflecting new technologies or new issues.
“People haven't been calling most of the stuff we've been required to do [under Title 24] ‘green building,'” Allen says, “but that's exactly what it is. It's the base from which new programs are springing.”
Additionally, Passe says, “the International Energy Conservation Code is becoming more rigorous, and more and more states are adopting it.” Passe adds that a few municipalities around the country have gone beyond that, adopting the Energy Star qualifications — an above-code program — as code.
Though homeowners and contractors on the whole have been slow to embrace the green movement, the associations and other industry groups have begun to take action. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry now has a green education program (see page 180), and the National Association of Home Builders — in addition to offering classes devoted to green building practices — holds the National Green Building Conference annually. The American Institute of Architects has a number of sustainability initiatives, as well. And there are several organizations exclusively devoted to the issue, such as the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), and the Energy and Environmental Building Association.
Jerelyn Wilson, outreach director at BuildingGreen, an organization providing green building information to professionals in the construction industry, says the USGBC — specifically, its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for construction projects —has been “a primary driver of green building in the commercial sector in the last six years. LEED for Homes is currently in its pilot phase.
Energy and Environmental Building Association: www.eeba.org
Energy Star: www.energystar.gov
U.S. Green Building Council/LEED: www.usgbc.org