Green Building for the Rest of Us

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Illustration by Chris Lyons

In the past decade, America’s corporate haunts have evolved. Instead of erecting the same old fossil fuel-guzzling behemoths, companies have been building sleek headquarters that conserve energy, use less water, are healthier workplaces, and are generally kinder to the earth.

This shift isn’t occurring because corporate America’s heart suddenly started bleeding green. “Just five or six years ago, the term ‘green building’ evoked visions of tie-dyed, granola-munching denizens walking around barefoot on straw mats as wind chimes tinkled near open windows,” Harvard Business Review ribbed in June 2006. “Today, the term suggests lower overhead costs, greater employee productivity, less absenteeism, and stronger employee attraction and retention.”

Unfortunately, the message that green building’s benefits are as much personal and fiscal as they are environmental isn’t following many workers home after they punch the clock. Ecofriendly building may have infiltrated the commercial sector, but suburbia remains a relatively green-free zone. According to a March study by the National Association of Home Builders and McGraw-Hill Construction, a meager 0.3 percent of U.S. homes were identified as “truly green,” meaning that they incorporated several environmentally friendly building features.

That’s not nearly enough to make a dent in the building industry’s impact on climate change. Buildings account for more than 40 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions, the lion’s share of which comes from burning fossil fuels for lighting, cooling, heating, and ventilation. Though it’s crucial to have the commercial sphere on board, in order to truly minimize the construction industry’s environmental footprint, the green building movement has to hit us where we live.

Fortunately, some forward-looking builders, home owners, and advocacy groups are slowly but surely laying the foundation for green building in the residential market. Local and regional green home-building programs are introducing builders to ecosavvy strategies that make sense for their bottom line. Home owners who are fed up with feeling like there’s nothing they can do about climate change are stretching their budgets to incorporate green elements in their new homes and rehab projects, and they’re finding that it pays them in the end. Even affordable-housing developers are discovering that green homes make environmental and economic sense (see “Low Rent High Tech,” p. 49).

Now the trick is to expand green building’s toehold in the market by winning over mainstream consumers and builders, and by making sure that as the appeal of green building grows, its standards aren’t watered down.

“Everyone always asks, How much does green building cost?” says Dennis Creech, executive director of Southface Energy Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that spreads the green gospel in the South’s construction industry. “We really need to flip the question and ask, How much more does traditional building cost you than green?”

To get that paradigm shift under way, Southface partnered with the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association (“strange bedfellows for sure,” says Creech) to create EarthCraft–a certification program that addresses the region’s unique environmental challenges, such as heat, moisture, and critters.

So far, EarthCraft has done an impressive job of convincing buyers and builders that spending a little extra money up front can save a lot down the road. In 2000, the first year EarthCraft began its monitoring process, eight homes made the grade. This year, that figure is expected to be around 2,500.

For home buyers, the benefits come in the form of lower energy and water costs, less maintenance, and cleaner air, to name a few. For builders, who don’t see a penny from lower utility bills, the pluses are less obvious but no less convincing. Builders tell Creech that their green-built homes have fewer callbacks–the warranty-ensured fixes that quickly erode profit margins. And they credit their green techniques with helping them stand out for quality and innovation in a field crowded by the mundane.

“It’s the same rationale of spending a little more for something that lasts longer,” says Michael Haynes, a Minnesota “EcoBroker”–a real estate agent who’s trained to help consumers navigate the green home market. Haynes teaches home buyers and sellers to understand green features not as added costs, but as added values. Energy Star appliances, native landscaping, strong insulation, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, nearby access to bike trails–these aren’t just environmental bonuses, they’re quality-of-life perks. And they can be a big draw, especially, says Haynes, in today’s weak housing market.

That sentiment is echoed across the field. Mick Dalrymple, a partner at a.k.a. Green, an environmental building store in Scottsdale, Arizona, and creator of the PBS television program Build It Green, explains that before the housing market went soft, builders didn’t have to pay much attention to the green fringe. Houses were selling before they could plant for-sale signs in the yards. Now there’s time for those builders to take a breath, look around, and figure out how to prove their merit in a tough market.

But with the benefits of green’s market appeal come familiar dangers. Any burgeoning market, no matter how specialized, is bound to attract vultures claiming to be something they’re not. That’s why industry-trusted third-party certification systems are so important.

The U.S. Green Building Council has set the industry standard with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings, which put commercial builders’ green claims to the test by evaluating design, construction, and operations. The council has recently expanded into the burgeoning green housing market with its LEED for Homes rating system slated for launch by year’s end. Other initiatives are in the works, including guidelines for green renovations and a certification and training program.

Such an umbrella rating system has yet to emerge for the glut of new home products stamped with green labels advertising vague environmental benefits. Take, for example, trendy paints touting their low use of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Dalrymple says that in the rush to meet market demand for these paints, some companies are just tweaking their original formulas to mask fumes instead of creating a better, less toxic product.

“It’s really easy for a marketing department to come up with a little green label that doesn’t actually mean anything,” says Dalrymple. To prevent their good intentions from becoming greenwashers’ profits, consumers are going to have to start doing some homework, which may surprise those who are relatively new to the green scene.

Not long ago, Dalrymple’s customers arrived in his shop armed with research. They were expectant mothers, energy geeks, or people with health problems. “Now,” he says, “we’re finding people who say, ‘I don’t have time to figure this out. Can you just help me do it?’ “

Until a trustworthy, comprehensive rating system emerges, Dalrymple recommends asking vendors for a product’s government-required Material Safety Data Sheet, which he says is relatively easy to understand and will give consumers a good idea of a product’s toxicity, since the sheets originally were designed to protect workers’ safety. Another good resource is Score, which details various chemicals’ health and environmental effects. Or consider shopping at a “reuse” center, because sometimes the greenest fixtures and materials are the salvaged ones that don’t end up in a landfill (see “Salvage Beauty,” p. 46).

It’s important to remember, though, that saving energy–and the financial benefits that it reaps–doesn’t hinge on green products.

“Consumers should be very concerned about [builders and designers] just focused on products,” says Southface’s Creech. “The key is taking a systems approach, not putting a bunch of Band-Aids on a house.” Dalrymple, whose trade is green products and services, agrees. Products are important, he says, but they are not as essential as, for example, orienting a house to take advantage of passive solar heating or ensuring that a building is tightly sealed to conserve energy. 

As tempting as it may be to buy a new bamboo countertop and call it a day, consumers will have to put in the research and legwork necessary to ensure that green building can realize its potential. Because the true cost of building green isn’t money, but effort. And that’s something all of us can spare for the good of the planet.

For a guide to online green building resources, visit

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