Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to Recognize a Truly “Green” Home

By Jim Northrop, GSWA Member

I find it hard to go to a hardware or home improvement store without being almost overwhelmed by the many products and new materials competing for attention as a “must have” step toward becoming environmentally “correct.” How to make my home into a “greener” place has become an ongoing learning process for me.

Having a “green” home is not just a fad. A “green” home uses less energy, water and natural resources, creates less waste, reduces greenhouse gases, and is healthier for the people living inside, compared to a standard home.

A home can be built “green,” or one can make it “green” later. A “green” make-over can happen all at once, or it can be a gradual process. But what it all comes down to, I think, is a new way of thinking and a new way of living. Commercial developers and building owners are perhaps the most important part of the equation. Architects and engineers have traditionally taken their cue from clients regarding a building’s environmental performance. The standard practice has been to focus more on construction costs than long-term operational costs. With a typical building lifespan of 75 years, however, maintenance and other ongoing expenditures often prove to be much greater than the initial costs. This makes energy efficiency, for example, an excellent investment over time.

What Shade of “Green?”
With so many voices advocating different ways to get to “green,” I started looking for some standards. I found that the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit trade organization, has been a pioneer in defining standards for “green” building design, construction, operation and maintenance, by offering a LEED certification for those building projects which qualify. “LEED” stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” Importantly, it is homes and other building PROJECTS which may be certified, not builders; but any builder is eligible to register a project with LEED. This is a voluntary rating system, with inspections by qualified third parties, and is appropriate for a wide range of “green” situations, including “green” homes, affordable housing, mass-production homes, custom designs, stand-alone single-family homes, duplexes and townhouses, suburban and urban apartments and condominiums and lofts in historic buildings.

Apparently, I was not the only one doing some learning! This year the latest version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED building performance certification system will begin requiring the submission of building operation performance data on a recurring basis and as a pre-condition to certification. USGBC had found too often a performance gap between the energy modeling done during the design phase and what actually happens during daily operation after the building is constructed. So, ongoing monitoring and reporting of data will be required. It is thought that this will improve building performance by bringing to light external issues such as occupant behavior or unanticipated building energy use and water consumption patterns.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Do Your Homework...

Five years ago when my wife and I were house-hunting in suburban New Jersey, we fell in love with a 6 acre parcel bordered at the rear by a lovely stream. This stream is one of five which feed the Great Swamp, and then become part of the Passaic River. We have really enjoyed watching the seasons come and go along the stream, and one day we even caught a glimpse of a heron.

Last week, I happened upon my neighbor Frank one evening as I walked my dog. The same stream abuts both of our properties, but his house is closer to the water than mine. Importantly, he also has a direct view of a little island in the stream, about the size of a tennis court. The island is rocky and covered with underbrush --- generally it is considered an “eye sore.” Lately, area youngsters seem to have adopted the island, making it their “club house.” In the evenings they often gather after sunset and become disturbingly loud.

The Plan

My neighbor was upset about this island’s physical condition. But he was particularly disturbed by the “attractive nuisance” it represented to the youth who congregate there. He told me of his plan to privately bring in a bulldozer and level the island. He thought it would take less than an afternoon and that he would be making a great contribution to our neighborhood, all at his own expense ---- “it will be my gift,” he said.

As my dog and I continued our walk, I thought about Frank’s plan. I had several questions Frank had not answered. First, whose island was this, anyway? Secondly, I knew that to get a bulldozer into the water, the stream embankment would need to be cut and graded because of the sharp five foot drop-off to the water. Thirdly, did Frank know whether any conservation easements existed to buffer the stream corridor from just the kind of alteration that Frank was proposing? And finally, was destruction of the island the only, or the best, way to correct the problems that Frank saw? Frank liked to call himself “a man of action,” so he had not explored these questions. He said the bulldozer was coming in two days.

Doing Homework May Reveal Some Defects In The Plan

As my dog and I returned home that evening, Frank was still there, weeding a garden. I decided to share my concerns with him, and urged him first to consult with the Township Engineer. While the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection has general jurisdiction over fresh water wet lands and streams, small land use issues may sometimes be handled by local authorities, such as the Town’s Board of Adjustment. The Township Engineer should visit the stream site, I told Frank, and give his opinion about which agency can actually authorize the stream encroachment and give any required permits. I noted that the DEP vigorously enforces the New Jersey land use regulations with severe penalties.

Then we talked about the gathering of youngsters that Frank viewed as a noisy nuisance. “Frank,” I asked, “wouldn’t it be much easier to just ask the police to visit the area around the island periodically and bring order? And, it would not cost you ANYTHING!” Frank smiled and thanked me for the suggestion. He admitted that perhaps he had been a little impulsive, and that his plan of island removal was a bit drastic. We agreed that the Township Engineer probably would have some simple new suggestions for how to make the vegetation on the island less of an “eye sore,” while keeping the island largely the way nature had provided it.

Frank left me wondering just how often busy, well-intending people do not do their homework. This is one reason that not-for-profit environmental organizations like the Great Swamp Watershed Association are such a great resource for citizens facing a land use issue. With one phone call, impetuous Frank could have begun his homework and been sure to avoid some serious mistakes.