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.

We All Must Stay Abreast of Improved “Green” Methods
I was pleased to find that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) appreciates the need to have standards defining when to call a building project “green.” This year the AIA began requiring its members to take four hours of continuing education courses in “green” design, every year. It is reassuring that I am not the only one engaged in a continuing learning process about the newest ways to make a building project “green.” Under the auspices of the AIA, licensed architects learn about such things as how to reduce heat gain from sunlight; the most energy-efficient ways to position buildings relative to the sun, wind and other elements; ways to bring in natural light and reduce electricity consumption; and the preservation and re-use of existing buildings. Whereas architects typically walk away from their projects after they are completed (perhaps visiting only occasionally) now there is more emphasis on following the life of a building after it is occupied. More and more, the architect is becoming interested in studying how tenants use the structure and how its sustainable aspects hold up over time.

Not only are the physical building materials and methods of “green” construction rapidly changing ----- there is an important change in professional thinking. Thanks to LEED and other measures of “green,” an on-going measure will be applied, not just an initial focus at the design and construction.

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