Green Houses

By Eric Christensen

March 30, 2012 5 min read

Homeowners can't escape to-do lists -- weekend chores, long-term DIY projects, or even plans and designs for building a dream home from the ground up. A growing number of homeowners are adding "make my home greener" to those to-do lists, and they can pick from a variety of projects that fit any budget, goal and home-improvement ability.

After buying a home, architect Robin Greenberg made her house greener because she wanted "to save money in the long term" and have a "healthier personal environment." She installed digital thermostats for precise control of her home's temperature, low-flow showerheads, fan exhausts in the bathroom, and Energy Star appliances. She also added insulation to the walls and roof, and she used low volatile organic compound, or VOC, paint. Because of these changes, she was able to get a small tax refund, lower energy bills and a more comfortable home.

She suggests homeowners check the age of their appliances as a first step to making their home greener. "Old machines are far less efficient than new ones," and "upgrading to newer appliances could lead to lower operating costs and long-term savings." Before replacing your windows, Greenberg instead suggests you look for leaks and drafts. "Look around windows, doors and holes in basements. Windows aren't as drafty as people think, and a good curtain can help with comfort." Greenberg says plugging those leaks is more cost-effective and is very efficient for controlling your airflow and comfort.

Homeowners interested in green buildings may be familiar with the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design certification program for energy efficiency, but the U.S. Green Building Council also runs a LEED for Homes program. Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the USGBC, suggests homeowners look at the USGBC's Green Home Guide and REGREEN website. The Green Home Guide outlines a variety of energy efficiency options, and it offers advice from professionals. The REGREEN program "allows homeowners and their contractors to zero in on green strategies based upon project type and priorities. The site offers case studies, in-depth technical strategies and other resources to facilitate projects."

If you are interested in designing and building a green dream home, many options are available. Welshman Simon Dale built a green home into a hillside that resembles something from the book "The Hobbit." Brad Pitt's Make It Right initiative has built starkly modern homes in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward that have received the highest LEED certification. The latest green homes are "net-zero" homes that generate as much (or more) renewable energy than they consume, but such homes require lots of direct sunlight (they depend heavily on solar power) and have difficulty maintaining a cool interior in hot and humid environments.

For homeowners designing their green dream home, Kredich suggests outlining "your plans and priorities during design" because LEED certification can be more difficult and expensive if the process begins post-construction. Kredich therefore also recommends having your builder, contractor, architect and planners meet regularly to build consensus.

Kredich estimates that a green home will cost an additional 1 to 5 percent to build, but an experienced builder can sometimes eliminate added costs. Kredich also says, "Many localities have (financial) incentives for building to LEED (or) expedited permitting. It's worthwhile for homeowners to check and see if their state or locality has any incentives."

In order to receive LEED certification, a home must be 15 percent more energy-efficient than typical homes built to code, but Kredich says "most LEED homes achieve 30 percent or more," producing "significant savings to the homeowner, though the timeline is dependent on local utility costs."

Kredich also says green homes experience decreased moisture problems, decreased carbon monoxide and radon risks, and fewer air pollutants, creating a healthier environment for homeowners. Lastly, Kredich points to studies in Atlanta, Portland and Seattle that found green homes sell more quickly and at higher prices.

There are many ways to make your home greener, from the simple and inexpensive to the complex and costly. But each project is a step closer to a healthier and more comfortable home that is cheaper to operate and better for the environment. Maybe it is time to update your to-do list.

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