Sustainable Living

By Shawn Dell Joyce

October 3, 2008 6 min read

SUSTAINABLE LIVING

Energy Star-rated homes save money and promote healthy living

Shawn Dell Joyce

Creators News Service

Our houses and buildings use up to 40 percent of our dwindling resources and generate 48 percent of our global greenhouse gases, according to architect Edward Mazria.

That's more emissions than our nation's cars. In response to that, Mazria issued the 2030 Challenge -- a call to make all buildings carbon neutral by 2030.

Why 2030? Climate-change experts suggest we must reduce our emissions by 80 percent over the next 50 years. Tie this to the fact that 75 percent of all U.S. buildings will be new or reconditioned by 2030. This gives us the golden opportunity to curb almost half of our emissions and make our buildings more efficient.

The housing market is beginning to reflect consumer concerns as large -- inefficient homes sit empty and sales of Energy Star-rated homes are capturing 14 percent of the market.

"The underlying philosophical issue is that it's better to put money into a better home rather than a bigger home," said Gershon Palevski of GNG Designbuild, a green-home builder. Most builders will tell you that square footage is the cheapest thing you can add to a house, but it will cost you in the long run to heat, cool and maintain that bulk.

There are several levels of energy efficiency in buildings and several agencies that set these standards. LEED is the most stringent and is short for the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. It rates buildings based on where they are sited, where the materials came from, how close the house is to the town center and so forth. Energy efficiency is just one aspect of LEED certification. For more information, go to usgbc.org/leed/homes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets guidelines for Energy Star-rated homes. To earn the star, a house must be at least 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code, and include additional energy-saving features that make them 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard homes.

That means the house uses about 30 percent less energy than typical houses, which lowers monthly utility bills, makes for a sturdier, quieter home and reduces indoor air pollution. According to New York Energy Star, the reduced greenhouse gas pollution is the equivalent of planting about an acre of trees. For more information, go to energystar.gov.

Traditional homes may lose up to 25 percent of heating and cooling costs through cracks and gaps found in attics, basements and duct systems, and around floors, doors, windows, plumbing, recessed lighting and electrical outlets. This is the equivalent of leaving a window open all year. An Energy Star-rated home is sealed up tight with no cracks or leaks.

Inside the home, air quality is improved by vents, providing fresh air that helps to eliminate germs and dust particles. Homeowners also report fewer colds and allergy symptoms.

"In our old home, my son, an asthmatic, had an attack every time he caught a cold," said homeowner Darlene McGrath. "But since we built our Energy Star home, he's rarely sick, and if he does catch a cold, there are no accompanying asthma attacks."

Other homeowners report that their energy-efficient homes are more comfortable than standard-code homes.

"My house stays warm in the winter and it's bright and cheerful," said Mary Hanmore, who lives in an Energy Star-rated home in New York.

But do all these green features cost more green? Troy Hodas of Precision Built Homes, which built Hanmore's home, estimates that Energy Star homes cost him about $4,000 to $6,000 more to build.

"That is offset by a federal tax credit of $2,000, and a New York state rebate of around $1,000." Hodas said. "The homes I've built are 50 percent more energy-efficient than 2004 code," which is 20 percent better than Energy Star requires. "I find satisfaction in knowing I'm doing a good job and doing what I believe in," he said.

Many municipalities are updating their building codes to include Energy Star ratings because it's good for the community. "That in addition to the environmental benefits of more efficient houses, you build stronger communities," Simon Gruber, an environmental consultant, said. "People who invest in Energy Star homes keep them longer and are more rooted. Those energy dollars saved will float around the local economy longer instead of being spent on energy from outside the community."

Townships in Long Island, N.Y., passed ordinances mandating that New York's version of Energy Star standards go into effect soon. This effort was spearheaded by the Long Island Builders Institute, which helped to craft the legislation partly because it creates "economy of scale." The more people demand Energy Star-rated homes, the lower the cost of materials and the more streamlined the process becomes to build them.

Healthier houses mean healthier communities.

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning sustainable artist and writer who lives in a green home in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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