green new world

A more sustainable home is within reach. Here Su Casa breaks down some of the basics you’ll encounter, from what green really means to what it costs and what could be coming next.

This article first appeared in Spring 2008 Su Casa.

It’s 2008, and green has caught on. Without looking too hard, you’ll find it everywhere from network TV to the car dealership and wherever light bulbs are sold. Amid the “go green” messages proliferating in popular culture, buildings account for almost half of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data reported by the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030.

It’s time to bring green home.

The concept of a green-built home might be relatively new to some but offers benefits to the owner and the environment that few could argue with. “Green-built structures cost less to maintain and operate, are healthier, more comfortable and durable, and are more environmentally responsible,” says D. C. Durano, owner of Durano Construction in Albuquerque and former chair of Build Green New Mexico. “The initial investment may be higher, but the payback period is relatively short as a result of the ever-increasing energy costs. On top of that, green building has the invaluable benefits of improved air quality within the built environment and the global environment.”

Sustainability involves far-reaching issues, but as an informed consumer, you can make a difference—from the comfort of your own home.

Green pathways
You don’t have to be an expert in sustainable building to ensure that your new home is rigorously green. Green-building programs validate homes’ sustainability so you know what you are getting. Dozens of programs and certifications exist from the local to national level. This overview covers the major players in New Mexico.

Build Green New Mexico. Administered by the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico (Su Casa’s parent organization) and affiliated with the Green Building Initiative, Build Green New Mexico promotes green building by certifying homes according to stringent guidelines and offers information, education, and access to green builders, products, and services.

Build Green New Mexico’s guidelines are adapted for the high desert climate from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Model Green Home Building Guidelines. Homes are scored in seven areas: Lot Preparation and Design; Resource Efficiency; Energy Efficiency; Water Efficiency and Conservation; Indoor Environmental Quality; Operation, Maintenance, and Homeowner Education; and Global Impact. Based on the guidelines’ standards, a home receives points for incorporating certain actions and features. An established number of points are required to meet the Bronze, Silver, and Gold requirements for each category.

For example, equipping a home with photovoltaics or other on-site renewable energy sources can earn up to 12 points, while using low- or no-VOC indoor paint earns 6 points. The minimum number of points in each section determines the certification level. An independent third-party rater tests homes as part of the certification process to ensure the rating’s accuracy. Like the other major programs, at this time Build Green New Mexico does not certify remodeled homes.

LEED for Homes. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System sets standards for green buildings, including commercial interiors, schools, and retail. LEED for Homes launched in 2007, with its initial focus on new homes.

LEED for Homes assesses eight areas: Innovation and Design Process; Location and Linkages; Sustainable Sites; Water Efficiency; Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; Indoor Environmental Quality; and Awareness and Education. A home’s size and number of bedrooms influence the amount of points it must earn to reach LEED for Homes’ four certification levels: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Larger homes must earn more points to address the effects of resource and energy consumption. Conversely, smaller homes need fewer points to reach the various certification levels. A third-party provider tests homes to determine their rating.

Energy Star. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy’s joint Energy Star program aims to increase the energy efficiency of homes through Energy Star–certified products, such as appliances and lighting, and whole-house certification. To be certified, a home must meet EPA guidelines for energy efficiency. Homes are typically 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard houses and include effective insulation, high-performance windows, tight construction and ducts, efficient heating and cooling equipment, and energy-efficient products. Third-party independent home energy raters test the homes.

Building America. Another program of the U.S. Department of Energy, Building America conducts research to produce homes that are more energy efficient and consume fewer resources, with the long-term goal of developing cost-effective systems for zero-energy homes that produce as much energy as they use. Building America–designed homes consider the interaction among aspects like the building envelope and climate to help incorporate energy-saving methods at little cost. Research solutions are geared toward new and existing housing that can be applied on a production basis.

A green assurance
Choosing a home certified by a green-building program like Build Green New Mexico and LEED for Homes allows you to see how the home’s green features stack up according to established guidelines. While programs such as Energy Star and Building America test and rate homes’ energy performance, LEED for Homes and Build Green New Mexico take a holistic view, examining issues beyond energy savings. If you work with a program, look for one that takes a whole-house approach and involves independent third-party verification to provide an objective assessment of the home’s performance, says Steve Hale, president of Hale and Sun Construction in Albuquerque and the current chair of Build Green New Mexico, which was established while he was president of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico.

“It’s not green unless it’s tested,” explains Durano, a Building America program partner whose houses are all Energy Star certified. “You say you know your house is green. How do you know?”

Program details vary. For instance, LEED for Homes certification is more stringent and costs more than Build Green New Mexico’s, Durano says. A Silver-level LEED home qualifies for New Mexico sustainable building tax credits, while Build Green New Mexico’s highest Gold level qualifies for the credits.

“In New Mexico, we have the opportunity for all types of people to participate at all levels,” says Stace McGee, a founder of the U.S. Green Building Council’s New Mexico chapter and a current board member. McGee’s architecture firm, Environmental Dynamics, designed Green Builder’s Vision House 2008 in Orlando, Florida, and has done a great deal of commercial work with LEED. Additional inspections result in LEED’s higher certification costs, according to McGee.

“I am not saying that one is better than the other,” McGee says of Build Green New Mexico and LEED for Homes. “I think they’re both great. They are different.”

National programs provide a template for areas without specialized local programs, explains Ron Jones, a green-building advocate who is co-founder of Green Builder Media and editorial director of Green Builder magazine. Jones notes that he is the only person to serve as a member of the board of directors of both the National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Green Building Council.

Even as green-building programs evolve, Hale encourages home buyers to take action now. Durano suggests contacting your local Home Builders Association for a list of people who have green-building training. Don’t take someone’s word that he or she is a green builder, he advises; instead, get recommendations and third-party reviews, and do your own research.
“The U.S. is taking baby steps to green,” McGee says. “All of us working in the trenches, we’re happy with any green-building program you give us that is third-party verified, certifiable, and has a mission.”

Elements of green
So, what makes homes green? Regardless of program affiliation, a green home aims to minimize its impact on the planet through a variety of possible methods, ranging from high-tech to low. “There is rarely an absolute, simple, across-the-board answer,” to this question, says Bruce Warren Davis, of New Mexico–based Bruce Warren Davis Architect, and editor of the new Journal of Sustainability published in Albuquerque.

Durano describes green building as an all-encompassing term that addresses a number of areas—a glance at the various category breakdowns within Build Green New Mexico or LEED for Homes indicates the range of topics. He stresses resource conservation and looking at the whole system for a comfortable, durable house that conserves water and energy. “I don’t like wasting things, and to me, green building really dovetails into my philosophy of good stewardship,” he says. “Green building is really responsible building.” Hale adds that designing a green home requires a thoughtful approach. “The biggest challenge is the way of thinking. The entire project must be treated as a system, and that has to start with the lot and home design.”

As you approach building your green home, consider three overarching ideas, Davis suggests. First, think about building a smaller house, which consumes less energy and fewer resources. Next, consider the location of your future home. Can you build within walking distance of shopping and public transportation? Davis says this could mean more in energy savings than technological solutions like using active solar collectors. “The best thing you can do with pristine wilderness land is leave it alone,” he adds. Finally, Davis warns of the allure of technological solutions, which do not necessarily lead to a net gain in sustainability: for instance, using photovoltaics to power an electric light during the day versus exploiting an appropriately placed skylight.

With seemingly unlimited ways to incorporate green into your new home, identifying your priorities first helps. Start with your budget to create a balanced, whole-house approach, Durano says. Begin by putting your green investment in permanent elements, such as the wall system and insulation. If you have to cut back, do it somewhere you can replace the element later, Hale says. Other green aspects are best incorporated during the initial design and construction, such as preparation for a solar photovoltaic system.
Working with an informed builder and designer are key ingredients to achieving your green dream home. Educate yourself, interview prospective builders, and ultimately work with someone who knows about green building, Durano advises, which could mean following a green-building certification program.

The cost of going green
Despite the common perception that a green house equals an expensive house, the equation itself is changing. This topic goes beyond first cost to ongoing issues like energy, durability, and environmental costs, Jones explains. Some green-building measures aren’t more expensive, while others might increase the mortgage payment a bit but will decrease the home’s monthly operating cost.

Hale estimates that a home 40 percent more efficient than the standard house built today might be approximately 7 to 8 percent more expensive. A home built 15 percent more energy efficient might add around 1 to 3 percent to the cost, Hale estimates. The question, he says, is how green do you want to go.

The biggest green gains can be relatively inexpensive, and you can focus on elements in place for the life of the house, Hale says. For example, advanced framing techniques save materials as well as energy. Sealing cracks in the building envelope and using good insulation are critical, and high-quality insulation only adds 1 to 2 percent to the job, Hale adds, while “the payback is for the life of the structure.”

Jones questions the cost of not choosing a green home. He observes concerns about rising energy bills but says to consider the effect of your home on your health. Ventilation has high priority. Tightly sealed green-building framing and insulation techniques can require mechanical ventilation systems that bring in fresh air and filter, condition, and rotate it. A “leaky” house, by contrast, brings fresh air in on its own, but moisture, fungus, and mold come in with it, Hale explains. Material selection also plays a role. A hard-surface floor is cleaner than a VOC-emitting carpet that off-gasses and traps dust. Low- or no-VOC paints benefit the environment and the homeowner. In Durano’s experience, investing in elements that will improve indoor air quality means you aren’t spending that money on things like allergy medication or as much on gas and electricity.

House size and your green home
As the green-building discussion continues nationwide, you might wonder how the physical size of your home fits in. From an environmental standpoint, the greenest building of all is the one that does not get built, Jones remarks. However, in the years since World War II, the size of the average home has increased even as family size has decreased, translating into greater strain on the environment and higher costs to heat and cool. Amid these societal changes, Jones advocates a new mindset that rewards quality rather than quantity.

“It’s about size and the misconception of value,” he says. We don’t think of our cars in terms of the number of pounds they weigh, so why do we think of our homes in terms of price per square foot? Jones asks.

On the flip side is the reality of current market demand. For Ed Paschich, of Ed Paschich Homes in Albuquerque, the market dictates the ever-increasing home sizes he builds for his clients, but he insists on building as sustainably as possible, with high-quality insulation, high-efficiency systems, fresh air intake systems, and proper solar orientation. A green home builder since 1976, author of three books about sustainable architecture, and a guest lecturer on the topic at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, Paschich, too, takes note of the increasing demand for larger home sizes and believes in a shift toward smaller houses.

Although Paschich’s homes can be large in terms of square footage, they use the energy of a much smaller house—they have a relatively small carbon footprint. A carbon footprint refers to the carbon dioxide emissions that come from a house, from the power plant to the furnace and water heater, Hale explains. A green-built home uses energy more efficiently than a smaller conventionally built home, so a large house could have the carbon footprint of a home half its size.

Hale builds smaller houses but notes that custom homes, though sometimes large, often have budgets that can incorporate new green products and techniques. “I think that plays a key role in advancing green building,” he says. Meanwhile, he believes that with shifting attitudes, a rationally sized home conscious of the environment can become the status symbol.

Shopping green
Increasing concern for environmental issues has brought with it a wave of green products. “Green is selling,” Hale observes. But even as consumers pick up on compact fluorescent light bulbs and the price of some green items drops with increased availability, how do you know what it really means when a product is touted as green?

We don’t have an overall “Good Housekeeping Seal” when it comes to green products, according to Jones. Many labels focus on one environmental aspect, such as indoor air quality, but ignore other sustainability considerations. As you make product choices, remember that like other aspects of green building, a product that is green in one way might be less-than-green in another. (Think sustainable bamboo flooring that must be transported a great distance.) “There is no silver bullet,” Jones says. “There is no green bullet.”
When shopping for green products, Hale suggests considering the size and reputation of the product’s producer. “Make sure you deal with a company with research behind it,” he says, and look for products backed with quality and experience. Remember that new products carry some risk, he adds.
If possible, use what’s in your area. “A great deal of this is learning to live where you are with what you have,” Davis says. Durano suggests buying products within a 500-mile radius.

The distance a product travels to reach its destination factors into its embodied energy, or the energy required to manufacture and transport it, Hale explains. The example you’ll often hear is concrete, which has high embodied energy—think about what it takes to turn limestone into something you can use, he says.

“The essential strategy is to try to step back from the consumer world and consider the impact of what you are doing beyond your own home,” Davis says. Focus on the big picture. For instance, think twice before stripping the carpet in your 10-year-old home, sending it to the dump, and buying new wool carpet because it is labeled green. “That is not a net gain for the environment,” he explains. Wait until the carpet needs to be replaced instead. Davis’ rule of thumb? “Question consumption.”

Even amid heightened consciousness of the green message, Paschich has observed a changing mindset among home buyers over the past several decades. Unfortunately, today’s consumer is primarily influenced by the potential resale value of the home from the start, Paschich says—a difference that he believes has fundamentally changed the market. He now builds homes that are “stealthily” green.

Paschich builds houses that are energy efficient, airtight, and long lasting, “hiding” the sustainable aspects. The homeowners will never see the cellulose insulation made with recycled newsprint behind the walls or dwell on the high-efficiency heating and air conditioning units, but they will notice their lower energy bills. If clients choose to spend a little more, Paschich adds baseboard hot water heaters, which pipe hot water through the house, radiating heat and serving as a solar thermal delivery system for solar heating, which can be added later.

Going green in an existing home
The green message applies to a group much wider than those building new homes. Although important green-building actions start even before breaking ground, you can make significant green improvements if you are not in the market for a new house—in addition to the environmentally sound choices you can make once you’ve moved in. “The next frontier will be existing homes,” Durano remarks.

You can seriously evaluate your home’s energy use by hiring an expert to conduct tests and tell you how to make it more energy efficient, Hale explains. You don’t have to start over. Vinyl, low-E windows with insulated glass make a huge difference, he says. If you restucco, add insulation to the outside of the house for a big upgrade. You also can add insulation when reroofing, Hale advises.

Although Build Green New Mexico does not currently certify remodeling projects, the still-under-development National Green Building Standard, an initiative based on the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines, has a remodeling component, according to Hale, who is a member of the American National Standards Institute consensus committee to establish the standard. And Build Green New Mexico has remodeler members, Hale adds.

The existing-home market also is getting in on the green movement. The Southwest Multiple Listing Service, which serves the greater Albuquerque area, will soon include green criteria along with other home features. New home listings will include certifications from Build Green New Mexico, LEED for Homes, and Energy Star, according to Michael Cecchini, qualifying broker for Mesa Realty and vice president of Mesa Realty and Kayeman Custom Homes in Albuquerque. HERS (Home Energy Rating System) scores and information about homes’ solar systems also will be incorporated, says Cecchini, who is working toward the industry designation of EcoBroker.
Adding this information to the multiple listing service helps consumers identify green homes on the market and helps builders by providing green comparables for accurate appraisals. “A green-built home is worth more,” Hale explains.

A green future
As green awareness increases throughout the Southwest and across the country, green building continues to develop. “What we’re going to see is a more understandable model for energy and water consumption,” Jones predicts. He foresees a system similar to stickers on cars that indicate performance. Hale also anticipates this type of system, though he notes that a house can only have a rating on standard energy loads.

It is possible to operate even a green home inefficiently, which has led to measures like Build Green New Mexico’s holistic homeowner’s manual on how to make a house sustainable, Hale says. This includes measures like changing furnace filters to increase efficiency. Education helps people get better mileage out of the house, Hale says.

“The responsibility rests upon builders and homeowners,” Durano says, urging people to turn out lights when they aren’t in use, pay attention to how they are heating and cooling their houses, and consider walking to the store rather than driving. We need to think more about local recycling, Hale adds—products that can be made nearby so recycled material doesn’t have to travel great distances before it is repurposed.

European countries are investing in renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, says architectural designer Joaquin Karcher of One Earth Design in Taos, who was born in Germany and studied architecture there. In fact, Karcher says renewable energy now accounts for 14 percent of the energy consumed in Germany. Utility companies offer good payback rates for net-metered home rooftop photovoltaic systems, he adds.

“Things are drastically changing,” says McGee, who believes that tax rebates and incentives will play a role in advancing sustainable building in the United States.

McGee’s company, Environmental Dynamics, whose Albuquerque office building sports a green roof, is thinking about a future of regenerable design, with structures that reverse current problems, and working toward a carbon-neutral building in the next 10 years. With a collective mindset focused on sustainability, McGee foresees a future of homes built on new ideas—smaller houses with multifunctional rooms, kits-of-parts, reusing water many times, and thinking more about embodied energy and local materials, or “the value of what materials really cost us in terms of the environment in which we live,” McGee says.

Durano anticipates modular green homes on the horizon, describing houses built more like cars. Alternative construction methods could result in green homes more people could afford with less waste, fewer mistakes, and a flat learning curve, he explains.

In the future, misconceptions may melt away, leaving green homes to be widely accepted for what they are: high-quality, durable houses that consider the health of the environment and their occupants. As Durano observes: once people have lived in a green-built home, they won’t go back.

Green resources on the web

Build Green New Mexico
Build Green New Mexico’s website provides easy access to a list of green builders in New Mexico, plus contact information for a variety of green products and services and links to local and national green resources. Here you also can download Build Green New Mexico’s green-building guidelines.

The Green Home Guide
This consumer-oriented site by the U.S. Green Building Council offers information about what makes a home green, including links to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Personal Emissions Calculator, resources for living green, information about green home programs, and a guide for green renovation.

U.S. Department of Energy
The U.S. Department of Energy’s website is a one-stop shop for online resources regarding your home’s energy use. Within the site’s “For Consumers” page, the “Your Home” section offers resources on subjects like assessing your home’s energy use and saving energy and money on your new home’s construction.

Energy Star
Energy Star’s website features a variety of energy-related resources, including a “Find an Energy Star Partner” search feature. The Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick allows you to compare your home’s energy efficiency to homes around the country.

Green Building Initiative
A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the adoption of green-building practices, the Green Building Initiative (GBI) offers a number of green resources through its website, plus a “Why Build Green” section and a nationwide map for finding local green-building programs.

LEED for Homes
The U.S. Green Building Council’s website provides information about the LEED for Homes Rating System, project certification information, and resources.

Building America
This U.S. Department of Energy–based site features information about the Building America program, including research highlights, a publications database, and resources for consumers.