What to expect from green building in the coming years

Men laying new hardwood flooring

In most job interviews, employers ask, “Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? The answer helps the employer understand the inter-viewee’s goals, aspirations and career path. It is an important question, with a loaded answer.

The connection that you have to your home is comparable to an employer-employee relationship. You, the homeowner/employer, pay a regular sum of money to keep your home, the employee, working for you. But in all of this time that your home has spent keeping you and your family (i.e., your business) running, have you ever asked where it sees itself in 5 to 10 years?

Well, now’s the time. The home improvement industry is in the midst of an evolution. Science has driven the monumental wave of eco-consciousness to our doorsteps, and we have no choice but to let it inside. The future is now, and in the next 5 to 10 years, the home building and remodeling industry will hardly be recognizable compared to what it is today.

Powering through

By far the most popular area of improvement in today’s green home renovations is energy efficiency. This, in large part, is due to a different kind of green: money. “Even though green construction costs a few percentage points more, it’s very cost effective in the long run,” says Jeffrey Dinkle, LEED-AP and president of Eco Custom Homes in Atlanta. “Most payback occurs in the 2- to 5-year time frame, and with the cost of energy rising, payback can be even quicker.” There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in tax incentives available. “There are many federal and state rebate programs available for energy- and water-efficient upgrades,” says Andrea Paulinelli, CEO and president of ecoTransitions Inc. in Marietta. “Building green does not cost a lot more upfront, but it can greatly reduce your operating cost from day one, while improving your comfort and health.”

“The home-performance industry, focusing on how to improve existing homes, is poised to take off,” predicts Carl Seville, owner of Seville Consulting in Decatur, writer of “The Green Building Curmudgeon” blog, and affiliate of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Energy Star, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). Seville explains that in 2012, the Energy Star program will dramatically expand its scope, creating a Home Star program that is much more comprehensive than its current focus on energy. He says that this new program, and other similar local and state incentives for energy efficiency, will fuel the home-performance industry.


Eliminating HVAC

When asked to point to one practice, theory or trend that will take green homebuilding to the next level, experts were nearly unanimous in answering, “Passive House design.”

Passive House design is a German standard that subscribes to the belief: by improving the quality of the envelope (insulation, sealing, windows, etc.), you can reduce or eliminate the need for mechanical equipment. “This super-insulates a home, whereby the heating and cooling load is brought to a bare minimum—think heat from the sun coming in through a window, heat from cooking and body heat from the occupants used to heat your home,” Dinkle says. “This is the easiest and cheapest way to get a net-zero home in regards to energy usage.”

Aligning with this design concept, new products are being introduced to the market to enhance the performance of the building envelope. One example is CertainTeed Insulation’s Multi-Comfort products, which “aim to reduce energy use by 75 percent while incorporating thermal performance, acoustic comfort and fire protection,” says Aman Desouza, director of innovation and product sustainability for CertainTeed Corporation.

The benefits of Passive House design come from strategies such as natural ventilation, solar heat gain, solar shading and efficient insulation as part of the design concept. “You get a greatly reduced energy cost as well as indoor comfort, due to better indoor air quality and a consistent, even temperature throughout the house,” Paulinelli says.

Homes as energy generators

Currently, residential construction is seen as a power hog, emitting a significant amount of greenhouse gases. Over the next couple of decades, though, experts are hopeful that this will change. More and more, alternative-energy systems—including solar PV, solar thermal and micro-wind—are being incorporated into home-building and -improvement projects, striving for net-zero-energy homes. “Net-zero homes are a reality now, and not at a huge premium, with about an 8-year payback on a new construction home,” Dinkle says. “As soon as utility companies pay people for the excess energy they produce, net-positive homes, regarding energy, will happen.” Dinkle points out that current laws need to be changed for this to happen.

In the meantime, though, continuing to make changes to existing homes remains the focus for many companies. “Zero-energy is a good goal, but in the short term, we have millions of existing homes that need improvements to make them more efficient,” Seville says. “We can easily reduce energy use by 20 to 40 percent with available technology; we just need to find the will to do it.”

Improving a home’s IQ

Advances in technology and the quality of building materials have to enter into the energy-efficiency discussion, as these are the tools needed to advance home-improvement to a deeper shade of green. The following are some of the products green-home experts expect to see thrive in the coming years:

• Highly efficient spray-foam and rigid-foam-core insulation. “Spray foam is incredible; not only does it insulate and air seal, but to my surprise, my clients are saying that the rooms we’ve renovated are quieter,” says Judy Mozen, certified green professional and president of Handcrafted Homes in Roswell. Pre-constructed wall panels, such as SIPs (structural insulated panels) are on the rise.

• Energy and heat recovery ventilators (ERV/HRV) distribute heat and humidity evenly throughout a house. “In the Southeast, ERVs are a must,” Dinkle says. ERVs and HRVs will likely become increasingly popular as homes continue to become better insulated, more heat efficient and more airtight.

• Smart meters that reflect time-of-use energy and water pricing will help homeowners monitor their energy and water use, allowing them to conserve with minimal effort.

• Roofing products will trend toward cooler materials, such as metal. Metal roofs will be offered in a variety of color choices in the coming years, making them appealing to a wider group of homeowners.

As you look at new products, keep in mind that you want the item’s green attributes to be supplemented by excellent quality and performance. “With an ever-evolving industry such as green building, new product developments and service offerings are a constant,” says James Burrell, director of business development and marketing for Eco-Protective Products LLC in Atlanta. “Homeowners should ask their contractors to not only demonstrate a product’s green attributes, but also to educate them on the value the product delivers in terms of performance, longevity and sustainability. Many products boast eco-friendly attributes but fail to meet the basic requisites for their product categories.”


Designing with nature

Currently, home construction processes are destructive to nature. Entire communities look like barren wastelands as subdivisions are being built—this can also be seen on a smaller scale when owners build additions to their homes. The current practices of clearing and grading the land before building or remodeling must change if homes are

to become more eco-friendly. This will not only eliminate the destruction of nature, but will also help conserve water by preserving the natural vegetation and rain harvesting.

Another water conservation element that may see continued growth is permeable paving. Pervious concrete and other alternative materials can lower utility costs due to urban heat-island effects.

Once home design allows for the collection of rainwater, the next step is incorporating that rainwater into daily use. According to the EPA, nearly 60 percent of the public supply of water (which equals approximately 43 billion gallons per day) is delivered to households. As outdoor rainwater catchment systems such as rain barrels become more common, some companies anticipate incorporating them into the plumbing of new-home construction, where rainwater can be used for non-potable purposes, such as toilet flushing.

A wholesome home

Though energy and water conservation are at the forefront of the green-home movement, a much more basic, yet just as important, element is often overlooked: health. According to the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, people spend an average of 90 percent of their lives indoors, where air can be two to five times more polluted than the outdoor air (or up to 1,000 times more polluted following renovation or new construction).

“Health effects from indoor air pollutants may be experienced soon after exposure or, possibly, years later,” Paulinelli says. “Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes.”

So, at the same time that homeowners are improving their home’s envelope and becoming more “airtight,” they should also be concerned with ventilation, ensuring they don’t trap the polluted indoor air from circulating with the fresh, outdoor air. “Usually the most effective way to improve indoor air quality is to eliminate individual sources of pollution, or to reduce their emissions, and to ensure proper ventilation,” Paulinelli says.

“Sources of indoor air pollution can be building materials, asbestos-containing insulation, carpeting, furnishings and many more,” Paulinelli says. To balance improved energy efficiency with improved indoor-air quality, use only low-emitting products and materials, such as low- or zero-VOC paints, adhesives, stains and mold-resistant building materials. Another option is CertainTeed Gypsum’s new AirRenew wallboard,

which offers protection against mold and moisture and permanently reduces VOCs circulating indoors by actively helping to clean the air.


Jumping the hurdles

As the Kermit Quinn song (made famous by the recent Gatorade commercial) goes, “If you want a revolution, the only solution: evolve (gotta evolve).” To advance further with the green, sustainable homes movement, we must know the hurdles that are in place so we can evolve to overcome those obstacles.

Money wise

The No. 1 reason homeowners struggle when choosing between the current standards in construction and their green counterparts is expense. “Right now, we are just emerging from a recession that has decimated our industry,” says Eric Borsting, chair of the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) Green Building subcommittee. “There is growing consumer interest in green, but the driving factor is cost. Homebuyers are looking for a deal, and as long as we continue to skitter along the bottom of this recession, they’re going to stay on the fence.”

The solution? Eco-friendly homes and products must become more widespread, and therefore cost less. “When you meet energy codes, building codes and manufacturer’s instructions, design for efficiency and just do a high-quality job, you have a base-level green home,” Seville says. “The problem with the perception that green homes cost more is due to the fact that the industry produces, and consumers accept, very poor quality work. Once we start looking at buildings based on quality instead of quantity, almost any home can be a green one.”

Navigating the sea of labels

In the past decade, as green home improvement has become more and more popular, thousands of organizations have emerged, offering a certification that labels something as “green.” But how are homeowners to keep track of all of these labels, knowing which to look for and value?

Because there may be differences in rating systems and actual efficiency standards, homeowners should research exactly how certification is achieved with each program. A third-party inspector reviewing and evaluating the product is the best method of certification, especially if that inspector is able to determine not only the performance of the product itself, but how eco-friendly the manufacturing process is, as well as the entire life cycle of the product (how long it will last and how it will maintain performance as it ages). Homeowners should avoid products that are certified by simply paying a price to use the certification label without any evaluation process.

Improving instead of building

One of the greenest ways to get an eco-friendly home is to remodel an existing house instead of building a new one. Unfortunately, this is also a more difficult path. “Improving the existing home market will be the single biggest issue affecting green building,” Seville says. “Most of the easiest opportunities for making a building green happen in the design phase.” On the contrary, it is difficult, if not impossible to address issues such as size, dimension, orientation, plumbing location, etc. for an existing home. For tips on improving an existing home, broken down by budget, see the Step by Step sidebar.

Despite these hurdles, greening your home is one of, if not the best, improvements you can make. Recent studies have shown that people who live in green homes are happier with their residence than they were with their previous homes, attributing the satisfaction to the lower operating costs and feeling good about themselves for living a sustainable lifestyle.

So, where do you see your home in 5 to 10 years? Be sure to schedule an interview with it and evaluate whether its goals align with yours so you can make appropriate changes and move forward on a path to sustainable success.

What the Experts are saying

Powerful words from passionate green-home professionals

“Green building is not about products; it’s about the correct process from the initial design through execution. There are very few products that would not fit into a green building, and all the ‘green’ products in the world will not make a badly designed and built building green.”
—Carl Seville, owner of Seville Consulting in Decatur, writer of “The Green Building Curmudgeon” blog, and affiliate of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Energy Star, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI)

“The health aspect of green building is hard to put a value on, but a typical person spends half of his or her life in a home. With children, even more time is spent there. When one considers this, why would anyone build any other way?”
—Jeffrey Dinkle, LEED-AP and president of Eco Custom Homes in Atlanta

“The notion that
the sole intent of green building and design is to reduce energy consumption is being replaced by the notion that green building’s purpose—and the purpose of all sustainability efforts, in fact—is to sustain human life on this planet.”
—Marilyn Black, Ph.D., founder of The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute

A Ride in the DeLorean

We asked green-building experts to fast-forward 5, 10 and 15 years from today and tell us what they see. Here’s what they reported:

In the year 2016
• Homebuyers will focus on less square footage and more quality, comfort, durability and efficiency.
• Renewable-energy sources will take over the majority of the power supply for homes.

In the year 2021
• Homes will become energy generators for their communities.
• Rainwater harvesting will become the norm, providing homeowners with untreated water for landscaping and non-potable purposes.
• The newest Energy Star program will become a general code requirement throughout the building industry, improving the energy efficiency and overall eco-friendliness of new homes.
• New homes will be built with Passive House design principles, eliminating the need for a mechanical HVAC system.
• Green-home aspects—such as indoor air quality and energy efficiency—will be mandated by local and state laws.

In the year 2026
• More houses will be multi-family dwellings, increasing the home’s efficiency and decreasing land costs.
• Homes will meet living-building standards, operating with net-zero energy, and even generating energy for communities.
• Housing will become more of a consumer product—people will expect the same kind of buying experience that they have with cars, cell phones and computers. Specifications, reviews and other consumer information will be demanded by homebuyers.

—John R. Colucci, Westchester Modular Homes; Aman Desouza, CertainTeed Corporation; Lisa Glennon, Yankee Barn Homes; Liv Haselbach, Washington State University; Steve Levine, Atmos Air Solutions; Brian Phillips, ISA; Michael Rogers, GreenHomes America


Step by Step

Based on your budget, here are some helpful tips for improvements that will make your home greener and more efficient:

$5,000: Plant trees in western or southern exposures, and replace lawns with natural, or adapted, low-maintenance landscape beds.

$10,000: Replace your roof, incorporating metal roofing and other energy efficient features, or upgrade your windows with more energy-efficient ones that are placed for improved natural lighting in your home.

$25,000: Re-plumb and re-layout your kitchen, laundry and bath areas for more efficient piping and updated water-efficient fixtures. Incorporate a new, high-efficiency water heater with an inline system.

$50,000+: Change the layout of your home and zone the HVAC systems so that frequently used rooms are located in the most energy-efficient areas of the home, and visitor or infrequently used spaces are in separate zones.

—Liv Haselbach, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University and author of The Engineering Guide to LEED-New Construction: Sustainable Construction for Engineers

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