Green home construction is an oxymoron. The greenest thing to do would be to find an older home in an established neighborhood and retrofit it to suit your needs. The advantages of housing renovation include re-use of infrastructure and materials, and the likelihood that the home doesn't add to sprawl.
After all, if you want to be green, you could add some solar energy projects to an existing home, couldn't you?
OK, enough. You came here because you're determined to build a new home. The good news is that you can build a wonderful solar-powered home in cities and suburbs, as well as going "off the grid" in rural areas. Or in some places it will be wind or biomass (a catch-all phrase for converting a biological material into energy) that can power a house.
Currently the U.S. Green Building Council is the industry association in the forefront of green construction practices. They offer a certification called LEED®, although other green certifications exist. For the homeowner, certifications would be fluff; you're looking for results in the form of low energy buildings, low allergies, low impact on the earth and climate, and high performance.
In fact the new International Green Construction Code will be published in the spring of 2012, and we're expecting that to generate a fair number of municipal adoptions that will make green building practices more widespread.
However, let's use LEED as a reference. Some of its categories for green home construction include: site selection, water efficiency, materials and resources, energy and atmosphere, indoor environmental quality, and location and linkages to important destinations.
Contribute substantially to lower energy bills through good site selection, whether choosing to install an active solar system (one that generates power) or using passive solar techniques that orient the house so that it naturally picks up less heat in the summer and more in the winter.
You may add generation facilities at a modest or grand scale during green home construction. Solar shingles, panels, and collectors of various types are now being installed rather routinely. If an entire housing development is involved, this becomes even more attractive from a cost-benefit standpoint, particularly when installed on top of community facilities such as clubhouses, or over large parking lots.
As the energy conservation page explains, many states are requiring that utility companies have a way to let your meter run backward. In other words, you may be able to sell your surplus electricity generated in your new home back to the electric company and to the grid.
If you plan to build active or passive solar in a subdivision, obviously this consideration should dominate your choice of lots.
For active solar power, consult a professional as early as possible.
If you would like passive solar help, you should be able to find a local extension agent or university expert to help you with this topic. Magazines and websites can assist you as well.
Be sure to investigate whether any local electricity generation you plan, such as active solar or wind, will be allowed under the zoning ordinance.
Will you be able to guarantee the setbacks you need to gain solar access? Usually setbacks from your own lot line and that of your neighbors are governed by the zoning ordinance also.
Wind for a single-family home is hard to promote to the neighborhood, unless you're in a semi-rural environment. (See our discussion of wind turbine zoning.)
Geothermal energy is very practical in many climates, and can both heat and cool your home. Installation cost is high, but total life-cycle cost is economical. You'll find your heating and cooling bills to be extremely reasonable, particularly if you live in a location where both are expensive on a seasonal basis. Certainly geothermal technology is earth-friendly.
If you investigate solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative energy methods, and you can't bring yourself to accept the up-front cost or the unproven technologies, your electric company may offer to allow you to purchase electricity from green sources, at a slightly higher price.
Another site selection topic in our opinion is what LEED calls location and linkages. The closer your site to your everyday shopping needs, schools, places of worship, and habitual recreational activities, the better.
Consider also proximity to dedicated biking paths, and try to locate in a walkable community.
In the case of a small or large development of green homes, you also may wish to consider whether the site is suitable in case you want to start a community garden.
How far is your solid waste hauled? Are there good recycling opportunities, or does your waste pretty much have to end up in the landfill if you don’t re-use it?
In green home construction, there are many opportunities to install low water usage appliances and fixtures. These include the washer, dishwasher, shower, and toilet. Hot water heaters of the on-demand variety cost plenty at the outset, but use less energy.
And what becomes of the stormwater that pours off of your roof? If you want to be green, capture it in rain barrels instead of quickly diverting it away from your property. The barrels then can be tapped as sources of water for landscaping.
For larger storage capacity, use a cistern. Or simply plant a rain garden at the end of the guttering, although you’ll want to pipe the stormwater a little further from your foundation than normal.
Is that native xeriscape (landscape requiring little to no watering) you plan for your total lawn acceptable, or does the zoning ordinance specify a minimum percentage of turf grass? Be sure to select plantings that are as drought tolerant as possible. These will use less water in all situations and be resilient in climate extremes.
All of these measures that can be taken by individual households in many societies really add up to community water efficiency. That shouldn't be underestimated, as the infrastructure to provide potable water and to handle stormwater in a way that doesn't promote flooding or disease are needed in every part of the world.
Material choice is an extremely important element in green home construction. Self-promotional product information abounds, so we’ll make it simple.
In general, choose materials on the basis of the expected life span, the transportation cost of moving the material to the site, implications for energy usage and health damage. Minimize the need for water usage. Use recycled materials where they make environmental sense.
Another general factor is whether the materials you wish to use meet the local building code. This is more likely if the community has adopted an energy conservation code.
Here are some major points: 1. Wood. Consider both the length of time it took to grow the wood (and therefore the length of time it would take to re-grow the wood you cause to be cut) and the distance the wood has to be transported to reach you. Bamboo is popular now as a green solution because it's extremely fast-growing. However, many bamboo products are grown far away, so factor that in as well.
2. Walls. While all
wall types offer advantages and disadvantages, a particularly promising
technique is the ICF wall, or insulating concrete forms wall. The
"forms" or molds for the concrete are made of an insulating plastic foam
product, and then concrete is poured into the middle of the form.
Reinforcement bars also are placed in the concrete. The result is a
quite thick wall, very well insulated, and therefore quiet too. Heating
and cooling therefore becomes very efficient.
3. Stone. Transporting stone is quite expensive, so use stone native to your area whenever possible, or attempt to find stone to re-use from buildings being demolished.
4. Carpeting. There are many attractive carpets made from recycled plasticss right now. If you can’t find a recycled product you like, at least think of the life cycle and buy wool. Bamboo can be woven into carpeting that's surprisingly soft. Check into how the various products are cleaned and their projected life spans too.
Like all building products, learn how close to home the carpeting is made.
5. Flooring. If you want wood floors, bamboo and cork are friendly choices for green home construction.
6. Brick. Brick can be a "green" product if the clays are extracted locally and the brick is formed nearby. In many climates you will simply want to insulate between the brick and the drywall. That carries its own complications, but ask a good builder.
7. Drywall. Alternatives to gypsum board, the manufacture of which is quite polluting, are being produced constantly. Investigate what is available if you are serious about green home construction.
8. Cabinets. Many cabinets and other building elements on the market today still have formaldehyde in them. Do you really want to live with that? Very attractive cabinets can be made from bamboo and other fast-growing woods. Incidentally, I've seen some gorgeous countertops made of recycled newspaper.
9. Paint. Many paints give off VOC's (volatile organic chemicals) for as much as six months after they are applied. You can find low-VOC or no-VOC paints and make your new green home construction much safer.
10. Shingles. Several alternative materials exist, and in particular, you might want to investigate solar shingles. Also if you’re in a warmer climate, definitely choose a lighter shingle color as a no-cost way to decrease your air conditioning bill and increase your comfort. You might see this described as the white roof movement. Conversely, if you live in a cold place, darker shingles are your best choice.
11. Lawn. Think seriously about not having one! Maybe you can find other plants that don’t require as much maintenance, water, and fertilizer. Rock, fountains, native grasses that don't grow much, and ground cover are great alternatives. Work with plants native to your area when you can, because they grow deeper roots and are healthier for the neighborhood. If you want a giant patio or deck, consider permeable pavers instead.
If you have a lawn, follow one of the best lifestyle decisions I've made recently: buy a battery-powered mower. They are so much quieter, burn no gasoline, start whether it's warm or cold, start more easily, they are lighter weight and less tiring to use, and I don't have a headache because I followed a gasoline-powered engine on a hot day.
And seriously, the world won't come to an end if you don't have the best lawn on the block, so forget the fertilizer entirely, or at least skip it every other year.
Composite fencing resembling wood fence may or may not be more environmentally friendly than wood fencing; investigate the particular product carefully.
12. Appliances. Since many of us use electricity that is generated through a carbon source, the less electricity we need, the better. The same applies to natural gas.
So when it comes time for buying a water heater, investigate the life cycle cost of a tankless water heater compared to the conventional sort. Look for the Energy Star appliance ratings on all appliances. Pay particular attention to lighting, heating, and cooling efficiency. And on that more profound note, consider whether you really need electricity for some tasks at all. Electric can opener? Probably not.
Find a Contractor Who Appreciates Green Home Construction
This brings us to finding a builder who ideally is experienced in green home construction. If you cannot find one, at least find someone who is interested and motivated. A skeptical builder will foil your every attempt, or at least give you so much grief you will be inclined to scrap the whole idea of building a new home.
So the experienced builder will be able to explain the various solar options to you. Of course solar viability varies across the country; some places simply have more sunny days than others.
It pays to do your own research as well, as new products are coming on the market all the time. Consider carefully whether you want to be the guinea pig for a new product; my rule of thumb would be to experiment in smaller items and to stick with a more proven technology for major systems.
How Much House Is Enough?
Arguably the most important point about green home construction is the obvious one that seems to be so frequently overlooked in the current frenzy about sustainability topics. Do you really need a 5,000 square foot house? On an acre lot? With three bathrooms for two of you?
The green project that will impress me is the one that is the right size for the household in question, and not a square inch more. Recycling, locating, and transporting materials aren't free, so don't consume more than you need. That will go a long way toward green living.
Consider larger questions of consumption as well. Do you really need that extra bathroom? Do you really need to take such a long shower? And does anyone really need a home swimming pool or hot tub? You might "need" a pool if you use it every day, but I see pools that are used about six times a season and therefore can't be much more than a status symbol.
The Future of Green Home Construction
We expect knowledge about green home construction to proliferate rapidly. The state of New York has started a green home construction program, and the California initiative is in place. States in general are in motion about climate change and all things green.
So this is an evolving subject where it pays to do your research, including checking into state, local, and federal incentives for green home construction.