A recent survey1 found that green building has been on the rise over the last few years, a somewhat surprising trend given the state of the housing market. On the other hand, perhaps it’s another example of how many of us, faced with the need to spend less, have chosen to align our purchases with our values.
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If you’re getting ready to remodel, tackle small, affordable upgrades or even build something new, there are many ways to make your home – and your lifestyle – a bit greener. Building green can help you lower energy use and costs, integrate your home into its natural landscape and enjoy the benefits of using materials that are non-toxic, eco-friendly and perhaps even local.
“Green building” may conjure images of upscale design with costly details – or conversely, back-to-nature shacks lacking creature comforts. Of course, it can mean either – and plenty of things in between. Whatever type of project you envision, there are several factors to consider.
Location, location, location
Your home’s location and surroundings can offer opportunities to live more sustainably. For example, whether your property gets ample sun or wind may affect the practicality of shifting to renewable energy sources. Existing or newly planted trees may help block cold winds in the winter or reduce solar heat gain in the summer. If your home is in or near a walkable town (e.g., Lambertville, New Hope, Newtown), you may be able to lower your carbon footprint by driving less. In-town living also may make it easier to form sharing arrangements with neighbors or get involved in your community.
The housing bubble was notorious for oversized houses – and outsized housing debt. With green building, small is beautiful. Compared with the typical “McMansion,” a home that’s just the right size for you and your family is likely to cost less to build and maintain. In addition to being more energy efficient, your smaller home may need less furniture. That, in turn, could simplify housekeeping, keep the decorating bill under control and reduce your personal impact on the nation’s landfills.
Green home design
Regardless of architectural style, “green” can be designed into your home. An open or flexible floor plan that allows space to be used in multiple ways could eliminate the need for extra rooms. Windows, skylights and other features may help maximize daylight, reducing the need for electric lights, while bringing in plenty of fresh air. Trees, sunshades and other devices may be used strategically to moderate household temperature. Toward that end, the roof may be painted white. Or you may opt for a green roof that provides gardening space and a potential “carbon sink.” Quality building materials, framing, roofing and insulation with a high “R value” (a rating for heat resistance ) can enhance energy efficiency, while water-saving fixtures help reduce waste of this precious resource.
Green building materials
The green builder you hire can help you consider non-toxic, eco-friendly materials. That may mean natural resources, such as stone, bamboo and sustainable forestry products; newer man-made alternatives like recycled composites and ICI (insulated concrete forms); or unconventional resources, such as straw bales, sandbags and salvaged materials. You’ll also probably want to consider low- or zero-VOC paints and sealants. Green building materials can protect the environment by requiring less energy to make, increasing energy efficiency and reducing depletion of nonrenewable resources, such as flooring from hard-wood forests. Of course, green materials also can offer you and your family a healthier home environment, reducing potential exposure to air-borne toxins as well as those absorbed through the skin. Once construction is done, you can finish your green home with ENERGY STAR-rated2 appliances and eco-friendly furnishings (see Local Resources: Green Resources for links to green furnishing stores in the Delaware River Valley and elsewhere).
Green energy alternatives
Updating your HVAC system can help increase energy efficiency, especially when combined with other modifications, like improving insulation. If practical and affordable, this may be the perfect time to install photovoltaic (solar) panels, a geothermal system or some other type of renewable energy. Be sure to find out what federal, state, local and/or utility incentives may be available to help make renewable energy economically feasible. Some homeowners actually realize “net zero” energy use — the state of producing all the energy a home needs without tapping the “grid” (or even having excess energy to sell back to the grid). But even modest upgrades – weather stripping, improved insulation, zoned heating, double-pane insulated windows – can make a meaningful dent in your energy bill.
Taking just a few of these steps can make a difference to you, your family and the environment. For more information on building green, check out the U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org. Among the wealth of information available online, two good sources are Mother Earth News, www.motherearthnews, and the Green Guide, www.thegreenguide.com. You can check your town’s “walkability” at www.walkscore.com. For information on renewable energy incentives, check out www.dsireusa.org, a state-by-state guide to federal, state, local and utility-based incentives, as well as www.njcleanenergy.com, http://www.solar-new-jersey.org, the PA Sunshine Solar Program, http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/grants_loans_tax_credits/10395/PA_Sunshine_Solar_Program/821790 and the U.S. Department of Energy, www.doe.gov.
1 “Green Home Builders and Remodelers Study,” McGraw Hill Construction, February 2012, www.construction.com.
2 ENERGY STAR (www.energystar.gov) is jointly administered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and U.S. Department of Energy.