Green Building really just means smart building. It brings science and technology back into the building field, combined with environmental awareness and a concern for human health.
Green building starts with Smart Design. The first goal of Smart Design is to build no larger than is needed. This does not mean sacrificing comfort and function. Rather, by maximizing space, you can save money on unnecessary square feet, and put that money toward more comfort and function.
Smart Design also means designing structures to be energy efficient. Key to energy efficiency is passive solar design. By orienting the structure to face South, putting most of the windows on the south side, covered by long overhangs or awnings, providing thermal mass, and heavily insulating and sealing the building envelope, a building can be designed to basically heat and cool itself. This saves huge amounts of energy in heating and cooling costs, and also makes the building more comfortable to live in. These measures take little or no extra money to design and build, but they save a lot of money in the long run.
Another energy efficient measure that we take is installing all LED lighting. This has a bit more upfront cost, but it pays off financially in about 3 years. Most of the LED lights are rated to last for 15-20 years and the light quality is excellent if you know which lights to buy. So you get a great return on your investment in LED’s. Insulation is another huge energy saver that easily pays for itself in dollars and in added comfort. Our standard home gets wrapped in 1″-2″ of polyiso or EPS rigid insulation which vastly improves the thermal performance of the wall assembly. By installing it on the outside of the framing, rigid insulation stops the thermal bridging that normally leaks heat out through all the framing members. In addition, we pay special attention to air sealing so that less heat leaks out in the winter.
Low water use is becoming more and more important, especially with the droughts of the last few years. It is pretty easy to make a home use less water without feeling like you are sacrificing. High efficiency dishwashers use a quarter of the water that older models used. We install .8g/flush toilets that have surprising flushing power and use half the water that todays “low flow” toilets use. There are many great shower heads and faucets that use 1.5g/m, almost half the water of conventional “low flow” fixtures, but it still feels like more water than you need. It is easy to save water, it just takes a bit of extra effort to research and order the right products.
Building green means using quality building products and methods. These are products that are environmentally friendly to produce and are not harmful to human health. Green materials and methods must be durable and hold up to the test of time. One product we use a lot is wood. For framing, we buy FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified wood. The FSC certification is the best in the world so we know that the wood we use is harvested in a sustainable way. This means the forest can keep producing forever, with minimal impact on its ecosystem. By using reclaimed materials, we are able to get new life from old materials, and save them from the landfill. By choosing local materials, we cut down on the embodied energy of the products, which is the amount of energy it takes to produce and transport those products. It does not cost much extra to buy these products, but it does make a large impact.
Indoor air quality is another principle of green building. Since Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, it is important to choose building materials that will not harm the building occupants. Many products used in conventional building, such as vinyl, particle board, adhesives, and paints, contain toxic chemicals that pollute the indoor air for the life of the building, and lead to many terrible diseases and conditions. A few of the worst offenders, which continue to be used in almost every normal house, are vinyl chloride and urea formaldehyde. These two chemicals are listed as known carcinogens by the EPA, which means they are known to cause cancer, among many other bad health affects. They are often used in cheap building materials like vinyl flooring and particle board cabinets. But as they cause expensive and life threatening illnesses, these products are far from being inexpensive. We prefer solid plywood for cabinets instead of particle board, and hardwood flooring or tile instead of vinyl. All the major paint companies offer low and zero VOC paints. They cost about the same, perform about the same, and you can rest assured that you won’t be exposed to harmful chemicals as you sleep! If you build with us, we can help you avoid as many of these toxic chemicals as possible, which is not too hard these days since there is such an abundance of alternatives.
Because every client has a budget, green building is ultimately a juggling act of where money can be saved and where a bit more should be spent to maximize function, comfort, aesthetics, durability, sustainability and payback on investment. As the industry continues to evolve, we do our best to stay up to date so that we can make these decisions with confidence. We are constantly reading, sharing information with others in our field, going to presentations and conferences, and learning from our own projects, so that we can build the best product: beautiful, comfortable, and functional homes and workplaces that are healthy and enjoyable to live in, and will be around for your great, great grandchildren to enjoy!