How to Build a Green Home

This week in TriplePundit, builders David and Robert Bainbridge put forth what they term the “seven sins of building design and construction.”  These seven ethical consumption no-nos, which include cheap construction, lack of respect for the site, wasting energy, poisoning indoor air, underestimating moisture risks, and creating excessive waste, serve as a what-not-to-do checklist as valuable to the classic homeowner as they are to a property owner with a specific interest in building a green home.  Indeed, the list offered by the Bainbridge is sufficiently broad that it is hard to argue with.

But the devil’s in the details, which is why I thought it would be interesting to seek out a more specific checklist than the TriplePundit article offered.  In the course of conversation with Jonathan Tuminski, President of the Center for Green Building (who for full disclosure is working on a home improvement project at my house as I write this post), I learned that I had a great resource who has dedicated significant thought to this topic and who has actually assembled an outline of considerations for any homeowner about to embark on a major building or renovation project.  Jonathan was kind enough to share his framework with me and to allow me to share it with you, so here is a selection of the questions and considerations he suggests taking into account when embarking on a major green building project:

Tax incentives, rebates, and credits: It takes some sleuthing, but there are often state and federal websites offering insights into tax incentives (e.g. the fact that there is no sales tax on Energy Star products), rebates (e.g. state or federal subsidies), or credits (e.g. a percent refunded on the material costs of green building materials) available to those executing green building projects.  Make sure you have done your homework before designing your project budget.

Site design and project development: Projects can be designed to be low impact by incorporating energy alternatives such as solar and wind.  It is important to evaluate which alternatives make sense for you based on the location and orientation of your home.

Framing, process, and products: Skilled green builders are often trained in optimal value engineering (OVE), which are a set of techniques designed to minimize material costs and labor costs while improving energy performance for the building.  Making sure that your builder is trained in these techniques will save you money.  In addition, although it may not save you money, you may also want to consider purchasing FSC-certified wood and structured insulated panels (SIPS), although if you do the latter, bear in mind that the toxic nature of the material means that you would only have 30 seconds to exit your building in case of a fire!

Mechanics: Choose the right professional and pay for good calculations.  Most importantly, trust your instincts.

Plumbing: Try to be economical in thinking about how you deliver water through your walls.  If you are installing pipes for a renovation, you will save money and create less moisture by running pipes in locations adjacent to where pipes already exist.  In addition, make sure to figure out what fixture makes sense for you.  For example, if you are the kind of person who won’t drink from plastic bottles due to concerns over PVC, be consistent and choose copper piping over pipes made from PEX (PVC).

Electrical: Obviously, everybody is interested in reducing and conserving energy these days.  Consider what technologies are available to meet this goal.  A few years ago, CFL light bulbs clearly trumped incandescent and LEDs, but the latter has made a comeback over the past couple of years.

Insulation and energy efficient ventilation: Choose the right product and the right application.  Are there legal issues that might constrain your selection of insulation materials?

Occupation and maintenance: Keep your eye on what products make most sense for maintenance.  Are there natural alternatives to chemical cleaners?  Are there any drawbacks to using no-VOC paints?  Can you pay a little bit more for a product with a longer life expentancy?

Carpentry: As with optimal value engineering, a good carpenter adopts best practices that will save you money by conserving materials and treating labor ethically.  In addition, although it may or may not save you money, building green home requires good waste management, as the amount of material that goes into landfills continues to be significant.

Additional general advice: When you write a contract, start with the end in mind.  Know what you can afford and think through your schedule of disbursements and your plan for communication with contractors.  You don’t want to find yourself in a pickle halfway through your project!

So does this list cover the full range of questions that should be weighed by individuals thinking of building a green home?  Please weigh in and share your opinions.

Photo credit: Wayne National Forest