Building or Buying Green: An introduction to green building certification in Western North Carolina
Green buildings use less energy, water, and materials than code-built homes. According to the EPA, the way we build and live in our buildings is responsible for 39 percent of total energy use, 68 percent of total electricity consumption, 30 percent of landfill waste and 12 percent of total water consumption nationally.
However, green buildings are not only better for the environment; the truth is that homes built using green building methods are simply better buildings. The growth of the green building industry can be attributed to the fact that by building green, everyone wins — the environment, the economy, the homeowner and the builder. Homeowners get a healthier, more comfortable home with lower utility bills and less maintenance requirements without having to compromise aesthetics or function. Studies show that green homes are worth more when sold and they hold their value extremely well over time.
According to Mary Love, a local Realtor and Director of Asheville Keller Williams Green Division, “In today’s market more buyers want certified ‘Green’ homes. They are looking for energy efficiency that will help offset house payments. They also are much more aware of indoor air quality and carbon footprints. Buyers appreciate houses that are certified because it removes the fear of ‘green washing.’ Sellers are discovering the value of green improvements and look to certified ECO or GREEN Realtors to help them make wise improvements that will attract more buyers.”
Building or renovating green is one of the best investments you can make. So how do you get started? Luckily, Western North Carolina has vast resources available when buying a new green certified home or renovating your existing home to be more environmentally friendly.
When buying new, look for a third party certified green home. In the absence of a universally approved definition of green, certification programs have emerged to prevent green-washing and to provide a marketing edge for builders who are willing to make human health and environmental sustainability top priorities. In WNC, there are four main certification programs for green building:
ENERGY STAR Homes, Green Built NC, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for homes and the National Green Building Certification Program. ENERGY STAR homes focus just on energy efficiency while Green Built NC, LEED for Homes and National Green Building Certification Program also address water use, healthy indoor air quality, site impacts and resource conservation. Each program is third party inspected for quality assurance and designed to be a road map to help consumers and builders make educated decisions while weighing the cost benefit of different green upgrades.
Green homes cost on average from 0 to 10 percent more depending on how green you go. Most often this increased mortgage cost is more than offset by the monthly utility savings. Add the reduced maintenance, healthy indoor air and comfort on top of that and it’s a no-brainer.
According to Sean Sullivan of Living Stone Construction Inc., a local builder of Green Built NC and ENERGY STAR Homes and current president of North Carolina Home Builders Association, “There are many reasons why building ‘green’ is attractive to me: energy efficiency, using local suppliers and tradesmen, designing and building for passive solar, and water retention/collection among some of them. However, the most popular reason my clients choose to build ‘healthy’ is that the clean indoor air quality is best for people moving here with allergies. The fresh air exchanges, media air filters and low VOC products are a ‘no brainer’ for anyone who struggles with seasonal allergies!”
If you are planning to build your dream home, the first place to start is with the site and design. Choosing a site that can take advantage of the sun’s free energy to heat the home can provide comfort and savings for the life of the home. Designing in green features from the early stages makes the process as seamless and affordable as possible.
Choosing a builder is probably the most critical step, though. An experienced general contractor with a passion for green building is easy to find in Western North Carolina, so don’t settle for less. But if you find a contractor that doesn’t know much about green building, the WNC Green Building Council and the various certification programs can help provide the education and guidance necessary to provide you and your contractor with the tools necessary to green your dream home. An integrated team that meets regularly and works together is critical. If your framer and your HVAC contractor aren’t working together, for instance, it can make it difficult to design the HVAC system to perform optimally, costing you more money in the long run.
If looking to buy a relatively new home, buyers can find certified green homes in affordable to high-end price ranges, in a variety of sizes, touting green features including everything from solar panels and reclaimed lumber to simple well-constructed, craftsman cottages that someone would be hard pressed to distinguish on the surface from a code-built, non-certified green home. When it comes to green homes, the devil is in the details. While there are many technologies and materials that are constantly improving how our homes perform, the details and craftsmanship are the most important aspect to ensuring homes are comfortable, efficient and healthy. Details such as proper site drainage and air sealing don’t cost more and you can’t see them, but they do ensure that the home will save energy and last for years to come. What is greener than that?
When looking at a prospective home, it is impossible to tell that the builder was so conscientious during construction that he or she didn’t even fill a single dumpster during the process by wasting little and recycling where possible. However, if the home is certified by Green Built NC or LEED-Homes, the Realtor or seller should be able to provide a buyer with a checklist of the green features of the home providing further guidance about what sets this home apart from the rest.
But what about an existing home? It is easy to do it right if you are starting from scratch, but isn’t renovating an existing home the ultimate form of recycling? Yes! But where do you start? If you are on the market for a home, the first step is to find an ECO or NAR GREEN certified real estate professional, someone who knows what questions to ask and what resources are available for evaluating just how much you would need to do to make an existing home “greener.”
Consider getting a Home Energy Score with a Green Gauge Assessment before (or soon after) you buy. This process cost about the same as a home inspection, but you will receive valuable information that isn’t included in a typical home inspection. How much will it cost to heat and cool the home? Is there any insulation? How old is the furnace? How can you improve the air quality? Is this a green home? These factors are very important when assessing the true cost of ownership.
If you find the perfect home that is within your budget, but it costs $200 a month in electricity vs. $50 a month for the home next door, that needs to be factored into your decision. Home Energy Score with Green Gauge is a locally available program that can help you answer these questions, at a low cost, before you buy to find out just how the home compares. According to Mary Love, “programs like Green Gauge help buyers and sellers determine important green features in existing homes, therefore making the selection process easier for the buyer while providing the seller a quicker sell.”
If you know a home needs work, and most do, the next step is your choice: you can hire a home performance contractor to do the work for you or you can do it yourself (if you are handy many of the most basic improvements are very simple and low-cost). Duke Energy Progress also offers incentives/rebates for making some energy retrofits if using an approved contractor. The WNC Green Building Council, a local educational nonprofit organization also offers a free email or phone hotline to answer your burning green building questions and can help you get started.
Maggie Leslie is Director for the WNC Green Building Council. She can be reached at 828.254.1995 or Maggie@wncgbc.org , or visit our website for more information at www.wncgbc.org.