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The Green House

Author: Stephanie Derammelaere
March, 2009 Issue

NorthBay biz reveals the industry-recognized basics of building (and maintaining) a green home and offers some tips on how to eco-up your existing abode.


What if you could have the ideal green home—a “green dream home,” if you will. Exactly what elements would make that home green? Well, it all depends on how you define the term. To some, green means painting the interior with low- or no-VOC paint. To others, it means nothing less than solar panels on the roof, a photovoltaic light system, and all flooring, trim and furniture made out of locally harvested, sustainable wood.

Most professionals in the green building industry agree that building green has to do with a lot more than just the materials you use (or don’t use). It gets down to where the products came from, what energy was expended in growing, manufacturing and transporting those materials, how the home is designed, what kind of durability the materials used to build the house possess, what level of toxicity and waste is avoided in choosing building materials, how energy efficient the home can be, and how healthy the home will be to its inhabitants by way of reducing the use of noxious chemicals and materials.

One of the most obvious—but largely overlooked—green home decisions you can make is to buy a home that’s already been built. Although there’s much personal satisfaction in customizing a new home, “You’re in no way limited from having a green home by buying [an existing] one,” says Paul Rodman, owner of Green Method Construction in Napa, the first certified green builder in Napa County. “Especially in this market, with so many homes available—there’s a lot you can do to make those homes comfortable, energy efficient and healthy. If you buy a home that’s already built, you’re being green by using something that’s already in existence. You’re not carving out a new spot on a hillside, so you can feel good about that. In a sense, you’re reusing all the resources that were originally put into it.”

Whether you decide to purchase a home or start from scratch, homeowners today have more options than ever before to build or remodel with green methods. Energy and water efficiency are mainstays of green building, and include everything from low-e (short for emissivity) dual-pane windows that both insulate and reduce heat from the sun to superior insulation, low-flow toilets and showerheads, and energy efficient appliances, furnaces and water heaters. Says Harry Hagaman, president of Santa Rosa-based Green Design Systems, “Green is kind of a generic term now that covers a lot of different areas. That can include energy efficiency, alternative energy, preserving resources and the environment, nontoxic products and appropriate building materials. It’s a big field.”

Green Design Systems is a start-up that takes eco-friendly and high-quality insulation to a new level with patented straw building panels that are strong, fire resistant, energy efficient and nontoxic. The panels are made of compressed straw and rice hulls sandwiched between galvanized steel mesh that’s made from 100 percent recycled steel. Straw and rice hulls are discarded materials, so by using these panels, the environment benefits through reduced air pollution, as this “refuse” is often burned.

“Our panels are nontoxic, and we’re using a refuse material rather than something else that requires a lot of energy or material resources. Rice straw is a disposal problem for farmers here in Northern California, but we can use it to construct energy efficient, nontoxic buildings and actually sequester a lot of CO2 in the process by not burning it,” says Hagaman. “This minimizes global warming impact. Many people are unaware that 52 percent of global warming gasses are related to building use. About 14 percent of the energy use in this country is for heating and cooling of buildings.”

Other popular insulation alternatives are made from natural fibers (including old blue jeans) and some construction-related byproducts that, traditionally, would end up in landfills.

The long run

The next step in building a green home is choosing products and materials that will significantly increase the longevity of the house. And while some of these options might be more expensive at the outset, they can be cheaper in the long run—both for one’s pocketbook and for the environment, as less parts of the home need to be replaced, which reduces the use (and disposal) of more materials.

“Do a quality job up front,” advises Paul Benson, owner of San Rafael-based Blue Turtle Roofing, the Bay Area’s first green certified roofing business, and Paul Benson Painting, which was certified green by the Marin County Board of Supervisors. “The truth is, spending money now is always going to be cheaper than spending it in the future. Inflation makes everything more expensive the longer you wait.”

Take, for example, the painting of a home’s exterior, a task homeowners face regularly as paint starts to chip and fade from the elements. According to Benson, there are three types of house painting jobs homeowners can choose from: basic, premium and restoration. A basic paint job is the cheapest and, obviously, lasts the least amount of time, usually having to be repainted within four years. A premium paint job, which entails two coats, doesn’t cost double but can significantly increase the life of the paint. And a restoration-quality paint job could easily last 15 years by finishing with a solar reflective coating that reflects heat away from the house.

“If you [can afford it], you should definitely go with at least the premium level paint, because two coats are better than one,” explains Benson. “The sun will burn approximately half a millimeter of paint off every year. A normal coat of paint, if you brush it on, is maybe one and a half to two millimeters. If you just do a one-coat job on the outside, then in four years time, the sun has already burned off that paint.”

Likewise, choosing to build a “cool” roof by adding, for example, additional solar vents and a solar reflective coating, will not only make the roof last longer (as it’s more protected from the elements), but will also significantly increase comfort inside the home.

“We’re always coaching our clients on how to design a roof so it actually reflects heat and keeps the house cool, which lowers energy use,” says Benson. “Ensuring proper ventilation by adding solar vents [which collect power from the sun to convert into electricity, which in turn operates a high-efficiency motor inside a fan that vents air to outside] so the house vents properly and then applying cool coatings that reflect the heat make it more comfortable to live in. And it’s not any more expensive. A traditional roof isn’t any cheaper than a ‘cool’ one.”

Other energy-saving options can virtually pay for themselves in savings. A solar fan (which costs less than $1,500, including installation) costs nothing to run and can significantly cool down an attic, thereby cooling down the entire house. Likewise, a radiant barrier, which comes in paper-like rolls and can be self-installed, can be put in a home’s rafters to keep both heat and cold from the roof out of the house.

“We installed [a solar fan] in my house last year, and it cooled the upstairs on hot days by 20 degrees,” says Benson. “It costs you nothing to run, because it’s solar-powered, and it pulls all the heat out of your attic. Most attics, even though they have vents, don’t breathe properly. They get really hot—like, 160, 180 degrees. If you have an oven on, it heats up your kitchen. That’s what your attic does to your house—it heats up your whole house, especially the top floor of the house.”

Healthy choices

Some of the basics that people think of when considering green building options concern health factors and minimizing toxic chemical “off-gassing.” Building materials can release volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) into the air through evaporation, and this evaporation can continue for years after the products are initially installed. This means you continue to breathe these chemicals as you live in your home.

Materials such as paints, stains, varnishes, carpet, insulation, flooring, cabinets and countertops, plywood, particleboard and paint strippers have all been shown to produce significant off-gassing in homes. So, even if it’s not in the budget to build from scratch, anyone can make smart green choices by choosing non-VOC paint, using green flooring options when it’s time to replace the carpet or even replacing standard light bulbs with energy-efficient ones.

“Everything off-gasses, and I think all the different off-gassing of formaldehydes and different chemicals is why a lot of people have chronic fatigue and sicknesses,” says Benson. “Using zero-VOC paint is the first thing to do, and it’s not any more expensive.”

“There are a lot of things you can do without major construction,” says Rodman. “Basically, when you do something, do it green. What I suggest to clients is, don’t tear your house down to then build it back green. But as things need to be replaced, remodel or repair each section of the home using better materials. Find out what you can do—something is better than nothing.

“The important thing is to be an informed consumer and ask the questions: Are these the most nontoxic options when it comes to painting and indoor wood materials? Make sure no toxic gases are being released in your home—carpet would be a big offender in that department. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that our average indoor air quality is five to 10 times worse than outside air, even accounting for pollution and everything else. We have a little bit of control over that by what materials we decide to install.”

Break it down

Just as every decision we make today is a choice to either contribute to global environmental problems or to minimize them, so too should homeowners think of green building in its entirety. Whether demolishing a whole house or simply parts of it for a remodel, the breakdown phase is just as important as the building phase.

“Another service I’m going to be providing is deconstruction,” says Rodman, using a recent project as an example. “We had an existing portion of a home that needed to be taken down to make room for the new construction. Instead of demolishing it and taking it to the landfill, we took it apart piece-by-piece for full reuse. We had well over a 90 percent diversion rate. All the doors, windows, cabinets, wood—we actually removed all the nails from the framing wood—were reused. There’s an Oakland company called the ReUse People that takes it all. They’re a 501(c)(3) corporation, so it’s a fully tax-deductible donation. And you can fully deconstruct your home typically for the same or less than just demolishing it.”

Perfect positioning

What about those fortunate homeowners who don’t need to look at the bottom line and would like to build their dream green home? This is when the fun begins.

There are some factors that don’t cost anything and yet can have a big impact on a home’s longevity, durability and energy efficiency. For example, the simple positioning of a house can capitalize on nature’s own heating and cooling systems by using sun, shade, wind and topography to organically warm and cool the home, making it naturally energy efficient.

“Site orientation is one of the basics for building a green home,” says Hagaman. “If you get that right and have proper insulation, heating and cooling will be greatly reduced. Building design and orientation can also reduce the need for [artificial] lighting.”

There are many other options as well. Photovoltaic light systems convert sunlight into electricity, four to six solar panels on the roof can heat all needed water, and all woodwork can be made from reclaimed or FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) wood that’s been sustainably grown. Another option is a system that lets homeowners filter “greywater” (the water used by taking a shower, brushing one’s teeth or doing laundry, for example) for landscaping use. And on larger properties, a catchment system can harvest rainwater into holding vessels for both landscaping and in-home use.

While some of these high-end options are price prohibitive to many homeowners, costs are expected to decrease as demand rises and the technology becomes more mainstream. Photovoltaic production, for example, has been nearly doubling every two years since 2002, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy technology.

“Photovoltaics are going to come down in price,” predicts Hagaman. “They’re not going to be a high-end item in just a few years. New poly-silicon plants have increased supply, and prices are dropping sharply.”

Personal reasons

While the many benefits of building green are obvious—health, environmental, and cost savings among them—most green building professionals agree that it really comes down to comfort and enjoying the home you live in. If you aren’t going to choose green options because of environmental issues, choose them for your own comfort and health.

“Look at the comfort benefits just as much as the cost savings,” advises Rodman. “You think of the cost savings when you have an energy-efficient home, which is great. Photovoltaics, solar and other technology might get rid of the electricity bill, but they have substantial upfront costs. If you look at it purely that way, you’re spending money to save money. It’s an investment that will pay you back. But even before all of that, you’re more comfortable. When you put insulation in your home, it’s not just that you’re saving money on your electric bill, it’s that you’re not too cold or hot. The real benefits, to me, are the comfort savings. That’s what drives our energy bills—trying to get comfortable in our homes. We either have to use tons of air conditioning or lots of heat, when we could use a lot less and get to the same comfort level.”

As public awareness increases, due in large part to increasing environmental problems that are getting too large to ignore, people are making lifestyle changes, large and small.

Chris Nardone, partner and designer at form3 in Petaluma, agrees. “People want to make changes that benefit their families and their communities,” she says. Form3, a custom furniture and architectural design studio that makes use of FSC-certified wood, wood sourced from locally felled trees and reclaimed woods, is nearing completion of its first custom home in Petaluma, into which the company has incorporated numerous green building practices.

“I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed when implementing change, especially if we only look at a broad view of what needs improvement without considering the importance of the choices we make daily. When we change our daily actions, we can begin to see those choices as the beginning of our participation in addressing the larger issues.”

“Each of us must take steps to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Colleen Mahoney, principal architect of Mahoney Architects & Interiors and co-owner and founder of Mill Valley’s Green By Design, an alliance of green design and healthy building professionals. “The future is now in ‘green’ building.

“The buildings we work in and live in consume tremendous resources, and we need to find every way possible to conserve. We must conserve not only electricity and water through more efficient systems, but we also need to put healthy materials inside—from flooring to paint to furnishings.”

No matter what shade of green your home currently is, if everyone made even small green choices in their building, remodeling and maintenance decisions, meaningful changes would occur. Mahoney asks, “If you had a choice of building a home that was eco-friendly and energy-efficient versus one that wasn’t, how on earth could anyone not want it to be energy-efficient and responsible to the environment? Why wouldn’t you build green?”

A major part of being green is being conscious of the decisions we make in daily life. Sometimes, because of factors such as cost or time, it’s not always possible to make the “greenest” choice. But by educating ourselves on the available options and making choices based on their impact to both our personal comfort and the planet’s, we can, as a global community, respect our environment more. Let’s start with the basics: how we live in our homes.




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