Seeing Green

Changes in the industry mean you might be greener than you think.

From earth homes in the ’70s to green building in the 1990s, the concept of building responsibly has changed significantly over the past half century. What is green building today, where is it headed, and what does it mean for your business?

Green building defined

A decade ago, “green building” was the buzz word in the construction industry. Home building associations had green-building committees, every home show had entire classes and exhibits dedicated to green-building practices and products, and manufacturers and builders were all scrambling to figure out what that meant and how to address the topic.

“You used to read about it all the time,” says Ben Trannel, a Certified Green Professional, of Red House Remodeling. “But it’s not as prevalent in the media as it used to be.”

In fact, many of those organized green councils and subcommittees don’t even exist anymore. Yet those green building practices are more common than ever.

“People in the industry don’t really like to use that term anymore,” says Matt Connolly of Iowa Realty. “It’s too broad and can have endless definitions.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Green buildings are designed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and the natural environment.” They do that in the following ways:

  • By efficiently using energy, water, and other resources
  • By protecting occupant health and improving employee productivity
  • By reducing waste, pollution, and environmental degradation

Trannel explains, “Anymore, those so-called green building decisions, for homeowners, are as much about health as about anything else.”

Connolly agrees. “‘Sustainability’ is really the new buzz word, rather than ‘green,’” he says. A longtime member of the HBA Green Council and a green-building instructor, Connolly built the first NAHB-certified green home in the Des Moines area. “The NAHB standard covers five areas: healthy indoor air quality, energy efficiency, local products and resources, sustainable products, and homeowner education on maintenance and use of these materials.”

The future of green building

Connolly says incorporating any or all of the NAHB Green Building Standard into home construction is a form of green building. “With the stricter energy codes and the ENERGY STAR system, builders are already building greener than they were 10 or 15 years ago. The change has come along gradually, partly as a generational change. Hopefully it’s becoming the norm too.”

Colin King of K&V Homes and also a Certified Green Professional, adds, “Overall, the industry is taking on a much more green perspective. That’s partly driven by vendors who are offering more sustainable products, so it’s easier to build that way.”

In fact, King says when his company first went through the certification process, the company discovered that it was already meeting 90 percent of the standards required. “We wanted to be able to offer that option to homeowners,” he explains, “so we went through the certification to learn what was involved. And we realized we were already doing most of it.”

Connolly notes that there are different levels of green building standards, and the two most requested by consumers are healthy indoor air quality and energy efficiency. “Everybody likes what saves them money,” he says. “And with the concerns in the news all the time about off-gasses and the potential health hazards from some building materials, homeowners are concerned about the health of their home, too.”

Building codes and government regulations have already begun addressing these two primary concerns, and most green building professionals believe that the next big push will be in the area of sustainability.

“With some of the vendors, sustainable products are almost a given now,” King says. “Depending on which vendor a builder is buying from, they may already be using more sustainable resources than they realize. But that’s going to keep growing as more and more vendors start offering those types of products.”

Green building and you

“The reason I went through certification in the first place was to gain some understanding on how to address these issues with customers and how to incorporate these practices into my projects,” Trannel says. “It’s less of an issue with remodeling, in some ways, because we’re working with existing construction and materials, but I learned that a lot of those green changes are already built in to what we’re doing.”

Staying informed, keeping up to date with the National Green Building Standard, makes it easier to incorporate these practices on a regular basis and to go beyond the minimum required in the building codes.

Described as “the preeminent green rating system” in the residential industry, the NAHB Green Building Standard rates projects on their use of green products and practices. The standard covers the categories mentioned by Connolly, addressing energy efficiency, sustainability, and health issues.

Trannel says, “In our highly regulated world, code changes mean we’re necessarily building greener. A lot of those standards and products are just built in to the requirements anymore. But there are additional key changes, like changing out fixtures for LED lighting, that can make a huge difference for the homeowner in the long run.”

Incorporating the ENERGY STAR appliances, the LED lighting, low-flow fixtures, and similar features makes it clear to the potential buyers that efficiency is important to your business. However, using sustainable resources in every area of a project may not be feasible.

“When you start looking at it item by item, homeowners realize that every decision can potentially involve an upcharge, and they have to start choosing which ones are the priority. Selecting those key features and products that have the biggest effect on health or their long-term efficiency is one way to incorporate greener building practices, even in remodeling projects,” Trannel says.

In addition, understanding how those products and systems work together is crucial. For example, updating insulation and openings to create an air-tight environment without ensuring appliances and the heating and cooling systems are venting properly can cause issues much more serious than any energy savings would justify.

It’s not about building green anymore. It’s about building responsibly.