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Building Green? Questions Beget More Questions
by Stephen Morris
We get it! We get it! After years of vague threats about the end of cheap oil, the impact of global warming, and the evils of toxic building materials, reality has come crashing down. Suddenly every community has a controversy about windmills on ridge lines or local hydro projects that might alter the fish habitat. The buzz words at cocktail parties now include "cow power," "grid interties," and "peak oil."
In response more and more people are making their homes personal statements of environmental stewardship by "building green." Caution! This can mean a bewildering exposure to new technologies, certification agencies, and government rebate programs. Was it so long ago that Ronald Reagan promised us the dream of "total electric living" where every construction flaw from poor siting to bad design was overcome through the addition of inexhaustible, inexpensive electricity? Life was so much simpler then, but potentially more rewarding now.
With new choices in building materials, appliances, and fuels it is possible to create a homestead that fully reflects enlightened, ecological values. Getting from here to there, however, can be a challenge, especially that crucial first step. It's no surprise that prospective homeowners and renovators are scratching heads, or worse, throwing up hands, over how to make visions of environmental dream homes brick and mortar reality.
We turned to some of the state's leading experts in green building to jumpstart the planning process. The question posed: "For the person who wants to undertake a green building project, what is the critical first question?"
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Alex Wilson is founder and president of BuildingGreen, Inc., the Brattleboro-based publisher (since 1992) of Environmental Building News, the nation's oldest and most respected publication on green building. His new book, Your Green Home (New Society Publishers) will come out this summer.
"Unfortunately, the first question asked is often about building materials--will straw-bale work? Can I use cellulose made from recycled newspaper? The first question should be ‘Where should I build?' Where that house gets built and the resultant impacts from driving to work or to town will far outweigh the decision about construction materials. The next question should be ‘How big a house do I need? Or, conversely, what's the smallest house that will suit my needs?' The third question should be about how to minimize the energy consumption."
Architect Scott Swanson (Peterborough, NH) emphasizes the concept of local. "If we can find locally grown or manufactured materials, we are greatly affecting the impact of the energy which is embodied in our buildings. The closer to home, the greener the outcome! This same logic applies to services and tradespeople, too."
Paul Lacinski of Green Space Collaborative is green builder just south of the border in Charlemont, Massachusetts. He is also an author. His Serious Straw Bale is the definitive reference for anyone looking to build with bales in harsh, northern climes. Lacinski agrees with Alex Wilson in that size matters:
"It's probably not what most people want to hear, but if someone is serious about building green, the first question should be ‘How small a house can I live in?' Size directly affects all forms of energy use (heating, cooling, electrical, embodied) and if you don't start small, you have to go to extreme (and therefore expensive) measures to catch up. This should be obvious. Even if you have efficient light bulbs, if you have a big house, you will have two or three or ten times as many as your neighbor in the small house, and every night they will be drinking down that much more juice."
Lacinski cites the Vermont Builds Greener program as particularly honest, because it disqualifies houses above a certain size, period. This is an unpopular position, politically, because "big houses with lots of greenie gewgaws stuck all over the outside can draw a lot of attention."
Danny Sagan is an architect who is also an instructor at the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield. He concurs about the helpfulness of the Vermont Builds Greener program. "It is created to educate builders and home owners and to certify new homes that are built green. It is known to have the most compete and coherent check-list of any green home program in the country."
The downside of the check-list, adds Paul Scheckel, Technical Manager for Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and author of The Home Energy Diet, is that it is time-consuming and will challenge your builder. "Get hold of the checklist early in your planning process, do your homework, and be sure you can commit to the both the process and the green lifestyle."
(Homeowners who prefer practical immersion can opt for the two day weekend course in "Green Home Design" offered by Yestermorrow and taught by Sagan.)
Niko Horster built his own renewable-powered straw bale home in Vermont's Solar Triangle. He became so enamored of green building that he "went pro," becoming Construction Coordinator for O'Hara and Gercke, a contracting firm headquartered in Wilder, Vermont. The question of what a homeowner should ask first, he says, is "difficult and loaded." In the truest Socratic tradition he answers with questions of his own. The homeowner, says Horster, should look inward, "What is my motivation for building green? Is it my health, the health of the environment or is it my concern about fossil fuel consumption and energy costs that are driving my interesting green building. The relative importance of these three areas (health, environment, energy) will determine where the money follows the mouth. Usually there is a limited budget with a fixed number of discretionary dollars to spend. Where, what, and how to allocate these must be prioritized early on to ensure the best value."
Horster also emphasizes how important it is to find a trusted professional–consultant, contractor, or architect–as early in the planning process as possible. The sharpened focus during the design phase will save time, money, and frustration. Crucial design decisions and changes made on paper are much more affordable than changes made later in real materials.
Jeff Wolfe, co-founder with wife, Dori, of Global Resource Options in Strafford and White River Junction, gave up a career on the corporate fast tract to start a "Mom & Pop" renewable energy sales and installation business. What they got instead, however, was their own corporate rocket ship fueled by rising fuel costs, government credits, and expanding consumer awareness. (Global Resource Options was the "business of the year" as named by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility in 2005.)
Wolfe responds to our question with a salvo of his own: "How can I build a house that balances my needs and wants with what the earth can sustainably provide? How can I understand the energy required for my house, and where can I get that energy from? How can I shape the house to require the least heating while maintaining high comfort, and what combination of heating sources works best? Which appliances should I select so that my electrical needs can be met with on-site power generation? How can I live well, but differently, to leave the smallest footprint in the world?"
Ultimately, according to Paul Scheckel who carries a certain amount of "street cred" from having conducted hundreds of in-home energy audits the first and only relevant question boils down to "How committed are you to minimizing the impact your home and lifestyle have on the environment?"
The best news of all is that going green is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There is a full spectrum of greens from pale (putting compact fluorescent light bulbs in your 10,000 square foot luxury palace) to forest (living off-the-grid in a compostable house). Whether your definition of green means solar panels on a slate roof or choosing the most energy-efficient garage door opener, the point is to start asking questions, and to start today.
A Few Related References:
Home Energy Diet by Paul Scheckel (New Society Publishers, 2005)
Serious Straw Bale by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron (Chelsea Green, 2000)
Your Green Home by Alex Wilson (New Society, Summer, 2006)
Websites & publications:
Efficiency Vermont: www.efficiencyvermont.com
Vermont Builds Greener: www.vermontbuildsgreener.org
Yestermorrow Design/Build School: yestermorrow.org
www.BuildingGreen.com, a subscription-based online resource for environmentally sensitive design and construction
Green Living Journal: www.greenlivingjournal.com
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