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So you want to build a “green” home…

February 5, 2007

In my family I’m the go-to guy for information, opinion, and recommendations on topics that fall under the “green” or “environmentally-friendly” umbrella. I’m quite happy to share whatever information I have, and anything I don’t know simply becomes an opportunity to learn more! Performing this service just comes naturally.

A few months ago my services were extended to one of my mom’s life-long friends. This friend was planning on building a custom home, and decided that she wanted a “green” home. Not knowing much beyond wanting that, she asked me what she needed to do to have a green home. The only answer I can give to anyone who asks that is, “What do you mean by ‘green’?”

On the surface, having a green home implies that it’s better for the environment, more efficient, and thereby has some features that a standard home probably doesn’t have. When you start really digging into sustainable design, however, the issue becomes a lot more complex and boils down to the intent you have for building the home.

For example, one person might decide that a green home uses less energy than a comparable standard home. Does that mean that you want a Net Zero Energy Home, a home that is simply more efficient, or a home that uses renewable energy in place of power from the electrical grid and natural gas? These may sound very similar, but the devil is in the details – the implementation would be quite different for all three:

  • A Net Zero Energy Home produces as much electricity as it uses (or more), but is still tied to the grid. It may still use other sources of energy, such as natural gas.
  • An efficient home may simply use different insulation, more efficient appliances and lighting, and reduce phantom loads and energy wasteage, but otherwise be a standard house.
  • A home that uses renewable energy might generate electricity with a wind turbine or photovoltaics, may produce hot water using a solar water heating system, could even be of a passive solar design, or just use a wood or pellet stove for space heating. Again, it could otherwise be a standard house.

See what I mean? There is so much you can do, it’s just no enough to say “I want a green house”, you need to decide what you want your new (or renovated) home to accomplish for you, or provide that your current home isn’t.

As another example, let’s look at just the building materials. A green home can be built out of anything. Some might think of straw bale construction (one of my favourites), insulated concrete forms (ICFs), structural insulated panels (SIPs), or even more radical construction options like thin shell concrete domes, adobe bricks, cob, or rammed earth. Any of these vastly differing materials could be considered “green” from different standpoints. Building with any one of them does not automatically make a house green, however. With proper attention to the design, a house build by conventional means (“stick construction”) could be much greener than an improperly executed home built with much greener materials.

I think my point is made; before you can build a “green” home, you have to decide what “green” means to you. The one document I know about that does a decent job of aggregating all of these options is the draft LEED for homes rating system. It addresses 108 different points for “green” consideration, many of which you may have never considered yourself. If that is too dry a read, you may prefer to peruse’s Green Building 101 guide, which breaks the LEED rating system down into manageable chunks.

I heartily applaud any desire to build green. All I ask is that before ANYTHING else, ask yourself which “green” you want to build.

As for my mom’s friend, she realized that she needed to do a lot more thinking and research before building her green home.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gina permalink
    May 14, 2008 8:04 am

    For me, “green” meant first and foremost recycling an existing house. With so many houses crying for an energy retrofit, it didn’t seem to me to make sense to start my green project by consuming new material that had been produced at great environmental cost.


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