The Elements of Building a Sustainable Home

The green homebuilding market is taking off, providing homeowners with the ability to simultaneously reduce their footprint and improve their health

by Asa Foss

Buying a house is one of the biggest decisions many of us will make in our lifetimes. There are so many aspects to consider that it can become overwhelming, even for those of us who are well prepared. Is the neighborhood safe? What are the taxes? Will I need a new roof soon? How good are the schools?

It’s easy to overlook a home’s green aspects while juggling all these other considerations. But, keep in mind that, according to the Energy Information Administration, the average American household spends over $2,000 a year on energy bills. Green homes – such as those that are LEED certified – use 30 to 60 percent less energy. That translates to thousands of dollars in savings over the lifetime of the house, not to mention a much more comfortable living experience.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most recognized green building rating system in the world, and is one of the few with requirements specifically designed for the construction of homes. There are more than 22,000 LEED-certified single-family homes (and 400,000 units in LEED-certified multifamily buildings) in the United States, and the economic benefits of sustainably constructed homes will help that number continue to grow. In many markets, certified green homes are now selling quicker and for more money than comparable non-green homes. The average price premium of a LEED-certified green home is four percent.

More important than the economic implications of green homes, however, is the idea that building green homes is all about building better homes. It’s about making thoughtful decisions that create a better place for people to live. LEED homes are built to provide clean indoor air and incorporate more durable building materials. Projects that pursue LEED certification are built with environmentally preferable products and in a sustainable manner, with as little harm done to the environment as possible.

When you think about the elements of a green home, you may think of using energy- efficient appliances, collecting rainwater on site, using native plants, or even installing rooftop solar panels. These are all great ways to reduce the environmental footprint of a home, but making sure a home can be maintained over the long-term, energy and water bills need to be reduced and occupant comfort needs to be improved within the basic building elements of a house. These elements include higher quality and properly installed insulation, effective air sealing, more efficient windows, and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems. Not only do these elements reduce energy usage in a house, but they also make the house more comfortable to live in.

A common misconception among homeowners is that “houses need to breathe” to maintain fresh air circulation. What’s more important is to air-seal the house as best as possible, and then provide controlled fresh air to the occupants. This air can be filtered, and even pre-conditioned before making it in to the living areas. With leaky old houses, there’s no way to know where the air is coming from. It could be the hot, dusty attic, or the cold, damp basement, or the garage that’s filled with rusty old paint cans and gasoline containers for the lawn mower. You would never call any of that “fresh air.”

To improve indoor air quality, in addition to proper air-sealing, homes should be built with materials that don’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde. In kitchens and bathrooms, exhaust fans to the outdoors should be installed, and, similarly, whole house ventilation needs to be installed.

It’s estimated that by the end of 2018, the green, single-family housing market will represent about 40 percent of the market, and 84 percent of all residential construction will have sustainable features. On top of that, with the addition of efficient materials and equipment, green homes can qualify for certain tax breaks. With proper planning, green homes can be built for the same cost as conventional homes and resold for more money in less time than traditional homes, all while maintaining a level of high-quality efficiency and maintenance.

Sixty percent of consumers have said that green and energy-efficient features are top requirements for their next home. The desire to live sustainably has become increasingly more prevalent with homeowners, and evolving technology and innovation have made that dream affordable. Given that we spend the majority of our time indoors, and a great deal of that in our own homes, it’s essential to make sure our homes are built to the highest quality standards to keep the air we breathe clean, and to keep our homes running effectively and efficiently.

Asa Foss is the LEED Residential Technical Director for the U.S. Green Building Council. He can be reached at afoss@usgbc.org.

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