Green building spreads in Guilford

by Amy Kingsley

The home construction industry has seen its share of fads, from log cabins to Levittown and New Urbanism. In recent years the trend has been toward green-ness, that ineffable quality that encompasses sustainability, energy use and air quality, among other things.

The movement to build green homes – which has already spread like kudzu in western North Carolina and the Triangle – is poised to take root in the Triad. A local committee of the US Green Building Council, the group that administers LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), is in the offing, and the local branch of the Home Builders Association is in the early stages of planning a green building seminar. Heather Gardner, a local architect and member of the Piedmont Triad committee of the Green Building Council, said the interest in sustainable housing is growing.

As green building proliferates, so do choices and confusion. Novices considering going green may find themselves needing the equivalent of a Himalayan sherpa to help them navigate the wilds of certification, which is, at the moment, unregulated. There’s LEED, the recognized leader in commercial construction that is preparing to unveil a residential certification later this year, the Home Builders Association’s Green Building Initiative, NC Healthy Built Homes and Energy Star. And that’s just in North Carolina; across the country there are as many as 100 different green building programs angling for a bite of the sustainable housing apple.

Why? Because heightened awareness of global warming has made the “green” appellation increasingly popular – Bill Beasley, a builder and member of the Green Building Initiative in Durham, Orange and Chatham counties, said his group has received more than 80 applications since the program started last fall. And for good reason: Energy expended in homes and buildings accounts for a third of the total amount used.

So which certification programs are really green, and which are just environmentally savvy marketing? The answer, as it turns out, is complicated. And it depends on the definition of the word “sustainable” in the increasingly large-scale world of modern home construction.

“There are kind of different tiers for working your way up to green building,” Beasley said. “There’s energy usage, indoor air quality, resource efficiency, site development, planning and home owner education.”

Some of the certification programs address only one or two of those categories – like Energy Star, which is administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency and deals only with energy usage. Others, like the Green Building Initiative, NC Healthy Built Homes and LEED for Homes, provide builders a list of options in several different categories. Builders pick and chose for a minimum score in each to attain basic, bronze, silver or gold levels.

“It does make it difficult to know which certification system to turn to,” Gardner said of the competing systems.

Homebuilders seeking gold certification under the Green Building Initiative must accumulate 100 points for energy efficiency, cherry-picked from such modifications as caulking ceiling joists and installing energy-efficient fans. Healthy Built Homes requires its structures to be certified by Energy Star – which means the home uses 15 percent less energy than average. The builder can add extra insulation or shave even more energy usage for additional points and a higher certification level.

Dona Stankus, the founder of the Healthy Built Homes program, is North Carolina’s green building guru. Her program launched in 2003 with a statewide focus to fill the vacuum that existed for residential builders looking for environmental guidance. Builders who want Healthy Built Homes certification must join her program.

Stankus, who is also on the board of the US Green Building Council, said she supports LEED, but does not know how well the system can be adapted for the residential market.

“It’s really hard to get a national program that fits all these local models,” she said.

Different states and some municipalities have unique building codes, she said, and the variation in climate zones might mean that the effort to accommodate them all will result in an overly cumbersome checklist.

Aside from the code and regional variations, another major difference between green certification programs is the amount of oversight. LEED is rigorous, requiring third-party documentation at nearly every step of the process. The Home Builders Association’s Green Building Initiative relies on a great deal of self-certification, which leads to some concern that the program could be a “greenwash,” an attempt to cash in on environmental awareness without actually improving sustainability. Stankus said some elements of the Healthy Built Homes programs are also self-certified, and that has caused her some concern about its integrity.

“We worry about that all the time,” she said. “People ask us why we hold out on one requirement when they fulfilled all the others. But if you start giving ground, you don’t know where it’s going to stop.”

She said it’s possible that a home could be certified under the Green Building Initiative that isn’t Energy Star, meaning that a house that is supposedly “green” might use the same or nearly the same amount of energy as an average home. Stankus acknowledged that having some green features is better than having none, and said the Green Building Initiative had at the very least raised the profile of sustainable building. She said she talked to leaders of the program about the possibility of merging Healthy Built Homes and the Green Building Initiative.

Cost is another difference between programs, and a major factor for builders. The LEED program – which is estimated to cost $8,000 – is four times more expensive than Healthy Built Homes. And the Green Building Initiative is the least expensive of all.

“Just for the certification it’s around one hundred fifty dollars for a custom builder,” Beasley said. “We lowered that entry cost to get volume builders to do the right thing.”

Creating a program attractive to volume builders is one of the things the Green Building Initiative strives to do, Beasley said.

“Gee it would be great if we could put solar panels on all our custom-built houses,” he said. “But to make a real difference we have to get the volume builders involved.”

A local builder, Paul Meinhart, said the benefits for homeowners with green houses extend beyond ethical and environmental wellbeing. Meinhart’s company, PJM Designs, is remodeling Rep. Pricey Harrison’s to make it more efficient and adding accents made from salvaged wood. In addition to saving money on energy, owners of houses certified green under reputable programs can be assured that their house is built with quality control in mind, he said.

“In essence a lot of green building techniques are just good building techniques,” he said.

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