What is a Green Home?
Most people will agree that managing our environment and controlling consumption of our natural resources is a responsibility that humans share. Green homes reflect a responsible approach to building and maintaining a home. Homes are becoming more energy efficient, more green. Green homes utilize new technologies, better materials, efficient systems, improve health and protect the environment.
What is Green Certified?
It is a designation for homes that use design features, technologies and products that: Improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution, provide healthier indoor air, reduce water usage, preserve natural resources, increase the homes' durability, make the home quieter, reduce required homeowner maintenance, and lower monthly energy costs. It’s a worthwhile standard to seek for your home.
Look for the Energy Star certification
The energy star certification designates these primary qualities: Efficient insulation, high performance windows, efficient heating & cooling equipment, efficient products (i.e. appliances, lighting fixtures and ventilation), and third party verification to ensure that these efforts result in an energy efficient home. The overall goal: Reduce the amount of energy consumed and reduce air and water pollution.
The benefits of a Green Home
Green homes are healthier. A healthier home can mean fewer expensive doctor's visits and fewer days of missed work. A green home is often more durable than a standard home because of the high-quality building materials used in the construction process. These quality features may also reduce future repairs. Finally, green homes consume less energy and less water, reducing monthly utility bills.
What is a LEED Designation?
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design. The LEED program was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Builders involved in the LEED program adhere to a points system involved in the building process.
Make sure your builder has a LEED designation
LEED builders utilize optimal design and site use, use green construction materials, follow waste reduction methods, focus on water conservation and conservation of energy, and work to improve indoor air quality. Builders follow a point system during the building process. The overall points tallied determine the level of qualification, which indicate if they are Platinum, Gold, or Silver Certified.
Emerging Products: Artificial Turf
From the Football Field to your Front Lawn
Part of the quintessential American dream seems to always include an expansive green lawn where our kids and pets can play out in the sunshine and fresh air. It sounds idyllic, but as homeowners quickly realize, maintenance of a lawn can be costly, time-consuming and even frustrating. While outsourcing the lawn maintenance is sometimes an option, many homeowners prefer to do it themselves to avoid the extra expense. With the inherent costs of watering and fertilizing, (especially in drought-prone areas of the country), that dream lawn ends up draining our house maintenance budget and a lot of our precious free time.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to the "American dream lawn" that virtually eliminate lawn maintenance and can significantly reduce costs. The question is: does your grass have to be real?
Not just AstroTurf anymore.
While artificial turf has been used in commercial and institutional athletic spaces for decades, you might have noticed that its use in residential spaces is becoming more common. As a viable option for homeowners who seek low-maintenance, artificial turf is an always-green lawn. What has changed to make it more appealing for residential use, and not just for athletic arenas?
One change is price. Prices for artificial turf have come down while the quality has gone up. Especially for residential artificial grass, prices have become more reasonable -- some quotes are as low as $2.50 per square foot for DIYers. The professional installation of synthetic grass will have a higher upfront cost but according to Jay Johnston, owner of Synlawn Georgia, investing in a professional installation is well worth the extra investment. "With every new customer, we come to the property to assess their lawn and help them choose the best product for their site, based on its location, size, usage and amount of shade. Then there's a four-step preparation process that can be labor intensive for a DIYer. Having a professional installation from a company like Synlawn ensures the job is going to be done right the first time, and the lawn is going to look great for a long time."
The price for synthetic grass varies widely based on your geographic region, lawn size, site requirements, etc. However, when you consider all the costs incurred for lawn care over a period of three to five years -- water, fertilizers, herbicides, and equipment -- the cost for artificial turf installation is comparable, considering the "lifespan" of artificial turf can extend to 20 years! In fact, Synlawn guarantees its products for 15 years!
But does it look real?
Other changes in synthetic grass are its quality and variety. Since the 1970s when athletic teams began using artificial turf for its durability and consistency, turf companies have continued to make advances in developing different turf styles, colors, designing different blade shapes and lengths that are more appealing for residential use. Most artificial turf companies now offer a variety of artificial grasses, based on how you plan to use it. Artificial turf is safe for animals and children, although some types can retain heat more readily than real grass; in direct sunlight it can be 5-10+ degrees hotter than regular grass. That might be due to the artificial turf's composition -- grasses that are 100 percent synthetic tend to retain heat more than grasses that are made with both synthetic and organic materials. Several of Synlawn's most popular synthetic grasses are only partially synthetic; their latest product is a turf made up of nylon and sugarcane, and their most popular turf is 78% soybean. While artificial turf can last more than a decade, it does fade and wear out over time.
Ready to stop mowing forever?
One of the main reasons that homeowners choose to install artificial turf is that it is incredibly low maintenance. Besides the cost of installation, homeowners with artificial grass no longer need to pay for watering, fertilizing, pest control and regular maintenance. Once installed, artificial grass requires very little -- no watering, no mowing. It drains as well as real grass, and can be hosed down or blown to be cleared.
Does it make sense for my lawn?
There are several factors besides cost to consider when "going artificial": lawn size, geographical location, and usage. Many artificial turf companies like Synlawn have a variety of different styles of synthetic grass that varies in length, color, blade shape and composition. A potential customer of artificial turf should consider each of these factors, in addition to the environmental considerations of installing a synthetic lawn.
How will it affect the environment?
While the use of artificial turf does conserve on costs of irrigation and maintenance (saving precious water resources and cutting down on noise and air pollution from mowers and weed-eaters), the synthetic material becomes an inorganic barrier between the soil underneath and the air above. That means birds like robins cannot access potential food like insects and worms that live in the soil. And let's not forget what we learned about photosynthesis in ninth-grade biology: live plants like grasses pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere where it converts it into two gases; releasing oxygen into the air and carbon that becomes part of the plant and enriches the soil. It's worth noting that in the areas where artificial turf is laid, that life cycle is not happening. Areas where synthetic grass is laid can take years of soil remediation to "bring it back to life." So if you're the type who likes to renovate and change things up every few years, artificial turf might not be a worthy investment. That said, if the idea of a virtually maintenance-free, eternally green lawn sounds appealing to you, perhaps it's time to consider "going artificial."
Emerging Trends: Testing Air Quality
Off-gassing might be lurking in your home.
Warning: There might be something invisible and unhealthy that’s lurking in your home. It’s polluted air from chemical particles released from certain materials, products and systems, called off-gassing. And it may be at a level that is two to five times greater than outdoor air. A routine home inspection may include tests for asbestos, lead, radon, and termites. Now there’s a new test that can be done to check for off-gassing levels – to measure whether your new home has quality indoor air or if dangerous gasses are present.
While some unhealthy gasses dissipate fairly rapidly, others may linger for months, even years. These may cause health problems, from respiratory illnesses to allergic and asthmatic reactions, and in the worst case different types of cancer. Remember the 60 Minutes TV segment about Lumber Liquidator's laminate wood flooring made in China? The company's stock plummeted the day after the show aired because of fear about off-gassing due to the formaldehyde used to fabricate the boards.
There are concerns about other products with a high level of volatile organic compounds, referred to as VOCs, in certain paints, adhesives, glues, insulation, cabinetry, mattresses, countertops, and more. Homeowners anywhere in the country can test their homes for contaminants and toxins. DIY kits are available with accuracy of a professional test, or you can hire skilled environmental investigators and home health professionals to test the air quality level.
If high levels show up, drastic action isn't always required. "You don't have to always rip out cabinets and floorboards," says Caroline Blazovsky, author and national healthy home expert, who founded My Healthy Home in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, to help clients test for VOC levels, along with water safety and mold. "There are many solutions to VOC’s" says Blazovsky. "Paint cans stored in the home are a leading contributor, and excessive use of fragrance from candles, air fresheners, anti-bacterial wipes, and scented products are another. Simply eliminating the items can make a huge difference and provide for a healthier home."
Items like VOC’s, mold in between walls, animal dander, and proteins are not visible so it is extremely important to test and know how healthy your home really is. "Working with physicians has helped me to see our services really benefit patients. Some doctors are willing to look at environments when no other cause for illness is presenting and the results are amazing," she says.
Hiring Blazovsky may cost anywhere from $400 to $800; and an Examinair Professional Allergen and Mold Test Kit www.examinair.net retails for $440 and a Predict VOC Test for $450. She's a member of the Indoor Air Quality Association, (IAQA), an organization that provides names of certified specialists throughout the country on the its website. Blazovsky is also a certified Healthy Home Specialist through the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA).
There are preventative measures also available in the market. To eliminate VOCs and keep indoor air healthy, you can find a growing array of online retailers that sell merchandise that won't off-gas, as well as organizations to guide you. Among some of our favorites:
Green Depot is a resource based in Brooklyn, New York, which stocks green, healthy building products and materials. They have 10 locations and 20 warehouses and they review and offer products that meet standards for air quality, social responsibility, being local, energy efficiency and conservation.
Green Building Supply, another resource based in Fairfield, Iowa was among the first to focus on the healthy, green niche. The company carries materials and products that are non-toxic, renewable, recycled or upcycled, energy efficient, and have been personally tested. Store employees will also answer questions over the phone.
TreeHugger touts itself as a one-stop shop for green news, solutions, and product information; and publishes blogs, weekly, and daily newsletters to keep home owners and professionals informed. The site also answers questions such as what are good safe paints to use. A response posted was..."we have a few ideas: YOLO Colorhouse, Sico's zero-VOC option, Anna Sova are just a few that have graced these pages...."
Green Building Advisor is another source of information about building a green home or tackling a green, healthy project. Editor Martin Holladay, also a senior editor at The Taunton Press, posts articles, answers queries, and has a product guide. There's a 10-day free trial subscription; after that, a charge.
Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to help the public as well as the planet be healthier. It offers guides and articles on various products. One article cited results from the largest-ever testing program for arsenic-treated wood. It shows that the public remains at risk from high levels of arsenic leaking out of pressure-treated wood in older decks, play sets, and picnic tables.
Getting Down to Zero
How to achieve a very green home
Going green and doing your part in saving the planet is a great goal, but it can prove confusing. Why? Unfortunately, there's no single definition of whether a home is green enough. Do all paints and adhesives need to be a low- or no volatile organic compound (VOC) to be considered green? Must all materials be from local sources, so they weren't shipped from far away, another benchmark of greenness? Or, does every appliance have to have an Energy Star label? The questions go on and on.
Fortunately, there's one criterion that can lessen your confusion and serve as a practical guide. Homes labeled Zero Energy or Zero Net Energy reflect the most rigorous design and construction standards to date of greenness. Here's what you should know if you want to build or retrofit a home to a high green level:
1. Get off the grid. Homes that are Zero Energy are connected with a municipality's electric grid, which tracks your energy use as a homeowner in the same way your bank tallies your deposits. On sunny days, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof of these homes produce energy. What's not used is sent to the grid and "stored," so a homeowner can build up credit on their account, just as with a bank. On cloudy days, you might withdraw energy, or deduct it from your account. The goal by year end is to have a zero balance--hence the Zero in the moniker. Your initial hookup to the community's grid may involve a fee, but many now don't charge to encourage greater homeowner energy consciousness and savings, says Joe Emerson, a Zero Energy homeowner in Bend, Oregon, whose online Zero Homes offers a wonderful resource.
2. Pick the right site for passive solar gain. You want a site that takes maximum advantage of the sun's energy to power your home. Having few trees on the future home's south side will help. The best designs have one of their "long" sides on a southern orientation to capture light, plus the right sized overhangs to block strong heat, says Ryan Shanahan, a senior green building consultant with Earth Advantage in Portland, Oregon, which certifies that homes are built to green-building criteria.
3. Model energy use to be cost conscious. You want to incorporate as many energy-conscious features as you can beside the PV panels. To do so, you can use software programs and hire experts to help you do the calculations. NORESCO, a large energy service company in Boulder, Colorado offers a REM/Rate TM software that computes heating, cooling, hot water, lighting, and appliance energy loads, consumption, and costs based on the R-values and other data that are input. You can find such software and experts by going online and searching for area Zero Net sources.
4. Insulate your total envelope. To do this, select the best constructed architectural features in walls, floors, ceilings, windows, and doors, and also insulate them for extra protection. What's good insulation? Walls should be doubled, and each 1-foot thick with blown-in insulation between them. The R-values should depend on your area's climate. Find out if the package is tight enough by having an energy consultant conduct a blower-door test.
5. Choose smart systems and appliances. You'll want to have a thermal hot water system to provide warm and hot water, either through an active or passive system. How about an energy-efficient heating and cooling system with a top choice being one that uses a heat pump with a mini split; an energy-efficient fresh air supply that comes with the choice of a good Energy Recovery Ventilation or ERV system, which exchanges and treats incoming air; the Energy Star energy-efficient appliances and electronics, and also now energy-efficient LED light choices, which have come way down in price.
6. Zero in on governmental incentives and tax credits. In many cases, green materials and systems do cost more on the front end or initially than traditionally constructed and outfitted homes. But the payback makes the green choices more affordable in future years. In addition, there still are governmental incentives and tax credits for many choices, from solar PV panels to solar hot water tanks, says Emerson. He estimates the additional initial costs at about 5 to 10 percent. For more information, go online to Department of Energy's Database of State incentives for renewables and Efficiency.
7. Don't forget the aesthetics. Know that green homes can look traditional, contemporary, and stunning! Architect Jacqueline Nunez of WonderGroup in Boston has designed Boston's first Net Zero neighborhood, first LEED Platinum neighborhood with 20 homes on two acres, and the first project in New England constructed to Fortified certification standards. The Boston Redevelopment Authority recently approved the contemporary looking project, putting it a step closer to ground breaking. Builder and designer Ted Clifton has a company that produces affordable plans to be purchased "off the shelf" through his Zero-Energy Plans company in Seattle, Washington. His average plan sells for $1,200; a new custom plan costs about $4,500.
Most of these Zero Net homes are highly durable because of their thicker walls and access to fresh air through ventilation systems, so they control humidity and moisture problems to some extent, Emerson says. "They're generally built to a higher standard," he adds.
The best news: All the options are growing and are likely to become more popular as more homeowners get on the Zero bandwagon.
Barbara Ballinger is a professional writer, author, blogger and speaker who has long focused on real estate, design, and personal finance. She has co-authored many books, including Successful Homebuilding and Remodeling, The Kitchen Bible: Designing the perfect culinary space, and The Garden Bible: Designing the perfect outdoor space. She regularly contributes to the National Association of Realtors® Website and magazine.
Margaret Crane is a nationally known freelance writer, blogger and journalist who has co-authored with Barbara Ballinger several books and articles on real estate, design and family business. Her byline has appeared in Realtor® magazine. With more than a half-dozen titles to her credit, Margaret’s latest design book is The Kitchen Bible: Designing the perfect culinary space.