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Greener Houses

     by Linda Pinkham

The term "greenhouse" refers to a structure designed for growing plants -- everyone knows that. But many more types of "green" houses are cropping up these days. I started looking into the different shades of green building available here in the Pacific Northwest and was overwhelmed by a plethora of different certifications and obscure vocabulary. It's possible that the terminology is expanding faster than the number of people who can actually build sustainable housing here in Southern Oregon.

What's in a Name?

Among the more common labels or certifications being bandied about in builders' circles are the terms Energy Star Certified, Northwest Energy Star Certified, and Earth Advantage Certified homes. Some homes have Energy Star features, but aren't certified as a whole, and most of the folks working on these homes are Energy Trust of Oregon Trade Allies.

Furthermore, when you start talking about the features of these homes, you end up with an alphabet soup of acronyms, such as homes constructed with SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) and ICFs (Insulated Concrete Forms). These structures are then rated on a number of criteria, such as their AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) and ACH (Air Changes per Hour), tempered by their household appliances' MEF (Modified Energy Factor) and the overall SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio).

One of the tools of choice for rating homes is a called a Blower Door Test, which is usually conducted by RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network) personnel using HERS (Home Energy Rating System). This gets into the realm of TMI (too much information).quiet zone

The Green Advantage

It's not surprising that many people in our region haven't heard a lot about green building. With lingo like that, many people can't even speak the language- a circumstance that makes it relatively difficult to convince anyone of the advantages. However, owning a green home can have immense advantages, such as:

  • Substantial savings on monthly utility bills
  • Energy rebates from the state
  • Tax credits from state and federal governments
  • Rebates from utilities and appliance manufacturers
  • Lower emissions to pollute the air we breathe
  • Less toxic materials for an all-around healthier home
  • Greater comfort and elegant beauty to soothe the soul

Some green homes even qualify buyers for higher mortgages because their projected energy savings are added onto the buyers' income. From the look of things, a lot of the green advantages turn out to be "greenbacks," so you can live well and get paid to do it.
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How Green?

You can rank how many advantages are available in a particular home by understanding what the various certifications mean. It's not as complicated as it seems. Here's the rundown on the degrees of sustainability.

Saving 15% on your energy bills doesn't seem like very much. But suppose that your total annual bills average about $100 a month. That's $180 per year ($15 per month x 12 months). You can buy a lot of organic lettuce with that amount of money.

Energy Star Certified. An Energy Star certified home will save the homeowner at least 15% on their energy use compared to a standard code-built home. Builders can combine a number of options to meet the certification goals by upgrading windows, doors, insulation, lighting, household and heating appliances, air conditioners, and duct work. Before being labeled as Energy Star, homes must pass various tests and inspections. For more information, see www.energystar.gov .

Northwest Energy Star Certified. Related to the regular Energy Star certification, the Northwest program provides specific guidelines for homes located in the Pacific Northwest climate zone. These homes are 15 to 30 percent more efficient than typical new homes and are among the most energy efficient houses in the country

The specific goals of the program are to provide support to builders through education, technical specifications, marketing assistance, consumer education, Realtor education, and financial incentives to foster more homes being built to Energy Star standards in the region. For more information, see www.Northwestenergystar.com .

Earth Advantage Certified. The Earth Advantage program takes a more holistic view of housing options. In addition to specifying a minimum of 15% more efficiency for homes, Earth Advantage addresses indoor air quality, environmental responsibility, and resource efficiency. Earth Advantage homes often include air filtration systems, low-toxic building materials, recycled lumber and products made from recycled materials, native plants in the landscape for lower water use, renewable resources, passive and active solar energy systems, and modern construction techniques such as using recycled steel framing or concrete foam blocks for both efficiency and timber conservation.

Earth Advantage provides builder support through education, advice, and presentations about all of the various options for creating a more comfortable and pleasant home. All homes are tested and inspected to ensure they meet the requirements. For more information, see www.earthadvantage.org .

Energy Trust of Oregon Trade Ally. In Oregon, builders and suppliers can sign up as trade allies with the Energy Trust. More than 600 experienced contractors, distributors, and other professionals are affiliated with one or more Energy Trust programs. Each program identifies a specialized pool of independent contractors that provide energy efficiency and renewable energy equipment and services to homeowners and businesses. The benefit of Oregon's Trade Ally program is that these affiliated builders are aware of the various rebates and builder incentives available through the state, which lower the end costs to the homeowner.

What's the Hold Up?

I've often wondered why all homes aren't built to be more efficient and less toxic. Who wants to live, breathe, eat, and sleep with toxic substances? The energy savings from most efficiency measures usually pay back within a few short years, so why would anyone choose to build a drafty and cold house over a warm and comfy one? Savings from renewable energy systems are a little harder to describe, but if you consider the investment as paying for your energy up front for the next 25 years, but at today's prices instead of the inflated prices likely in the future, then it pencils out very advantageously. And from the perspective of global warming, the payback is priceless.

So, why don't we all live in Energy Star or better homes? Northwest Energy Star describes the problem as market barriers caused by:

  • Lack of awareness from builders and home buyers of the benefits of energy efficiency;
  • Inadequate technical understanding of key energy losses and how to address them;
  • Inability of market actors and consumers to differentiate between high efficiency and standard efficiency; and
  • Classic split incentive (builders make energy decisions but do not pay the bills).

Statistics have shown for years that 80% of consumers are willing to pay higher prices to have the features offered by green-built housing. The technology is mature and interest is high amongst both consumers and building professionals -- manufacturers, architects and designers, engineers, contractors, and specialty licensees. Builders who are committed to green housing construction love what they do, but have a hard time getting customers to want to pay more up front. When all things appear equal, even if they're not, which house would you buy? Not likely the one that costs more -- unless you understand its value.

The ABCs of ICFs & SIPs

At the home show, my husband Daniel and I wanted to learn more about ICFs (insulated concrete forms) and SIPs (structural insulated panels) because someday we plan to downsize our homestead for something that's more manageable by two people. ICFs resemble large building blocks made from expanded foam and recycled plastics. They have limited off-gassing, and do not use carbonated fluorocarbon (CFCs) or hydro-carbonated fluorocarbons (HCFCs) in their manufacture (affects the ozone layer). The blocks stack and interlock like giant Legos, are reinforced with rebar, and then filled with concrete.

Daniel was like a kid with a new toy the day that he was invited to visit the job site with ICF Pro, one of the companies represented at the home show. Once layout was done, a crew of three workers set the blocks for the whole basement and lower floor of the house in less than a week. The cement pour a few days later took just 5 hours. That's almost like having an instant house. ICFs perform equivalently to a stick-framed wall that has been insulated to R-50. The "R factor" denotes a material's resistance to heat flow-the higher the number the better. (Building codes specify a minimum of R-21 for walls in Southern Oregon and Northern California.) Buildings made with ICFs require less maintenance over their lifetime, so you can also work less while you stay warm and save money. This green building idea keeps getting better all the time!

SIPs are also akin to an instant house. SIPs are like sandwiches made from two sheets of usually OSB (oriented strand board) with an inner layer of foam made with non-CFC blowing agents. The panels are assembled in the factory using precision computer modelling, so there's little waste that goes into a landfill. At the job site, the SIPS go up very quickly because all of the framing, sheathing and insulation has already been done in the construction of the panels back at the factory. Once again, less work!

A SIP house performs 50% more efficiently than a conventional stick-built house because of its airtight building envelope and no "thermal bridging" such as caused with 2 by 4s in standard walls that conduct heat to the outside. According to SIPA (Structural Insulated Panels Association) "The OSB used in SIP skins is made from small, plantation grown trees that can be sustainably harvested. Because engineered wood products use wood more efficiently than sawn lumber, it requires less forest acreage to build a SIP home than a conventional wood framed house."

The Missing Link

Most people probably don't realize that Energy Star qualified homes have been around since 1995. I know, you have to wonder why we haven't heard much about them until recently. If communication is the key to making green-built housing more available, then the missing link has finally been found. If the people who are most involved in the business of marketing housing aren't knowledgeable about the differences, then few people will ever know the difference.

Enter the EcoBrokers, who I labeled as a good thing in my Publisher's Page editorial in this issue. I don't think I've ever met a Realtor who wasn't both talkative and enthusiastic to nearly a fault. EcoBrokers are real estate professionals who have taken the extra step to become knowledgeable about all aspects of sustainable housing. The EcoBroker designation is yet another certification, but it is earned through coursework completed by the EcoBroker candidate on the topics of environmental issues, energy efficiency technologies, and green marketing. Imagine folks who are talkative and enthusiastic marketing professionals introducing everyone they meet to the concept of a better house. Suddenly, we have an instant market demand instead of a market barrier. Green builders, get ready!

Already as a result of just a handful of EcoBrokers in our area, you can see a shift in the local economy because now we suddenly have a greater need for professionals who test buildings, educators who teach advanced building technology, appraisers who are knowledgeable enough to assign value to energy and lifestyle improvements, lenders who understand the added value that green buildings bring to the marketplace, and consumers who are now asking the right questions.

This year at the Jackson County Home Builders Association Home Show, you could see the new focus on technologies that are green, and the intense interest from attendees. People were lined up to talk with solar energy experts, water purification companies, recycled composite siding companies, low emissions and high efficiency wood heater and boiler dealers, daylighting specialists, Energy Star window manufacturers, natural plasterers, and strawbale, ICF, and SIP builders and engineers. I can hardly wait for the new green building industry to catch on to the point that someday all houses are built to sustainability standards that make sense.

Linda Pinkham is the Editor of the Jefferson Edition of Green Living Journal.

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