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By Terry in Phoenix / Oracle, AZ on 8/31/2010
Although the economy has slowed to a crawl, I still am slowly working on my current project. As for green inclusions, I have will be doing at least the first of two buildings (guest house/garage/shop) as a LEEDS home. The City of Tucson and Pima County have one of the best LEEDS programs in the US, and this has made things a bit easier. Some of my specific planning includes these elements:
Xeriscape landscaping using all native plants and wild flowers
Rainwater harvesting, including full roof collection and an underground cistern (volume yet to be set, but likely to be in the neighborhood of 1,500 gallons). I haven't decided if I will try using any of this for potable water yet.
Greywater irrigation to reduce septic load.
An aerating septic system to reduce the need for pumping the tank and increase the rate of waste breakdown.
Minimum waste materials via very detailed planning and recycle/reuse of as many items as possible.
Minimizing the building 'footprint' on the lot in terms of lot disturbance. That is, except for the pad where the house actually sits, driveway and other items that will remain after construction, the lot is not going to be graded or impacted. This includes using mostly permeable surfaces for things like the driveway and patio areas to allow for maximum groundwater recharge.
The lot itself is considered a reuse/in-fill one, having been previously occupied. Digging up the previous "infrastructure" was an interesting experience in construction archeology!
The home will use a lot of passive-energy-use reduction features, such as a solar-reflective roof, roof sheathing, tight insulation and air-infiltration prevention, and energy-efficient appliances and lighting.
Solar is limited right now to some specific low-voltage, standalone devices such as outdoor lighting and whole-house attic fans. Sorry, but I am just not a fan of solar-energy use on a large scale.
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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 9/2/2010
Interesting topic. I finished my job five years ago, before “green” was all the rage.
1) I built on an infill lot that for some reason had never been built on. Roads in, utilities in, any development issues long since sunk. Interesting, the lot I built on was originally platted as two lots way back when; I have no clue why it was never built. When I built, it had been replatted as a single lot, again I don’t know why this would have happened, but my survey shows only one lot and not the original two. I bought this lot because it was a desirable area, desirable schools, and I had an easy commute. I could have spent more money on a lot in a new development, but part of what attracted me here was the diversity of the houses not available in new developments. Granted, this cost me on my appraisal (my appraiser docked me 20% for infill vs. new development; interesting the lot cost in the new subdivision made up for this 20% total cost, so even money).
2) I built ICF (nowhere near carbon neutral with Portland cement), but having a solid envelope goes a long way toward energy efficiency, and perhaps when this house is still standing 100 years from now it will be considered “green” (the greenest house is one already built, any environmental costs are already sunk). Present-value carbon issues aside, show me a more durable building material than reinforced concrete.
3) Optimization of dimensions. What I mean here is my architect laid out a template for the ICF that eliminated cuts and waste, and the construction dimensions reflect this optimization. My idea was that cuts take time, optimizing would reduce time and ultimately save construction cost (didn’t happen). Other ideas here are truss roof and floor systems, although there is waste at the point of manufacture - look at some of the short pieces that get used in floor. Floor trusses were also about cost savings; the cost was same at I-joist, but the labor was cheaper. My issue with optimization and efficiency was cost savings, and large tract-house builders reap huge profits via these incremental increases in construction efficiency – one-off houses don’t have a chance. I talked to a local custom builder; he claimed he had an employee that spent about 80 hours going over individual house plans provided by the architects to optimize dimensions prior to construction and that he had never lost money with this exercise. He invested a minimum of $5K in overhead time per house on this effort and it increased his profits commensurately every time.
4) Light-colored roof.
5) R-50 insulation in the roof. Cost increase over code R-30 was minimal, reflecting to me that what you pay for is labor and not material, so pump more material in there. Cellulose from recycled newspaper.
6) Passive solar, which really just means putting the right number of windows in the right location (and not putting windows in the wrong location), and having the Low-E coating on the right pane – the nice thing here is it doesn’t look any different than a “traditional” house. OK, maybe the overhangs are a bit larger, and it really looks different when it comes time to open the natural-gas bill in the wintertime.
7) All rainwater is channeled into rain gardens utilizing natural vegetation for recharge, I even take some of my neighbor's runoff – this is pretty minor for one house, but could be a huge stormwater-management improvement if adopted by 1% of the population. I didn’t do this for “environmental” benefit, so much as I did this because rain gardens are low maintenance, and face it, I am lazy when it comes to lawn care. I intend to expand these, based on how well they look (and that I can do some minor regrading and capture a whole lot more rainwater from adjacent areas, take points where you can).
8) Native trees; these were native for a reason, they have adapted over countless generations. They have really worked well; low maintenance, and I don’t need to babysit them. I don’t plant more than two of any single variety, I need some diversity. Contrast this to newer subdivisions where they seem to use about three different trees planted throughout the entire development (around here they are mostly Callery Pear, which while attractive trees, one good ice storm pretty much wipes out the canopy).
9) Items that now get refunds, I have. Tankless HWH – got it, couldn’t get it locally at the time, and now all the rage. Quality windows – got them. Energy Star appliances – got them. High-efficiency lighting (fluorescent daylighters work pretty well) – got it (mercury issues aside, most of my bulbs are low mercury; I recycle them all at the local HHW drop-off point). Daylighting. I have compared my electric bills to my colleagues with smaller houses, my base usage is about 50% of their base usage, demonstrating that incrementally-small details add up. No refunds for me, though.
10) Most of what I did, I didn’t do for “green” points. I did this because this was smart investment, and had a good return on my investment. Many times, this was actually cheaper than more “traditional” methods. “Green” doesn’t have to cost money, sometimes it is just paying attention to details with the materials you already have. Greenwashing is getting old, especially when people have to “invest” in green; everything I did saved me money – how is this a bad thing? The Green Movement needs to focus on the return on investment, and not the environmental benefits. Environmental benefits are trendy and will become yesterday’s news, return on investment is always relevant.
11) Granted, this is somewhat my profession. I have yet to walk into a manufacturing plant where I couldn’t use more environmentally-friendly techniques to save money, mostly through solvent substitution or minor changes in manufacturing processes. Most manufacturers claim that environmental regulation costs money, when in fact alternative techniques to avoid dimethyl-death and trichloro-toxic solvents save money, enhance safety of employees, reduce air emissions, reduce industrial wastewater pretreatment costs, reduce hazardous-waste disposal costs, reduce administrative burden of environmental regulation, and ultimately reflects either more profit or less costs on the bottom line. After 20-some years, I am weary of the statement that regulation “costs” money; bad manufacturing practices cost money. Use the regulation as an opportunity to investigate alternative techniques. I don’t do this for environmental benefits, I do this because this is smart investment and directly applicable to your profit margin.
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By Arne in Houston, TX on 9/3/2010
Outstanding post and I especially like your points under items 9 and 10. I come from a financial/economics background and the strongest motivation for change is economic. We all have seen this in recent years when gasoline reached the $2 per gallon threshold, and people ran away from SUV's to higher-efficiency vehicles leaving the automakers in crisis. As energy prices increased, many of the technologies that were niche "green" products became desired by consumers, if not demanded, like tankless water heaters.
Regulation does play a role and can push forward change, especially when you have an industry that has been historically resistant to change. Had the government not mandated low-volume toilets, I am sure the industry would not have changed. If the government passed a mandate that all single-family residences had R-30 walls and R-40 roofs minimum, the industry would have no choice but to change; production would increase and the price of those items needed to meet the regulatory requirements would fall.
When it comes to building green, there are really two schools of thought. One being the carbon-neutral path and the other being the high-efficiency path finding the best technologies that may mean having to compromise in some of the carbon-neutral goals. In the end, building a highly-efficient home will deliver a return. The key as the technology advances is to evaluate the technologies and systems available and determine if they have reached a point of providing a true return on investment during their usable lifespan.
Thanks for your contribution.