Green Home Design - a little planning goes a long way

In the last five years green building has become the fastest-growing and most exciting segment of the construction industry. Green building resources have finally made it into the mainstream, and it has become relatively easy to incorporate these techniques into both construction and remodeling projects. Homes and buildings fundamentally impact the environment. Builders first clear the land of its natural vegetation and then replace it with a foreign surface. Construction consumes materials, both natural and synthetic, from all ends of the globe. Completed buildings consume one-third of a developed country's total energy, two-thirds of its electricity, and one-eighth of its water.

We spend the vast majority of our modern lives indoors, and leading studies are showing that buildings have a profound effect on our health, happiness, and productivity. In the 1980s, people began to realize that many of the materials used to build and furnish their work and living spaces produced toxic emissions. The lack of natural light and adequate natural ventilation makes many offices and homes unhealthy for their inhabitants. The term "sick building" was coined to describe the malaise and unhealthiness people felt when they had to spend long hours in these types of buildings.

Architects and engineers are now realizing that green buildings not only help the environment, but they make people feel healthier and make them more productive. Sustainable design also increases the value of a building as a long-term asset. Believe it! Green buildings reduce impact on natural resources, improve the bottom line, increase the health and comfort of occupants, and increase community quality of life. Consider these green building facts:

  • The new LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified ING Bank headquartered in Amsterdam uses 10% of the energy of its predecessor and has cut worker absenteeism by 15%, resulting in a combined annual savings of more than $3.4 million.
  • Retail sales improve as much as 40% in natural daylight.
  • Student performance is better in schools built according to green design principles.
  • Buildings with high overall environmental quality can reduce occupant rates of respiratory disease, allergy, asthma, and other "sick building" symptoms.
  • Studies have clearly demonstrated that green buildings enhance occupant productivity. People simply prefer to spend more of their time in well designed, environmentally friendly spaces.
  • Green building studies indicate the potential financial benefits of improving indoor environments exceed costs by a factor of ten.

So how can you make your home more sustainable and reap the benefits of green design? First, we have to understand what makes a home green. What it takes is planning on the front end and usually a commitment to spend 10% to 15% more on up-front construction costs to benefit from long-term savings. Here are the principles to keep in mind for new construction and renovation projects:

Site Planning

1.    Select a building site close to your work or transit.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can search the Marin County MLS or San Francisco MLS database realtime for current listings.

2.    Protect the natural habitat, drainage patterns, and plants that already exist on your property. Build around trees and incorporate them into your design.

3.    Landscape with local plants that don't require pesticides or excessive water.

4.    Use mulches and recycled paving materials for finished site surfaces. They reduce storm water runoff and allow water to naturally infiltrate the ground.

Material Efficiency and Sustainably

1.    Incorporate reused and recycled products like salvaged wood, brick, stone, and period hardware (such as doors and railings) into your design. Choose concrete products with a high level of fly ash (which is a byproduct of coal combustion).

2.    Search out new earth-friendly products. Unique recycled items such as insulation made of recycled blue-jeans and wood flooring composed of 2 by 4 off-cuts appear in the market every day.

3.    Consider building your walls out of reinforced concrete, stone, or rammed earth. These materials provide much better insulation than wood and last for generations.

4.    Use third-party certified wood so you know it has been harvested sustainably (look for FSC, SFI or CSA labels on the lumber wrap).

5.    Have a target of "zero construction waste." Through proper planning and reusing demolition and construction materials, many green builders have virtually eliminated the waste leaving a building site. This also means savings in haul and disposal costs.

Energy Efficiency

1.    Let the sun shine in! Use as much passive solar as you can to heat and light your home. Simply by properly orientating your home to the sun, based on where you live, you can save 20% on your energy bill.

2.    Dense products like concrete, stone, and brick can act as a thermal mass regulating the temperature of your home. Properly placed thermal walls will heat up and cool down slowly, making it feel "just right" in your home even if it is "too hot" or "too cold" outside.

3.    Install high-efficiency lighting and tie room lighting to motion sensors, dimmer switches, and automatic timers.

4.    Insulate your walls and ceiling with the highest R-value insulation available.

5.    Install the highest quality windows and doors you can afford. Double glazing is the minimum. Triple glazing in cold climates helps ensure that you keep the heat in the house. Low-e or spectrally selective windows are best in hot climates.

6.    Choose renewable power by installing a solar hot water system. Take it to the next level by installing solar panels for electricity. The ultimate green power goal is to produce a net excess of renewable power each month, or "negawats," that you will soon be able to sell back to your utility.

7.    Plant a rooftop garden, it makes a wonderful sanctuary and helps keep your home cool.

8.    If you live in a hot climate, simply painting the roof a light reflective color can save up to 20% on your power bill.

9.    Always, always buy ENERGY STAR-rated appliances and electronics for your new home or office.

Comfort and Health

1.    Choose materials and interior finishing products that are environmentally friendly and produce zero or low emissions. Many off-the-shelf products such as paints, cleaners, and even carpet emit fumes that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other substances that are NOT healthy for you.

2.    Avoid alkyd- and oil-based paints. Instead, choose latex and low (or zero) VOC paints. You will help your health, avoid using thinners, and prevent toxic waste in the environment.

3.    Install a high-efficiency ventilation and in-duct filtration system to help ensure the air you breathe is clean.

4.    Build generous amounts of natural light into your home design. Add a skylight or solar light tubes in areas like kitchens, offices, and hallways.

5.    Incorporate high and low opening windows into your design so that you can flush old, stale air out of your house.

Use Water Efficiency

1.    Install low-flow taps and shower heads and dual-flush toilets.

2.    Use recirculating hot water systems for centralized distribution areas and install on-demand booster systems for distant hot water taps.

3.    Install a grey water recycling system that captures water from showers, sinks, and bath tubs and uses it for outdoor irrigation.

4.    Use drip irrigation on timers for watering any outdoor plants.

Build it to Last

1.    Do as our ancestors did: build your home to last! So many buildings today are just thrown up with no consideration other than "lowest cost construction." This, more than any other factor, creates environmental impact, inefficiency, and waste. Wouldn't it be nice to know that your house will be around for a few hundred years and could be passed down to your grandchildren and their grandchildren? Living in a quality-built home constructed of permanent, natural materials is something to be proud of.

This content is reproduced in part from Respect Our Planet, a book written by Brian Stewart in partnership with Hornblower, Inc.. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Brian Stewart is the Managing Partner of JCF Advisors, a Mortgage Company based out of Marin County. JCF Advisors specialized in residential and commercial financing in the Bay Area. Brian holds an MSc in Land Management from Oxford and a BSc from UC Berkeley. He lives in Mill Valley and has a 4 year old daughter.