Tag Archives: green building

Certified Green Homes Can be Even More Green Through Occupant Involvement

For homeowners choosing to purchase a new home, or design and build their new home, there are a plethora of green building certifications from which to choose. From NAHB’s National Green Building Standard, to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Homes program, to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes, to Green Globes, those opting to reduce their carbon footprint through sustainable design and conscientious construction methods have the luxury of a great first step toward attaining their goals through green building standards that have been researched, adapted, and improved upon during the past ten to twenty years. However, a certified green home is only as green as its occupants, and homeowners of less efficiently built homes and older existing homes, as well as renters, also have the power to make a significant impact through their daily energy and transportation habits in addition to their choice of appliances, lighting, and plumbing fixtures.

A thoughtfully designed, beautifully constructed new home that is built in strict adherence to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Homes program requirements indeed has the potential to pave the way toward a sea change in residential construction practices and heightened levels of sustainable living. Many homeowners of ENERGY STAR certified homes choose lifestyles and behaviors that parallel their energy efficient home. Indeed, a visit to the EPA’s signature program’s website shows just how much carbon dioxide an ENERGY STAR home can save. But can this home have its environmental attributes torpedoed by a homeowner that opts for incandescent lighting fixtures instead of compact fluorescent or LED luminaires, constantly runs electrical appliances (even while no one is home), or chooses a thirsty, single occupancy vehicle over a bicycle for a short trip to the grocery store?

It is vital to “walk the walk” as we build green and continue to up the ante in residential energy efficiency. Increased levels of homeowner education and awareness will greatly contribute to the effectiveness of a green home. And how about the homeowner of the older, existing home in need of some energy efficiency retrofits, or the renter of an apartment? Are they to assume that they are unable to contribute to global carbon emission reductions, that they cannot lead sustainable lifestyles in their current housing?

Like the well-known Chinese proverb, the journey toward an environmentally friendly home and reduced carbon footprint begins with small steps. Changing out inefficient lighting, installing high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, insulating a tank water heater and hot water piping, opting for a ceiling or floor fan in lieu of the window unit air conditioner, caulking around windows (for renters, there is even rope caulk, a non-permanent product) and adding weather stripping to doors, adjusting set points of thermostats during heating and cooling seasons, choosing mass transit, or talking to a landlord about the benefits of an ENERGY STAR refrigerator are all ways that those with older homes or apartments can tread lightly despite having a less-than-airtight, under-insulated home.

As residential construction methods continue to improve and green building certifications become more and more prevalent, the proverbial rubber meets the road of sustainable living when it comes to the occupant’s behaviors and daily choices.


What is “Green Due Diligence”?

Posted by ESG’s Samantha Paulin

If you’re like me, the idea of “green due diligence” may not be entirely familiar.  When entering into a real estate transaction, due diligence is conducted to confirm the facts presented by the seller or landlord prior to signing a contract.  Due diligence is a precautionary measure that allows both parties to make informed decisions.  So the purpose of due diligence seems apparent when buying or renting, but how has the green revolution impacted the real estate industry?

Along with a review of the title, zoning, and service contracts, many organizations now have requirements to verify the “greenness” of a property.  Some federal agencies, lenders, and investors that are advocates for sustainability, have made the decision to exclusively lease, acquire, or finance green buildings.  In these cases, green due diligence is essential in the decision-making process.

What about those companies that simply don’t care about being green?  Many investors, tenants, and lenders might state that they are most concerned with property value and how these transactions affect their bottom line.  Well whether they chose to pay attention to the sustainable benefits of green, there are an increasing number of green financial benefits available in the marketplace that should not be overlooked.  Moreover, according to Peter Britell at the New York Law Journal, “there are now many actual green legal and contractual requirements” associated with particular property and development projects that can result in real money loss if not properly abided.

One such example of a green financial benefit is property tax abatement for green building certification.   This can mean huge savings for property owners and investors.  However, the municipality could challenge the certification to ensure the tax credit is justified.  In such cases, pre- and post-green retrofit performance data figures must be recorded should the benefit ever be in question.  Moreover, if a property has added value based on “green amenities”, yet it lacks third-party certification, the property value may be reduced.

There are no doubts concerning the sustainable and financial benefits to green building.  As these benefits are being realized, proper green due diligence becomes increasingly necessary in the real estate industry.


Britell, Peter S. “Understanding Green Due Diligence.” New York Law Journal (2012): 18 June 2012. Web. <http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/PubArticleNY.jsp?id=1202559683852 Understanding_Green_Due_Diligence>.

Houses for the Heart

Written by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

Building anything, for me, a female undergraduate, is a serious undertaking – one which requires motivation, strength, courage and, most importantly, creativity. Most of the time, I need a plan. Then, there’s accessing tools and know-how; the latter much harder to find. Following all this is finding the time, a place and a jolt of inspiration.

This was my inspiration today.

This is a cob home, built in Somerset, England. Materials used include: clay from a stream close by and Pine and Hawthorne wood, from the local area. As well, ceder shingles tile the roof, the north and east walls are composed of straw bale, and cob makes up the south and west walls.

Now, perhaps I can’t build a cob home today, or tomorrow. But this little house reminded me of something quite simple, and very important: we can build differently than in the conventional spirit. We can use resources close to us that redefine the space in which we live; not only can we mimic natural systems, but we can build in non-toxic ways that are renewable and emphasize the importance of using local materials. As well, we can focus on the efficiency of our projects and reduce the amount of waste we produce. We can build beautifully.

Avoid the Chemical Soup by Building Green

As awareness grows of high performance building techniques, one of the emerging concerns is the health of modern buildings and the people in them due to the number, type and level of indoor airborne chemicals. In a broad sense, these chemicals can be grouped by their source of origin: building materials, furnishings, or outdoor air. Although the occupants can also create indoor chemical issues through use of perfume and other fragrances, the majority of chemical concerns stem from building materials.

Concern about the toxicity of building materials is not new, and extends back to the turn of the twentieth century. Dr. Alice Hamilton, a renowned medical scientist, educator and author, studied the relationship between chemicals and human health, eventually publishing two books about industrial poisons in the 1920s and 30s.

Fast forward to today, when building scientists have access to a wonderful tool called Pharos at www.pharosproject.net. In addition to providing information about healthier choices for building products, finishes and furnishings, it rates products based on volatile organic compound (VOC) content, use of renewable materials and sustainable energy sources during manufacture. The chemical signature of building products is no longer a secret, and this knowledge has been applied to the California Department of Public Health’s  protocol known as the “Standard Method” (available at www.cal-iaq.org). The Standard Method, in turn, has been used by several respected rating and certification programs, including LEED, CRI’s Green Label Plus and GREENGUARD for Schools.

While we have come a long way since Dr. Hamilton’s groundbreaking work in the first half of the 20th century, there is still much to be learned about indoor chemistry and its impact on health. Although we may never have all the answers about the ‘chemical soup’ in which we live, it makes sense to reduce the number of chemicals in the buildings where we work, sleep and raise our children.

A ‘green’ lining to the foreclosure crisis

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002, and the company has grown to become one of the nation’s leading green building consulting firms by helping builders and property owners understand the value in sustainable and energy-efficient construction.

A growing number of small businesses are buying older homes and renovating them to be more energy-efficient. Known as ‘eco-flippers’, they often purchase a foreclosure, gut it and revamp the heating and cooling systems, improve insulation, and install energy-efficient appliances and water-saving fixtures. The business model is “a convergence of the vast number of foreclosed or short sales on the market and customer’s increased interest in energy efficiency” says Peter Brown, a director at Earth Advantage Institute, a Portland, OR nonprofit that advocates sustainable construction methods.

“The big opportunities are really older homes that were not built very energy-efficiently to begin with”, says Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects. Brent Farrell, the founder of ReCraft Construction Services in Houston, agrees. He is convinced that spending $75,000 to $120,000 to retrofit houses makes economic sense. Farrell’s company has completed about 15 green remodels since 2009 and says that all sold within a month.

Energy-saving features make homes more marketable, so they sell faster. And buyers like Christine Fisk, a financial adviser in Phoenix, and attorney Timothy Harris in Seattle, are believers in energy efficiency. Fisk’s once foreclosed home was renovated to be more energy efficient, and her last electric bill was $40, far less than she expected. Harris and his wife paid $572,000 for a 1926 Tudor that had been restored. Their old house was half the size and cost twice as much to heat. “When we tell our friends how much lower our gas and electric bills are, they’re amazed.” says Harris.

Contractors all across the country say that countering doubts of skeptical home buyers about efficiency claims is crucial. These concerns can be eased by having the house verified by an energy rater and certified by groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.

Some contractors are even developing businesses that focus on hand-holding, rather than buying homes and flipping them. G Street, the four-employee company that renovated Christine Fisk’s house in Phoenix, charges about $5,000 for plans, oversight of the project, and help getting the renovation certified. The company founder says that they take all of the pain out of what is perceived as a challenging process.

Readers might ask if it’s worth renovating drafty old houses. Contractors say that it’s much faster and less expensive to renovate a solid existing structure than demolish and start over. Without new construction permitting and other hassles, contractors can completely renovate several houses a year, putting capital to work faster and allowing people to occupy their home in less than half the time of building anew. Not to mention that renovating a home could be considered the ultimate in recycling.

Poison in the Nursery – Really?

I recently read a story by a journalist and mother-to-be named Laura who lamented about her house being found to contain lots of aging lead-based paint. True, she and her husband bought a 100-year-old house, but they did not take enough time to think of the consequences should lead paint be discovered. Now she has to put on a space suit while the abatement contractor is working to get rid of all the lead paint in her new home. Note that Laura does not mention asbestos in her story – she should also be concerned about that substance in an older home.

Setting about to make her new home lead-safe, Laura did what most responsible pregnant women would do – she got on the Internet and began researching paint. To make a long story short, she found that most modern paints contain chemicals called VOCs that are linked to asthma, cancer, and other health problems. She also learned that cribs made of compressed wood can contain formaldehyde, another carcinogen that is linked to asthma. After thinking she might be better off accepting the cognitive impairment that comes from the lead paint she and her husband were trying to get rid of, she found out that zero-VOC paints were available at the local Benjamin Moore store. Better yet, her contractor agreed to use the paint she chose to replace the lead paint. She was finally going to have a poison-free nursery for her new baby.

Imagine Laura’s surprise a few days later when she happened to stop by the house to find that the contractor had forgotten to order the colors in the eco-friendly paint she had requested. In place of the lead paint, every room in her house was now covered in the brand of paint Consumer Reports rated as having the highest level of VOCs.

Laura got back on the Internet and ordered a case of Transitional Primer that would seal the VOC-emitting paint so the contractor could re-paint with the zero-VOC product she had originally chosen. Catastrophe averted.

The message here is two-fold: 1) know the house you are buying BEFORE you take out the mortgage. A little bit of due diligence that comes from an environmental assessment can save a lot of pain later on; and 2) watch your contractors like a hawk, especially if you are requesting ‘green’ building products. If you’re buying a new home, look for one that has a green certification from an independent verifier. Granted, contractors are busy, but if Laura had not checked on her job, she may have inadvertently placed her newborn at risk of more health problems than those caused by lead paint.

Local Homebuilder Ron Ricci Achieves the NAHB’s Emerald Certification

Our builder partner Ron Ricci, owner of Ricci Builders & Management, recently achieved Emerald certification on an NAHB Green home built in Sandy Ridge, NC.  There are four levels associated with the new National Green Building Standard: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Emerald, Emerald being the highest.  Ron’s project is the first Emerald home in North Carolina and one out of only 22 Emerald homes in the Unites States.

Under the National Green Building Standard, there are six categories where builders must use sustainable practices: lot and site development, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality and homeowner education.  For detailed information on all the items that are evaluated, visit the NAHB Green website.

Ron shared with me some of the exceptional features that took the home from the lower green levels to Emerald, categorizing them under the Standard’s six categories:

Lot & Site Development Gravel and pervious walkway pavers were substituted for solid pavement and walkways to avoid the “heat island” effect.  The home is oriented to face “true” South for both a passive and an active solar advantage.

Resource Efficiency The lumber used in the home’s construction was harvested from trees growing on the jobsite.  All waste produced in the building process was recycled.

Energy Efficiency To achieve the Emerald level, it was imperative that Ron incorporate power generation into the home.  3.6KW solar photovoltaic panels were installed along with solar hot water and radiant floor heating. The house has a geothermal ground source heat pump with de-superheater, also for domestic hot water.  The whole house envelope is insulated with closed cell phone.  The home is so efficient that it received a HERS score of 11, the lowest that our company has ever seen.  We were even questioned by Advanced Energy, a non-profit energy management firm in Raleigh, about the score’s accuracy.

In our conversation, Ron noted that incorporating power generating features into the home was one of the more challenging aspects of the project, as these features are expensive and have a longer pay-back period.

Water Efficiency The home has a rainwater collection system, involving a 1000 gallon cistern with a pump and hose for irrigation.  Low flow plumbing fixtures were installed without.

Indoor Environmental Quality The home’s interior is finished with natural products with low or no VOCs.  The HVAC system was designed with fresh air intake and MERV 11 filtration.

Homeowner Education The homeowners received a Customized Homeowner’s Manual along with a three hour new home orientation, complete with energy saving tips.

To other builders wanting to pursue Emerald certification, Ron advises diligence.  The goal is attainable and worthy, but it takes extraordinary effort to achieve along with maximum attention to detail. We have enjoyed working with Ron as he navigated Emerald certification as a third-party verifier and are proud to be part of such an exciting accomplishment within our local building community.