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Many Shades of Green

KB Home - Murrieta, CA

Landscaping with stone and plants that require less water are fitting in this new home with solar panels and Energy Star appliances. By KB Home. Murrieta, CA.

Which Green Home Certification Program is Right for You?

Lessie Miller knew she wanted to build a green home. She just didn't know there could be so many shades of green.

"There are so many angles. Do you want it to be a 'healthy' home? There's the energy aspect and the recycled products. Do you just want to support (homebuilding) products that are locally produced?" explained the San Jose, Calif., resident about the many green considerations she pondered when planning her custom-built home, which was completed in March, 2012.

"You have to ask a lot of questions," she said. "We really had to edit it down to a core of: What does green mean for us?"

Not to torture the Kermit the Frog song title, but fortunately for anyone who's considering building a home, it's getting easier to be green.

Homebuilders -- both custom and production -- are increasingly courting environmentally-minded consumers by offering features and using building techniques that just a few years ago would have been novelties. Backing them up are manufacturers, who are devising a wider array of building products with energy savings and sustainability in mind.

Basically, green has arrived. However defined (more on that below) green homes are expected to comprise 29 to 38 percent of the new-home market by 2016, according to a report from McGraw-Hill Construction. Green homes were 11 percent of the market in 2011, the report said -- and that represented a relative explosion, compared to a decade earlier.

The cause? Consumers are demanding green homes, said Richard Cannavino, a custom builder in Oswego, Ill., who began specializing in green construction in 2006. A house that Cannavino Construction built in 2008 was the first in Illinois to achieve "gold" status for its many environmentally friendly attributes, under the National Association of Home Builders’ green-building program.

Cannavino said green has come a very long way since just 2006.

"Then, customers really didn't think in terms of green -- they were just asking about energy efficiency," he said. "Nowadays, customers know what the different aspects of green are. They are a lot more educated."

Still, a home buyer’s own interpretation of green and how far they stretch the concept can vary widely, depending on their personal interests and their pocketbooks. The green umbrella today may include:

• Using products manufactured with environmentally sustainable components and techniques.
• Water conservation.
• Indoor air quality.
• Reducing and recycling construction-site waste.
• As well as many other considerations.

While each approach to green above is important, from the beginning of the green-building movement, the biggest motivator for consumers has been reducing their monthly heating and cooling bills, according to builders and green-building advocates.
"It's mostly energy savings," agrees Carl Mulac, president of AV Homes, that resonates with home buyers. His Vitalia brand builds in active-adult (age 55 or over) communities in Orlando and Phoenix and green building is a company specialty, he said.

"Especially for an active adult on a fixed income, monthly living expense is a big thing, and energy efficiency is what has sold people,” Mulac said. “We show (home buyers) what they'd be paying for their electric bill in a home that's five or six years old compared to (what the company is building today)."

This emphasis on energy efficiency is gaining momentum rapidly, green specialists said. One way to measure it would be to examine building codes around the country, according to Nate Kredich, vice president for residential market development for the United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit that promotes green building practices.

Kredich said municipalities have been ratcheting up their codes' energy-conservation requirements every few years.

"A home built to the 2012 (code) version is roughly 15 percent more efficient than a home built to the 2009 version," he said, while also cautioning that code requirements can vary widely around the country.

He sees monumental changes. "Homes built now vs. 10 years ago are probably in the ballpark of 30 percent more efficient," he said.

Kredich's organization may be the best known of the many groups that certify homes that meet green building guidelines, primarily through its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard.

The LEED program for homes awards points in eight categories. Homes that meet the basic standard (which includes passing monitored tests) are LEED-certified. Higher scores earn increasingly demanding Silver, Gold or Platinum designations.

Another metric consumers might encounter is the HERS Index, which stands for Home Energy Rating Standard. It was developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), a not-for-profit standards-making body for building energy efficiency rating and certification systems in the United States.

The HERS score is used by many certification programs and by individual builders. It's an estimate of a home's energy efficiency that’s often compared to the miles-per-gallon rating in cars. In the current version of HERS, the lower the score, the higher a home’s energy efficiency. A new home scoring 70, for example, is 30 percent more energy-efficient than RESNET’s designated standard for a newly built home. (Resale homes typically score 130 on the HERS Index, the organization said.)

“To me, regardless of which certification program you use, the HERS standard is a consistent metric that everyone can use to see how effective your green initiative is,” said David Weekley, chairman of David Weekley Homes, which builds in 18 markets around the country. His company’s EnergySaver Homes are backed by third-party testing to guarantee their heating and cooling energy usage.

Green certification programs, just like homes, can vary a lot. Kredich said most of these programs have worthy qualities, but he urged consumers to ask questions before presuming that a green rating is an independent, unbiased assessment.
"We've counted over 80 (accreditation programs) across the country," he said. "We're very supportive of those because they give consumers a choice."

Some programs may be affiliated with local homebuilding organizations, nonprofit groups or municipal governments, he said, while others are statewide or national in scope. In addition to LEED, widely known certification programs include the National Association of Home Builders' National Green Building Program and the federal government's Energy Star program. In Kredich's view, the key for consumers seeking a certified home in a given program is to learn how the groups' requirements can vary, and to be wary of designations that might be self-serving and give only the appearance of environmental awareness, a concept that's come to be known as "greenwashing."

"One of the first questions should be, who’s behind this certification? The credibility of that label is very important," Kredich said. "There can be a vast difference between what's required in some of these programs."

A program label isn't a requirement for being a green home. Because certification-program fees can run into the hundreds of dollars, Miller of San Jose decided to forgo certification entirely on her new home and to build based on attributes that she felt were most important to her family.

Despite her budgetary concerns, Miller figures that her insistence on specific green practices and materials added 20 to 25 percent to the cost of her home, though she believes the expense was worthwhile, she said.

"For instance, my wood flooring came from a 'certified' forest (rated for the lumber company’s sustainable harvesting practices)," she said. "Unfinished, it was $9 a square foot. I could have bought finished flooring for $2 a square foot, but I didn't believe it was in keeping with our (environmentally responsible) strategy."

Others in the industry, however, said that although green construction in the past has sometimes been pricier than mainstream construction, prices are coming down significantly. The proliferation of green building products is bringing costs down -- in many cases at par with or just slightly above more mainstream products. In addition, energy savings may pay for the difference over time, industry sources said.

"With the first (green) house in 2006, it was difficult to find recycled products," builder Cannavino said. "There wasn't nearly the selection to choose from that we have today. It was a lot more expensive to build green in 2006 than it is today."

In addition to using recycled and sustainable products and energy-efficient systems, like many green home buyers, Miller had two major goals: buying locally produced materials and having a "healthy home."

Choosing locally produced building products had two benefits, she reasoned: She'd be helping the regional and U.S. economy and she'd be minimizing the energy needed to transport the products long distances.

Even more important, she said, was having a "healthy home" in order to avoid aggravating her family's allergies.

"We allowed no toxic glues or formaldehyde," she said, referring to components found in some building products. "All of our paints and stains are low- or no-VOC" (volatile organic compounds), meaning that they are water-based, not petroleum-based. The two rooms that have carpet are of natural wool, dyed naturally."

Miller's concern with indoor air quality is something increasingly heard in the green building community, from all types of builders said Mulac of AV Homes. At his company's Vitalia communities, he said that wherever possible, the company uses environmentally friendly sealants, non-toxic insulation, and other products chosen with indoor air quality in mind.

Miller said she went the custom route because she realized she had highly specific requirements. Still, she said, because she chose a builder who didn't specialize in green construction, she ended up doing a lot more research into products and practices.

And her notion of green, she acknowledged, may not be everybody's notion of green. That's still OK, she said.

"There is no right answer," Miller said. "I got to the place where I said, I'm not going to over-think this. I'm just going to do the very best I can."

Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.
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