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What is a green home?… and the first eco-mansion

Question from Rebecca of Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

I have a question about green building.  I met with a developer the other day.  We were talking and I said that bamboo floors are cheap and he could put them in and they are eco -friendly.  He was pretty excited as he said that he could sell it as being green.  Although I don’t know if that qualifies as green building… I see a lot of building here that they are calling green building and it makes me wonder what constitutes green building.  I know there are different levels but it kind of seems at the lowest level you don’t have to do much to qualify!!!!  

Answer from faircompanies:

Definitely a timely question. Your developer friend probably has heard that buyers are willing to pay more for green- according to a recent survey of builders, more than half (51%) of those surveyed said that buyers would pay 11-25% more for green-built homes. And while only about half said they currently use green products or practices regularly, 96% said they intend to use more in 2007. There’s even a new category of eco-trained realtors, called eco-brokers

While 60% of those surveyed said they currently market some of the homes they build as green homes, in the U.S., there is no national official green seal of approval (though there are over 70 local and regional green home building programs), yet. It’s coming though… Maybe you’ve heard of LEED (Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design). LEED-certified skyscrapers are going up all over Manhattan (and other US cities)- the new 7 World Trade Center is NYC’s first LEED-certified gold office tower and soon the new Bank of America will be the country’s first LEED platinum (the highest rank) skyscraper

While currently LEED is just a certification for buildings, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) is now doing a pilot program for LEED homes and this June, they will launch the LEED for homes rating system.

So to get to your question what constitutes a green home: according to the LEED for Homes pilot guidelines, it needs to be a “high performance home in each of the five LEED resource categories (i.e., energy, water, materials, sites, and indoor environmental quality). It’s based on a point system where points are given for certain features, including:

  • Home size is smaller than national average
  • Re-use of rainwater and grey water
  • High efficiency toilets, faucets & showers
  • Sustainable landscaping items such as low-water usage, shade trees, and native vegetation
  • An irrigation system with rain sensing controls

There are some mandatory items, including:

  • Installing “permeable material for at least 65% of the lot”
  • If using tropical hardwoods they must be FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified
  • Use of Energy Star rated appliances
  • Overall Energy Star certification for things like, insulation, windows and heating & cooling.

The point system works where different items are given more weight, for example, “locate and plant trees to shade hardscapes” is given a 1 and “a home that is smaller than the national average” (for more on a LEED-certified mansion, check out the footnote) is given a 10. Homes that receive 30 are considered certified, but 50 or more is silver, 70 or more is gold and 90 or more is platinum.

Now this is only for new homes- though the USGBC says they’re working on a certification for existing homes- so for now, if you’re trying to find a way to compare or sell a used home, you may want to look into more local or region green home building programs. There are over 70 of these in the US so most likely you can find something nearby.

And for your friend the developer, if he’s creating any larger scale developments, the USGBC’s next project is the LEED for Neighborhood Developments (LEED-ND) that would focus on these green building practices, but also “would emphasize smart growth aspects of development”, including “density, proximity to transit, mixed use, mixed housing type, and pedestrian- and bicycle- friendly design.” Though from his seemingly minimal interest in truly building green, I’m guessing he’s not aiming for anyLEED certification. 

* Eco-mansion Footnote: 

Ted Turner’s daughter and her husband now own the country’s first LEED-certified mansion, called the EcoManor. So while obviously, the “less than average home size” criteria is not mandatory to achieve this rating, if you check out their green specs, it’s evident they didn’t really get celebrity points to make up for the size. 

With 27 rooftop photovoltaic panels, solar tubes to bring light inside, geothermal heat pumps, and rainwater-collecting cisterns, cellulose and soy-based foam attic insulation, formaldehyde-free wheat-board doors, electronic energy-usage monitoring and a drought tolerant lawn, their home cost an estimated 10% more (part of the $1.5 million in construction costs) to build, but their architect predicts their energy costs will be 89-90% less than a typical home of its size (Al Gore, are you listening?). 

If you ever go to Atlanta, apparently it’s supposed to be an educational tool so perhaps you can sneak a peek.