house art

Green Builder's Challenge

THERE IS A LOT OF IDEALISM AROUND THE CONCEPT OF “LIVING GREEN.” BUILDING HEALTHY HOMES IS A GROWING MARKET THAT FACES SOME CHALLENGES AS IT DOES BUSINESS IN THE MAINSTREAM CONSTRUCTION CULTURE. HERE IS AN INTERVIEW WITH THREE PROFESSIONAL GREEN BUILDERS IN OUR COMMUNITY. THEY TALK CANDIDLY ABOUT THE REALITY OF INTEGRATING THEIR BELIEFS INTO THEIR PRACTICES.

ASHBY UNDERWOOD: How long have you been in the building business?  How long in this area?   

STEPHEN MORRISON: I have been in residential building for about 15 years, always as a sub contractor in some type of wood work, trim, cabinets, timber framing etc.  I have been working in this area for about 12 years.

JAMES PADER: I have been in residential construction for eight years, mostly in the Highlands/Cashiers area. I achieved my General Contractors license in early 2008.

STEVE ABRANYI: I have been involved in the residential construction industry since
I graduated from WNC in 1997. I was building out west for the first 5 years and have been in this area for the last 8.   

(AU) Have you heard of the term “Green Washing”?   

(SM)Green washing uses the idea of green as a marketing ploy without actually making a real effort to be greener. 

(JP)My current green washing favorite is the notion that timber frame structures are green. The main thesis for this argument is that the houses are clad in SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels). However, SIPs are structural and do not require a timber frame for support. The post and beam look can be achieved with boards one inch thick as opposed to eight and ten inch beams.

(SA) I think the most prevalent example of green washing in this area is the practice of using reclaimed material in a home and then calling the home green.  

(AU) What construction principles/applications makes a project green?   

(SM)This question could be answered in hundreds of pages.  Green should start before design even starts.  Green building is at its best when it is common desire and goal of both the client and the builder, as well as the subs and the building department (good luck there).  Some things that can be considered are; site location and access, size, design (passive solar, good use of space etc), materials, insulation, water use, energy consumption, durability, maintenance, future use of the building and disposal of waste materials.  That is just a quick list of things that come to mind.  Some aspects work better for some projects than others, so the planning crew will have to pick and choose what is appropriate for the particular project, client, budget and site.  

(JP) Green building starts with good design that considers sun and site to minimize disturbance. Passive solar design reduces energy demand. Proper insulation of floors, roofs and walls along with air sealing reduce heating and cooling loads, the largest consumer of home electricity. Energy efficient appliances and lighting round out power demand. Then, the focus shifts to maintaining a healthy interior environment through the use of cabinets, flooring, paints, furniture, etc. that do not offgas toxic chemicals into the home. Efficiency is #1!!!

(SA) The most important aspect of green building is combining as many of  the green building systems and techniques into a project that the budget will allow. Most people think green building is too expensive for their price point or that they will have to give up on some of the interior finishes they want. There are many green building principals and techniques that can be implemented at a low costs like indoor air quality, storm water management, passive solar techniques, recycling and the use of recycled/reclaimed material. It does not cost that much more to build a home that can be Energy Star Rated.  Some other more expensive options are high efficiency heating and cooling systems and the use of renewable energy for electric consumption of a home.

(AU) How do you explain to new clients what their green options are?  How do you initiate the conversation to new clients to go green?   

(SM) For us it is different than for a general contractor, because of the scope of our work.  We normally only handle the structural timber work and the roof insulation, sometimes the walls.  Because of the roof and wall panels we use, if they choose us, that part will be pretty green.  We use Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPS.  It is a sandwich of OSB board and Styrofoam, with a great air seal and insulation.  It would be a good topic for it’s own article.  They are pretty “un-natural” but I feel strongly the benefits out way the drawbacks.

The conversation is ideally started by the client, but that is still rare.  I bring it up enough to offer options and explain the benefits from a dollars and energy savings standpoint.  But you have to be careful not to run them off.  If a client comes here to our shop, because they see our solar array, the conversation is inevitable.  

(JP) Since my focus is on green building, it is assumed that some level of green will be designed in. On a recent remodel, we installed a four-tube solar skylight. This model minimized the waste associated with four separate tubular skylights, and minimized the electrical waste of lighting. It brought cheery sunlight into a dark interior stair and hallway. This is to illustrate there are so many different choices available to any project and any budget.

(SA) I will ask a potential client if they have allergies. There are many green building techniques and material that can be used in a project to help combat this problem and that conversation usually leads into other green options. Sometimes a client dosn’t even realize that the design of the home or the property already has green building potential. It just needs a little tweaking.  

(AU) What are some examples of resistance that you get from folks when you talk to them about going green?   

(SM)I think that we get less resistance every day now that the idea is in the mainstream dialogue.  With very few exceptions, people will go green if they think there is good return on their investment, which it is, if you live in the house long enough.  The problem is that in most cases, you have to stay in one home for several years to recoup the investment.  There is absolutely nothing green about “flipping houses.”  The idea of fixing up a house to sell, making money and doing it over again or building “spec” homes only encourages low quality, non green homes that look fine on the surface. 

(JP) The primary barrier is still entry price. Spray foam insulation costs more than fiberglass. With our recent energy crisis, it seems as if the level of awareness regarding life-cycle costs has grown.

(SA) The most common example goes back to the budget. Some clients just are not interested and want to get as much out of their project as the budget allows. If they are not interested they will spend their money in other places.  

(AU) What are the dangers to human health, short term and long term,  in conventional building practices?   

(SM) Indoor air quality is the most significant issue.  The off gassing of many building materials can be problematic.  In the long term I would say general environmental degradation caused by high energy consumption and poor resource management will be our biggest problems. 

(JP) Traditional buildings consume almost 75% of American electricity and generate almost half of greenhouse gas emissions. http://www.nrel.gov/buildings  Whether or not one agrees with human-induced global climate change, the effects of pollution from coal power plants is familiar to all residents of WNC (not to mention mountaintop removal).

(SA) Personally, I feel that indoor air quality is the most important aspect of greenbuilding and energy efficiency is a close second. The worst scenario is building a home with a tight envelope but no mechanical ventilation and using convensional building materials such as particle board for cabinetry that contains formaldehyde or adhesives with high formaldehyde and VOC (volatile organic compounds) content.  

(AU) Building in the country has slowed down, and in the South it is down 13% (NPR Mar 09).  Maybe this means less opulence in 2nd home construction.  Could there be a chance, when building increases locally, for more conscious building practices in the area?   

(SM) Yes, there is a good chance.  Energy standards are increasing and general knowledge is increasing.  Five or ten years ago there were a few clients looking to go green and a few builders looking to go green, but only a few. I think they readily found one another at the right time.  Now, the overall awareness has increased so demand and knowledge should follow.  I hate to point it out, but there will never be anything truly green about second and third vacation homes.  That being said, we know people will continue to want them and we will continue to build them. So, we should at least do our best to make the construction and life span of these homes as green as possible.  

In residential construction, I think that energy consumption is the number one green issue.  A house built today should last hundreds of years, honestly more.  In that time the house will be heated, cooled and lighted, so the energy aspect of green building will have benefit for a very long period of time. During that time, energy costs will only increase.  So greenness aside, anyone who wants to save money, should want to go green.  Everyone wants to leave something great for their children, why not a home that is affordable to maintain?  Soon we need to dump the term green, and just build to a better standard because it makes sense. 

(SA) I think the industry is heading that way as a whole. The turnouts for the Green Building Expo and more local events like the Southern Energy and Environment Expo are greater than in the past in spite of the economic slow down. Congress extended the energy efficiency tax incentives and there are NC tax credits available for energy efficiency and renewable energy.  

(AU) What are some resources for people to learn more about building green?   

(SM) I’m sure there are plenty of books out there.   The “Not so Big House” series by Sarah Susanka and “The Sun Inspired House” by Debra Rucker Coleman and a couple that come to mind quickly.  There are several good organizations such as The South Face Energy Institute in Atlanta and the Western North Carolina Green Building Alliance that have great resources available.  An annual event that I always get a lot from is the Southern Energy and Environment Expo in Fletcher NC in August. There are lectures, demos and vendors with all kinds on almost any aspect of green living. 

(JP) Winter Sun Construction, LLC is a member of the Western North Carolina Green Building Council. They administer the HealthyBuilt Homes program for this region. This is a third-party verified, green building rating system; houses must be Energy Star certified. Visit the website www.wintersunllc.com to learn about green building and see a video tour of Macon County’s FIRST HealthyBuilt Home.

(SA) The best resource for finding green professionals in the area is the Western North Carolina Green Building Directory www.wncgbc.org. There is also a green building hot line provided by them: info@wncgbc.org 

The 2nd Annual GREEN LIVING FAIR will be held at the Highlands Recreation Center on July 25(Sat) from 9:30 - 3:30. Tailgate for organic food opens at 8:00am.