If you are considering building green, the first thing to do is to understand your own motivation. Why do you want to build green? Is it to ensure your home is healthy? To lower your utility bills? Or to just feel good about doing the right thing for the environment? To help you prioritize, below are some tips categorized by these three different motivations:
1. For your health.
Many standard construction materials contain chemicals that off-gas and contribute to poor indoor air quality. This can contribute to respiratory illnesses. Don’t trust just any green marketing message; give each material the smell test. If it off-gasses or gives you a headache, you do not want it in your house!
- Specify non-added urea formaldehyde (NAUF) for all cabinetry and wood working.
- Substitute all solvent-based adhesives, caulking, etc. with water-based.
- Ensure all paints, finishes, and sealants are at least low-VOC and preferably no-VOC.
- Get a whole-house water filtration system that filters out the chlorine from your drinking, bathing, and washing water (a reverse osmosis system for just drinking water is ideal).
- Make sure there is a fresh-air exchange (in most building codes) with either heat recovery ventilation (HRV) or energy recovery ventilation (ERV).
- If possible, have operable windows in all bathrooms.
2. Lower your operating costs.
Often a small increase in upfront investment can lower your utility and maintenance bills so that you get a return on your investment. When analyzing these choices, look only at the incremental costs to see if it will pay for itself over the life of the product.
- Spend your money on insulation, particularly in cold climates.
- Specify at least double-pane windows, but preferably triple-pane in cold climate zones. It not only reduces utility bills, it insulates sound, making your home quieter.
- Geothermal is generally a better payback than solar thermal; solar electric is a complementary technology with geothermal. Solar is getting better and better from an economic perspective. See www.dsire.org for updated incentives.
- Dual-flush toilets are a no-brainer – they do not cost more but they save water and lower your water bill.
- If you can see any piece of your roof from your home, a green roof is a wonderful investment: it extends the life of your roof, reduces storm water run-off (which can lower your water bill), provides extra insulation, is a habitat for birds and butterflies, and it is beautiful.
- All appliances should be Energy-Star rated.
- LED lighting is becoming more prevalent and pleasant — and uses 1/4 the electricity as a compact fluorescent bulb, and 1/16 of a traditional incandescent.
3. Feel good about it.
This category is about materials that you see every day. It may come with a beautiful design aesthetic or history. It’s about doing the right thing and feeling good about it.
- Richlite or Paperstone (both made from recycled paper) is a great alternative to granite for countertops. This material is warmer to the touch too, and if scratched, can be sanded down.
- Reclaimed wood has a beautiful design aesthetic for exterior, stairs, flooring, and furniture.
- Wood that is FSC Certified ensures that it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest.
For more information on this, see my article published in the Southwest Journal 3/7/11.