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Are You Building A Green Home In Northern VA?

If you ask 10 different experts to define green building you will get 10 different answers and each one will be just as confusing as the other. The Green Movement is in transition and the “rules” and ratings seem to change regularly.

Green Building is not a new concept at the Foley Companies. For years, our standard building practices have incorporated what is now an emerging philosophy. As a result, many of our older homes would qualify as green homes today.

The Gold Standard for Green

Although there are several Green Standards for consideration, we believe the National Green Building Certification by the National Association of Homebuilders (www.nahbgreen.org and www.greenapprovedproducts.com) is the best program to rate how green a home is built by using the systems and practices that are readily available and practical for new home construction in Northern Virginia. A homeowner can go to all levels of “green” but there are associated costs. As we addressed in the Custom Home section, how “green” you want your project to be is really part of the design and specification process, but merits commentary.

What is Green?

Green construction can start even before the land is cleared…

In general, “green” building is loosely defined as using construction materials and techniques that are environmentally responsible. Green construction can start even before the land is cleared or the remodeling process starts by recycling. Rather than put the construction debris in the landfill, we find ways to recycle any old, but serviceable products like appliances, cabinets, windows, carpet etc. We do this through local not-for-profit foundations that either re-sell the better products to support their programs and/or make the material available to low income families, so they can improve their own homes. An added benefit to the homeowner is that sometimes there are tax advantages, which we pass on to our clients.

Environmental Efforts

As a property is cleared to make way for the new home or addition, taking special care to maintain quality siltation and storm water controls which are environmentally responsible is yet another way to incorporate green building practices. Good siltation controls helps protect our streams and the Chesapeake Bay. By minimizing the quantity of hard “impervious” surfaces (such as driveways, patios, the footprint of the home, etc.), storm water run-off that leads to erosion down stream is also minimized. By creating a tree location survey during the planning stage and then taking this into consideration when designing the home, driveway, etc. may help save trees.

Energy Efficiency & Economy

During the design process, Green building standards should be incorporated to insure that the building envelope minimizes energy losses in both winter and summer. Approximately, 40% of the energy used in this country is to support the buildings in which we live and work. Adding insulation is one of the most cost effective ways to help conserve energy. The experts tell us that retrofitting existing homes can save as much as 15% to 20% of the energy used to support that home. The experts also tell us that new “green” homes can be as much as 85% more efficient as poorly constructed ones. Years ago when the attic insulation requirement was R-19, we moved to R-30. Today, R-30 [10” blown] is now code requirement. Upgrading, to an attic insulation value of R-38, is relatively inexpensive way to further minimize energy losses.

Other ways to minimize energy losses is through the use of high efficiency windows and doors as well as ‘house wrap”. While windows and doors with higher efficiency ratings cost a little more, the pay back is usually within a reasonable period of time. House wrap is now all the rage, is a good energy saver and relatively inexpensive. We have used house wrap as a standard for almost 20 years. Current green literature says you should have a specialized crew come into the home just prior to drywall installation and foam all the cracks to lessen energy losses. Again, we have used this insulation technique on all our homes and remodeling projects for several decades.

The selection of your heating and cooling equipment is yet another way to minimize wasted energy and some of the cost invested in better equipment [within reason] can be returned to the homeowner. We have been using 92% furnaces and 13 SEER air conditioners, when 85% and 10 SEER was the building code requirement. We now offer even higher efficiency units as well as zoned systems to provide greater efficiency. Leaky air ducts are another source for energy loss. By wrapping the duct joints with tape and then pressure testing them, leaks are minimized generating more savings. Much has been written about the benefits of solar and geothermal systems, and while they are efficient they are also expensive and the additional costs may not be full recovered. There are tax considerations that may make these systems more attractive, but before investing in one, please consult with your tax advisor. During construction other thing can be done as well.

Energy efficiency can be improved in the kitchen too. Almost every appliance and electronic manufacturer offers a variety of high efficiency products so a homeowner can choose between many products offering different levels of energy conservation.

Construction & Materials

As we dispose of unneeded construction materials and purchase new materials, there are ways to incorporate Green practices. Construction debris is a big problem at our landfills and is a costly operation especially in highly populated areas where land is expensive and dump sites are filling up. Wherever possible and if the client’s budget allows for it, we use dumpster companies that take the construction debris to a sorting yard where the debris is hand sorted and recycled where possible.

We have all heard about the depletion of the “old growth” forests. The truth is that much of the lumber we use today in residential construction comes from tree farms and not old growth. Without some effort there is no way to tell where the lumber comes from. There is an administrative vehicle where the lumber supplier can track and certify the source of the lumber used in a home and provide documents to show that the material is from renewable tree farms and not old growth. This certification can add about 15% to the cost of lumber or $4,500 to $6,000 on a $30k to $40k lumber cost.

Engaging a private energy consultant early in the design process to advise on sustainable design and strategic planning can help maximize the efficiency of a new home. The consultant should be involved in the design and specification stage, inspect the home as it is being built, perform certain tests once construction is complete. An expert like this is required under most of the current nationally recognized programs to get the home qualified at a certain Green level. It is our belief at the Foley Companies that in the near future home purchasers are going to be asking about the green certification level of any home they might be considering. In general, this service costs several thousand dollars or more depending on the involvement by the expert. While the owner is working with their design professionals and energy experts, the owners can decide how “green” they want to be and how much they are willing to spend to reach those goals.

The green movement is an important one and is currently supported by our government through the availability of certain tax credits. Before you begin your remodeling project or build your new home, we encourage you to check with your tax consultant to learn more about these credits.