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What is Green Building?

One might argue that "green building" is coming into its glory days in American homebuilding. But in a market as competitive as housing, popular trends can be quickly appropriated--and redefined--to serve all sorts of private interests.

In the absence of a national consensus on what "green" really means, we offer these definitions.

What exactly is a "green building product?"

We're so glad you asked.

A green building product is:

  • Made from reused, recycled, rapidly renewable, preferably local, or other environmentally preferable materials;
  • Easily recycled at the end of its life;
  • Free of pollutants harmful to the air or water;
  • Energy efficient, water efficient, resource efficient, or durability enhancing; and/or
  • Effective in minimizing the environmental impact of the building.

A green building product must meet at least one of the above criteria and be neutral in the other categories.

But using green building products in a home does not necessarily make the building green. No one should consider a poorly insulated house with solar panels, for example, to be a green building.

So what makes a building green?

  • The use of energy in the home is minimized. Energy efficiency is achieved through intelligent design decisions like passive solar design, insulating and air sealing, and choosing efficient HVAC, lighting, and appliance options. Net zero energy homes are the epitome of energy efficiency. How close can you get to zero?
  • Water use, both inside and out, is also minimized. This is reflected in practices like rainwater collection systems, xeriscaping, and smart plumbing and appliance choices.
  • Material resources used to build the home are minimized, and come from local sources. Many types of building envelopes are available, but if you use wood, choose locally grown, sustainably harvested wood, and minimize its use with modern practices like advanced framing.
  • The home offers a healthy and comfortable living environment for the occupants.
  • The home should be durable, with minimal maintenance requirements.
  • The environmental footprint of the home should be modest. After all, does a family of four really need more than 2400 square feet of living space? Really?

* A building must meet all of these requirements to be considered green.

Definitions of green building are fuzzy to many people. We intend to bring them into focus.

But to what degree must a home meet these requirements?

Therein lies the heart of the debate about green building. The short answer: it should meet the requirements of a major green building program.

The greenest of green?

Don't build. Remodel an existing home.

A few words about affordable green construction:

Don't get us started on the problem of McMansions with "sustainable" bamboo flooring. We blanch. (You wouldn't like us when we blanch.)

Green building doesn't have to cost more. Smart green building choices can pay off immediately from substantially reduced utility bills. For example, a $5,800 investment in improving the energy-efficiency of a new home in Orlando, Florida will cost an additional $36 in mortgage costs, but yield $50 a month in energy savings.

Many other green building practices, such as material-saving techniques and design choices, actually reduce the initial price tag. Financial incentives like federal tax credits can help make green even more affordable.

In the long run, building un sustainably is going to cost us much more in energy, healthcare, environmental degradation and even national security.

So if someone tells you that green can't be affordable, don't buy it.

More Resources:

Busted! 8 Green Building Myths

Content updated on 2/27/2007

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