Building Fundamentals: Certifiably Green

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

People are always asking me to define “green building”. It’s a good question and one that continues to elicit collective head scratching from us aficionados. How do you define “green” and once you define it how do you really know if a building matches the description? One of many trajectories spawned by this question has been the creation of certification programs designed to define and then guarantee the relative “greenness” of buildings. Some have worked, others not so well, some are still developing. We are lucky enough to live in a region that has a success story, the HealthyBuilt Home (HBH) program. For this month’s column, I talked about HBH with Maggie Leslie of the Western North Carolina Green Building Council.

[Note for readers in Georgia: While HBH is a North Carolina program, there is a similar program in Georgia called EarthCraft House. Though there are differences between the two, this article can serve as a general introduction to both programs. For specific information on EarthCraft, check out the links listed at the end of this column.]

What is a Healthy Built Home and Why Should We Care?

The HBH program was developed as a tool to educate people about green building and to improve the quality of new construction from an environmental and health perspective. It’s a statewide North Carolina initiative that is funded through the North Carolina State Energy Office. Our program here at the WNC Green Building Council was the first in the state and a large part of the development committee was from WNC. The pilot project was Prospect Terrace right here in Asheville.

There are three reasons why you’re better off with a HBH certified home: comfort, durability, and energy efficiency. HBH homes are more comfortable for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are “tighter”, which means that insulation is carefully installed to create a cocoon of 100% coverage around the living space and leaks are carefully sealed to prevent drafts and improve indoor air quality. In addition, heating and cooling systems are designed so that they heat and cool as they should. Durability is increased because moisture is carefully considered with a focus on a variety of construction details to keep both sensitive buildings materials and the building’s interior drier. Credit is given for higher quality materials, such as those with longer warranties. Also, third party certification allows for a fresh eye to catch mistakes and problems that builders under time crunches and other pressures sometimes miss. As for energy efficiency, HBH is built on top of the federal Energy Star program. All HBH homes are Energy Star certified. This means that they are a minimum of 15% more efficient than code requires. This is accomplished through improved insulation, lighting, heating/cooling system design and installation, use of renewable energy sources, and passive solar design.

How do you go about getting your house HBH certified?

The program is based on a checklist. In addition to a number of prerequisites, there are seven categories dealing with the building site, water use, building envelope, comfort systems, electrical consumption, indoor air quality, and materials with a bonus section for miscellaneous features and innovation. By complying with checklist requirements points are earned toward four levels of certification: Certified, Bronze, Silver, and Gold.

The first step is to contact the certifying organization in your area. In WNC, for example, it’s the Green Building Council. We hold HBH orientation classes every other month for builders, designers, homeowners, and anyone else interested in learning about the program. The idea here is for the project to be conceived in the context of HBH from the beginning. At this stage, the checklist is basically a design aide. Once a project is far enough along in the design process, the architect or builder meets with us to go over the checklist and register the project. We review the plans, makes suggestions, and help in any way we can. The next step is to hire a certified home energy rater. The rater will perform a computer energy model to determine the theoretical performance of the planned building. This step is designed not only to determine where the building will fall within the rating system but to identify possible changes to the design that will allow improvements in the building’s efficiency. Once the house is under construction, the energy rater will perform three onsite inspections (framing/HVAC, insulation, and final). After the inspections, project documentation is turned in to us. We check over it and then send it to the state for final certification. The homeowner then receives official certification and a variety of documentation including a list of their house’s “green” features, performance statistics including energy efficiency, money savings, and pollution averted, all in comparison to the present norm.

Personally, I think the real stroke of genius in the HBH program is that it is built on Energy Star, an inspection-based federal program. The Energy Star inspector was already going to the site to inspect for a variety of thermal efficiency issues, so why not get them to check on other building features at the same time? The result is a robust program that produces real building improvement at a very reasonable price.

Of course I agree. Our fees for administering a project are very low and are based on the size of the building. The fee for a building less than 1,200 square feet is only $100 and it goes up from there to $500 for anything over 6,000 square feet. Energy raters usually charge something like 30 cents per square foot of building with a minimum charge. The whole process runs between$750 and $1,500.

From my point of view, though, tabulating fees isn’t a good measure of the cost of certification. Since many of the HBH improvements will save you money over time, the question really is can you afford not to get certified. Increased energy efficiency means lower energy bills, less maintenance means fewer repair bills, and better indoor air quality means fewer doctor bills. In fact, some power companies offer discounts on your monthly bill for HBH certification, so the payback can start immediately

I know that you’re biased, but do you think the program is a success? How would you improve it?

We’ve worked hard on this program and accomplished a lot in a short time. The number of certified and registered buildings is growing at an impressive rate. One thing that I’ve noticed that really excites me is that first time HBH contractors almost always improve their certification level on their second project. For example, from certified on the first home, to bronze or silver on the second. Since we see our role primarily as educational, that statistic alone seems to me like a great measure of success. Our goal isn’t simply to certify homes, we want to be part of building a sustainable industry. We are setting up a system and then letting it loose for market driven businesses to take it where it needs to go. I think it’s working. Of course, we can always improve. I’d like for us to update the checklist even more often. I’d like to increase our educational outreach. I really think that every new home should be enrolled in the program. It just makes sense. I think that the strength of the green building movement is that there is something in it for everyone. Environmentalism is often perceived as forcing people to give something up. Involvement in HBH creates the opposite result. The homeowner gets a better house, the builder gets a certified product that is easier to sell, and we all get the benefits of reduced pollution and better natural resource management. It’s win, win, and win some more.

To learn more about the Healthy Built Home program, contact the WNCGBC:

Phone: 828.254.1995

Email: info@wncgbc.org

Web: www.wncgbc.org

 

For more info on EarthCraft, contact South Face Energy Institute:

Phone: 404.872.3549

Email: info@southface.org

Web: www.earthcrafthouse.com

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