Is ‘Green’ Building Too Expensive in Today’s Economy?

Note: This article was also published in the Fort Bragg Advocate-News

Green building practices have seen a huge increase in popularity in the last few years. The principles of increasing energy efficiency, conserving resources and improving indoor air quality are goals that few people would argue with. In this tight economic climate, however, many may ask, “Does it cost too much?”

The answer may depend on one’s priorities and time frame. A mother whose child has asthma may decide that using no-voc (volatile organic compounds) paint and flooring is well worth the extra cost because her child is healthier, missing less school and frequenting the hospital less often.

Another person may decide that conserving resources is his highest priority. If remodeling, he will try to recycle or reuse as many materials as possible. If building new, he will ask himself, how much space does he really need? Remember, prior to 1980s, the average house size was only 1,100 square feet for a family of four; today the average home is 2,400 square feet, even as the average family has decreased in size to 2.4 people.

For a wonderful resource on building small, readers are encouraged to check out “The Not So Big House” by Sarah Susanka. In her books and website, she shows how it is possible to build a smaller house that actually better fits the needs of a given family than many of the McMansions being built today.

Another family may decide that energy efficiency is their highest priority. First, they will “pick all the low-hanging fruit,” such as insulate all windows and doors, make sure the hot water tank and lines are insulated, and add insulation to the attic and crawlspace, if not already insulated. These improvements can give a large return on a rather small investment, with lowered heating and energy bills.

They may then consider making the leap to solar energy. While upfront costs can be considerable, the payback is quite good. For example, let’s say a 2,000-square-foot home needs a 2.3KW system to meet most of its energy needs. The grid-tied system costs $19,000 up front, but is eligible for $6,500 in state and federal tax rebates. This brings the cost down to $12,500.

Assuming the cost of energy continues to rise at current rates, the system will pay for itself in 10 years. Given that solar panels installed today are expected to last for approximately 25 years, that means the family will have free energy for 15 years. Thus, it is important to ask, “What is your time-frame?” Are you looking only at the first-time cost or the lifetime cost of a particular choice?

While some green building decisions involve making trade-offs, other green building practices and materials may cost the same or less than their “non-green” counterparts.

For example, bamboo flooring is now readily available at costs comparable to other hardwood flooring, yet it is a grass, and thus an easily replenished resource. An example of a green practice that can actually save money is found in the use of Optimal Value Engineering (OVE), otherwise known as Advanced Framing Techniques. The typical family home often uses significantly more wood framing than is necessary, even in California’s seismic zones. By eliminating unnecessary framing, the client saves both in using fewer materials and in reduced labor costs.

A final example that must be mentioned is the inclusion of such common-sense design principles as passive solar design. In a passive solar design, windows are carefully placed to respond to the heating and cooling loads of a house in a given climate. In a cold climate, few windows will be placed on the north sides (emits little light, but loses lots of heat), and more and larger windows will be placed on the south side.

To avoid overheating in summer, however, the depth of the eaves on the house (or the awning over the window) will be carefully calculated so that the winter sun penetrates deep in to the house, but the summer sun (with its steeper solar angle) will not pass the plane of the window. This is an example of a “green” principle that if included at the design stage can help reduce energy costs and increase the comfort of the home.

For those interested in further exploration, the following websites contain a wealth of information on both the practices and the materials of green building:

Cynthia Sharon with Dancing Dog Design Build is a general contractor specializing in “green-building” construction.

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