green build

This “green build” was completed two years ago at the height of the market here in Denver.  Back then it seemed anyone could get a loan, and green was the new black.  Reflecting back on the project, it got me thinking.

What exactly made this project a “green build”? Is it still green today?

Good questions.  In this day and age, it seems, the criteria for being green is simply that the word green has been written on it.  The bar for being green has not just been substantially lowered, it’s fallen off the rack and is resting on the ground.  The word “green” has gone mainstream, which in the grand scheme of things is probably good.  But it also means that “green” doesn’t always mean what it means, if you know what I mean

Within the construction world, there are a number of different organizations that have different labels for different levels of green building, sustainable design, energy efficiency, green materials, and so forth and so on.

Some of these organizations amount to not much more than a marketing tool for home builders.  Built Green Colorado, for example, has put their stamp on thousands of homes that stood up to their checklist, which amounts to little more than business as usual in the construction world.  Are these homes more environmentally friendly than tract homes built back in the eighties? Yes, but not by much.  Does the “built green” sign in the front yard help sell the property? Definitely.  Interestingly, what was touted as the oldest and biggest green home building program in the country, Built Green Colorado, is unable to operate through the down economy.  What they were calling an “intermission” on their website, has now lasted two years.

Ok, sure, there’s no surprise there.  Of course some of these green organizations are going to be gimmicky.  Like with any other trend, there are going to be people that jump on the bandwagon and try to capitalize on it, instead of furthering the cause.

At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Certification program is the global standard for measuring how green a building is.  It was founded back in the mid-nineties by environmentalists whose initial intent was to create a set of guidelines for architects and builders to reduce waste in construction.

While the LEED program has produced tangible results, reducing energy and natural resource consumption, some argue that the forecasted consumption (upon which certifications are based) and the actual consumption of a LEED buildings are totally different numbers.  Of the tens of thousands of projects around the world bearing some level of LEED certification, how many would maintain that status if re-evaluated based on actual performance? Realistically, not many.

The USGBC has attempted to address that concern by requiring building owners to report annual energy consumption data, but it seems largely symbolic as there no process to repeal certification if the building out consumes it’s forecast.  Like the fate of so many that started as a well intentioned grass roots effort, the USGBC seems to have morphed into another bureaucratic organization whose original intent has been whittled away by the developers who see increased value in LEED certified buildings, but want to keep construction costs down.

Getting back to the original question, what makes this house a “green build”? Well, on paper, not much.  It is not LEED certified, it is not “Built Green”, and it is not Energy Star rated.  This was a custom home designed for the owner, not a “spec” home to be sold upon completion.  The additional cost of obtaining certification wasn’t something that could be marketed and recouped on the back end of the project, so why bother? The architect knows it’s green, the owner knows it’s green, and the builder knows it’s green.  Could this be the first structure in modern times to actually be green, without having the word green written all over it? 

While that would be nice, probably not the case. 

Anyways, from the perspective of the builder, here’s what makes this house green:

Urban infill– built on an empty city lot, increases population density in urban core.

Smart design– architect S. Adams designed the space to maximize natural daylighting, using clerestory windows to bring indirect light into the space up high.  Glass block towers illuminate three stories of stairwell while maintaining privacy.  If the sun is up, there is no need to turn a light on in this house.

Modulation and Prefabrication– building dimensions were sized to minimize construction waste (this project produced about 1/6 of the trash usually produced by building a custom home).  Framing components (trusses and roof panels) were fabricated offsite reducing waste and speeding construction.  What would take a week or two on a conventional frame was done in a day and a half.  

Super-insulation–  The 11 1/4″ SIPs roof panels have an R-value of 47.  The 2×6 exterior walls were filled with a water based (no VOC off-gas), spray foam insulation that provided superior thermal and sound insulation.  Gas filled, low-e glass on all the windows and sliders minimize heat loss and reduce energy loads.

Energy efficient systems– on-demand water heaters and high-efficiency furnaces reduce energy consumption, and over time, pay for the additional initial cost.

Blankets– As is evident by the discrepancy between a LEED certified building’s forecast performance and it’s actual performance, a building is only as green as it’s owner.  So turn your thermostat down and throw another blanket on the bed.  Turns out that a “green” blanket is part of what makes this house truly green.

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