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Green Home Trends
Tips for Green Home Buyers
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Call the seller before you drive down to see the property. It is important to talk to the sellers personally, for they should know better than anyone else about their home. If the sellers don’t have detailed information regarding the green features of their home, you might wonder if it was just a marketing ploy to attract buyers.
Ask in advance about those green design elements that interest you most. You don’t want to drive down to a property to find out that its design was centered around using recycled materials, when you were mostly concerned with energy conservation to lower utility bills.
Find out if the home is certified by Energy Star another third party green certifier. Such a certification should put any doubts at ease. However, lack of certification does not mean the home doesn’t meet your needs. Perhaps the owner began converting to green design but could not complete the project for personal reasons. The home may still have green potential.
Hire yourself a local Eco Broker Certified realtor who specializes in green homes.
This is invaluable, as such a realtor will be familiar with both green home design and the location you are interested in.
Find out about local government and utility incentives. There may be financial benefits surrounding the property that you were not even aware of.
Educate yourself about green home design and maintenance. There are many articles and product guides available so you can become more familiar with green home trends.
With the growing popularity of green home design and maintenance, and all the talk about eco-this and sustainable-that, the question arises: what exactly IS a “green” home?
A green home is one that uses materials and design strategies that aim at responsibility, resulting in minimized wastefulness and a healthier environment for all. Responsible home maintenance can be motivated by many different concerns: diminishing forests, allergy-causing fumes, utility costs, water scarcity, etc. Ranking your concerns by order of importance to your particular situation will indicate how to choose between the numerous available green home strategies. Think of it as having “shades of green.”
Once your have ranked your concerns, you can see which goals hold highest priority. Now you can start planning a system, combing different strategic elements that work together towards achieving your goal. This is referred to as “integrated design.” In other words, while installing a couple of solar panels may be nice, it is but one part of what could potentially constitute a green home. Now, should you also include eco-friendly insulation, energy-saving appliances, water flow restrictors, and recycled materials, you have built yourself a system that earns your home a nice shade of green. Organizations like Energy Star specialize in rating the degree to which a home is sustainable and safe for the environment.
Let’s take a look at the concerns that inspire green home design.
With this goal in mind, there are many strategies that allow a home to surpass standard energy performance. Proper insulation is perhaps the single most important factor in an energy efficient home. Technology such as photovoltaic panels (convert solar energy into electricity) and fuel cells (convert chemical energy into electricity, like hydrogen-powered devices) continues to become more and more affordable. Lighting controls (such as timed or motion-activated lights), CFL and LED light bulbs, and low-emitting window coatings (“low-E”) help reduce the need for heating and cooling. And finally, the orientation and shape of a building, along with skylights, can increase the amount natural light in your home and further lessen the need for electricity.
There are many products available that make it easy to conserve water, including low-flow shower heads, low-flush toilets, faucet aerators, and under-sink flow restrictors. Dual plumbing systems can use recycled water for toilet flushing. In the garden, one can prevent excessive watering by planning native plants that require only the water provided by nature. For irrigation, “gray water” systems use rainwater or non-potable water. Alternately, timer-controlled sprinkler systems help prevent accidental over-watering. There are many options for the green home!
Healthy Indoor Environment:
Studies show that air quality plays a big role in respiratory disease, asthma, allergy, and sick building syndrome can. Your breathing air can be improved with products that produce fewer harmful emissions, such as no-VOC wall paint, formaldehyde-free cabinets, non-toxic caulks and glues, and CRI Green Label carpets. A well-designed green home will also feature good ventilation, filtration, and drainage of air.
Protecting the Environment & Its Natural Resources:
Responsible selection of building materials is an important element of green home design. These days it is easy to find recycled materials when selecting tile, wood replacements, window coverings, carpets, and wallboard. There are also rapidly renewable and sustainably harvested materials: wood from managed forests (check for FSC certification), bamboo flooring, cork, sisal, hemp, natural linoleum, etc. Then there are the salvaged products: left-over bricks, lumber, and used plumbing fixtures.
Responsible selection of building materials is an important element of green home design. These days it is easy to find recycled materials when selecting tile, wood replacements, carpets, and wallboard. There are also rapidly renewable and sustainably harvested materials: wood from managed forests (check for FSC certification), bamboo flooring, cork, sisal, hemp, natural linoleum, etc. Then there are the salvaged products: left-over bricks, lumber, and used plumbing fixtures.
Efficient strategies for home design help protect natural resources by reducing the amount of necessary building materials. For instance, to prevent waste and scraps, rooms should be designed in 4-foot multiples, which corresponds with the standard wallboard and plywood dimensions.
You can further protect the environment by using organic household products, eliminating pesticide use, and bypassing products that off-gas harmful chemicals during – or after – their manufacturing.
Finally, a green home has systems in place that help nurture the environment. For instance, you would be hard pressed to find a green home without compost and recycle bins. Landscaping also falls into this category. Compost and mulches will save water and time, and provide healthy environments for the plants. Yards can be deigned to harmonize with existing natural features, while plants can be selected for their native status, maintenance efficiency, and water conservation.
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of how many different options and variations can be incorporated in creating a green home. If the information is new to you, don’t be overwhelmed. Instead, look at it as a vast arena wherein you have the freedom to choose from many options, resulting in a home that best suits the individual needs of you and your family.
Insulation: Greener Options
One of the absolutely most important features in green and sustainable building is good insulation. Proper insulation will undoubtedly save you lots of money on energy bills, and it will protect the environment from being polluted by excessive use of heating and cooling equipment
The problem is that the most common insulation tends to be fiberglass. Composed of tiny glass particles, fiberglass is rather reminiscent of asbestos in its ability to irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs. There is disagreement as to whether these particles leech into the air over time, or if they break off only when agitated, such as during installation or removal. Either way, it may be wise to consider some greener alternatives.
Insulating capacity is measured by “R-value”. Fiberglass batts have an R-value between 2 and 3.85 per inch. High-density fiberglass batts can reach R-5. Keep in mind that as products age, their ability to insulate can deteriorate, and the R-value that was determined in a controlled test environment no longer holds true.
Here are some examples of alternatives to conventional fiberglass insulation:
Recycled Denim / Cotton (R-3.7 per inch)
Insulating with recycled cotton (a naturally renewable fiber) is an eco-friendly alternative that’s becoming more popular. Bonded Logic’s UltraTouch denim insulation is made from 85% pre-consumer recycled denim and doesn’t require any special equipment or protective clothing for installation. The flame retardants and fungal inhibitors that the cotton is treated with are not known to be irritants. That being said, beware of the myth that UltraTouch contains absolutely no formaldehyde or VOCs. Apparently the levels are very low, but highly sensitive people may find even low levels potentially aggravating.
Cellulose (R-3 to 3.8 per square inch)
Cheap, effective, and easy to install, cellulose is essentially just shredded recycled paper that’s sprayed into a space cavity, completely filling it up. It is easy enough for a do-it-yourself project. Because cellulose is treated with boric acid (which my research doesn’t indicate to be a health concern when used for this purpose), it holds a Class 1 fire rating and is resistant to pests. Cellulose also passes anti-fungal tests, and because of its hygroscopic nature, handles humidity changes through a wall very well. In fact, despite being made of paper, it has a much lower incidence of moisture problems than fiberglass.
If you plan on using “damp-spray” (as opposed to “dry spray”) cellulose, keep in mind that the degree of dampness is controlled by the installer. So make sure the installer is experienced, and keep the wall cavity open long enough for the cellulose to dry. You don’t want to lock in any moisture, as that will give rise to mold.
Icynene (R-3.6 per inch)
There are a number of spray-in foam insulation products. These begin as a liquid and then expand and solidify, filling in the tiniest spaces. The flexibility of foam helps avoid the problem of hairline fractures that can cause rigid insulation to loose its air seal. Many such products are full of nasty chemicals. But high-tech foams like Icynene produce no off-gases and maintain a Class 1 fire rating. Icynene’s flexibility and adhesiveness helps maintain its insulating ability at, or close to, the original R-value throughout its lifetime. Unfortunately, Icynene costs much more than traditional fiberglass and must be professionally installed. If cost is an issue, you might consider using cellulose instead.
Aerogel / Nanogel (R-10 per inch)
Now for something truly high-tech, consider aerogel. This is a super porous (to the point of being compared to smoke), super strong, and super light silica foam. And it is one of the best insulators in the world. It is transparent, so it can be used as window and skylight material, while still maintaining superior insulating qualities. And because it comes prepackaged into panels, no microscopic pieces – which would otherwise be similar to fiberglass insulation and asbestos - can dislodge and become airborne. Cabot Corporation’s trademark name for this product is Nanogel®, and it is always comes prepackaged and sealed into polycarbonate or fiberglass panels under trade names like Kalwall and Supersky Systems.
As this is still a relatively new product, there are some questions that remain unanswered. How much does the manufacturing process harm the environment? Does it maintain energy efficiency standards? What happens to the waste products of manufacturing? Can the final product be recycled? We will keep our eyes out for the answers.
Foil (R-5.5 to 6.8 per inch)
Foil insulation works by reflecting 97% of radiant heat transfer (the heat that can pass through solid objects) from a very hot surface - such as an attic roof - from whatever lies below. It allows other insulating materials (which only stop the transfer of conduction heat and don’t insulate from radiant heat) to perform much better. With its ability to reduce both excessive heating and cooling, many people opt for a foil “house wrap”, applying it to walls, flooring, and roofs.
Vacuum Insulated Panels (R-30 per inch)
By far the most insulating option out there is the Vacuum Insulated Panel (VIP). The vacuum environment reduces the conduction and convection of heat, resulting in R-values many times higher than those of conventional products. The problem is that with time, air will inevitably make its way into the vacuum, causing the panel’s insulating capability to deteriorate. And as the product is very expensive, the consensus among homeowners is a sad shake of the head.
Sheep Wool Insulation (R-value unknown)
No, I am not suggesting that you recruit your grandma to knit your house an enormous sweater. But, sheep’s wool does have excellent insulation qualities and has been used in Europe for home insulation purposes. Unfortunately, for Americans, it’s difficult to find a place for purchasing sheep’s wool insulation. Beware of confusing natural sheep’s wool with “mineral wool.” Mineral wool is known for its resistance to moisture, mold, and fire. However, it is similar to fiberglass in terms of health risks.
VOCs in Your Home
| If you’ve been doing your research on eco-alternatives for green housing, you have undoubtedly come across the issue of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Invisible to the eye but saturating our air, VOCs are off-gased from all sorts of common housing materials. What are they, exactly, and what makes them so dangerous?
VOCs are organic (carbon-based) chemicals that under normal conditions turn to vapor and enter the air we breathe. There, they combine with other chemicals and form the atmosphere-depleting ozone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines them as “any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions." However the EPA also includes a long list of exceptions for compounds "determined to have negligible photochemical reactivity."
VOCs can come from natural sources, such as trees and farm animals. Various greenhouse gases like methane are VOCs. There are also VOCs that come from car emissions, petroleum refineries, and other unnatural sources. And VOCs like formaldehyde are very prevalent in the solvents and adhesives of products we use at home, like paint , carpets, plywood, foam insulation, wallpaper glue, cleaning products, etc.
It is the general consensus that VOCs are unhealthy both to people and the environment. Some VOCs are deemed responsible for “sick building syndrome”, some are known carcinogens, and some merely irritate sensitive people. Symptoms may include dizziness, headaches, asthma, and irritation of eye, nose, and throat. Many products will continue to off-gas VOCs into the air many years after installation, combining with other compounds in the air to form smog and contributing to the atmosphere’s deterioration. Long story short: say no to VOCs.
To minimize VOCs in your household, opt for water-based paints and glues, and look for a “zero-VOC” label on the packaging. Beware of the “low-VOC” label, for sensitive people may still find themselves having adverse reactions. Besides, products like paint and glue frequently require multiple layers, so even low amounts of VOCs can add up.