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Published July 30, 2008 09:13 AM

The Costs of Not Building Green

by Joel Bittle

Despite the narrowing gap in cost between green building and traditional "to-code" building, most builders and home buyers still perceive the green option to be significantly more expensive.  The reality is that due to increased builder education and an influx of affordable green building products, a building can be built green within the same budget as a non-green building.  According to Clark Wilson, CEO of Austin based Green Builders, Inc., "It’s our job as builders to find those green products that don’t drive up the price of the home."

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Rick Hunter of the St. Louis green building firm Sage Homebuilders agrees:  "With proper planning and a little experience, building green, even certified green, can be done for about the same cost. We are building certified green homes at the highest levels of certification for less than 1% cost increase."  For an informative breakdown on how green buildings cost from 0 to 2% more than non-green buildings, check out "The True Costs of Building Green" from the folks at Buildings.com.

Now that green building is an affordable option, it’s time to change the way we frame the affordability debate.  Too long have supporters of green building been on the defensive, forced to justify the costs of building more energy efficient, healthier, more sustainable homes.  Instead of focusing on the costs of making your building green, let’s talk about the costs of not building green.

Energy

For those strictly interested in a financial reason to go green, the energy savings of a green building speak for themselves.  With the help of the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, advances in energy efficiency have resulted in savings of 40 to 60% over non-green buildings.  Greater focus on appropriately sized HVAC systems, tight construction and ducts, effective insulation, and energy efficient windows can save a significant amount of energy and money.  Add in the water savings from low-flow fixtures, tankless water heaters, very efficient appliances, greywater systems, water-friendly landscaping, and rainwater collection systems and it’s clear how wasteful a non-green building can be.  Save a little bit of money now by ignoring these green options and you could be throwing away money for years.

Health

You wouldn’t buy baby bottles with potentially harmful chemicals or toys with toxic paint, so why would you buy a whole house with both?  Paints, adhesives, and caulks can all contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs,) the greatest causes of indoor air pollution in the home, which have been tied to increased asthma rates.  Wood products in the home can contain urea-formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that is banned in Canada and Europe and soon will be on its way out in California. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory studied indoor air pollution in homes and "found moderate to strong increases in respiratory and allergic health effects among children in homes with higher concentrations of selected VOCs."

Companies that still manufacture products with urea-formaldehyde or other VOCs continue to do so because it costs them less to produce and consumers continue to choose the less expensive, but less healthy, choice.  I’d like to think this is because of a lack of awareness of the health risks of such chemicals, rather than a conscious choice to expose their families to toxic chemicals.  A green building not only reduces, if not eliminates, such toxic chemicals, it constantly cleans the air through efficient HVAC and ventilation systems.

The potential health risks of non-green buildings are reason enough for many to choose to build green.

Sustainability

Third in the green trinity is sustainability, the environmental cost of your building project.  Green builders start by significantly reducing waste on building sites.  While building materials that are not recycled or made from renewable materials might seem less expensive, the cost to the environment must be considered.  And it’s not just the sustainability of the product that should be considered, but the company’s manufacturing process as well.  Naysayers point out that individuals can do little to nothing to affect the environment, but if consumers begin to favor environmentally friendly products made from companies that have cleaned up their manufacturing process, including reducing waste and using renewable energy, then other companies will be forced to follow suit.  Companies that have earned the Cradle to Cradle certification represent the height of sustainability.

If products were forced to label their environmental impact and embodied energy, consumers would think twice about many products.  Green builders seek out durable materials that leave a lighter impact on the environment.

Parting Thoughts

The energy, health, and environmental costs make traditional, “to-code” building much too expensive.  It will also be expensive for the builders themselves.  As Rick Hunter points out, "Most builders have still not fully realized that we are entering a whole new era of building; the builders that make the changes now will be the ones that prosper, those that take the wait and see approach, will ultimately be hurt."

The builders I know don’t like to be associated with anything shoddy or cheap, much less unhealthy, so it’s only a matter of time before green building practices are adopted as the norm.  The term "builder quality" is used to describe the cheapest and lowest quality material available while still within code.  Isn’t it time for builders to take back the term "builder quality" and make it something positive?  Here’s your new slogan:  Green:  The New Builder Quality.

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