Last updated on May 5th, 2022 at 10:10 pm
Ninety percent of homebuilders in the United States offer at least some green building features to customers opting for green, custom homes, according to a recent McGraw-Hill Construction Research and Analytics Market Research Group study. Virtually anything in a home, from insulation to glass and tile, can be replaced with recycled and green material, which have less toxicity and chemicals.
For Betsy Hicks, of Madison, her knowledge about the benefits of organic food vs. conventional food began what would be an ongoing process of making her home “green.”
Hicks recently remodeled her kitchen with a fully natural countertop and opted for a specialized dishwasher that uses five gallons of water vs. the standard 15 gallons per load.
Recycled materials and high-efficiency dishwashers are two of the many emerging trends in green home building.
Patty Koshak of Genesse walks around her new kitchen floor barefoot, without her feet getting cold. One reason she’s able to do that is because she installed a marmoleum floor, which is similar to linoleum but made with all natural ingredients, that don’t become as cold as tile.
“We’d had wooden floors and knew how hard it is to maintain,” Koshak said. “The marmoleum is easy to maintain, it can literally be cleaned with soap and water, and I don’t worry about it scratching.”
Koshak installed bamboo flooring in her previous home, and she is considering doing an all-recycled glass backsplash in her current home.
In addition to bamboo, there are tree farms that grow various types of wood earmarked for building and are renewable. That practice is more eco-friendly than leveling a forest for building material.
Another trend is more beautiful product offerings that are difficult to distinguish as green-friendly because they are just as nice in appearance as other furnishings, but don’t have the toxins.
What used to be a gray- and earth-toned market is now a market of vibrant colors and glass that can compete with modern fads and trends in interior decoration.
In fact, the market has grown so much in the last few years that marketers have identified people conscious of green and healthy living as “LOHAS,” or those concerned with “lifestyles of health and sustainability,” said Juli Kaufmann, a principal at Milwaukee-based Pragmatic Construction.
Kofmann’s company provides a natural and unique heating and cooling source. Six to seven feet beneath the earth in Wisconsin, the temperature is consistently 55 degrees. Pragmatic utilizes this natural heating and cooling source to drastically cut energy costs.
By utilizing about 2,000 square feet, Pragmatic can lay a horizontal tubing system, or a vertical one if less space is available, that brings the underground temperature into the home. The piping can be laid throughout the home, underneath flooring and used as a radiant heating/cooling source.
It does require limited electricity to run, but Kofmann said the costs are much lower than a traditional system. The cost to install it can be significant, but that cost is paid off within five years in energy savings, she said.
Other factors driving the increased interest in “green” homes is the fact that more people are becoming concerned about energy waste, given the steadily increasing energy costs in the last five years, and more people are becoming concerned about the toxins in new buildings, including poor indoor air quality, said Lyn Falk, the founder and president of Thiensville-based Solterra Studios.
“People spend the majority of their time indoors,” said Nathan Engstrom, who is program director for Madison-based Green Built Home. “People are (becoming) aware of what’s going into building materials. It can have a very direct impact on health and on your family’s health.”
Of primary concern are furnishings that contain formaldehyde. The pungent-smelling chemical will most likely be identified as a human cancer carcinogen in the next five years, Falk said, and is found in everything from couches and cabinets to carpets and drapery.
“You have to make really smart conscious choices to stay away from toxicity,” Hicks said. “Forget the cure to cancer, look at the causes. Instead of putting a Band-Aid on it, look at what is causing it.”
Formaldehyde and other toxins are found in the “new-car” and “freshly-painted” smells and can release toxins into the air for two to four years. Certain carpeting and finishes can release toxins for up to 22 years, experts say. Heat and light intensify the release of toxins into the air.
“You can build a house completely out of green materials, but still have a house that is very toxic to the human environment,” said Andy Pace, owner of Waukesha’s Safe Building Solutions, which specializes in green construction. “Most people believe that once the odor goes away, the chemical is gone.”
The chemicals can adversely affect those with allergies and asthma.
“What good is saving the environment if you’re killing all the occupants?” Pace said.
San Diego-based American Formulating & Manufacturing developed paint, called Safecoat, that is completely toxin free, Pace said. While many odor free and zero volatile organic compound paints meet the Food and Drug Administration’s standards, they still emit toxins, he said.
Hicks used Safecoat in her home last year.
Both Hicks and Koshak are going green one step at a time. It’s not an all or nothing process in remodeling the home. There is a misperception about the cost of high quality, green products, experts say.
“Building green can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want to make it,” Engstrom, the Madison green builder, said. “It comes down to specific choices homeowners and builders make. There are plenty of nil- or low-cost options, and plenty of high cost options.”
“There are so many tree huggers, (but) do what you can do when you can do it,” Hicks said. “That’s the attitude we have right now.”
Small things such as choosing Wisconsin-based companies for supplying appliances can also make a difference.
“It’s (considered) green in that it doesn’t have to be shipped as far,” Hicks said. “So it’s green because it’s local. Every piece of remodeling, we’ve done as environmentally and efficiently as we can afford to do.”
Green guidelines for new homes
Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to green building, the National Association of Home Builder’s Model Home Green guidelines are based on fundamental green building principles that include the following:
Minimize solar heat gain
• Position the structure so the longest walls and most of the windows face north and south.
• Position infrequently used rooms, such as storage spaces and service areas, on the west side to act as buffers from the sun.
Maximize natural light and ventilation
• Ensure that most rooms have windows on two walls.
• Position windows for cross ventilation.
Create a cool shell
• Consider light colored surfaces for walls and roofing.
• Choose metal, concrete or wood roofing, which absorb less heat than asphalt shingles.
Use efficient appliances and lights
• Use Energy Star rated appliances.
• Install task lighting to reduce the need to light whole rooms.
Ensure efficient heating and cooling
• Install a programmable thermostat.
• Install ceiling fans in major rooms.
• Minimize the number of skylights. Skylights cause excess heat gain during the summer and heat loss during winter and raise utility bills year-round. Clerestory windows, which are placed high on vertical walls, are a more effective way to capitalize on natural light, while also providing ventilation.
• Use roof overhangs and exterior shading. Roof overhangs provide shade, lowering cooling costs during summer and greatly reduce the need for building maintenance. Exterior wall and window shading, such as trees, moveable awnings and covered porches, can also be highly effective.
Use water efficiently
• Reduce hot water flow. Add an energy efficient dishwasher and washing machine, plus low-flow showerheads, and cut your water use (and costs) even further.
Maximize energy-efficiency through landscaping
• Put your trees to work. Deciduous trees provide shade in the summer and lower the temperature of surrounding air through evapotranspiration. They also offer warmth from the sun when they shed their leaves in winter, allowing sunshine to enter and naturally heat the home. In addition, trees such as evergreens protect a home from icy winter winds. According to the United States Forest Service, properly positioned trees can reduce a home’s air conditioning needs by up to 30 percent and save as much as 50 percent of the energy used for heating.
• Go native. By selecting native and other “climate appropriate” plants, homeowners can reduce (or in some cases eliminate) the need for extra watering. For example, certain plants offer groundcover, reducing run-off and erosion, maximizing the amount of water that enters the soil which is especially important in dry climates or where summer droughts can be an issue.
Choose green materials
• Consider renewable and sustainable lumber for framing, doors and flooring.
• Consider materials with recycled content (i.e. fly ash, slag, insulation, siding, roofing, flooring, counter tops, outdoor decking).
• Insulated concrete forms. Concrete with a Styrofoam-like shell that serve as insulators and replace wooden and metal forms.
• Spray-in-place foam insulation. In recent years, there has been a movement to use spray foam insulations with a bio-base generated from soy. Milwaukee area residents are beginning to remodel high-pitched roofs and attics with spray insulations.
• Use non-chemical, bio-based cleaning products.
Green guidelines for remodeling
The Green Building Initiative, a nonprofit group that works to bring green building into the mainstream, and other experts recommend the following remodeling steps to go green:
• Ensuring proper sealing and insulation of the attic, roof, walls and windows mean energy savings. Changing out single pane windows for double or triple pane ones will save more.
• Every material in a home can be switched out with green material products, from insulation to tiling and recycled glass, steel and marble.
• Use hard surfaces for floors, like marmoleum, linoleum, cork or wood, instead of carpeting and metal levels or blinds instead of drapery – fabrics harbor dust mites and will absorb pollution.
• Countertops, decorative tiles, countless brands of flooring and a clay plaster treatment for walls that is decorative, toxin-free and regulates humidity are popular green-projects.
• A tank-less hot water heater that heats water as needed instead
of constantly using energy to
heat a tank.
• Pellet stoves. There are two effective types, a dedicated wood pellet stove, which use saw dust and wax and looks like a small candle, burns longer and harder. Also hybrid corn-pellet stoves, which burn field corn and wood pellets, are effective.
• Composite decking uses wood waste and recycled plastic. Experts call these projects “eco-shakes.”
• Engineered wood products. Waste wood is being recycled by being synthesized with vinyl and other recyclable materials.
• Low- or no-volatile organic compound sealants, paints and stains.
• Water-saving toilets. Manufacturers offer toilets that use less than 1.6 gallons per flush.
• Energy Star appliances are appliances that function with less electricity. Also, buy locally to save on shipping.
• There are many lighting options available that use a fraction of the energy traditional lighting uses.
• The next wave of low-energy lighting is compact fluorescent light, which use roughly 75 percent less energy.
• Light emitting diodes – used in traffic lights – last a long time and are extremely energy efficient.
• What experts regard as the best solar panels, which generate the most energy production in the smallest amount of space, are on back order for years. However, many quality solar panels are available.
• Solar hot water generation. Using vacuum tube technology, a six-by-five-foot rooftop solar heater captures energy and heats a secondary water tank. In summer, that serves most water usage and in winter about half.
• Residents’ solar energy is now being rerouted to the main city’s power grid, garnering energy discounts from energy companies.