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How to Choose the Best “Green” House or Apartment

What makes the “Best Green” anything? Maybe the hardest thing to know is which thing is really “Best”. There are so many possibilities that it really becomes subjective. And that’s OK if you know the difference. And therein is the crux of the matter, you really need to know what to look for.

So, before we talk about what “Green really means”, let’s talk about what could be important to you.

Gallery-Single-Family-_0000s_0004_914_Gleason_CompletedWhat is “best” varies with opinions, but you can better determine the facts by making a list what you think are the “most important characteristics” and ranking each characteristic with a score on how well your Test Subject, in this case your house or apartment (“home”) scores when ranking these important characteristics.

So, start by selecting the “important characteristics”. For you, what are they? There are many characteristics that are commonly wanted in any home, such as “safe”, “strong”, “healthy”, “quiet”, “clean”, “comfortable”, “of the right size”, “in the right neighborhood, and such, so if those criteria are important to you, put them on the list.

But! Those characteristics aren’t the ones that make home into a “Green Home”. Being Green is more than just being a “good home”. Being Green means being truly “Sustainable”.

Being sustainable means being in harmony with the earth, with nature, with the environment, and not being damaging to it, at least to the extent possible. Given the reality that we all need things and consume certain things, there’s simply no easy way to avoid having a negative effect on the earth, just with our simple presence on it.

What we should be doing is everything we can to have positive effects on the earth and ourselves.

Homes are buildings, and all buildings use materials and making materials means using energy. The people involved in all aspects of buildings use materials too. Lots of energy is used in mining, harvesting, forming, and making the materials. Energy is used to assemble the materials into buildings, and then once the buildings are completed, lots of energy is used in operating the buildings.

The trouble is that too much of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, such as gas, coal, oil, etc. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as CO2 and methane, and these GHGs are causing changes in the atmosphere, trapping heat in the atmosphere and oceans, raising air temperatures everywhere, and causing species extinctions at an accelerating rate.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of GHGs, and BUILDINGS produce 39% of all of the GHGs in the U.S. This wasteful and damaging way of living is threatening countless species with unviable living conditions, and humans too may be severely affected. This way of using energy is OPPOSITE of sustainability. It’s truly unsustainable by definition. This path needs to change.

So, we see that two of the most important criteria in being Green are to:

  1. Minimize the amount of energy and materials used and
  2. Minimizing the amount of GHGs produced.

Going Green means reducing your “carbon footprint” (fossil fuel usage) and being as kind to the earth as you can. Being Green means being sustainable, and when it comes to buildings (back to your home), there are also several other building ways to be even GREENER:

  1. Build Faster- More time in the field means more daily energy use from people, vehicles, equipment, and such. Use systems that are quickly assembled, such as prefabricated structural insulated panels (”SIPs”).
  2. Select Structurally Efficient Structures – Something that is lighter in weight while being stronger per pound of material means a more efficient use of materials and less of it being needed in total. SIPs are very structurally efficient, act as double-shear walls, are shop fabricated to exact dimensions, are assembled very easily and quickly, and are engineered to perform efficiently.
  3. Select Energy Efficient Structures – More insulation and more efficient kinds of insulation mean less energy loss from the interior to the exterior. Selecting the amount of insulation based upon your specific climate and in amounts that reduce your energy losses down to about only 10% of most homes is a Key “Passive House” technique.
  4. Stop the Leaks! – Most homes are leaky and waste energy by allowing the conditioned interior air to escape with the money that went into getting that air conditioned. Windows and doors leak. Walls and Roofs leak, and as that conditioned air seeps towards the exterior, it takes with it the moisture in that air into the building structure where it can get trapped, condense into water, potentially freeze, and cause all kinds of problems and expenses. Use an airtight structure to keep the air and moisture where it can be controlled by efficient ventilation. Both Passive House and SIP technologies result in very airtight homes.
  5. Ventilate! - Don’t repeatedly Heat & Cool! Airtight homes need clean, fresh air to be supplied while the stale air is exhausted. With the right Energy or Heat Recovery Ventilator (ERV or HRV), you can reclaim about 85-90% of the energy put into the exhaust air and transfer that conditioning to the incoming air, saving energy and money. Air with an ERV or HRV is often healthier too, especially for smokey or polluted air. Of course, a well-insulated, sealed, and ventilated home keeps health and comfort levels high, and keeps costs and GHGs down.
  6. Eliminate the Thermal Bridges Avoid building-in things that conduct heat between the exterior and the interior. A concrete floor system that is exposed at the edges to the air is a “short circuit” in the insulation envelope and will tend to lose heat in the winter to the exterior, as the floor becomes colder. Metal studs in walls are very strong conductors of energy and will reduce the effectiveness of the wall’s insulation, sometimes nearly in half, losing heat to the exterior and requiring more energy to be used and GHGs emitted.
  7. Use High Quality Windows and Doors – Look for windows that have high insulating values for both the glass and the frames. Select doors and windows that have positively sealing weatherstripping and secure latching. “Automatic door bottoms” (weatherstripping on doors) work to drop down and seal when the doors are closed and lift up to swing easily when the doors are open. Multi-point latches may be desired in windy or stack-effect conditions.
  8. Go Net Zero Ready, Net Zero, or even Net Positive – Building “Net Zero” means building so that you are locally producing as much energy as you are using, often with photovoltaic electric solar panels. Being “Net Zero Ready” means you’re almost Net Zero and just need a sustainable energy source to become Net Zero, and Net Positive means you are producing more energy than you use, possibly pushing energy back into the electrical grid and getting paid for it.

When you can score each of those characteristics highly on your score sheet, then you’ll have found one of the most energy efficient, durable, healthy, safe, clean, quiet, comfortable, and sustainable homes available. It’ll be a truly “Green Home” and if you select the right building system, then you’ll have the “BEST” savings of energy, money, time, effort, and the environment!

For a quick tutorial, watch the video, "Passive House explained in 90 Seconds."

How you score your home is your choice. What you choose to do is your choice.

But please remember, the environment is just like the old Realtor expression that goes something like, “Well, you know what they say about land, 'They’re not making it anymore’."  The point is that one should consider how the environment is at risk and one should think about the impacts of your purchase and how they may affect the environment.  So, when and how do you want to pay for the future impacts that you're creating… less now or much more later?

It’s also true that one needs to value what’s important and protect it. To that end, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has created a "2050 Roadmap" to reverse Climate Change by severely reducing our use of fossil fuels and eventually eliminating most of our generation of GHGs. There is hope!

So, when it’s time to Choose the Best Green Home, study what’s important to you, rank those important characteristics, and make a wise choice. Make the responsible choice, sustainability. You’ll be happy you did. Don’t be find yourself sorry that you didn’t choose wisely.  You'll find that you could be hurting your own children too.

Join the conversation. Tell us in the comments section what you think about what you think is the best "Green" house.