“Green Building” is an advancing and mature industry--although as I've said before, "sustainable" is a more accurate term than "green,” which is a color that has been hijacked over the years to also mean "less bad for the environment." Notice I did not say "good for the environment," which is what is what most marketing departments (including ours) who brandish the word "green" would kinda hope you think they mean.
The green building industry exists because environmentalists and otherwise concerned citizens have recognized that there are problems we need to address with modern buildings. Most every building built in this post-modern era, even the self-described “green” ones, actually create net degradation of the environment: we take a plot of land that was home to myriad species of plants, insects, even wildlife, and turn it into an environment for just a few of members of the single species Homo sapiens, and maybe some dogs, cats, and goldfish. That is not a problem in itself, as Homo sapiens need habitat too and since we’re generally bigger we ought to have a larger space for ourselves, but it is an increasingly artificial one, and one that has grown in size 37% since 1980 while dropping in occupant density by 10%. (Yes, and 99% of statistics are made up on the spot...) Yet we also build that house using an host of materials that were extracted from some other environment somewhere and combobulated into what they are now with the help of much fossil fuels, often imbued with synthetic and potentially environmentally-toxic and human-toxic chemicals that may affect the environment long after the building itself is gone. Throughout the life of this building, we will be taking further from the environment: using clean drinking water and spitting it out much less clean, poisoning insects and plants that try to re-encroach, consuming electricity and maybe burning a fossil fuel for heat. And, perhaps most importantly of all, burning fossil fuels to travel from this building each and every day to all the other buildings in which we have business, maybe multiple times a day, maybe regularly to buildings that are very far away.
So when I say a "green" home, or even a sustainable one, I'm talking about a home that does all of these things in a way that is less bad, from an environmental perspective. Moving from a "green" home and onto a "sustainable" one, the absolute ideal would be one that does all this in a way that is somehow calculated to be environmentally neutral--sustainable, after all, is defined as something that can be continued into the future without degradation of the resources available to make this happen for everybody who might want a home for themselves.
Attacking this room for improvement is how companies like mine thrive: a market of customers exist who want this stuff because the environment matters to them, and so people like me and my colleagues put research and work into finding ways to make that happen. By experimenting and doing we create more alternatives for the entire industry on how to do more things "less badly."
There are different levels of commitment to these alternative ways of building. Not all "green" homes are created equal, and most “green” homes are not yet truly “sustainable.”
Level One: Look Ma, I Got Solar Panels
These homes have something conventionally “green” about them: maybe they have some solar panels; maybe they hooked up some rain barrels to their gutters; or used recycled aluminum roofing or low-VOC paints and finishes. Perhaps a whole smorgasbord of such things. And these hearts are in the right place—but there remains an important environmental elephant in the room: maybe the house is also 4,000 square feet even though only two people live in it, or is 40 miles from work and the nearest grocery store, or they installed an awesome solar hot water kit but end up paying tons in energy bills anyway because they skimped on insulation. The owners made some choices that were “green” because it was something they knew about or were concerned about—but they also made other choices having to do with entirely different motivations, and some of those motivations had no consideration for the environment. Overall, the environmental picture may be better than if no thought had gone into it at all, but the picture is decidedly piecemeal.
Level Two: An Energy Star Home
Energy Star is not just for appliances anymore--now there is an extensive certification program for houses themselves, put together by our own EPA. Anyone building a new home can elect to certify it as an Energy Star home by following a very detailed set of guidelines aimed at reducing energy consumption by a certain threshold. A certified professional will inspect and test the home to verify that all the guidelines have been followed. Since operating a building involves ongoing electricity and heating fuel costs, and those costs persist throughout the multi-decade life of a building, come what may in terms of oil embargoes or carbon regulation, energy efficiency is a great place to start purely from a financial standpoint, as well as from an environmental one.
There are many things that can only be done when the house is built that will affect the energy efficiency of the home throughout the entire life of the home--small details, often, that are missed simply through lack of intentioned attention to those details because of lack of knowledge on the part of the builder or of insistence on the part of the homeowner. Energy Star uses several decades of forward-thinking builder experimentation and academic research in just those things to make sure that a few more of them get done than are done in typical construction.
Building a house to Energy Star standards requires a little bit more work and a little bit more up-front cost, but also has a very good payback for the homeowner. It's a smart way to get an incrementally higher quality house for not such a load of extra effort. And it's a really smart way for builders to differentiate themselves from rivals. One of my biggest successes in my job has been to develop and implement our process for easily allowing our houses to get this certification, for those customers who want it.
Level Three: A LEED Certified Home
LEED is so well-known now that most people recognize as having something to do with green building. Its parent non-profit organization is also getting sued for false advertising because some early LEED homes did not deliver the energy performance advertised--but that's a different story.
LEED is very similar to Eenergy Star in that it is a voluntary certification program that interested builders can earn by following the guidelines of a vast amount of checklists (ever been in scouting and earned a merit badge? The process is similar, although on a much larger scale), and having all of that work verified by a LEED-certified professional. The main difference between LEED and Energy Star, besides the fact that the former was created first by an independent organization and the latter was created later by the government, is that LEED addresses more than just energy efficiency. The energy efficient section of LEED has requirements that look a lot like the Energy Star requirements. But then there is the water efficiency section, the materials and resources section, the job-site protection and restoration section, and the indoor air quality section. LEED is harder than Energy Star because you have to pay attention to far more aspects of the building than just the energy efficiency.
Level Four: A Net-Zero Home
This is another of my projects: designing a prototype Net-Zero home for my company.
A Net-Zero home is not a current market item, like a LEED or Energy Star home is. It is a future market item, anticipating a world where energy prices continue to rise, climate change drives further environmental awareness, and countries get serious about curing carbon dioxide emissions. That's the advantage of a company with a sustainability department--we're the ones with our ears to the ground about the future, supporting company sustainability as well as environmental sustainability of our practices.* Net-Zero prototypes and communities are popping up all over the U.S.--but most people don't live in a Net-Zero home yet. To continue to differentiate ourselves, we can hardly call ourselves "the original green builder," as we do, and NOT have a net-zero prototype to show.
So what is Net-Zero?
It is moving past "less bad" and on to "so less bad it is in fact neutral." A net-zero home uses no more energy than it produces. With current technology that necessitates on-site renewable energy, but it's not so simple as sticking up an array of solar panels and calling it a day--because super-rich hippies can do that but not too many other people can, and if this really is the next market and one that can help society be more sustainable at that, it has to be attainable by a larger swath of potential homeowners.
Completely self-sufficient living by renewable energy is not a new concept—but it is not a mainstream one. Net-Zero tries to make sustainable living more mainstream--and it does so by a compromise between many considerations, a balancing act. While not a tiny solar cabin in the woods, a net-zero home will be on the smaller side: none of that man-cave in the basement plus formal living room and dining room with media room to boot suburbia trend--but it will be designed to still feel like a normal house. It will also have double or triple the amount of insulation, passive solar design where possible, extremely efficient heating and cooling, will manage electrical loads in an intelligent way, and it will be designed to be affordable. Not typical-house-affordable, because that is right now impossible--but as affordable as it can be. As more builders make their net-zero prototypes, we learn more about what is possible and bring more and more of these ideas into the mainstream at lower cost.
Notice that net-zero is neutral from an energy standpoint only—and only neutral when it relates to site energy at that. It does not touch the relative efficiencies of electricity verses other forms of energy and of getting it to the house to begin with, it does not touch all the energy it took to manufacture all of those state-of-the-art energy efficient technologies, and it doesn’t touch other aspects of environmental harm, like LEED does. But that so many prototypes exist shows that it a very achievable step, coming, perhaps soon, to a neighborhood near you.
Level Four-A: A Passive Haus
Passive House, or Passive Haus, since it is a German invention, is another independently developed building certification program. Not quite a separate level on its own, Passive Haus is sustainable building for the truly nerdy among us: the spreadsheets, the little scaling factors and time-dependent solar radiant calculations… Passive Houses share the goal with Net-Zero houses of neutral energy consumption, but where as Net-Zero tries to accomplish the goal while balancing cost and "conventionalness" of living, Passive Haus accomplishes the goal by a nerd-out, all-stops-pulled, putting-sustainability-before-any-other-consideration approach. As a nerd myself, I love it. Its also an incredibly tough standard. It uses very basic, low-tech ideas, but takes those ideas and engineers them ad nausium. Many of those non-energy-related but still important environmental factors, such as water use and site-restoration come into play just by this intense design approach, although they are not strictly evaluated as part of the standard.
The Next Level: ?
As you can see, the green building industry is about movement: from conventional practices to less harmful ones, from practices that reduce energy consumption to ones that do that and are less toxic too, or consider life-cycle energy costs as well as just energy use, to processes that are also water efficient, etc. It embodies the idea of better living through iterative refinement. So the next step after “less bad” and “neutral,” is…”good for,” or “improves upon.” Since actually achieving neutral is what’s on our horizon now, and is only generally neutral as it relates to site energy, we have a very long way to go and a lot of details to fill in to get to the “makes better” road marker.
I believe climate change will throw an interesting wrench in all of this—as keeping our habitat safe and comfortable will get much more difficult in a world of deeper weather extremes. In addition to asking our homes to provide shelter and comfort while also not hurting the environment too much, we might also have to start asking them to provide increased levels of self-sufficiency, as more frequent heat, drought, floods, and storms will change and reduce the reliability of our existing infrastructure. Disaster resilience may be the net big green building boom.
* In my future, we will either put up the money to build a prototype net-zero home and try to market the heck out of it and my work for the next couple of years will be really rewarding and interesting--or we won't, and the notebook will sit on my boss's desk for an undetermined amount of months and years. Such is the whim of the economy.