Building Green: Good for Planet, The Wallet and The Bottom Line

Mon Aug 1, 2011 2:06am EDT

Building green is getting big, better and cheaper. And it's not just for new construction: from simple energy efficiency projects to "deep energy retrofits," owners and leasers of existing homes and commercial buildings can join the green building boom.

Traditionally constructed buildings are responsible for between half and three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so the more we incorporate green building practices in new and old construction, the closer we will be to getting a grip on climate change. But building green is starting to make economic, as well as environmental sense.

A report released this year by CB Richard Ellis shows the green building market is growing dramatically, reaching 35 percent of new construction in 2010. And while commercial construction was the early pioneer in green building - owing to high upfront costs - now that costs of green building technology like photovoltaics are dropping, residential construction is showing green enthusiasm as well.

That's because a home with significant green features and efficiency can command as much as 30 percent over a traditional home - and sell in as little as one third the time. For sellers in a depressed housing market, that's an impressive ROI for adding green features to their home. And for those who want to stay in their homes, the ROI is getting ever shorter - about a three-year payback for most green retrofit investments.

That's what the shareholders of one New York City co-op found. The 15-story Park Avenue building installed a new efficient burner capable of using either cleaner fuel oil or natural gas. The retrofit cost $73,000 and is expected to pay for itself in three years. And, by going to this handy interactive map posted by the City University of New York, I found out the co-op building in which my mother is a shareholder could save almost $7,000 a year by installing a solar PV array on its roof. With the potential to recover significant costs from city, state and federal rebates, the payback could be swift.

Two new books out from Taunton Press (the publishers of Fine Homebuilding) are filled with tips for those interested in green remodeling, building new, or making their homes more efficient, even if they are just renting.

Green$ense for the Home: Rating the Real Payoff from 50 Green Home Projects by green architect Eric Corey Freed and financial and marketing expert Kevin Daum evaluates projects ranging from the simple (like installing energy-efficient light bulbs) to the ambitious (like developing a mini-power plant with your neighbors from a stream running through your properties).

They found 45 out of the 50 projects they ran the numbers on ended up paying off from both an environmental and economic standpoint. Many, like installing programmable thermostats or insulating a water heater, take less than an hour of DIY time and pay back their cost in less than a year.

Some cost more, but bring benefits in terms of increased enjoyment while waiting for the payback. These include installing a beautiful Icestone countertop (constructed of recycled glass) instead of granite when remodeling a kitchen or putting in skylights or light tubes to bring increased daylight into a home (instead of using artificial light). Your skylights can even do double duty, if they incorporate photovoltaics right into the glass. It's an example of "building-integrated photovoltaics" or BIPV and is one of the up-and-coming things in solar power for buildings. (You can get PV awnings, windows and roof panels, too.)

Another useful book out from Taunton Press is Barry Katz's Practical Green Remodeling. Katz won an award from the Connecticut Association of Homebuilders for the best green house, a traditional-looking colonial. But, while he's happy to build you a new home, he thinks retrofitting older houses is greener. That's because new homes typically require new infrastructure - roads, electricity, plumbing, street lights - to be brought to the home. And older materials can be recycled, if not by the project itself, then by arranging to have them to be brought to a building materials recycling project. (A great example of this is the ReStore in Springfield, MA, a project CSRwire founder Joe Sibilia helped to birth.)

Katz says old houses, as well as new, can be turned into near zero net energy buildings by using advanced framing techniques like using Structural Integrated Panels (SIPs) that enable high insulation and a tight building envelope (cutting heating costs to practically nothing) together with renewable power generation like solar to make the homes into energy generators. In many states, utilities will buy power from the home, thereby speeding payback time.

But even if the heating source is non-renewable, the home's carbon footprint can be drastically slashed with a "deep energy retrofit." I reported on one such retrofit in 2009 when I interviewed green architect Betsy Pettit (listen here). She did a deep energy retrofit of her own 1920s Sears Kit home and saved 75-85 percent on her heating bill. You can read how she did it and find pictures here.

Those savings can be augmented by taking advantage of rebates and green/efficiency incentives. You can find out about them by calling your local public utility, local and regional building departments, and county, state, and federal agencies. But incentives are being threatened by politicians whipping up deficit hysteria. So, while you plan your green remodeling or energy efficiency project, make sure to send a letter to your Congressional representatives demanding they support green building, too.

Photo by John McStravick/flickr/Creative Commons

Reprinted with permission from CSRwire