Architect’s Corner: The Right Thing

Building Green Builds Better Houses

by Brian Laubenthal, principal, Aline Architecture Concepts & Wayne Funk, principal, Bellago Homes

Residential home development is a creative and financial boon for architects and builders.  The growth of the housing market allows us to develop new and creative home designs that keep homeowners in a happy and healthy home.  However, striving to do better should always be the goal, and one area where we can improve is understanding how our work can hurt or help our environment.  Construction pollution and inefficiently built homes will have a negative impact on a property’s carbon footprint, so architects and builders need to work together to create long-lasting homes that keep the environment in mind.

         The push to design energy-efficient and green homes is not new, with ENERGY STAR® and LEED® creating standards that help architects and developers build homes with our communities’ environmental well-being in mind.  The good news is that builders and architects are increasingly answering the call to build new houses and remodel old houses with green practices in mind.

         According to a 2020 study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the number of single-family builders doing nearly exclusive green home designs has increased from 18% in 2014 to 21% in 2019.  This is a modest but still positive increase in our industry, and what is even more important are the community-oriented reasons these homes are being designed. 

         Market demand is not the driving reason to design and build green homes.  In fact, the biggest reason we are designing more green homes is that it is simply the right thing to do.  According to the NAHB study, 68% of those surveyed said they committed to green housing because it is the right thing to do, with 47% saying creating healthier homes was the main reason for the green housing commitment, and 42% committing to the cause because they thought it was better for their reputation.  Only 13% of single-family builders stated that selling more homes was the driving reason to commit to green homes.

         In fact, the biggest obstacle to getting a stronger commitment to green design is customer demand, with 77% of builders and 79% of remodelers citing lack of customer demand as the main reason they have not done more green building or remodels.  Consumers’ support for green products has created a paradox, where most say they want to support brands that support environmental sustainability, but few are willing to pay for it.  A 2019 survey by the Harvard Business Review showed that 65% of respondents wanted to buy sustainable products, but only 25% actually did.

         The simplest way we can convince more customers to invest in green housing is to tell them the facts and work to integrate green design into their budgets.  Green housing requires a stronger investment upfront but will save money in the long term.  We can work to provide clients with some energy-efficient measures such as cellulose insulation made from recycled paper or double/triple-paned glass windows.  These small actions will show customers the benefits of green housing and is a good first step toward increasing demand.  We can also get creative with the way we design by creating homes that keep the topography of the land intact.  Keeping trees when we otherwise may have cut them down can lead to uniquely designed homes that are also energy efficient. 

         As we continue to design green housing in our communities, more customers will see and hear about the benefits as their neighbors start using these designs in their own homes.  The ultimate goal for sustainable housing would be to make most homes net zero, which would require low-E vinyl or aluminum windows with a good UV factor.  A net-zero home would also have a specifically engineered HVAC system that takes into account the number of windows, the type of windows, insulation, and SEER rating to ensure the home wastes no energy.  This would also require a commitment to using LED lighting, solar panels, and tankless water heaters.

         It is encouraging to see more builders and designers commit to these practices because this type of responsible building can exceed manufacturer specifications and create long-term affordability and sustainability for consumers.  Eco-friendly homes are something that we should continue to design because they save money, use easily accessible materials, require less maintenance, and are constructed to last longer.  The simple fact is building green builds better houses.

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