Live healthier and save money with a green-built home
When it was built in 2013, the Lema house in River Forest was one of only three certified “passive” homes in Illinois and 34 in the United States.
Photo courtesy of Evolutionary Home Builders & Tom Bassett-Dilley Architect, Ltd.
Green home building and remodeling are not only good for the greater community, they can also have a direct impact on your personal quality of life. The benefits to creating an environmentally friendly living space include health, comfort, reduced energy costs and higher property values.
As Jason LaFleur, a building scientist and green building consultant and founder of Oak Park-based Eco Achievers, points out, “In general, a lot more people are interested and concerned about healthy living and being less wasteful with everything from resources to energy, and green building encompasses all of this.”
Energy efficiency is the hallmark of a green home, and certified green homes typically exceed the existing energy standards. Passive homes are among the most efficient, using up to 90 percent less energy than a traditionally built home.
“High performance starts with the initial design of the home,” says Scott Sanders, president of BrightLeaf Homes LLC in Brookfield, which specializes in new construction with a focus on high performance and high efficiency. “It’s tough to make a home energy efficient with just cosmetic features.”
High-performing insulation and windows, a heat recovery ventilation system, a compact design and appropriate placement of the home on the property are among the tools builders use to increase energy efficiency.
“It’s a really scientific way of building,” says Brandon Weiss, founder of Evolutionary Home Builders in Geneva. “You are paying a little more of a premium to build the house, but when you factor in the energy savings, you will have a positive cash flow from the first month you move in. Plus, you will have a higher quality home and a healthier home.”
Tom Bassett-Dilley of Oak Park-based Tom Bassett-Dilley Architect, Ltd., worked with Weiss on Illinois’ first certified passive house and is currently working with him on four more passive homes throughout the suburbs. He says that interest is growing in such projects as more people become aware of the benefits. “The word is getting out that it doesn’t cost more to own than a quality built-to-code house. It’s healthier because of the great ventilation system, plus you have super-low energy bills, less maintenance and it’s more comfortable,” he says.
In addition to their incredible efficiency, passive homes — and other green homes, for that matter — can look just as beautiful as any other custom home. “The level of finish is competitive with what other builders offer,” maintains Weiss, “but what is behind the walls is incomparable.”
Family health is still the top driver of interest in green homes and green living. “In our market it is less about green for the sake of being green, and more about indoor air quality and getting rid of toxins in the home,” says Maria Onesto Moran, president of Green Home Experts in Oak Park, which carries green building materials, garden goods and healthy lifestyle products. A healthier home can benefit anyone, she says, but is especially appealing to families with young children or those suffering from allergies or asthma.
LaFleur believes those in the building industry have a unique opportunity. “We all should be seeing ourselves as healthcare practitioners. In some way or another, we impact the health of the people living in our buildings, and this is especially important as people are spending more time indoors.”
Ensuring the health of clients is important to builders like Weiss, who conducts third-party air quality testing on all of his projects to prove the homes are healthier. He also puts energy monitors on every circuit so that clients can be aware of energy use.
In recent years several eco-unfriendly home products have been virtually eliminated, as compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lighting have replaced incandescent bulbs and low-VOC paints have become standard. At the same time, manufacturers have been responding to consumer demand and producing more green home products and building materials.
Green materials fit into one or more of the following categories: non-toxic, low or no VOC, formaldehyde free, recycled, made of rapidly renewable materials, locally made, energy efficient or water efficient. Look for products that have a third-party certification, like Green Label for carpets, Green Guard for paints or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood flooring and furniture.
With so many products on the market, it can be hard to pick and choose. “The challenge is that as things become more commercially available, we need to make sure that the green characteristics don’t become diluted,” says Onesto Moran.
Weiss recently opened The Evolutionary Home retail store in Geneva to complement his homebuilding firm, which offers eco-friendly home goods ranging from linens to cabinetry. Stores like his and Green Home Experts take the guesswork out of finding green products and provide consumers with assistance and education.
When looking for green products to furnish your home, it is helpful to work with a builder, architect, designer or remodeler who is certified or has experience building green. Various agencies and organizations offer training and certification to industry professionals.
“Furniture choices, fabrics, flooring, cabinetry — all those things can really impact the air quality. Having a designer knowledgeable about that can make a difference,” says LaFleur.
Interior designer Elizabeth Marusin, owner of Asparagus Interiors in Naperville, started her business in 2005, with an emphasis on green design from the beginning. “There are shades of green — there is no 100 percent solution,” says Marusin, who starts each project with energy conservation in mind. That might mean choices such as energy-efficient appliances and low-flow toilets, as well as well-insulated window treatments to manage the sun and keep warmth in the home.
The other part of each project is the sustainable selections. “It might be a bamboo floor or using a cabinet wood that is underutilized, such as birch or alder,” says Marusin.
Green building practices are not just for new homes. As Weiss observes, “You can put all the strategies into a remodel or rehab, and there are many existing buildings that need a lot of help.” He points out that a siding or roofing project is a great time to look at improving efficiency.
Bassett-Dilley agrees. “You can definitely renovate for great energy savings,” he says, recommending measures like adding solar collectors, replacing toxic materials or installing better windows. In fact, he says, some older homes, particularly the more compact styles such as Georgian, American Foursquare and bungalow, lend themselves very well to being turned into passive homes.
Deconstruction and Up-Cycling
Another aspect of green building that applies to remodeling and renovation projects is the disposal of construction waste. Many in the industry have embraced deconstruction, which refers to the process of carefully disassembling things, such as cabinets, during a renovation.
The items are recycled or donated instead of being demolished and discarded. There are upfront labor costs to consider, but homeowners or builders can receive a tax credit for their efforts.
In addition to recycling building materials, designers and homeowners are reusing or repurposing antique and vintage furniture as part of eco-friendly design. “Blending old with modern is the hot thing now, and it’s also green,” says Marusin.
Having a more efficient and eco-friendly home can also help when it comes time to sell, as green homes generally have a much shorter time on the market. “These homes sell faster and the end buyer is happy,” says Sanders. “They appreciate it the most after they have lived in the home through one summer and winter and have experienced the benefits.”
See Green Homes Firsthand
If you are interested in green building, it’s useful to look at green homes first hand, and there is an opportunity to do so this summer.
On the weekend of July 25 and 26, the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council will host its third annual Green Built Home tour, which will showcase between 10 and 20 healthy, sustainable homes at various locations throughout Chicagoland.
All homes featured on the tour have undergone third-party verification and testing and have earned certification from state and national programs.
For more information, visit www.greenbuilthometour.org.
What’s in a Label?
What do the various environmental sustainability certifications mean?
There are several “green labels” that identify homes based on their levels of environmental sustainability. In some cases, homes can earn certifications through multiple programs. The National Association of Home Builders has the NAHBGreen program (www.nahbgreen.org) that scores building and remodeling projects according to the National Green Building Standard. The U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org) certifies homes through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program, awarding point-based designations starting with Certified and moving up to Platinum.
Some government agencies also offer certifications, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program (www.energystar.gov) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program.
The Passive House Institute of the United States (www.phius.org) and the Passive House Alliance offer even more stringent certifications for energy efficiency.
The Living Building Challenge, a program of the International Living Future Institute (www.living-future.org) is the latest certification and requires a rigorous performance standard and increased documentation. The Institute also offers Net Zero Energy Building Certification.Edit Module