Green Building FAQ: What Do I Need to Know?

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As fuel and energy costs continue to increase and the United States aims to lessen its dependence on foreign oil, green buildings have begun to sprout in a number of locations across the country. For those in the construction industry, building owners, or others looking to save money and have an energy efficient space, investing in green practices can be beneficial environmentally and financially.

What is a Green Building and How Common are They?

Shel Horowitz, green business and marketing consultant and lead author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, said green buildings are designed and constructed to use the least amount of resources, such as building materials and energy, and create the least amount of waste. Green buildings can be completely new or renovated.

“They are often site-specific rather than cookie-cutter, and typically take conscious involvement on the part of their occupants to maintain the greenness,” he said.

Stan Samuel, Director of Sustainable Construction for the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities, or SERF, said although the prevalence of green buildings has shown significant growth over the past decade, they still constitute less than 1 percent of all buildings. However, the percentage is expected to rise significantly in the near future.

Should I Renovate an Old Building, or Start New?

Myrrh Caplan, National Program Manager at Green Construction at Skanska USA, said although renovating an old building may be considered the greenest choice, the variety of existing building types makes it difficult to pinpoint a general greenest construction method.

Instead, the steps involved to remodel a preexisting building must be taken into consideration to determine the best method, she said. One characteristic that makes a big difference is the design of the building envelope, which protects everything inside a building.

“If it is not designed and built appropriately, it allows for inefficiencies in areas such as poor conditioning, intrusion, protection, and solar reflectance,” she said. “The most efficient heating and cooling system in the world would lose its value if the envelope that was intended to support it allowed excess heat or cold air flow.”

Caplan said if new interior and system efficiencies are not be supported by the old building’s envelope or there are potential contaminants in an existing building structure, it is better to start new.

green building

Is it all Worth It?

Samuel said the two approaches to being energy efficient are improving the energy performance of a structure itself and installing renewable resources that produce energy. Increasing energy performance is less expensive and can provide paybacks in 2 to 5 years while renewable energy payback periods can be as long as 18 to 20 years.

Horowitz said an example of a popular renovated green building is the Empire State Building. Following an extensive green retrofit, the building is saving $4.4 million annually. His own farmhouse, built in 1743, has since been renovated and turned into a green structure.

He said he put in a $7,000 hot water system that was half subsidized, and he saw his electric bill drop by about $100 to $150 per month. Even with the minimal savings, it will take just 3 years to recoup the costs.

Horowitz said one easy change is insulating outlets and switch plates on exterior walls with foam pads and baby-safety outlet protectors. Doing so is extremely inexpensive and effective at keeping heated or cooled air inside.

Likewise, Caplan said there are green options for large and small budgets. Choices depend on the owner’s wants and needs. To witness energy savings in real time and ensure efficiency, owners can track energy usage through Building Automation Systems or sub metering systems.

Is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification Necessary?

Samuel said in his experience, the LEED certification process is expensive and there are other alternatives, such as SERF, with a lower cost. Regardless, green building certification is beneficial to building owners.

“By providing an independent, third party evaluation, a green building certification adds credibility to the owner’s claim of sustainable design, construction and operation,” he said. “It also adds to the market value of the property.”

Caplan said there are tax incentives for LEED certification in some locations, but it depends on the strategic goals of the area. As an example, some cities provide incentives for solar array installation.

What is the Future of Green Buildings?

When looking at the International Green Construction Code, the upcoming changes to LEED, and the proposed green building laws that many cities are adopting, more efficient buildings and infrastructures will continue to be seen, Caplan said.

She said most publicly-funded and government buildings now require LEED certification, and a number of new green buildings are federally funded under the American Recovery and Investment Act. Some jurisdictions are either receiving green building certification from Energy Star and Green Globes, or using a green structure as a guideline.

Ultimately, green buildings have the potential to educate and change the minds of community members, making them much more than just structures with a plaque on the wall, Caplan said.

“Rather, they often start neighborhood trends,” she said. “The buildings act as community members, and in that role, each building is responsible to its neighbors and to the continuing viability of all.”

About the Author: Alyssa Zandi is a DIY enthusiast from Michigan and a contributing writer for PM Environmental. Follow her on Twitter @alyssazandi. Green building image from BigStock.

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