Green architectural designs that pay off

Homeowners are always looking for new ways to reduce their carbon footprints, and there are choices they can make to achieve their goals in almost every room. Energy-saving appliances in the kitchen and laundry room can reduce both power and water consumption; the same is true in the bath, or when deciding on the water heater, low-flow fixtures, and other system components to make it greener.

While many households use programmable thermostats or LED lighting, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. One Iowa environmental advocacy group found that if everyone in the state switched over to LED light bulbs, the impact would be the equivalent of taking one-third of Iowa’s cars off the road for a year – an impact most people don’t think possible when considering small individual steps.

Those decisions add up, but only when people are intentional about the choices. For example, a July 2017 study from the U.S. Energy Information Administration looked at how people use their air conditioning. While 87 percent of people surveyed said they use air conditioning and two-thirds said they had central air systems in their homes, only 41 percent had a programmable thermostat – and that difference wasn’t the real energy-efficiency problem. The problem is that only 12 percent actually use it.

It’s one way of illustrating the need to make conscious choices, because nearly half (45 percent) of the central-air users said they leave it set to the same temperature all the time. Only 3 percent of people said they had a “smart” thermostat that learns a household-pattern profile and uses it without help.

One area where homeowners are less likely to be confronted with too many energy-efficiency tasks and choices is in today’s new construction, because optimal systems already are designed into the house. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system – the most widely used green building system in the world – uses a point system for features and systems integrated into new construction that shows how sustainability is built into the structure beyond what people may even see.

The architectural plans may include improved air flow by carefully choosing the orientation of the home, or reduced solar heat gain through selection of the roofing materials and exterior surfaces or screening. These aren’t objects that a potential buyer “sees” in the same way they’re attracted to solar panels, new kitchen appliances, or the views from the back deck, so they don’t always get the public’s full attention.

But they’re big business, with some $224.4 billion in green construction projected for 2018 by the U.S. Green Building Council. It’s not just money that they’re saving with the investments. From 2015-2018, the green construction market in the U.S. was predicted to generate $2.4 billion in energy savings, $99.2 million in trash savings, $256.5 million in water and $1.5 billion in maintenance savings.

“What’s driving demand is that clients looking to new construction now expect the kind of systems and features that make these sustainability goals possible,” said Brian Toolan, CEO of The Plan Collection, an online platform showcasing more than 22,000 housing plans. “They’re not considered nice-to-have anymore, or appropriate for the rare niche market. Buyers know that, and every builder knows it too.”

Different climates and locations need different approaches, but their customers and communities are working toward the same goal. In the plentiful sunshine of Flagstaff, Arizona, all of the 240 homes in a new subdivision built by Capstone Builders are wired to be “net zero ready,” meaning they have the capacity to support solar panels from day one. The U.S. Department of Energy certifies the status.

But at 1,380 square feet, even the smallest model in the Arizona community and its features aren’t perfect for a revitalization neighborhood geared toward smaller homes and urban lifestyles. In Detroit, for example, a newly proposed “smart neighborhood” is envisioned with a former school – vacant for two decades now – at its hub, with single- and multi-family homes transforming the property and its environs. The LEED-certified community would have its own power micro-grid, farmer’s market, recycling and waste systems, and other features to make it a net-zero haven for people choosing the intentional life. That’s a common trend as young families and buyers reflect their environment-first priorities, and it’s most often attracting them to reimagined cities for the walkability, green space, and mixed-use retail.

“So this demand for eco-friendly solutions expresses itself in different places and at various points in people’s life cycles,” Toolan said. “The trend isn’t just among millennials, although their maturity and buying power puts them at the ready for sustainably built real estate purchases. We’re seeing this across the boards, and especially among the newly retired who want a high-quality, earth-friendly lifestyle.”

Green construction may also mean a big economic boost, and not just because of green jobs in growing communities like those in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. A new study there finds energy-efficient homes selling for 7 percent more per square foot, which is great news for builders and sellers – and puts a little more green in their pockets too.

Image: The Plan Collection

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