Local professionals answer our green construction questions
By Amelia Compton Wolff
From sustainable building materials and efficient home design to alternative energy and water conservation, going green when building a home can be overwhelming. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions regarding eco-friendly residential construction.
What makes a “green” home?
“In construction, it’s not arbitrary to have a green home,” says Cindy MacSwain, owner of Vanney-MacSwain Home Planning in Appleton and a Certified Green Professional. MacSwain explains that LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified homes are rated on a system that quantifies the benefits of green homes. Some of these benefits include reduced utility expenses, improved indoor air quality as well as increased comfort, durability and safety. The LEED rating system measures a home’s performance in eight categories including aspects such as site selection, water and energy efficiency and materials and resources. Wisconsin also has the Green Built Home program, a nationally recognized green building initiative that certifies new homes and renovation projects that meet sustainable building and energy standards. Each item on the checklist of requirements is given a point value and homes must meet the minimum number of points to receive certification.
Will using green products and practices increase my home’s maintenance requirements?
Some of them will. In general, however, green products are better made and green practices are more sustainable in the long run, MacSwain says. One of the most destructive elements to a home is water. “A lot of products that make a house more sustainable over time hold out water and those will actually reduce your maintenance,” says MacSwain, who points to flashing as an example. Flashing refers to materials used to seal seams where building materials in the home meet. This is also where water has the potential to enter your home and cause damage. “If you use higher end flashing and proper flashing you’re not going to have leaks.” Foundation drains, water spouts on gutters and flashing around windows and doors can help reduce these leaks and moisture intrusion.
What can I do to conserve and manage water more effectively in my new home?
The United States government has set environmental standards in new construction projects, say Cal Watters, owner of Watters Plumbing in Menasha. For example, U.S. law mandates that new toilets sold in the United States be low-flow, consuming no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Next year, that maximum is proposed to change to 1.28 gallons per flush. However, there are still choices homeowners can make to help save even more water and energy. Considering dual flush toilets, which use less water to flush liquid waste, is one way to conserve water. Watters urges homeowners to choose the most energy-efficient, properly-sized water heater they can afford, because that is where a lot of energy is used. Dave Ebben, residential director at Watters Plumbing, recommends installing a hot water recirculating pump with a timer which will deliver hot water to your faucet exactly when you need it (say when you’re getting ready for work in the morning) rather than running all day, significantly reducing water waste. “You can run three to four gallons down the drain just waiting for the water to heat up to do dishes,” Ebben says. “The big thing with recirculating pumps is you don’t have to.” Depending on the size of the home, a recirculating pump may cost anywhere from $600-$1,000.
What should I consider when shopping for eco-friendly interior paints?
Dave Welk, sales representative for Sherwin-Williams in Appleton, says to look for products with low- or zero-VOCs (volatile organic compound). VOCs are released vapors which can compromise indoor air quality. Sherwin-Williams products designated with the GreenSure label meet LEED-certified building criteria as determined by the U.S. Green Building Council, Welk says. Natura Waterborne Interior Paint by Benjamin Moore and Behr Premium Plus Enamel Low Luster offer zero-VOC versions as well. Welk also points out that some products work double-duty by actually improving air quality. “Harmony Interior Acrylic Latex Paint [Sherwin-Williams] has zero-VOCs and odor eliminating technology. This coating helps to absorb any onsite VOCs that may be omitted by carpets or cabinets,” Welk says. A word of caution: make sure your eco-friendly paint base stays that way by using zero-VOC colorants in the tinting process. “A lot of people don’t think about that, but many colorants will add VOCs to the paint,” Welk says. “The ColorCast Ecotoner from Sherwin-Williams utilizes new technology so the paint stays VOC-free.”
At what stage of my project should I be considering green practices and materials to enhance energy use?
Making an effort to maximize your home’s energy use is a decision best made before any ground is broken — or even before choosing a building site. “If you start with the site, you can use the planning of the home itself to actually enhance its energy use,” MacSwain says. By designing the home with south-facing living space, homeowners can gain natural heat and light from the sun. Heat-producing spaces like kitchens and bathrooms are better served to the north. Another advantage of choosing green from the get-go is that some of the most effective energy enhancing elements are difficult to add down the road. For example, choosing superior insulation with a high r-value (its measurement of thermal resistance) is something that’s hard to go back and do later, explains Ed Schmidt, president of Schmidt Bros. Custom Homes in Appleton. “Tearing out carpet and putting in reclaimed hardwood floors is something you can do 15 years from now,” he says. “You’re probably not going to add insulation to the outside of your house in 15 years.”
I’m considering concrete countertops in my new home. Are they as green an option as I’ve read?
Concrete is a popular material for countertops for many reasons — it’s durable, customizable, affordable and, yes, it can be eco-friendly. Consumers need to be aware of what the concrete is made of to ensure that the components, including dyes and sealants, are non-toxic. Dale Laurin, owner of Natural Encounters in Appleton, says the concrete countertops he creates are all natural, use recycled products and coloring that is 100 percent natural, fine-granule iron oxide. Most recently, Laurin developed an even greener option by creating an eco-friendly concrete product, Remix (patent pending). “It uses the same natural coloring and product, but eliminates stone and replaces it with recycled porcelain from Habitat for Humanity,” he says. “It takes our product from 15 to 33 percent post-consumer recycled product which is LEED qualifying.” Using recycled porcelain instead of stone also makes Laurin’s countertops 30 percent lighter in weight, resulting in easier installation.