Published on February 23rd, 2013 | by Southeast Volusia Habitat for Humanity0
Do Green and Affordable Mix?
As a result of increased concerns about pollution, climate change and runaway energy costs, we’re hearing a lot these days about sustainable (“green”) building. According to EPA, green buildings use energy, water and other resources more efficiently; protect occupant health and reduce waste, pollution and environmental degradation. Admirable goals, but are they practical for an organization whose mission is to “Build simple, decent, affordable homes?” The answer is emphatically “yes.”
News coverage of sustainable building tends to focus on high tech, exotic solutions. But alluring technologies like solar panels and fuel cells are still too expensive and their reliability remains unproven. Fortunately, a quiet revolution is taking place outside the media spotlight. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), numerous universities and the building industry itself are doing research that is showing the way to dramatic energy savings at down-to-earth prices. SEVHFH is using their findings, which include a mix of new and existing technologies, to build homes that consume just half the energy of a comparable new home built to today’s codes (not a misprint). Compared to a ten or twenty year old home the advantage is even more dramatic.
Our conversion to green building began with a decision by the staff to participate in DOE’s Builders Challenge, a voluntary effort to construct buildings that use at least 30% less energy than an ordinary structure. Beginning in 2010, we began including these items in our new homes: Upgraded insulation and windows, vented range hoods, foil-backed roof sheaving, tankless or hybrid water heaters, heel step roof trusses (to increase attic insulation thickness), CFL light bulbs, high efficiency heating/ air conditioning units and energy-star rated appliances.
These upgrades total about $2750 per home, but produce savings of over $1000 per year for a typical family, which we think is a pretty good investment. Happily, many of these measures can be retrofitted to existing homes as well.
The key to making this work is careful planning and execution by our staff and volunteers. Even small errors in sealing duct-work or other openings will prevent a home from passing the stringent air tightness testing that is performed by independent energy auditors after construction is completed. If a house initially fails to pass, we take whatever time is necessary to find and correct the problem in order to earn the five-star energy rating we strive to achieve.
Vital as it is, there is more to sustainable building than saving energy. We also install water conserving fixtures, including dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets and shower heads. Building waste is minimized by carefully planning how lumber will be cut and setting aside the remnants for sale in our Restore. Packaging materials are also recycled to the degree possible. As much as possible, we use locally produced materials.
Green building must also ensure good indoor air quality and moisture control. These are addressed by moisture barriers, proper ventilation, venting of any combustion products and using coatings and materials that produce lower emissions.
Those exotic technologies mentioned earlier? They’ll be here in the not-too-distant future. The photovoltaic cell system described in the above article, “The Walz Home, Powered by the Sun,” was affordable only through a special limited-time arrangement with Florida Power and Light and Siemens Corp. That won’t always be the case. We’ll be keeping our eyes open and our tools sharp.