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Better for the Earth

Better for the Earth

What used to be the fringe of the industry, reserved only for the wealthy, has started to come into

What used to be the fringe of the industry, reserved only for the wealthy, has started to come into the mainstream. Helped along by new programs from the National Association of Home Builders, more builders and remodelers are offering their customers the option to build and improve environmentally friendly homes, better for Earth and for those who live in them.

And consumers are asking for green homes.

Brian McCormick, owner of McCormick Carpentry, a remodeling firm in Galway, said that a majority of customers are looking for green options. “They want to have a positive impact on the environment.”

Frank A. Barbera, general manager of Barbera Homes in Colonie, finds that while customers are asking for green, many are not entirely sure what that involves.

And Frank Laskey, president of Capital Construction in Ballston Spa, said that there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace and, subsequently, the consumer doesn’t really know what green is.

Right — from beginning

For Laskey, green building is about taking a “whole house” approach, looking at how all of the parts of the house work together and building a home right the first time. “When you build it right the first time, the house will be durable, long-lasting, low-maintenance and energy-efficient,” Laskey said.

McCormick said that a lot of the building practices that are now called “green” are just good, sound building practices, many of which his firm already employs.

There are some misconceptions about green building that builders hope to dispel. In the past, going green usually meant spending more green, something that was not affordable or desirable for most homeowners.

Barbera used to have a lot of debates on environmentalism with his father, a builder, when he was growing up. “My father said, ‘When it becomes economically viable, environmentalism will come to the forefront.’ That was 20 years ago, and he was absolutely right.”

As the world goes greener in just about every arena, exorbitant prices have given way to affordable ones that also save money in the long run. With more and more manufacturers introducing new green products in the past few years, Barbera said, green building has become far more affordable. “That’s an example of how the market has changed, just in the past few years,” he said.

Another false perception is that green homes look different, builders say.

“I think the misconception that the public has is that a green home is one of those houses with a radical design with solar panels,” said Paul Pipino of Pipino Builders in Clifton Park.

That is far from true. In fact, Barbera points out that many of the processes and technologies that go into a green home happen “behind the scenes and behind the walls.” Only the carefully schooled would be able to pick out a “green” home, he said.

3 levels of certification

Some builders in the Capital Region are going back to school to learn more about green building. This year at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla., in February, the National Association of Home Builders unveiled its new “Certified Green Professional” designation. Contractors who want to earn this certification take part in the course “Green Building for Building Professionals,” where they learn principles to incorporate in their work that will result in homes that use less energy, conserve water and are all around more eco-friendly.

In order to make green building a more appealing option to builders and their customers, the NAHB has developed three levels of green certification: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Homes earn points for various features, including site orientation, materials, types of heating and cooling systems, and landscaping, to name a few. The more points, the higher the green rating.

“There are many shades of green,” said Laskey, of Capital Construction in Ballston Spa. “Not everyone has the pocketbook to be as green as they would like, but we make compromises.”

For example, Pipino said that putting in a geothermal heating system could double or triple the cost of a home’s heating system; some less expensive alternatives still have some green value.

There are many aspects of green building that local home builders and remodelers are employing in our area. Here are some highlights.

- Site orientation and ecological conservation of the building site.

Rather than “clear cutting” a site to build a home, green building calls for building a home that “relates to its surroundings and preserves the ecological attributes of the site and the character of the site,” Laskey said. Also, the house should be oriented so that the southern side of the house has the most exposure to the sun.

- Framing materials.

Engineered trusses and floor joists minimize the use of lumber, Barbera said. Laskey frames his houses 24 inches “on center” to reduce the amount of framing materials used and allow space for more insulation, making a more efficient envelope for the home.

Builders are also making better use of oriented strand board (OSB), an engineered wood product formed by layering flakes of wood. “There are high-grade OSB’s that are even better than the plywood, in my personal opinion, especially from an insulation standpoint,” Pipino said.

- Energy and water efficient products with Energy Star ratings.

Barbera, an Energy Star-rated builder, is incorporating a host of green products such as AuroRa, a pre-programmed, wireless, radio-frequency lighting control system that provides remote control of lights around the home, as well as low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators and toilets. (Toilets with two flush buttons depending on what you used the toilet for are now available.)

Laskey offers a super-efficient boiler that senses outside temperatures and modulates its output of heat accordingly. Pipino sizes plumbing supply lines to the fixtures they’re servicing in order to reduce the amount of materials used. “You can use 3⁄8 or 1⁄2 inch for a sink; you don’t need 3⁄4,” he said.

- Materials.

Green materials are made from renewable or recycled sources whenever possible. For example, exterior trim boards in Laskey’s homes are made from recycled saw dust, and windows have aluminum cladding made from recycled products.

Bamboo wood flooring is a hot new product. “It takes 60 to 100 years before a cherry tree can be used,” Pipino said. Bamboo, on the other hand, grows quickly and is considered a renewable resource. Barbera offers cork flooring, a sustainable product made from the post industrial by-product of the bottle-stopper industry, and a vinyl siding containing up to 80 percent recycled material.

As the green revolution explodes, manufacturers are responding by bringing a slew of new green products to the marketplace, and builders are looking for them.

- Landscaping.

Using plants that are native to the area so that less water is needed is another green building principle. Also, planting trees strategically so that they cool a home in the warmer months, thus reducing the need for air conditioning is another method to employ.

- Using healthy materials.

“We build with materials that are low in or free of VOC’s [volatile organic chemicals],” Laskey said. For example, plywood made with glues with a high formaldehyde content that will outgas is not a green or healthy product. Oriented strand board would be a better alternative.

- Looking at the life cycle of materials.

Using local products or products that do not have to be shipped long distances is a green practice. New in the green-building realm is examining the life cycle of a product — for example, what is required to bring it to the market, and if those practices are green.

For example, Barbera uses a Sherwin Williams paint that is not only made with sustainable raw materials such as soy and sunflower oil and emits less vapor than traditional paint products, but the manufacturing process uses less waste and distribution is streamlined to help conserve fuel, energy, and other natural resources.

Trying to do more

Not only are some builders and remodelers looking to build green homes and make green home improvements, they are looking for ways to bring these products to their customers. Barbera is working on packages for bronze, silver and gold certifications and other promotions on green products for customers.

He is also working with building engineer Stan Grajny, PE, who is certified by the NAHB as a green building “verifier,” to certify his homes as green, and is planning to certify many of the homes in his new project, Parkside at the Crossings in Colonie, a 55-plus community. Laskey, who is certified by the American Lung Association as a “healthy home builder,” is building Louden Ridge, which will be the only healthy home community in the Northeast and one of just five in the United States.

For those who aren’t building new, there are green options in remodeling, which contractors like McCormick are offering to customers.

“Eventually, it’s going to be common practice for houses to be green-built,” Pipino said. “The codes are even going that way.”

Looking at the long-term picture, going green is going to save money, too, as well as benefiting the earth. “I think whether or not you think that man is causing the global warming, I think it’s just good building practices, and, long-term, it is cost savings to the homeowner,” McCormick said.

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