GREEN: 10 often capitalized: relating to or being an environmentalist political movement b: concerned with or supporting environmentalism c: tending to preserve environmental quality (as by being recyclable, biodegradable, or nonpolluting) Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
“Green” is the buzzword these days in regards to just about everything: cars, cleaning products, food, and, especially in my world, houses. In all realms, there is certainly a lot of “green washing,” meaning claims of eco-friendliness that are purely marketing ploys for products that are not in any significant way environmentally kind. Even with homes, it is not always easy to determine “greenness,” and that very term or the concept of “eco-friendly” can mean different things to different people.
I have found two kinds of environmentally conscious home buyers. First, there are the folks who are concerned with making as small an impact on the planet as possible with their home. These people prefer homes that have used sustainable products (bamboo floors are a common example, as bamboo is a fast-growing renewable crop) and recycled products. Along with sustainability goes making a small “footprint.” Less square footage is better; building up rather than out is preferred. Also, there is a definite preference for native plant landscaping which reduces the need for watering and fertilizing.
The second group of eco-friendly home buyer is primarily concerned with health issues. These folks often have serious sensitivity to chemicals, toxins, and off-gassing. They are looking for homes created with no VOC (volatile organic compound) products (paint is a good example, or certain glues and formaldehydes) or homes that have aged long enough to have completely “off-gassed.” This group also includes people who must avoid homes with mold, pest treatments, carpets, vinyl, etc.
Clearly, these two groups of people over-lap, but generally one concern over-rides the other (lack of allergens versa sustainable products). For example, a client recently pointed out that a home which is “eco-friendly” because it used recycled products can still off-gas the chemicals from the recycled product that make her sick! I am all for sustainability, but I would have to go with a home with the least mold potential possible (kryptonite to me).
So, then, how do we define an eco-friendly home? I think there are many aspects of a home that can make it “friendly.” The state of North Carolina has established a certification program for new homes called the Healthy Built program. A home with this certification falls into one of three categories (silver, gold, and platinum) by meeting strict criteria. (See http://www.HealthyBuiltHomes.org ). The Healthy Built certification covers energy efficiency, non-toxicity, and sustainability. Another certification is the Energy Star, used for appliances for years, this now applies to homes also. Energy Star is primarily concerned with reducing energy usage through highly efficient appliances and heating and cooling systems (HVAC) and insulation.
No doubt more certification programs and designs are forthcoming to help us define an environmentally friendly home. However, I maintain that there are many things that can make a house “eco,” and no one design can capture everything. Like most movements, the “green” movement is, and needs to be, one where everyone does what he or she can do to ease our impact on the planet and create healthy living spaces. For some people, like me, that means living in an “old” home. My last home was built in 1929. The footprint is already there; the impact on the earth already made. The original materials in the home have long-since off-gassed, and any new materials I put in to update can be sustainable and eco-friendly. This home is also in one of the oldest parts of Asheville, so it is close to town and walking away to all kinds of groceries, drug stores, restaurants, and “walking” neighborhoods, so lessening my dependence on my car. I think an older home is a terrific way of truly recycling and reusing! For others, building a dream-home need not be an endavor that is detrimental to the earth. By using earth-friendly materials, making a small footprint (up verses out), and landscaping with native plants, a new home can be a great a positive addition to life on the planet.
Finances dictate what most of us can do to be environmentally friendly. An old home can be made efficient and non-toxic, but it takes patience and revenue. I worked on my home in stages, starting with sealing the building envelope, reducing toxicity, and installing the highest efficiency heating system possible. Many areas, like Asheville, are lucky to have local professionals that can assess a home and create a plan for making it efficient and “green.”
But I must express one note of caution: some builders have jumped on the “green” bandwagon without the experience necessary to create a safe and sustainable home. When a home is tightly sealed, precautions must be taken to assure adequate ventilation and air exchange. And just because a home is newly constructed does not mean that it is perfect. Always have a home inspection by a licensed professional, and do not hesitate to call in specialists to evaluate any home you are considering buying.
In the end, a green or eco-friendly home may be what you can afford and modify right now, with an eye on future improvements. The important thing is that we all do everything we can to create sustainable and healthy homes.