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Dallas Area Residential Green Building Program Unveiled

by Beth Johnson

Homes use more energy and produce greater greenhouse gases than vehicles. Even in the 21st Century, most homes are still built and operated in ways that cause high utility bills and unhealthy air pollution both outdoors from power plants and indoors from poor ventilation and unhealthy construction materials. Inefficient design and building practices waste forests and other resources and fill sprawling landfills. Wasteful plumbing, and using half our treated water on our yards, promote man-made water supply reservoirs that destroy our natural heritage and river-bottom habitat. Homes built poorly or with non-durable materials waste maintenance money and time and shorten homes' useful life.

Fortunately, just as consumers have information to make informed decisions on how they buy and operate vehicles, homeowners are beginning to have resources to help them choose and operate homes to soften their impact on people, planet, and pocketbook.

The latest local example is that on April 20, the Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas unveiled to its members the Base Program Elements of their Green Building Program. "Green Building" is a systems approach to constructing higher-performance, lower-impact homes. Dozens of area builders quickly expressed interest in the Base Level Program, and I expect more as consumers discover and demand green-built homes.

There is no universal definition, but green built homes strive to be built better in several ways:

  • energy efficient with lower utility bills and less air pollution
  • healthier, safer indoor air quality
  • comfortable and quiet
  • lower maintenance and more durable
  • water efficient, resource efficient
  • improved resale value.

One builder on the Green Building Program Development Committee said, "Ten years from now, what we call green building today will simply be called building." This market transformation is arriving not a moment too soon, since Texans annually build more than 150,000 (consuming, polluting) single family homes, not to mention additional multi-family residences. If green building goes mainstream, there is a great opportunity to significantly reduce our energy usage, since experts say half the U.S. homes standing in 2030 will have been built since 2000.

Among the Base Level Program's main categories, associated elements, and underlying rationales appropriate for this climate are:

  • Site Management - tree protection, jobsite and construction waste recycling
  • Water Efficiency - drought-tolerant landscaping and turf; hot water on demand system or water heater within 30 ft. of fixtures [to reduce water waste by using technologies that provide hot water at the tap with minimal wait time]
  • Indoor Air Quality - right-sized [NOT oversized!] air conditioning system [for more energy efficient operation, lower installation cost, more effective dehumidification and pest control, and better air filtration]; no vapor barrier [such as vinyl wallpaper] on inside of exterior walls [so that moisture in wall interior can dry and avoid mold]; continuous drainage plane on exterior walls behind cladding material and proper flashing at windows and doors [to protect building envelope from water intrusion and potential structural damage, pest problems, mold]; avoid attached garage or isolate garage from living space with appropriate sealing techniques [to prevent car exhaust and other fumes from entering living space]
  • Energy Efficiency - Energy Star Certified; minimized sun on east-west windows; Energy Star appliances; radiant barrier, light-colored or insulated roof deck
  • Materials [Efficiency] - engineered lumber products including trusses and finger-jointed dimensional lumber; minimum 25-year warranty exterior cladding; gutter extensions and positive drainage away from house [to protect foundation and cladding]; advanced framing techniques [that reduce amount of materials used while maintaining structural integrity, saving 3-5% of framing cost and lowering energy cost 2-5% per year by replacing excess wood with more insulation]
  • Homeowner Education - operations and maintenance kit; information on recycling, green energy service providers, and Energy Star.

For the full list of Base Program Elements, please see the Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas brochure.

The Home Builders Association plans to provide green building education and marketing for builders and to develop one or more upper program tiers.

You might assume that ALL homes are built with the above common-sense elements, but you'd be very wrong. And price is not an indicator of green-built quality. If you're considering a builder who doesn't know or practice the above elements, I suggest that you find one who does. In this climate, I also suggest that you insist that your builder adopt at least the following common-sense, cost-effective measures in addition to the Base Level ones above:

  • Design the building envelope (air barrier and insulation) and air conditioning/heating system so that all ducts and air handling equipment are in the conditioned space (so your central AC system is not guzzling energy trying to make ice cream in a 140-degree solar-oven attic in August!).
  • Keep plumbing out of exterior walls where pipes can freeze, break, leak, and cause water damage and mold.
  • Design at least a 2-ft. roof overhang or vegetation shading to minimize unwanted heat gain from sun on windows from May-Sept.

Among more than 50 other local and national residential green building programs hastening market transformation:

  • Austin's 1991 Green Building Program was the world's first, and it still has the largest staff. About a dozen professionals transform the market through consumer marketing and education, builder education, and outreach in Texas and nationwide.
  • In 2001, the Metroplex's own fast-growing Frisco became the first city to mandate that every home be built using the energy-efficiency construction measures required under the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. The ordinance also requires water conservation and indoor air quality measures and construction waste recycling. Frisco's city council felt that high-performance, quality housing would keep real estate and community values high as housing stock matures.
  • In late 2004, the National Association of Home Builders produced guidelines to help mainstream home builders voluntarily incorporate environmental considerations into every phase of the home building process.
  • Energy and Environmental Building Association is a 25-year-old national organization providing best-practices education to transform the homebuilding industry. Their climate-specific builders' books and courses are based on the Dept. of Energy's Building America research program that uses a systems engineering approach to reduce energy use, utility bills, construction time, and construction waste.
  • The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has inspired and guided thousands of cutting-edge-green commercial buildings since 1998. A LEED for Homes pilot program will be finalized in early 2007. LEED's hallmark is independent third-party verification of construction elements. LEED for Homes recognizes new homes performing in the top 25% in resource efficiency and environmental stewardship. "Heather's Home" near Weatherford, TX--built by Ft. Worth-based Ferrier Custom Homes and designed by Dallas-based architect Gary Olp--participated in the pilot program and is expected to be the nation's first home to achieve LEED-H's highest rating- "platinum."