Natural Life Magazine

Building or Buying Your Sustainable Home:
Beyond Green Building Certification Programs
by Rolf Priesnitz

For the past while, I’ve been writing about the various and, it seems, ever-increasing number of residential green building standards that have sprung up across North America and Europe. Here are a couple of different paths to sustainable housing.

Energy Performance Score

Understanding the different green building certification programs can be bewildering, and the standards often measure different things. But beyond that, a house is only as green as its final performance, which depends on many things like the occupants’ operation of the systems in the home, the maintenance of the home and its systems, and the lifestyle of the people living in the home. Homeowners, builders, financial institutions and realtors alike need a simple way to quantify a specific home’s energy usage, green gas emissions and costs... and to compare that with other homes.

To solve this problem, the Portland, Oregon-based Earth Advantage Institute (which has its own Earth Advantage green building certification program) has created the Energy Performance Score (EPS), which is like a miles-per-gallon rating for buildings.

The performance rating tool, which covers both existing and new homes, was developed for the Energy Trust of Oregon and is currently in use on a voluntary basis for new homes in Oregon and for existing homes in a Seattle pilot program. It also has attracted national interest.

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PassivHaus Movement

The City of Chicago, City of Houston, Clinton Climate Initiative, U.S. Department of Energy, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are all assessing the final recommendations from a pilot report issued last summer.

The pilot program report details the best protocol, audit procedures, software modeling tools, price points, and consumer messaging for wide scale deployment of the EPS performance metric. The report also outlines the training curriculum that is needed for auditors, the trade contractor network, agencies, cities, and state energy offices.

The process involves an audit that includes lifestyle input from the home’s occupants. The resulting score uses computer modeling that considers factors such as the house’s size, its construction type, insulation and other factors, along with how many bedrooms/bathrooms it has, the type of appliances in the home, and average human behaviors, such as the fact that average U.S. adult takes 5.3 showers a week. The end result is a score estimating how many kilowatt-hours of energy it would take to fuel the house for a year. And for those concerned about their carbon footprint, the score also estimates how many pounds of carbon are released in a year to generate the power fueling the home.

In addition to reflecting the energy and carbon impact for a home, the EPS allows for home-to-home comparison. It can either be integrated with the US Environmental Protection Agency-backed Energy Star program or other regional programs, or can operate as a stand-alone audit program.

Its three components allows people to compare their homes’ EPS scores to those of other homes, learn how to take measures to improve their scores, and use the improved performance as a selling point. In fact, the Earth Advantage Institute will partner to link EPS scores to local multiple listing service (MLS) databases and train real estate industry professionals like brokers and appraisers.

One of the things I like about the EPS is that it takes into account the fact that smaller homes usually use less energy, even in the absence of efficiency upgrades – and that advantage is reflected in the score.

Greening Building Codes

One of the ways to make green building mainstream is by revising building codes to include mandatory green building requirements. There appears to be a growing trend toward mandatory green building requirements among governments that previously implemented incentive programs, and also toward requirements for privately-owned and residential buildings where previously there had been only requirements for publicly-owned or commercial buildings.

In Canada, provinces like B.C. and Ontario are greening their provincial building codes, often beginning with reducing buildings’ energy and water use. And Vancouver has a leading-edge set of city-specific building bylaws, which have led to a more than twenty percent reduction in the carbon footprint of the city’s buildings since 2006.

In the U.S., a cooperative project among a variety of organizations has just resulted in the International Code Council introducing the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), a model code focused on new and existing commercial buildings addressing green building design and performance. The IGCC original Cooperating Sponsors are the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the ASTM International standards organization, in collaboration with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and the Illuminating Engineers Society (IES).

The IGCC is considered to be a significant development in the building industry and should accelerate the proliferation of green building codes, not only in the U.S., but around the world. It is designed as an overlay with existing codes and includes water use efficiency, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, materials and resource use, and the building’s impact on its site and its community. Written by experts representing all areas of the building industry, it was developed in a little over three years, and underwent four public re- views, in which some 2,500 comments were received.

Both the EPS and IGCC are welcome tools for greening the building industry.

Rolf Priesnitz is the founder and Publisher of Natural Life Magazine, and has over 40 years experience in the construction industry. This article was published in 2010.


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