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Benefits Of Green Housing And Sustainable Development Environmental Sciences Essay

The economic and environmental benefits of green housing have been documented and buyer interest confirmed. Evidence supported by efforts made across the United States indicates sustainable housing is an achievable, financially feasible goal and should be a viable option versus conventional building. But, does the public and public policy support this trend?

“Green” has become the current mantra in advertising and the media. Despite growing public awareness, there is still confusion and skepticism regarding how it relates to the built world. Greg Kats states, “…in a 2007 national survey of 1,000 homeowners, almost 75% said that they believed their homes had no adverse environmental impact.” (1) and, the environment was a priority for a mere 6%. (83) In The Green Building Revolution, Jerry Yudelson defines a green building as:

…a high-performance property that considers and reduces its impact on the environment and human health. A green building is designed to use less energy

and water and to reduce the life-cycle environmental impacts of the materials used. This is achieved through better siting, design, material selection, construction, operation, maintenance, removal, and possible reuse. (13)

Green building necessitates a holistic methodology that incorporates the principles of energy conservation, consideration of climate, minimal use of new resources and regard for end-of-life reuse or upcycling, respect for the workers and users, and a building that is sited such that it will, quoting an Aboriginal saying, “…touch-this-earth-lightly.” (Vale 262-266)

On a green building project all stakeholders, including developer, consumer, architect, contractor, landscape designer, mechanical / structural engineer, attorney, financial institution, and sustainability consultant, need to work as a team from pre-planning through building completion and education of the homeowner. The advantageous team approach allows for a consensus on goals and resolution of issues, and establishes a clear, critical path to insure all environmental, energy, health and economic aspects are addressed and integrated as a whole. (Stanley and Shoemake 263-265) For green building to become the standard it must start with the end in mind.

Despite real estate overall being decimated by the economic downturn of the past several years, green building remains resilient due to the economic, environmental and health benefits it offers. Energy and water efficiency, less pollution and waste, and greenhouse gas reduction benefit the planet in the larger realm. Renewable energy, i.e., solar, wind or geothermal, is used in green building at a rate of “30 times more than conventional”. (Kats, Braman and James, Intro XIX) More jobs are created by green building versus conventional due to additional work required for such things as added insulation and caulking and higher technical skills are necessary for installing green roofs, solar energy or tankless water heaters. The added green building expense can typically be offset over an average six year time period by the savings realized from just decreased energy costs. Additionally, a rise in energy costs of 5% or 8% per year over 20 years would result in savings of two or three times the average green building cost. “Over 20 years, the financial payback commonly exceeds the additional cost of greening by a factor of between four and six.” (Kats, Braman and James, Intro XVII-XIX) Furthermore, energy efficient homes are a windfall for low-income families as evidenced in two green affordable homes communities in Oregon that had 37% and 73% lower energy costs compared to conventional housing. (Kats, Braman and James 42) Overall, although additional green home construction costs are incurred immediately the benefits are long-term and measurable.

Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) deficiencies that exacerbate both mental and physical health conditions can be remediated by greening the home. For example, residents in Seattle’s green community of High Point HOPE VI confirm asthmatic children living in homes built specifically to address IEQ by employing such strategies as positive-pressure ventilation, moisture reduction to eliminate mold, insulated foundations, low-VOC paints and adhesives, and green cleaning agents have measurable improvements in their health, i.e., 12.4 symptom free days versus 7.6 in a 14 day period in their improved environment and 21 versus 60 emergency room visits per year. Improved health from higher IEQ reduces overall healthcare costs, school absenteeism and loss of work and wages. (Kats, Braman and James 41-43)

Surveyed homebuyers in 2005 stated they would pay a mortgage payment of $100 more for a green home. In one 2007 survey buyers indicated they would pay more for a home if it was energy efficient (75%), more healthful (50%), environmentally friendly (46%) and, with an assumed eventual payback, a 5.9% green premium was acceptable. (Kats, Braman and James 78-83) A National Association of Home Builders’ 2007 survey revealed even greater motivation to buy green: energy savings (90%), higher performance (85%), cash incentives (80%) rising energy costs (69%), third-party certification (52%), environmental concerns (84%) health (81%) and higher value home (73%). (Yudelson 131-133)

In the depressed economy of 2009 70% of buyers said they were interested in a sustainable home, with the possible belief that maintenance and energy costs would be less. Paradoxically, in this economy a green home was viewed as being more difficult to sell by 29% of realtors and easier to sell by 40%. (Kats, Braman and James 78-83) This disparity within the real estate industry regarding the green advantage is highlighted by the fact that in 2006 12% of single-family home sales, or 174,000 units, earned a green certification by Energy Star. (Yudelson 61-62) Green homes are more risk averse with respect to the obsolescence factor, rising energy costs and the possibility of legislation mandating green housing. Clearly a consensus on the benefits of sustainable homes has not yet been reached. However, “Look for green principles to become synonymous in the real estate industry with solid, cost-efficient operating principles”…and for “green practices and certification …to become the construction industry standard”. (Kats, Braman and James 80-81)

There are numerous green building certifications and standards with the most widely known and respected being the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) ICC700-2008 National Green Building Standard, American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. All are independent, third-party entities with rating systems and prescribed methodologies used to apply for, document, verify and obtain certification of a home’s performance. However, it’s important to note that each system has its own criteria and none are all encompassing.

The USGBC instituted the LEED Green Building Rating System in 2000 to establish evaluation criteria, define the components of and the approach to use for creating green commercial buildings. (Yudelson 3) The system has evolved to include the LEED Home Certification V.8 (LEED-H) which states

A LEED-certified home is designed and constructed in accordance with the rigorous guidelines of the LEED for Homes green building certification program. LEED for Homes is a consensus-developed, third party-verified, voluntary rating system which promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes.

Energy usage as the sole focus of evaluation systems changed with the implementation of the LEED “eco-label”. The LEED-H Rating System is comprised of eight categories: Innovation & Design Process; Location & Linkages; Sustainable Sites; Water Efficiency; Energy & Atmosphere; Materials & Resources; Indoor Environmental Quality; and Awareness & Education which are used to determine an achieved certification level of Certified, Silver, Gold or, the highest, Platinum. Credits are earned by meeting specific performance standards and criteria in the above-referenced categories as it pertains to energy conservation and lessened impacts on the environment. Although the system is voluntary, the attention garnered by LEED certified homes is gaining momentum and pushing the housing industry to meet these higher standards. (United States Green Building Council; Yudelson 15, 125-126)

The NAHB’s ICC700-2008 National Green Building Standard was the first ANSI (American National Standards Institute) approved green residential rating system which also employs rankings - Bronze, Silver, Gold and Emerald certifications that signify from entry level to a minimum of 60% energy savings – covering seven energy efficiency principles. Because ANSI administers the U.S. standard-writing program and continuing updates, their consensus standards are more highly regarded than private third-party ratings “particularly when tax credits and other government incentive programs refer to green rating systems. (NAHB) Consumers wanting to verify the Green Building Standard certification should look for the prominent display of the Research Center Green Certified Mark as confirmation. (NAHB; Yudelson 124)

Energy Star is a voluntary, government backed labeling program used to identify and promote energy efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Currently over 60 merchandise categories carry the Energy Star label on products. Energy Star also has an assessment tool used to certify new homes, commercial, and industrial buildings. (United States EPA)

The Energy Star program targets lowering residential energy use of HVAC and water heaters by 15% below a baseline set in 2004. Additional features include higher rated insulation, tighter construction and duct systems, energy efficient windows, and Energy Star rated products such as lighting and appliances, all of which, according to the EPA, can make an Energy Star home 20 – 30% more efficient and, on average, $200 - $400 annual energy savings compared to a conventional home. The 106,660 Energy Star qualified homes built in 2009 are equal to:

Eliminating emissions from 52,263 vehicles, Saving 316,140240 lbs of coal,

Planting 86,395 acres of trees, Saving the environment 620,014,580 lbs of CO2

(United States EPA)

To-date, 1,143,089 homes nationwide and 1,466 homes in Missouri have qualified for the confidence inspiring Energy Star certification. (United States EPA; Yudelson 59, 124)

Total United States greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all buildings is estimated to be 40% (Stanley and Shoemake 274) while an estimated 16% of emissions are from household energy use. (United State EPA) Clearly there needs to be a paradigm shift in the public’s thinking toward environmental effects of buildings on the health of the planet and pressure needs to be exerted on all levels of government to proactively implement public policy, building codes, incentives and initiatives that support viable changes in the types and amounts of energy used in the built world.

One such effort is the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to address climate change, which on February 16, 2005 became law for 141 countries, but the United States was not one of them. To counteract the United States’ refusal to sign, Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels started an “initiative to advance the goals of the Kyoto Protocol through leadership and action by at least 141 American cities.” This initiative led to the 2005 U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement which, as of December 9, 2010, has been signed by 1,044 mayors. (The U.S. Conference of Mayors)

The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement urges federal and state governments to enact policies to reduce global warming, urges a joint Congress to pass legislation with timetables, emissions limits and a carbon trading system and approved meeting or exceeding the Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking local action to:

…Make energy efficiency a priority through building code improvements…(and)…

Practice and promote sustainable building practices using the U.S. Green

Building Council’s LEED program or a similar system. (Linstroth 148-149)

According to the USGBC as of September 24, 2010:

Various LEED initiatives including legislation, executive orders,

resolutions, ordinances, policies, and incentives are found in…384 cities/towns

58 counties, 35 state governments…(and) 14 federal agencies or

departments…. (USGBC LEED Public Policies)

California currently is the most progressive state with three state policies, 105 local policies (USGBC LEED Public Policies) and its 2010 mandatory Green Building Codes that apply to all new building in the state. (USGBC Greening 6) However, at the other end of the spectrum is Missouri with only seven of its cities represented: “Chesterfield, Clayton, Ferguson, Kansas City, Springfield, St. Clair, and St. Louis. This places Missouri in the bottom 30% of states with no legislation that supports LEED guidelines. (USGBC LEED Public Policies) Nevertheless, even without government mandated guidelines St. Louis has made small steps to build green new homes. As of December, 2010, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis has built a total of one LEED Gold and 51 LEED Platinum certified homes and this year completed 17 homes with an additional six that remain under construction, all of which are still in the LEED application process. (Witherspoon) Additional new homes with LEED and other third-party green certifications have been built in St. Louis, but those metrics are currently not tracked on either a local or national level by realtor associations.

A grassroots approach as supported by the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement can be more agile, proactive and geared to resolving specific local environmental issues through policies and building codes that, because of the particular, explicit and localized nature of the issues, may be designed, approved and implemented more easily than those at a state or federal level. Local action for a home, street, neighborhood, redevelopment area or city can actualize green building faster and serve as a model for start-up programs in other locales.

However, merely because local governments can operate more quickly does not mean they will. Government action at the local level can be limited by the global versus local mindset toward environmental issues, the “silo” effect within governments that inhibits inter-departmental communication; and limited staff and funds, both particularly exacerbated in the current economy. (Lindstroth 46-50) Global warming naysayers, new technology doubters, antiquated laws, and the stringent by-laws of subdivision organizations means skeptics and bureaucracy at any level can impede or altogether stop green progress. Green solutions such as graywater can be viewed as dirty, energy generated on-site as loud or visually disturbing and non-uniform parcels of land a threat to a homogeneous social structure. (Condon 96; Stanley and Shoemake 273) The challenge is getting the public and lawmakers to acknowledge, understand and embrace the building of sustainable homes as a socially equitable and economically beneficial solution that will profit all society.

According to Eisenberg:

A key to…greater acceptance of more sustainable alternative approaches is to create a context in which those alternatives can be seen both as positive and…a reduction of risk, rather than an increase in risk…(and)…developing awareness of the inherent risk in the status quo…To see the risk requires shifting from the details of the codes to…understanding how current practice jeopardizes the public welfare that the regulatory system was established to protect. (270)

Mutual understanding through education and collaboration of building code officials, the green building community and the public at large can bring comprehensive experience to the negotiating table in support of funding, research and testing of new ideas and technology to alleviate the fear of risk, change and the incorporation of sustainability in policy and building codes. (Eisenberg 270-272)

Yudelson states that as more cities pledge support of environmental initiatives they will require green construction “especially when they are large developments with major infrastructure impacts.” He views increased use of voluntary third-party certifications as perhaps “a way to forestall legislative action by states and cities…(but) the green building trend is likely to overwhelm these efforts over the next five years.” (60)

This trend is evident from coast to coast as cities large and small are turning green. New homes in Babylon, New York must meet Energy Star standards while Berkley, California has instituted Residential Energy Conservation Ordinances. In Santa Barbara, California instead of energy policy directives they established a voluntary, incentivized permitting process:

Projects exceeding California’s energy code, Title 24 (one of the strictest

energy codes in the nation), by 15% are considered first by the permitting

office. As Title 24 is updated continually, projects applying for the city’s priority-

review program also must become more efficient over time.

The expedited move from planning to construction increases profit margins for builders and Santa Barbara achieves lower utility costs and GHG emissions, and an increase in projects that actually exceed Title 24 standards. (Linstroth 54) It’s been a win-win situation for all without holding a hammer over anyone’s head to comply.

In New Orleans, Louisiana interest in green building surged after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly African-American, lower to mid-income two-square mile district was one of the hardest hit areas and lost 4000 of the approximately 50,000 total homes in New Orleans destroyed by floodwaters. Although the Lower Ninth remains one of the poorest areas that feels like a “post-apocalyptic wilderness” of vacant homes in most of the neighborhoods and, with less than 200 new homes, (Eichenseher) it has experienced a rebuilding effort that has been slower than that in other communities due to “poverty, the scale of the devastation and local, state and federal government inaction”, (Lowernine) the destruction provided a blank slate that drew the attention of individuals and developers wanting to a promote sustainability in the rebuilding efforts.

One such development, founded by actor Brad Pitt, is Make it Right a collaborative effort committed to rebuild green from the ground up in the Lower Ninth Ward and which, to-date, has built the largest concentration of LEED Platinum residences in the world. (Eichenseher) The strength of this endeavor attracted the high-level green design contributions of 21 local and international architects proving sustainable housing with Energy Star appliances, tankless water heaters, solar power, geothermal HVAC and LEED Platinum certification is not just for the affluent. By the end of 2010 Make it Right plans to have completed 150 homes in what the USGBC’s President, Rick Fedrizzi announced as “the largest and greenest community of single-family homes in the world”. Their hope is that this will become the “norm, not the exception” and a model for other cities to provide affordable, energy efficient homes for “the low-income families who need them the most.” (Holowka)

An accord on the criteria for the potentially coveted title of “greenest community” has yet to be fully determined and agreed upon, but Chicago is pushing hard to top the list of nominees with its “Chicago Principles” that established the city’s “sustainability values and goals…to serve to guide the city into the future” and Mayor Daly’s intense desire to make Chicago “The Greenest City in the World”. (Chicago; Stuut) From a local to regional level Chicago has worked to green the city’s commercial and government buildings, streets and parks with such initiatives as green roofs, photovoltaic panels, solar energy plants, extensive tree plantings and permeable paved alleys. (Wheeler 442-443)

With the goal of further lowering GHGs and raising its sustainability level, Daly initiated the voluntary Chicago Green Homes Program (CGHP) pilot plan in 2005. Based upon USGBC’s guidelines the CGHP’s system of points and three-star rating structure certifies green homes and offers incentives for using the program. According to Emily Stuut of the CGHP, in addition to the cost savings and environmental benefits gained from building green, participants gain expedited, discounted permits and discounted consultant fees through the Green Permit Program for projects seeking LEED certification, and access to best practices through green industry professionals. Additionally, the City of Chicago avoids the “silo effect” by providing ongoing support and assistance from a collaborative team comprised of the “CGHP team, City departments and access to the Chicago Center for Green Technology’s Green Building Resource Center. The CGHG also has a superb website for further information on “green building and sustainable initiatives on the local and national levels” that would be good model for others because of its clean layout and ease of use. In addition, GreenBeanChicago.com is a “source of information on built, in-progress and planned Green building projects” in the Chicago area. (Chicago; Wheeler 442-443)

Between April, 2007 and April, 2009 of the 59 single-family, new construction homes registered with the program, eight have been certified and of the total 218 single-family, multi-family new construction and rehabs, 21 have been completed and certified. Stuut indicated the lag in completions and certifications was most likely due to the economic downturn. Because of the high number of existing buildings and the potential for huge dollar and energy savings, The CGHP is currently working to update its Green Guidebook with Version 3 in spring, 2011 to include retrofits. (Stuut) Chicago is working to raise awareness and is putting its funding and efforts into programs in the built environment that will make a difference not only to the quality of life of the individual but that of the city, nation and world.

With 16% of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions being generated from energy used in homes (United State EPA) it is essential to the future of the planet that the public and all levels of government consider this impact and institute the infrastructure required to make green housing the standard for new residential homes in the United States. This will necessitate education of the consumer, architects, builders, real estate industry, banking industry, investors, legal profession and government and creation of collaborative teams willing to work together toward an energy saving consensus. Information from model programs, best practices, standards and lessons learned need to be part of a centralized, nationwide knowledge database used to provide guidance and assistance with developing and expanding programs and policies in cities and towns, large and small, that are new to sustainable building efforts. Because of the progress made thus far, new green building endeavors can be aligned with those that have experienced success to reduce the learning curve and accelerate the advancement of building new green homes. These collaborative enterprises will require a partnership mentality based upon trust and cooperation and the willingness to jointly share the risks, gains and costs to move toward a green home environment that will support a more sustainable planet in a socially equitable manner.

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