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Affordable Green Building

How green homes can offer lower overall lifecycle cost savings.

So many factors influence housing costs, and green building has long had a reputation of adding costs to projects, especially with short-sighted focus only on construction costs and not total cost of ownership over time. This is important because green homes can offer lower overall lifecycle cost savings to offset initially higher investments. But it does require anticipating long-term operating costs, which, as we’ve seen with electric and water utilities as well as construction materials and labor, have been rising at exponential rates in recent years across the country.

Green Home building

Other important considerations can also affect life cycle costs. Where the home is located in relation to the places frequented by its occupants, including work, school, and recreational activities can be used to calculate commute expenses based on the cost of automotive fuels, maintenance and repairs. Over time it’s also possible to determine our community’s cost of mitigating environmental damages (air pollution and water quality) from more or less automotive travel, which certainly impact not only property taxes, but other forms of taxation as well. It’s more difficult to put a price on our commute time and how it impacts quality of life, but certainly it has an arguable value. And it’s impossible to evaluate is how much of our families health care costs are related to the exposure circumstances associated with toxic substances in our homes, e.g. poor indoor air quality. And the future of these costs, too, is unpredictable.

Then there is the vast array of variables that influence the actual construction cost of the home. Home size, as well as the materials used to construct it and the systems installed to operate it impact both the construction budgets and life cycle operating costs, as well as the frequency of maintenance and repairs needed. Site conditions, e.g. soil type and permeability, and topography are all variables that directly impact construction costs but can be difficult to quantify in market value. Certainly interior finish selections can wreak havoc on any budget, so many builders elect to approach this with allowances to keep those variances from tainting any “green”, “high-performance”, or market-value ROI calculation.

But, far and above all else, it is home design that dictates cost, both in the construction phase as well as life cycle. We can design for our climate and the site, taking advantage of passive solar and ventilation strategies that don’t add cost and offer life-long benefits without penalty. We can even design for bad soils and challenging topography and watershed patterns.

We can design for materials efficiency, from the basic shape and size of the home to the configuration of rooms. Complicated designs not only increase construction costs but also significantly increasing the risk of structural failures and water damage over the life of the home (design for durability). We can design to Optimize Value Engineering (OVE) techniques, so as to efficiently carry the load distribution from roof assembly to foundation. We can design for better utility of the space and to allow for changes in how we will use those spaces over time.

We can certainly design to improve the efficient use of water and energy in the home. The same OVE techniques that efficiently carry the structural load also leave more room in building cavities to improve insulation, i.e. thermal performance. We can design for the efficient installation of mechanical systems such that we significantly lower their base installation costs, allowing us funding for those high-performance system upgrade features. We can even design our lighting and electrical systems to allow for future “smart” control capabilities that may not even exist in current technologies.

It’s time to stop treating budget overages as an excuse to cut green building features because we blame the features for the excess expense. It’s time to wake up to the fact that the base budget is a direct reflection of the design and that there are other ways to improve street-appeal other than complicating the structure. We can learn some lessons from Habitat for Humanity and other groups that build to this efficiencies model with the mindset of life cycle costs, quality of life, and sense of community for the homes inhabitants. Many of our historic neighborhoods are full of simplistic home designs that garner timeless architectural embellishments inside and out that are still cherished today. It’s time we marry our modern building science advances to the simple vernacular truisms that have always meant affordability. What you’ll find is that the latter pays for the former. Affordable green building puzzle solved! Trust me, most people would much rather have high performance, nice amenities and finish out than a complicated design that is a money pit to maintain.