Phrases such as "green-built" and "sustainable design" have entered the lexicon in a big way this year. It seems like every home improvement magazine, cable show and website in the country has the inside scoop on the latest, greatest ways to shrink your carbon footprint.
One question that often gets overlooked — and the one most often asked by homeowners is "How much does it cost?"
Not as much as it would have cost a year or two ago, because local lumber yards, hardware stores and construction suppliers now carry ready supplies of green-build materials, such as sustainably harvested wood, non-toxic adhesives and no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints.
However, it all depends on how green you mean. The greener your vision, the more green you are likely to spend.
But not everything associated with green building costs more. Some green features, such as recycled materials, can cost less than new materials. Other green features, such as insulation, energy-efficient appliances and solar water heaters, carry an upfront cost, but will pay for themselves over time and ultimately cost less because of lower energy bills.
And then some aspects of green building have less to do with gadgets or equipment, such as solar panels and heat exchangers, and more to do with construction techniques.
For instance, placing wall studs 24 inches apart rather than 16 or 22 inches apart saves energy, because heat leaks through the studs. Fewer studs mean less wood, which costs a little less, and saves energy costs. Energy-efficient home builders also use careful flashing techniques around windows — which keeps water out of walls — reducing mold and increasing the lifespan of the building.
A house that lasts longer because of sound building techniques is, by definition, a "greener" house, because a house that lasts 100 years uses fewer natural resources than a house that gets carted to a landfill after 50 years, says Mark LaLiberte, a green-build consultant.
Still, the question persists, "How much does it cost to go green?" — which takes us back to the question of, "How green do you mean?"
Mark Wickman, owner of Vision Homes in Medford, says he can build an Energy Star-certified house that will cost $5,000 to $7,000 more than a standard code-built house. A new house that meets both Energy Star and basic Earth Advantage standards will cost $10,000 to $12,000 more, Wickman says.
Energy Star and Earth Advantage are two of three seals of approval that can be affixed to new green-built houses in this region. The other is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
Energy Star homes focus on energy efficiency and clean indoor air, with an Energy Star-certified house being at least 20 percent more energy efficient than a standard code-built house, with cleaner indoor air.
Earth Advantage houses are energy-efficient and healthier to live in, but also contain numerous other features that make them "greener," such as the use of recycled or sustainable materials, and construction techniques that create less waste. In addition, Earth Advantage offers various levels of "greenness," with silver, gold or platinum ratings. The higher the rating, the more you are likely to spend.
"Three to 4 percent is a good average for extra costs," says Earth Advantage Program Manager Fred Gant, "but so much depends on how much we're starting with. A lot of builders are already doing a lot of green things that don't really cost extra, but that they can get credit for."
Tom and Cathy Carstens, who built a Platinum Earth Advantage house in the Applegate Valley last year, complete with solar panels, recycled materials and state-of-the-art techniques, say they paid roughly 30 percent more for their preferred level of "green."
Built by Dorris Construction of Central Point, the house won a national award from the National Association of Home Builders for energy-efficient design.
LEED, a program launched by the U.S. Department of Energy two years ago, sets the bar somewhat higher than Earth Advantage, and also offers graduated degrees of certification. There are no LEED-certified homes in southern Oregon yet, but there soon will be, says Gina Franzosa, executive director of the Cascadia Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
LEED for Homes was launched as a pilot program and became a full-fledged, stand-alone program in September. Because nobody has built a LEED-certified house in southern Oregon, it's tough to put a dollar amount on it, but it's likely to cost about the same or slightly more than an Earth Advantage house.