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You Don't Have to Go Weird to Go Green

"You don't have to go weird to go green" according to architect Peter Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer, who has been designing green homes for two decades, says orienting a home properly on a site, using appropriate materials and exterior colors for the climate, wrapping the exterior well, and shading windows can yield tremendous energy savings.

Five pillars of green building

  • Increasing energy efficiency
  • Using materials appropriately
  • Conserving and reusing water
  • Providing a healthful living and working environment
  • Building attractive structures that will last

In terms of design, going green may involve scaling down square footage, building two-level, rather than one level homes; lowering ceilings a bit; placing skylights more strategically; and minimizing recessed lighting. Pfeiffer says all of this - and more- can be accomplished without sacrificing style, livable space, and beauty.

Form allows function

"Design errors consumer two times as much energy as solar collectors could ever collect," Pfeiffer says, with the single most important factor in energy savings being the orientation of a house. All floor plans should indicate the northern exposure, he says. Placing garages on the west side of homes helps control intense afternoon heat inside a home, he adds. Rather than a rain umbrella, a roof should be thought of as a shading device for the home. Then, the roof should be constructed using techniques, materials, and colors to best serve that purpose, Pfeiffer says. Overhangs can be used to shade windows, for example.

In most parts of the country, including all but the most extreme cold climates as in Minnesota or Alaska, more emphasis should be placed on design features that address air conditioning not only because of the energy savings but because of the damage condensation can do, Pfeiffer says. "Number one, control humidity," he says, noting that in half the country the air is drier outside a house than inside, but building codes are "just beginning to recognize this."

Passive solar design is more about controlling heat than bringing heat into a home, he says, but solar collectors are coming down in price, so he encourages builders to have homes, "solar ready," in case a client wants to install the collectors post-construction.

Other tips:

Go under cover

  • Wrap, wrap, wrap. Pfeiffer recommends spending $200 to $300 more for a commercial-grade wrap on a 4,000 square-foot home for immediate payback in energy bills and to control moisture. Consider using structural insulated panels (SIPS) to reduce the time spent weathering a home under construction and, consequently, the time it will take for the framing to dry out. A 2,500 square foot home can be weathered in three to four days using SIPS, Pfeiffer says.
  • Consider hardy plank exteriors.
  • Metal roofs allow air flow without having to ventilate an attic. "If you keep the roof from getting hot, the whole frame of the house stays cooler," according to Pfeiffer. A lighter color can save 5-7 degrees, he says.
  • Make sure your subcontractors know how to properly flash windows to keep moisture out.

Inside jobs

  • HVAC. Right-size the air-conditioning unit. Installing too large a unit will cool a home to rapidly and not allow it to dehumidify. Between 40 and 50 percent humidity is ideal in a home, Pfeiffer says.
  • Replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lighting. Every 75-watt bulb replaced saves a ton of coal and the heat generated by a 100-watt bulb is equivalent to having an extra person in the room in warmer climates, according to Pfeiffer.
  • Energy-and water-conserving appliances save non-renewable resources, of course. But here's something you may not know- with their sealed doors, front loading washers keep moisture contained and control household humidity as well.

"Get the basics down before you do anything exotic - Just design the house to respond to its site," Pfeiffer urges.

The preceding article comes from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Business Management Department.