Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Everything you always wanted to know about green homes: An interview with Avrim Topel

Green buildings have never been so popular, at least when it comes to public policy. Looking at the stimulus plan you see how a concept that until lately was relatively marginal suddenly becomes a significant policy tool, which is expected to stimulate the economy, lower energy consumption, create jobs and support the environment, all the same time.

But what doe
s a green building or a green home actually means? well, for most of us it would be difficult to get into specifics as so few had the chance to experience it personally, but for Avrim and Vicki Topel know the answers.

They have built a green home (LEED Silver Certified) at Kennett Square, PA and they're sharing their story in a new book entitled "Green Beginnings: The Story of How We Built Our Green & Sustainable Home".
This book is a valuable book for anyone interested in going green or building a green home. It is also part of a greater effort of the Topel's experience to share their experience with others, which includes tours in the house and a documentary video. And last but not least, as we reported earlier, we're collaborating with the authors to plant trees for the copies sold of the book.

As we wanted to learn more about the authors' experience and their book, we asked Avrim Topel to join us for an interview.

Hello Avrim. Can you tell us why did you decide to build a green house?
That's an interesting question, as we didn't set out to build green; in fact, we didn't know what a green house even was. I had recently retired due to illness, and we needed to downsize into something with one floor living, little maintenance and upkeep, a healthy indoor environment, and lower utility bills. Our builder Amy Cornelius of Hugh Lofting Timber Frames was keenly perceptive and immediately identified our needs with green homes. Upon explaining green homes to us, the decision was a no-brainer thereafter.

What's the most important part in the process - the design? the professional team you work with? choosing the right materials?
That's an interesting question. Green homes begin with good, smart, sustainable design, no question about that. But building a green home is a process all unto itself and very different from traditional homebuilding. We followed the protocol suggested by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System that calls for an integrative (team) approach to green design and construction.

Our builder assembled an incredibly gifted team of professionals: an eco-architect, sustainable engineer, landscape architect and of course our green builder, were the primary force behind the project. The team approach is necessary for several reasons - green homes offer homeowners many choices, and it is critical that the various components, systems and materials one chooses come together and are compatible with each other. The process is new and quite dynamic, and no single entity has all of the answers yet. Therefore, the old saying "two heads are better than one" never rang so true.

What makes your house a green house?
Starting from the ground up, site stewardship is key. The site was developed with a plan that prioritized minimal disturbance to the site, and to protect and conserve its' natural attributes. The home was situated to take advantage of its natural attributes as well. The orientation to the sun, prevailing winds, and tall stands of trees now provide us with passive solar heat, good cooling ventilation and summertime shade to assist cooling, and a wind block against the cold winter winds.

Physically, I'm going to use some technical terms to answer this question that we don't use in our book strictly for brevity's sake. All materials were intentionally selected to be natural, consist of reclaimed or recycled content (or parts thereof), certified green, and of local origin. Our home was prefabricated which rates as high as it gets for minimally impacting the site. The prefab Superior Wall foundation consists of a high percentage of flyash and industrial waste material in the concrete. Our structural wood was engineered beams made from wood scraps bonded with lo V.O.C. glues. The timber frame and most other new wood is all FSC certified , coming from managed forests that plant a tree for every one they cut down, and the galvanized aluminum roof has 30% recycled content.

The interior of the home included reclaimed barn wood from local barns for flooring, interior window and door casing and trim from trees we felled on the property, and the stone fireplace and exterior perimeter walls are made of stone from the Avondale Quarry just a few miles from here.

All paints and coatings are low or no V.O.C. rated, eliminating off-gases, and all insulation is certified as healthy. The radiant heat system is run with a Munchkin Vision II boiler, the most efficient rated system (96%) on the planet, and a variable speed central air-conditioning system rated at 16 SEER combined with two ERV (energy recovery ventilators - heat exchangers) minimize the heat and air conditioning systems use. Electric-wise, the home uses almost all Energy Star appliances, and most lighting is either by CFL's (with ballasts), Halogen, or LED light units. Low flow plumbing fixtures and faucets conserve water use.

And because it is a LEED For Homes Silver dwelling, every product and system has been thoroughly inspected , tested, and verified by a third party, independent engineering company.

Does it cost more to build a green house? What benefits do you get out of it?

It really doesn't have to anymore. A few years back, green building products were few and far between, difficult to find, and demanded a premium. Today, new products are hitting the market on a daily basis and priced competitively. While certain products like ballast lighting units do cost more up front, they are negligible in the big picture. When green building using the team approach, and with a certified program such as LEED, you will incur additional professional fee costs, but all things considered you can keep things within a 2 to 3% premium over traditional home.

The benefits include eliminating upkeep and maintenance activities and costs, health benefits from a clean, controlled indoor environment, economic benefits such as lower fuel, water, and electric costs that help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Building green supports the local economy by favoring local products (businesses) and labor as well.

What was the first main difference from your old house you noticed in after moving in?
We immediately noticed the home's ability to retain the air conditioning. Being a panel house where the walls and ceiling insulation package was specified by the sustainable engineer, we knew the home was supposed to be well-insulated. However, we had no idea just how efficient it would really be.

One Friday we left for the beach at lunchtime and did an experiment. It was a hot, humid weekend, and the house was a cool, comfortable 70 degrees inside. We turned off the central air units, closed all windows, and turned down the ERV unit when we let, curious as to what the temperature would be when we would return Monday afternoon. Upon our return, we were amazed that the house was 71 degrees; it had only gone up one degree in temperature in three days. We couldn't believe it. It's now become a regular ritual, summer and winter, for us to put the house to the "temperature challenge" whenever we leave, and it's a joy each and every time.

In what ways this homebuilding experience changed you?
The change we have experienced learning about, planning, and building a green home is most profound, a change we never could have predicted. As we became aware of the concepts behind the terms green and sustainable, and as we learned more about the products and systems and ways we were doing things pertaining to the project, we became more in tune with the importance and significance of this alternative way of building and living.

And as we began to understand and realize the benefits green homes avail their occupants, the communities in which they are built, and how they conserve and protect our natural resources and actually right so many wrongs man has inadvertently done to the planet, we came to the realization that this was too important not to share with as many people as we could.

I can't recall any other cause in our lives as having such an absolute effect on both of us as this did. Frustrated by not being able to find books that explained green homes completely and in non-technical, simple English, we were inspired to write our story to help people understand green homes and bolster awareness of these amazing dwellings.

How important was it for you to receive the LEED certification? is it a must or you can manage without it?
Good question. Having been a real estate developer and licensed Realtor for 35 years before building green, the decision to get LEED certified came quickly. LEED sets the standards that all other green home certification and designation programs are based upon, as it is the nation's benchmark for green construction.

And it is the ONLY green home program that uses independent third party verification and testing assuring homeowners that what they ordered is what they get and most importantly that it all works as intended. So, from a quality control stand point LEED made total sense. But equally important, the LEED designation is something I personally consider to give the home tremendous credibility and value when it comes to resale value.

In my opinion, the LEED Silver rating gives a home a 15% or better value premium. In our case, the energy savings in dollars and sense justify this increase in realized value alone.

What drove you to write the book? Why it is important for you to share your story with other people?
I think that in our case having to confront serious illness and disability that one tends to count his blessings and reassess what's really important and what's just not. We want to do the right thing and leave the world a better place for our children, and we were so moved by becoming aware of the benefits everyone realizes by changing the way we live in our homes that we felt it an obligation to share this information with others. The truth is, with all of the hype in the media about green, most people still haven't the foggiest idea what a green home is.

Most people struggle to pay their utility bills, and this effects the quality of life for millions and millions of people all over the world. Homes are among the leading contributors of our environmental crises including global warming, smog, and our dependence on foreign oil. We've reduced our fuel consumption by 70% compared to our previous home. That equates dollar-wise to a kid being able to afford to go to college, or a parent not having to work a second job to make ends meet.

What do you hope readers will learn from the book? What’s the most important lesson in it?
The message is clear. Green homes are a sum of their parts; the approach to healthy, energy efficient living can no longer be viewed as purchasing the right furnace or insulating the attic as single solutions. Green homes are about the relationships the various parts, products and systems have with each other, and understanding this concept will empower people to make intelligent, informed decisions that will give them the best results and benefits in the homes they live.

Can you tell us more about the tours in the house?
Our 90 Minute Educational Tours start by explaining what green and sustainable mean when we use these terms as they pertain to our homes. We explain green homes from a historic perspective; where did the notion of green homes come from, and explain the USGBC LEED criteria as a reference point and national standard for green.

We tour the home and property so people can see and experience the various products and systems and get a real feel for a green home. The truth is, most green elements are invisible. Finally, the tours give attendees the opportunity to ask questions, and if we don't have the answers, we will find the resources that do.

What is your hope for the future? Do you think there's a good chance we'll see a significant increase in the number of green homes any time soon?
The future is now. Green homes are replacing new traditional construction at a rapid pace already. As of July, 2008, 16 cities mandated all new construction of government owned buildings to be LEED certified, and it's just a matter of time, perhaps a few more years, until our building standards in America will all be green. We're presently in what I'd describe as the wild, wild west era of green building with over 200 green home certification organizations fighting for national dominance.

In our opinion, most will consolidate or fall by the wayside and we'll have a half-dozen recognizable green designation programs that clearly identify the green aspects of all buildings built into the future. And from where we see things, it's all good.

Thanks Avrim!

You can read more about the book at www.greenbeginningsconsulting.com

Raz @ Eco-Libris