Trades & Construction: Should You Go Into Green Home Construction?

June 8, 2016


Are you a builder or renovator thinking about whether to go into green home construction? Then you need to know about a recent study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Published as What Green Means to Home Buyers: Perceptions and Preferences, the study found that for homebuyers, energy efficiency is the second most important influencer, right below safe communities. Other top influencers included lower operating costs, a corollary of energy-efficient construction.

On the other hand, going green – like being a frog named Kermit – isn’t easy. There’s a steep and continuous learning curve as you figure out the difference between green certifications like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Energy Star for New Homes, grapple with the higher costs of sustainable (or green) construction, and burn the midnight oil keeping up with the latest eco-friendly, durable and practical building systems and materials.

And maybe your clients, who ultimately call the shots, just want a nice-looking home or reno as quickly and cheaply as possible and couldn’t care less about sustainability.

To help you get started on deciding whether to paint yourself green, and what shade to choose, we’ve assembled ten things to consider. Seems onerous? True, but in the end you may find that not going green will ultimately put you in the red.

1. Green Home Construction Terminology for Building & Materials

Trombe walls. LEED Platinum. Water footprint. Green housing terminology can be enough to make cave dwelling look appealing. Plus, there’s no one source for bringing the novice up to speed. Best bets? Ask your local building association to steer you toward written resources and experts. Visit the websites of the NAHB in the U.S. and the Canadian Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.org, www.chba.ca). Look at what the U.S. and Canada Green Building Councils (www.usgbc.org, www.cagbc.org) and similar bodies have to say about their programs. Check out sites like www.greenresourcecouncil.org/green-resources/green-building-glossary. Most importantly, don’t despair: it will all eventually become as familiar as your kids’ names.

2. Market Overview: Who’s Going Green?

Consumers aged 55 and up are driving the current green housing market according to Dodge Data & Analytics 2015 SmartMarket Report. That’s not surprising: that demographic has had the most experience with everything from air quality to energy bills. As environmentally conscious millennials rack up more years in home ownership, there could be even greater demand for green building, says the report.

Incidentally, Home Innovation Research Labs reported in 2015 that southern states including Texas and Florida led the country in building to the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS). In Canada, the biggest uptake in Energy Star – the country’s main player in green residential certification – has been in Ontario according to EnerQuality which designs and manages high-performance building programs including Energy Star.

3. Selling Green Homes & Renos

Catastrophic climate change? That won’t convince clients to go green. According to the NAHB, only 14% of homebuyers will pay more for a home out of pure concern for the environment.

So, “You do the self-interest side of things,” says Sean Morrissey of green-tinted Morrissey Builders in Minneapolis. He simply explains to prospective clients that a green home is more durable because of higher quality materials, costs less to run, is more comfortable to live in, and has better air quality. “If there are children, (you stress) basic things like health,” he says.

When talking to clients, green your project incrementally. For example, once you’ve established size, style and other basic design requirements, recommend upgrading the windows from double to triple pane, explaining the cost saving and comfort advantages. Then propose a bit more attic insulation. And so on. But go slow: clients are already struggling to absorb a lot of project information.

4. Government and Utility support for Green Home Construction

Tax incentives, credits and the like for sustainability-bound homeowners vary by state, province, municipality and even utility provider but can be a powerful inducement when you’re pushing green buttons. The Massachusetts Residential New Construction Program, for example, offers $275 to $7,000 for all types of new, energy-efficient residential construction. High-efficiency heating and water heating systems and other green initiatives are eligible for additional dollars.

  • For a list of U.S. programs, click here
  • In Canad, click here

5. Green Home Construction Training and Certification

Get credentialed if you want credibility. “One of the best is to become LEED certified,” says Roy Nandram, owner of Ottawa, Ontario’s RND Construction, a winner of multiple green building awards. LEED training, he says, is “very stringent, not Mickey Mouse stuff.” Adds Nandram, “You can earn six figures building green if you work hard.”

For information on LEED training, visit the U.S. or Canada Green Building Councils. Check out other programs like Built Green Canada’s training process and, in the U.S., the NAHB’s Certified Green Professional designation. And stay current through industry seminars, magazines like Fine Homebuilding, and home shows for new green suppliers and materials. Home building is a conservative profession, but green design and technology evolve swiftly; your job is to stay abreast of advances.

6. Additional Costs of Green Home Construction

The additional cost of building green varies depending on everything from how big and where you build to the choice of paint, flooring and even light bulbs. Building to Energy Star standards, which generally exceed code, runs five to 10 per cent more than constructing a conventional home. An even more efficient R-2000 home costs 10 to 20 per cent more.

However, the payback is gobsmacking: an Energy Star home uses about 20 per cent less energy than a conventional home, while an R-2000 consumes 50 per cent less. On an annual energy bill of $2,000, that’s savings of roughly $400 and $1,000 respectively. And remind your client that, in the long run, energy prices go up not down.

7. Specialized Green Materials & Equipment

Since building sustainably is in large part about the materials and equipment you use, how do you know that they are actually green? Bamboo flooring, for example, comes from a renewable resource, but is it green if forests have been clear cut to produce it? Certification by organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council can often assure you of a product’s sustainability, and a data sheet about an item’s origin is part of the LEED process (builders often complain about LEED’s paperwork burden, by the way).

Be wary of brand-new technology, warns Dave deBruyn, a principal with Vancouver’s InHaus Development which specializes in sustainable infill and densification. “We’ve had more problems with experimental equipment than we ever thought we’d have. From a business point of view, it’s not good to be a guinea pig,” he says.

8. Build the Right Relationships

If you are building to green certification standards, you’ll need to have your projects performance-tested. Foster a good relationship with the certifying body’s rater in your area, says Mark Fenelon of Mossy Ridge, a sustainable builder in Nashville. “He’s going to have good suggestions for accomplishing your pre-determined goals.” As well, create connections with other green builders, suppliers and designers: building sustainably can get complicated (some would say that’s also part of the fun), and having support is invaluable.

Less Time at the Desk, More Time at the Job Site

9. Greening Your Company in Other Ways

Construction Today advocates walking the talk by converting or switching your vehicles to more environmentally friendly natural gas, recycling paper in your office, and reusing or recycling as much construction material as possible (www.constructiontodaychicago.com). Habitat for Humanity ReStores are a great place to take old doors, windows and pretty much any unwanted but useable construction material; the organization sells it and uses the funds to support its homebuilding programs for low-income people.

10. Educate Your Customers on Green Financing

In the U.S., energy efficient mortgages (EEMs) help people buy an energy-efficient house or pay for energy enhancements. For example, an EEM assists with the higher purchase price that’s typical of an energy-efficient home by providing a bigger loan than would a regular mortgage. It does this by increasing a homebuyer’s debt-to-income ratio; the buyer can afford to service the higher debt because he or she will be spending less each month for energy. For information, visit Energy.gov. Canada doesn’t have EEMs, but Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and other providers of high-ratio mortgages, designed for those who don’t have a 20 per cent down payment, do offer a refund on premiums if new construction or renovations meet their energy criteria. See also this construction invoice template to get started.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Patrick Langston has been writing about the housing industry including green topics for the Ottawa Citizen since 2007. As well, he covers arts and other stories for the newspaper and its Style magazine. He also writes housing design and other stories for Ottawa Magazine, contributes to Diplomat & International Canada magazine, and appears regularly in Penguin Eggs, an Edmonton-based quarterly about music. He lives with his wife Kathi Langston and a black dog named Betty in rural Ottawa.