Thursday, January 25, 2007

Real Estate Goes Green: Homeowners Become More Environmentally Conscious

The past few years have brought to the United States a newfound respect for, and awareness of, the state of the natural world. This awareness can be seen in many different aspects of human life, whether it be through the increased use of hybrid cars, the development of cleaner burning forms of fuel, or the number of environmentally charged films, like "An Inconvenient Truth," that have been recently gaining popularity. Though there has been a very noticeable change in overall attitude, homeowners have not yet taken a significant stand on eliminating methods harmful to the environment. With that said, recent developments of energy saving techniques have piqued homeowners' interest in the effect that they can have on the environment. With these developments, along with a recent increase in awareness, many homeowners are beginning to take an active role in lowering the energy they consume.

The U.S. Green Building Council, an organization focused on raising environmental awareness throughout the real estate industry, defines a green house as being one that uses less energy, less natural resources and a smaller number of toxic chemicals. According to the USGBC, green buildings can improve air and water quality, reduce solid waste, conserve natural resources and contribute through a variety of other environmental and economical means. A green house does not need to stand out, and could even be made with a less toxic form of paint or a showerhead that uses less water. Building a green house is not necessarily about excessive lifestyle changes, but rather, is about taking a more active and conscious role in the effects that homes can have on the environment, as well as the effects that homes can have on the human body.

According to the Department of Energy, more than 85 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels -e.g. coal, oil, and natural gas- and 18 percent of that comes from individual homes. An article written by Lew Sichelman, a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times, entitled "New products say it loud: They’re green and they’re proud", predicts that over the next 25 years “40 million houses and 20 million square feet of commercial space will be built to accommodate America's swelling population.” Certain methods, such as solar power, shown above, and wind power have been available for many years, and do severely limit the amount of hurtful energy consumed by individual households. However, the costs involved in providing such power are extremely high, and unreasonable for the majority of the population. Because of this, new methods are being developed to benefit the earth, as well as homeowners' bank accounts.

The Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates that “the typical house loses 15 to 20 percent of its heat or air conditioning leakage from ducts alone.” Sarah Max, a contributing writer to, says, “Energy-conscious construction can significantly reduce that waste. Some of the savings come from materials that provide extra thermal resistance, such as…insulated concrete forms. More can come from designs that maximize exposure to winter sun and minimize summer heat.” These ideas are simple, and for the most part, do not have the high costs that are often associated with energy conscious designs. They might not have as profound of an effect on the environment, but present a great starting point for the majority of homeowners building new homes or reconstructing old ones. There are, however, some bigger scale methods being developed that will play a large role in the state of the environment in years to come.

One new method being developed is underwater logging. Triton Logging, a company based out of Canada, currently manufactures lumber products that are made from trees found solely in underwater forests. Triton Logging was recently recognized as one of the top ten products of the year by the editors of the Environmental Building News, an award that recognizes the most innovative and exciting new green building products. The trees that Triton cuts and manufactures come from forests that have been submerged for years due to hydroelectric dams that created reservoirs and lakes. This is done through the use of remote-controlled submarines, shown right, that clamp onto trees, attach flotation devices to them, and cut the trees with an electric chainsaw. The trees are cut, rather than ripped out, to avoid releasing a large amount of sediment in the lake floor. The company believes that there could be up to 100 billion board feet underwater throughout the world. This process has the ability to greatly lower the need for trees in forests throughout the world. It could provide a much-needed break in the destruction of rainforests, and could end up having a great impact on the environment.

Another example of environmentally friendly home production comes in the form of a new type of countertop being developed, called PaperStone. According to Sichelman, this is a “dense, hard, water-resistant, solid-surface composite made from cellulose fiber and a nonpetroleum phenolic resin derived, in part, from a natural oil in cashew shells…the latest PaperStone is 100% post-consumer recycled paper.” This product is not only environment friendly, but also extremely practical, offering no less functionality than any of its competitors. It is products like this that will eventually become commonplace in homes throughout the United States, and severely limit unnecessary waste.

The one drawback in building a house with such environmentally friendly features is the initial investment required. This investment might be overwhelming in a few cases, with construction costs increasing by more than 20 percent. However, in most cases, homeowners only spend about 2 to 4 percent more on construction costs. A simple change would not bring too high of a cost, and would most likely end up paying for itself in the long run with lower energy bills. With that said, a green house might not be the best idea for a short term investment, but if you are planning on living in one place for a long time, then creating a more environmentally friendly home, even on the smallest of scales, would be a great idea. With all of the new environmentally conscious methods being developed, it won't be long until green houses become as common as traditional houses. Not only will it help the environment, it will also decrease energy costs, and increase a home's resale value considerably.

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