Green has become one of the most frequently invoked and political adjectives in our vocabulary. Couple it with all sorts of nouns—from any kind of product to concepts such as architecture and design—and it implies its “partner” is healthy or environmentally beneficial.  Green building standards are no exception to this rule.

But which green building standards are the healthiest and most environmentally beneficial for individual homeowners? It’s hard to tell given the huge range of options.  Sure, they’re all designed to measure and certify quantifiable things, such as energy or water usage; the environmental impact of building materials; and more. But many of them that seem similar, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC); the National Association of Home Builder’s Green Building program; individual city initiatives; Green Globes certification from the Green Building Initiative and a host of others cited by the Green Building Alliance.

And in fact, they’re proliferating; new standards come on board with surprising frequency, such as the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) Zero Energy Ready Home program, a certification that establishes rigorous requirements to help homes reach the highest levels of energy savings, comfort, health and durability; the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) FORTIFIED Home to make homes stronger and more resilient; RELi, from a collaborative of stakeholders to promote resilient buildings and communities that are shock resistant, healthy, adaptable and regenerative; the Passive House standard, a performance based system focused on energy efficiency; and more.

Desert Rain House, Bend, OR - by Tozer Design

Living Building Challenge

But the holy grail of efficiency certifications is the Living Building Challenge; its various “petals” encompass site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.  For example, to comply with the water “petal,” the building should be ‘charged’ up once with water, and then receive all future water from onsite water collection.  With its stringent focus on attaining specific “restorative” and “regenerative” benchmarks, the Living Building Challenge is currently the most rigorous “green” housing standard of them all.

Yet that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone, which begs the obvious question:  how does a homeowner decide which ones, if any, to use? Some are associated with higher building costs, which need to be weighed against profitability.  Can you get a green home without spending exorbitant sums of money? And what defines green?  Renewable materials? Lower utility bills? Advanced heating and cooling systems like geothermal (ground source heat pump) and mini-split systems (similar to geothermal, but air source heat pumps)?  Universal accessibility?  We believe that all these standards and terms have merit, but only give us part of the picture.

Leed Platinum Sustainable HomeSlotnik Residence, Glencoe, IL - LEED Platinum designation

What Does Count: Sustainable Building and Resilient Design

Green building is part of a larger goal—sustainability.  Yet the two terms are often used interchangeably without much thought to nuance. If you Google the two terms—green building and sustainable building—the numbers say it all:  the former gets 91 million hits while the latter only 10.4 million. But a sustainably built home offers homeowners a more all-encompassing and strategic option.

How so?  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines green building as “the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s lifecycle.” But sustainable building is broader and more inclusive. As the USGBC notes, sustainable places are “environmentally responsible, healthful, just, equitable, and profitable.” It creates a holistic ecosystem that takes the concept of cradle-to-grave to a holistic level. And perhaps most significantly, it’s not an easy standard to live up to—but certainly a logical step up from simply “being green.”

Another logical step up is to add resilient design to the mix when building sustainable homes. Natural disasters such as the recent spate of hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas, and the wildfires in California, have taught us that green technologies and materials don’t matter much if a building becomes uninhabitable thanks to storms, flooding, earthquakes, power outages and wildfires.

Diagram Smart HomeImage Courtesy of G.E.

So how do all the pieces come together when we design and build a sustainable home?

One of the key aspects of a sustainably designed home is a commitment to reducing energy usage and CO2 emissions.  To accomplish this goal, we start by applying as many appropriate passive design measures as possible to a structure.  These can and should include a very tight building shell, which calls for high levels of insulation and efficient windows and doors, and as much natural day lighting and ventilation as possible.  It also means designing a “right-sized” house with spaces that are flexible enough to fulfill a range of needs; using renewable and /or recycled building materials; and choosing highly efficient mechanical systems, fixtures, finishes and appliances.

Renewable energy systems are another important consideration, and should be incorporated into a sustainable home. These include solar photovoltaic systems; wind power is best left to commercial and utility level installations.

The last piece of the puzzle, if needed, is to make sure any electricity coming in from the grid is from renewable sources. This is possible in many regions of the country through third-party certified renewable sources. In Illinois, SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) are available, at either a price less than, equal to, or very slightly above the current electrical costs.  Generally speaking, renewable grid power should be limited to 20% of the home’s overall power demand.

Following these sustainable building objectives, which are important basics rather than any codified standard, should drive down energy use significantly. It may even bring a home to near zero, or even all the way to a full “net zero” home.

Resilient Home All Electric Home ChicagoCarlson Residence, Chicago, IL

Benefits of Sustainability Designed Resilient Homes

Besides having a lighter environmental impact, sustainably built homes are less expensive to operate and maintain, more carefree thanks to their sustainable systems, and if designed with resilience in mind, can handle natural or man-made disasters.  But most significantly for the homeowner, homes with these features generally command higher resale values.

However, there are often upcharges involved for sustainably designed and built homes, which depend on many factors. They include he price difference between conventional and renewable power; the climate where the house is being built; it’s size; state and local incentives for various features incorporated into the structure; and more.  But in the end, these features have a payback period that makes their benefits far outweigh the initial costs.  Also, these thoughtfully crafted homes tend to be better designed—another reason why they maintain higher resale values.  All told, building and owning a sustainable home is an effective and aesthetically pleasing way to do something good for the environment!