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Expert Interview with Carl Seville Of SK Collaborative On Residential Green Building

Residential green building

Sustainable architecture has been catching on in the last few years. Many people only think of green building in terms of large-scale public projects like universities. But there is an increasing trend towards residential green building as well, and for good reason.

Green building is not only limited to the materials with which a project is constructed. Sustainable architecture also ensures that a building is best suited for the local climate, and can feature any number of innovative HVAC solutions.

We talked to Carl Seville, of the Decatur, Georgia green building experts SK Collaborative, to find out more about residential green buildings and their many merits.

How is green building related to smart growth and sustainable development?

Green building covers more than just the building itself. It also addresses the location of the building in regards to walkable neighborhoods by having resources that are within walking distance such as stores, restaurants, schools, mass transit, etc. that help reduce driving miles. Reducing driving allows us to build fewer roads, leaving more of the landscape in its natural state which helps improve air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve the health of individuals by promoting walking. Also, using locally-sourced materials helps support the local economy, increasing job opportunities in manufacturing, wholesale, and retail businesses.

In your bio, you talk about some health advantages of green building such as reducing air pollutants. What are a few other health benefits and how does green building achieve these results?

Within a green home, improved air quality can lead to fewer allergic reactions and asthma attacks. This comes from a combination of a reduced risk of mold through better moisture control, fewer toxic materials being introduced into the air by careful product selection, cleaner air from better air sealing, better HVAC design and installation, and high quality filters. Outside air ventilation through ERVs and HRVs and high quality bathroom and kitchen exhaust systems remove and dilute pollutants including moisture, chemicals that offgas from construction materials and furnishings, and food odors to further improve air quality and occupant health.

For those that don’t know, can you tell us what a LEED building is, and what the benefits of this certification are?

LEED is a certification program that tracks 8 key components of a home: Integrated Design, Location, Site Development, Energy Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Material Use, Indoor Air Quality, and Education and Maintenance. Like many green certification programs, LEED has certain minimum requirements and optional criteria that when combined allow a project to meet certification requirements. The LEED for Homes certification process requires a 3rd party professional known as a Green Rater to inspect the project at various stages, test for duct and envelope leakage at the end, and review documentation to confirm that all program requirements have been met.

Green building frequently uses more sustainable materials, such as cob instead of wood. This gives some green buildings a rustic appearance. Does a building have to look like a barn to be green?

Green buildings can be any shape, style, and design. Most traditional homes were designed for their particular climate, using architectural features to help keep the occupants comfortable without central heating and air conditioning and to help preserve the structure through durable construction details. In hot, wet climates, large overhangs both shade windows to reduce heat gain and keep water away from the structure to extend its life. A hot dry climate may use masonry construction to act as a heat sink to keep the occupants cool. The advent of central HVAC has created a situation where any style of house can be built in any climate, often the wrong one. Using appropriate materials and designs for each climate and paying careful attention to the details throughout the construction process, any style of house can be green.

How might a contractor work with architects and interior designers as part of the green building process to make everyone’s lives easier and deliver the best product?

It makes a lot of sense to bring in a consultant who specializes in high performance construction to work with the contractor, architect, and other consultants to make sure the project is as sustainable as possible. The green consultant should be a part of the team from the beginning to help guide the team through the process, making sure that the best decisions are made at every stage. I am often presented with complete plans and then asked to help make a project green. My usual response is “too late.” I can make it better, but in most cases too many decisions have already been made that compromise the whole building performance to make it great. Trying to layer “green” onto an existing plan is always challenging. and often costs more than if it had been considered from the beginning.

Do you think residential green building catching on?

Residential green building is strong in some regions and market sectors. Single family green homes are popular in some markets, mostly in the western US. Green multifamily construction is advancing rapidly in both the affordable and market rate sectors. We have found that quite a bit of affordable housing is green certified, due to both tax incentives and the developers, desire to have a long lasting, high performance building. In the market rate sector, it appears that institutional investors, long used to LEED certified buildings in their commercial portfolios, are looking for their residential properties to be certified as well. We are currently certifying both new and renovated apartment projects throughout the eastern US.

For contractors who are just getting started, what are some advantages of investigating green building techniques, whether financial, environmental, or personal?

When done correctly, green building can reduce a contractor’s liability through techniques that limit mold growth and improve indoor air quality. High quality insulation and air sealing can reduce the cost of HVAC systems and create a more comfortable home. Homeowners who live in green homes find them more comfortable, have lower energy bills, and often are healthier; this level of client satisfaction can lead to more referrals.

There is a learning curve, and contractors will need to invest time in learning how to build and renovate green. Once they understand, however, it is not difficult to build better buildings for the same, or even less, money than standard construction. It does require some different thinking and attention to detail. Many contractors who choose to go green have experienced expanded market share and increased profits. Many people say there is no demand, but I believe there are opportunities to help create that demand and then benefit from it. Think about all the products that were created before there was a market: microwave ovens, cell phones, DVRs, and GPS. No one asked for them; people came up with them and then created their own markets. If there isn’t a market for green building in a particular area, it is possible to create it and then sell into it.

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