The Cost of Being “Green”

I recently read an article on Good Magazine’s website about LEED and its comparison with other current green building measures. This article, along with many others that have mentioned the economics of the new green movement, spurred my thinking about the different costs of a green building (and in particular homes, as that is my main interest). I’ll take a look at some of the aspects of designing and building a green structure and evaluate their relative costs and products.  

  1. LEED-certified buildings. This is probably the system that I know the best, having worked in the field and helped to maintain the paperwork and evaluations for LEED certification. As I mentioned in my previous post about green building in the U.S., LEED is very costly to even register for, and is generally geared more towards developers and businessmen who can use the LEED label as a value-add. The article in Good Magazine argues that the LEED system needs to have stricter standards, which I also agree with, but I also think that it needs to be more accessible. Right now, the numbers of families that are seeking certification for their own homes is very small, a sector that needs to be appealed to in the green department. While many say that the cost of a LEED building is offset by the savings that are made in operations and maintenance over time, the fact is that we still do not have good information on how these buildings perform, and the up-front costs of not only the registration, but the design and construction of these buildings are a major deterrent. In general, I think that the money spent on these buildings is similar to a brand-name clothing purchase: you get the label, but the quality of the quality of the product is still debatable.
  2. ENERGY STAR buildings. I have also worked a bit with this rating system, but they recently overhauled it to be much more stringent. This program is run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and is a bar for both buildings and products. The ENERGY STAR system has been around for longer than LEED, and therefore has more information to back up its success. Certifying an ENERGY STAR home is cheaper than obtaining a LEED certification, and some argue that it is a better and more effective system, producing more efficient buildings. This point is of course debatable, but ENERGY STAR definitely beats LEED in the accessibility department, and it seems that more homeowners are willing to invest in an ENERGY STAR home, not just for the reasons of cost, but also because ENERGY STAR has created a system for existing structures, something that LEED has yet to do for the residential sector.
  3. Passive House system. I can’t say that I know much about the Passive House system, as it is mainly popular in Europe. This system doesn’t require certification and validation, but rather acts as a support network for people who wish to build very energy efficient homes. Started in Germany, the Passivhaus Institut was formed to define what a passive home is, and to help people build them. While the owners of these houses do not get a shiny plaque to put on their buildings, the standards for creating a passive home are quite impressive, and they generally use a small fraction of the energy compared to a ‘normal’ house. The U.S. chapter of the Institute offers consulting services and tools to help build these homes, but are in general not overbearing in their requirements. The main problem with this system is that most people in the U.S. know nothing or very little about it. Hopefully, in the coming years builders will learn about this system and use it to their advantage.
  4. Pre-fab. A big buzz that has been going around the design world lately is pre-fab architecture. Whether it’s turning shipping containers into apartment buildings, putting a house together using Standard Insulated Panels, or just buying a flat-out pre-fab home, it’s getting popular and more cost-effective. A company called Blu Homes is a well-known designer of small-scale, sustainable pre-fab homes. Their business seems to be going strong despite these dark recession days, and their movement is gaining momentum. While getting a pre-fab home is generally much cheaper than paying a designer to build you a bonafide “green” home, the costs are still usually much higher than what an average home buyer can pay (upwards of $200k). I think that a combination of different forms of pre-fab is definitely in our future, because parts can be mass-produced once we have the expertise and facilities, but there is still a certain amount of customization available in design. I think that over the next 10-20 years, the costs of pre-fab will go down and these methods will become the new and improved version of our large-scale suburban developments today.

After looking at all these standards and methods, it really becomes apparent that the U.S. is fledgling in its attempts to create some sort of universally-accepted green building system that can be used easily and cheaply. It will most likely be a combination of these ideas and more to come that we will eventually settle on to create and spread green architecture in our country.