Green Building


A more rigorous approach to green building
by Rob Bolman

(Presented to the Eugene Sustainability Commission on January 8, 2008)

All over Eugene there are houses that are substandard in their energy efficiency and in their prospects for longevity. A lot of them are also not especially beautiful and contribute to a low level of density. It is simply not enough for EWEB to offer modest incentive programs for weatherization as many people won’t be bothered with it or will do the bare minimum.

I suggest that the City of Eugene become more aggressive in encouraging all owners of housing and other buildings in Eugene to upgrade their properties. The City of Eugene along with EWEB could offer attractive, zero or low interest loans toward various home improvements. I believe much of the program could be structured so as to pay for itself with energy savings and increases in property values. City staff could perform simple design and engineering services. The City could hire design professionals and energy auditors (such as Eugene’s Climate Masters) to go into people’s homes to make suggestions. The whole program could be very attractively sold to people as an exciting, green opportunity to dramatically improve and beautify their homes.

In order for the program to have the impact that we need, the owners of ALL houses and other buildings need to participate. Lane County’s property taxes could be given a two tiered structure: a lower tier for those who’ve gone through the program and a higher tier for those who haven’t. Another way to encourage participation in the program would be to have tiered energy rates from EWEB and NW Natural Gas. Under such a program, those who use more energy proportionate to their house’s square footage and/or number of occupants would pay a higher rate for their energy. A retired couple living in a 5000 sq. foot house would have a strong incentive to energy upgrade or to split their house into more than one dwelling. Conversely, a family living a modest, energy conserving lifestyle would be rewarded with reduced energy rates.

Improving energy efficiency should consist of far more than just blowing conventional insulation into existing wall cavities and installing double-glazed vinyl windows. Every effort should be made to produce zero-net-energy buildings in this process. Solar hot water systems already pay for themselves through energy savings. Various subsidies now make photovoltaic systems more affordable than ever. Many older houses with 2x4 walls could well stand to have their walls opened up, the wall thickness increased, the wiring upgraded, and THEN be insulated. There are advanced insulation systems that are not widely available because the demand isn’t there. The City of Eugene could set contractors up in business installing advanced, non-toxic super insulation systems that go far beyond common, itchy fiberglass.

Eugene has many 1940’s era houses built with no eaves (a shortsighted idea for this climate!). Especially if such houses, still have the old skip sheathing with three old layers of roofing, they would be ideal candidates for a second story addition. This would create the eaves that any house in this climate should have thus increasing the longevity of the windows and siding and it would double the square footage of the house. The new roof would be oriented to the south for the installation of solar panels.

Eugene has many older houses with substandard foundations. These houses have crawl spaces that are a source of misery for any maintenance person, and thus the termite and dryrot problems common in these houses often go unaddressed. While lifting these houses up two feet to install a new foundation is a good idea, it is possible to lift them up ten or twelve feet and construct a new first floor beneath them. Whether it’s a second story addition or a new first floor, in both cases, square footage is doubled, longevity is enhanced, energy efficiency is increased and hopefully, the house is made more beautiful.

Ideally, a second story addition or a new first floor would result in not just a bigger house, but a second dwelling unit - effectively doubling the density that the house provides for the community. Given that any meaningful attempt at achieving sustainability in Eugene will include a halt to sprawl-type growth and development, squeezing additional dwelling units into Eugene’s existing housing stock will help to relieve the pressure for population growth without producing sprawl. Off street parking requirements should not be an obstacle to the creation of additional dwelling units in this manner.

While I feel that it would be reasonable for the City of Eugene to insist that older houses be brought up to a certain standard in energy efficiency, doubling the height of a house will probably need to be optional as it would be a major ordeal for the occupants and it will only apply to a minority of houses. But increasing home height CAN sold to home owners in a very attractive way. People can be told, “You can continue to have a dreary 1940’s cracker box or for very little financial hardship, you can have a state-of-the-art eco trophy house.”

Making houses beautiful is not just a nice idea. A beautiful house is loved and therefore cared for and maintained. For this reason, a beautiful house can last centuries while ugly 40 year-old tract houses go to landfills every day. So beauty is an important part of sustainability, to say nothing of civic pride.

Longevity in our built environment is central to the sustainable culture that we’re striving for. It is utterly absurd to invest considerable non renewable resources into a building that is demolished 25 years later - which is often the case with our single story commercial boxes. It is not a coincidence that much of today’s housing is built to last about the length of a 30 year mortgage. Even a staunch conservative should be able to concede that spending 10% more on materials and 10% more on labor makes sense if it results in a building that will last four times as long. For this reason, I could suggest various changes to the building codes which would, in certain respects, actually make the codes more stringent.

All wood for various building improvements should come from local Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests. This would help to retain the healthy forest ecosystems essential to seriously addressing climate change and create more jobs in the logging industry. All new cabinets, windows and doors should be manufactured in Eugene out of non-toxic, environmentally sensitive materials. The use of vinyl and other toxic products should be kept to a minimum. Energy intensive concrete and steel should only be used in the context of extreme anticipated longevity so that their embodied energy costs will amortize out over time. This would make tilt-up, big box type buildings viable only if there are several stories of housing above them.

While the City of Eugene is encouraging the modification all these houses, various other things could be done. Gardeners could have rainwater catchment installed. Attached greenhouses, could add to the solar heating of a house and also produce food. Backyard fences could be removed to create community gardens. Various elements of Permaculture could be implemented.


Nic Darling, 100K House - In an interview a few weeks ago I was asked what our premium was for building LEED Platinum. The reporter had done some research and found that the highest level of LEED for homes usually carried a 15-20% markup and wanted to know what the added cost was for our project. It was a difficult question since we don't have a non-LEED version of the house with which to compare, but eventually I said, "Um . . . I guess . . . negative 5%" (an estimation of my interview articulacy). I went on to explain that, with the average new home built in Philadelphia coming in at a minimum of $125 per square foot in hard construction costs and our, admittedly more sparse, home hitting $100 psf, I figured that number was defensible.

The next question of course is why? Why do production home builders and established developers, people who have been building homes for many years, have to spend 15% more to get to LEED Platinum while us rookies are getting there at a discount? It was a question I had no concise answer to until a few days ago when an acquaintance, who wishes to remain anonymous, gave me a piece of her grandmother's wisdom in explanation . . . "It is because they're polishing a turd.". . .

Most of the builders and developers reporting high premiums for pursuing LEED are still trying to build the exact same home they have always built. They are simply adding features to make that same house energy efficient, healthy and sustainable. This addition gets expensive.

Builders, successful ones anyway, often have a basic home that they build over and over. They know how it goes together. They can build it quickly and inexpensively, and most importantly, they know it will sell. When they are suddenly faced with the need to "go green," they are understandably reluctant to make significant changes to the design of their proven house. Location, interior fixtures, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage and window placement are all tested and successful specs. The familiar methods of construction they use are easy for them to estimate and well known to every sub-contractor and laborer on the site. There is, in their minds, less management and less risk.

So, they polish the turd. Rather than redesign the house that has been successful for them in the past, they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. Since the features are add-ons and extras, the price rises as each one is tacked on.

To avoid these extra costs, one must start the home design process with affordability and sustainability factored into every decision. One simply can't, in most instances, build the same home in the same place using the same techniques and expect to accomplish those goals. For example, one can't:

- build on arable land 20 miles from the nearest amenities.

- build a 5000 square foot single family home.

- have more windows than walls, particularly on the north and west side.

- add a garage.

- have giant spa tubs in each bathroom.

And so on . .