Thursday, October 9, 2008

Certifiably Green, Part 1

This is the year for going green. In our local paper, several builders are trumpeting green building practices. It's an easy claim to make, but what does it mean?

There are two measures for determining that new buildings meet environmental targets -- Energy Star and LEED. Energy Star is a government program administered by the EPA and DOE. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is sponsored by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED was created in the early 90s to give quantifiable performance measures for sustainability--and also to motivate and stimulate the industry to strive to adopt best practices to earn the LEED distinction. Energy Star hails from the same time, but its focus is on energy rather than performance.

Back then, sustainability was a pretty hard sell. Long-term savings that required a higher initial cost for systems and materials were trumped by short-term cost issues. That was the case until recently, when "pain at the pump" and the shock of the monthly heating bill made it all too personal. Factor in the bad news from global environmental fronts, and sustainability suddenly becomes a major issue when planning new construction.

Today the market wants green buildings, and the industry wants to be able to market its green building creds. Hence LEED and Energy Star are much-sought distinctions these days.

As its name suggests, the Energy Star program focuses on energy, rather than performance. While the program is best known for the nifty labels on products that help consumers make buying choices, Energy Star also certifies new homes. A certified home is about 15% more energy-efficient than those built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC) standard, and about 25-30% more than most houses in general.

LEED rates new homes on a host of criteria, including operating costs, reduced waste, energy and water conservation, health and safety for occupants, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Certified homes qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances, and other incentives, as well as demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

On the farm outside Middleburg, the geothermal heating system shown in the photos was sunk into the pond to provide energy for the prefab tidewater cottage in the background. The finished house will probably meet Energy Star requirements, and we hope it will earn LEED certification as well.

We are fortunate that the owners of the farm, our clients, are committed to the environment -- and also to traditional architecture. As designers, we are happy to be able to offer visual proof that a house built to green specifications can be beautiful and suited to its rural setting, designed in a vernacular style with appropriate detailing, built with traditional materials such as wood, stone, and brick, yet crafted using the efficiencies of factory fabrication.