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Building green isn't easy

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POSTED: December 20, 2007 5:02 a.m.
In these times of combined threat from climate change, peak oil, pollution and toxic waste, green home building not only makes sense, it is imperative.
But the roadblocks put up to stop residential green building (some on purpose, some accidental, some absurd) are keeping Americans from investing in eco-friendly homes.
Let’s start with financial lenders. Though big banks will readily lend money at high risk to sub-prime home buyers, there is astoundingly little money available if you’re building green — no matter how good your credit.
Take the case of my wife and I. We sought a home construction loan to build off the grid using solar photo voltaic cells for all of our electricity needs — hardly experimental construction, since solar panels have been on the market for decades. But a query to a big lender, Wells Fargo Bank, turned from thumbs-up to thumbs-down the moment we proposed going off the grid with solar.
“Unusual construction,” said the apologetic broker. “We can’t take a risk on that kind of loan.”
But the house we sought financing for is not unusual. It’s a house.
Likewise with other large lending institutions we contacted. Ultimately we borrowed much of the money needed from a personal friend and bypassed the banks. But it shouldn’t be this way. Federal home construction loan guarantees should be made available to banks that invest in “unusual construction” including solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative energy technologies.
Next roadblock: building codes. Many electric, water and septic rules preclude green building. Take, for example, the straw-clay with which we built our home’s walls. The technology is tried and true — thousands of years old and used from ancient Persia to modern Africa, and even in England (think Tudor-style cottage construction). However most building codes around the U.S. would forbid such construction in favor of sheetrock, fiberglass insulation, Portland cement and other non-green materials.
So too with septic systems. In Vermont, where we built our green home, state rules disallow some of the newest high-tech waste disposal systems, including living machines, grey water systems, and composting and incinerating toilets. Instead, traditional systems that require heavy earthmoving equipment, many gas-guzzling truckloads of gravel and topsoil, and a 1,000-gallon concrete holding tank are required.
While this statewide Vermont law is meant to protect groundwater and wetlands, it was also lobbied through the legislature by septic engineers and excavators who make an excellent living designing and constructing traditional-but-wasteful septic systems.
So long as outdated technology is codified in our building ordinances, green building will be unable to move ahead apace in most areas. State and federal governments should be helping cities and towns to rewrite their codes to include all kinds of green alternatives.
Next conundrum: Builders. Many contractors won’t touch a green building project because it means teaching old dogs new tricks, and new tricks take time to learn, and time is money. Developers continue to build helter-skelter on the landscape, with no attention given to even the simplest green building techniques, such as orienting a home for south-facing windows that maximize solar gain in winter, or planting deciduous trees to maximize cooling in summer.
Government should fund free education courses that help contractors leave behind the wasteful building practices of the past. Green building consultants could be hired to staff state and county offices, much like the agricultural extension services of the past.
Another key area of neglect is research. Instead of billions in federal dollars going to the fossil fuel industry, why not put some of those already available tax dollars into setting up regional research institutes for green home building. Such institutes would make a study of locally available building materials, recycled materials, and other eco-friendly techniques appropriate to that region, and pass the information on to homebuilders and homeowners.
All the news isn’t bad. The Energy Policy Act enacted by Congress in 2006 offers a federal tax credit of up to $2,000 for homeowners who install solar-electric generators.
New York State similarly offers incentives that help defray the cost of installing a solar system by 30 to 70 percent. Vermont gave us $1,000 back on our $15,000 off-grid solar system. But such assistance barely scratches the surface of what is needed.
Tax credits need to be implemented which not only support alternative energy, but that reward eco-friendly site planning, houses with smaller footprints (under 2,000 square feet), and that utilize all kinds of green building materials.
The average U.S. home today emits about four metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent per person, per year — about 17 percent of all U.S. emissions — according to research by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With the Arctic ice cap melting at an alarming and accelerating rate and oil prices soaring to the $100 per barrel mark, it’s time we helped the homebuilding industry to discover its green future.
 

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