"Green" architecture and home construction are politically correct buzzwords but there are no universally accepted standards, so what it means exactly isn't always clear. In contrast, standards for "eco-friendly" homes do exist, but how does a consumer know when a home which the builder says is "green" is actually assembled with ecological priorities, especially if the price is higher than a non-green home?
Eco-friendly homes are required to have levels of insulation which usually exceed local building code requirements, including the floor insulation, walls, floors and ceilings. Even windows should be insulated, at a minimum double paned and/or vinyl windows.
Green homes must be built with green materials, but must also be energy efficient. That includes low water use toilets with variable options for more efficient solid waste flushing. Water conservation can also be enhanced with specially designed shower heads, washing machines, faucets and dishwashers. Electricity conservation can be improved with low draw air conditioners, heaters, refrigerators, freezers and other appliances. Lighting efficiency can be
achieved with newer fluorescent lights or even LED lights in some applications.
Another important dimension of green homes is the implementation of non-toxic or minally toxic materials. Look for low VOC paints, where VOC is an acronym for volatile organic compounds. VOCs evaporate over time into your home's atmosphere and many are toxic to humans. In general, lighter colored paint means fewer VOC's, so paler, neutral colors are not just good for resale value, their better for your health! Carpeting can also be a source of VOCs, so eco-friendly homes are more likely to use wool and cotton for carpets and window treatments. These natural materials are generally safer because they do not require as much chemical processing in their manufacturing.
Bamboo and cork flooring are also popular in green homes. Not only is bamboo a natural material, but it grows quickly, so its use is less demanding on our planet's resources. It's also a versatile design material, allowing a range of choices in styles and colors. Cork is also a sustainably grown building material. Cork can be harvested from trees without harming the trees, and the cork bark grows back within a year. Cork also has design advantages, providing an appealing, warm floor surface that almost seems like it's still alive.
Energy and water conservation should also be part of the exterior design of the home. Use of drought resistant native plants, sometimes referred to as xeriscaping is an attractive landscaping approach that can be beautiful as well as green. The use of unsealed paving stones in driveways and walkways allow water seep back into the ground instead of just evaporating into the atmosphere. This can help with local water usage if that water is allowed to replenish ground-water resources and also minimize run-off of oil and exhaust residual toxins into storm drains.
If you're paying more for a green home, be sure to ask the builder which components have green designs. Compare those features with their conventional counterparts and you should be able to quantify the advantages, both to the environment and to your pocketbook. If you can't do that, you heart may be in the right place, but you might also be taken advantage of.
Image credit: "Solar Decathlon 2011 Design Development Model" by Dept of Energy/Flickr Creative Commons License