Dear Dot: Any Recommendations for Building a Green Home?

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Dear Dot, 

My wife and I are looking to buy a newly built home and are talking to builders. Here in southeast PA (we’re formerly from Brooklyn), there is no discussion about environmentally sensitive building or efficient heating/cooling issues. We get blank stares when we mention these issues.

Is there a handy checklist you can recommend for us to ask a builder to include in a home in this area? Or things we should look for?

—Joe Lorusso

The Short Answer: If you want a sustainable home, according to Izumi Tanaka, green realtor, home advisor, and host of the podcast Home Green Homes, the first thing to look for is that it’s all-electric. And she means modern all-electric, not outdated wires from the ’50s. If you have to prioritize one thing, she says, prioritize this. 

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Dear Joe,

In the mid aughts, when Mr. Dot and I were renovating our leaky, mansard-roofed, two-storey 1960s house, we sought out expertise on installing solar panels. We also considered geothermal heating. But the Dots were a bit ahead of the curve, and we were, like you, Joe, mostly greeted with blank stares. So I understand your frustration. Except. Except it's roughly two decades later, and solar panels are as common as dandelions, heat pumps are having a moment, and who in their right mind would even consider an appliance that wasn't energy-efficient? What's more, Pennsylvania, while admittedly not Brooklyn, isn't exactly a backwater. So … what gives? Alas, it seems your fate to be something of a Pennsylvania pioneer, pushing forward with environmental consciousness into new territory and urging those around you to travel alongside you.

So, whether you end up buying an existing home or opt for a new build, Dot wants to equip you with what you need to consider or seek out.

A perfunctory Google search did turn up this site: Earth911. Note also that there are several national certification programs that can be helpful in your search:

  • The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) will point you to a Certified Green Professional (CGP)
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)  has a list of Accredited Professionals
  • Green Advantage (GA) provides a roster of Green Advantage Certified Practitioners (GACPs)
  • Earth Advantage also certifies builders as environmentally friendly.

Dot also spoke with Izumi Tanaka, green realtor, home advisor, and host of the podcast Home Green Homes about the most important green features to make sure your home includes. While Izumi is based in California, she shared tips that apply to anyone across the country. 

If you want a sustainable home, Izumi says, the first thing to look for is that it’s all-electric. And she means modern all-electric, not outdated wires from the ‘50s. If you have to prioritize one thing, prioritize this.

While most of us immediately think of solar panels, Izumi says that this actually might not be the best strategy to prioritize. “Solar panels are the last thing to put on,” she says, “because unless your home is energy efficient, you’d be generating all that power and wasting it.”  

Instead, focus on insulation, which is especially important in the attic. This is, of course, more important on the East Coast and in other climates with colder winters. You should also make sure that the house has a good ventilation system, especially if you have a fireplace or cook a lot. 

Avoid systems that require burning fossil fuels. Think electric. Look for a heat pump water heater, heat pump HVAC system, and appliances that are ENERGY STAR certified.  

In addition to ENERGY STAR, there are a number of other green energy certifications Izumi recommends: Home Energy Score, Home Energy Rating System (HERS), and Pearl Certification

“If they find older homes that have gas appliances, there are pathways so they can convert that,” Izumi says. The Inflation Reduction Act offers incentives to decarbonize your home, which will vary based on where you live.

Concerning materials, make sure the flooring and cabinets are not particle board, which often contains a resin that releases formaldehyde gas when it breaks down. For any wood material, you should look for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, a respected third-party verification program ensuring products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. For flooring and carpeting and furniture, Green Guard is a good label to keep an eye out for. 

For water faucets and shower heads, look for a WaterSense label. 

Izumi also tells us that, when it comes to more Earth-friendly building materials, “there’s a lot of progressive innovations happening.” Hemp, popular on the East Coast, is being used to insulate exterior walls. Straw-bale homes use tightly packed straw insulation, which is then plastered over. They’re highly efficient, and straw is an agricultural waste product that has already absorbed carbon in its growth. Cross-laminated timber — manufactured by joining sheets of solid wood in perpendicular layers (similar to how plywood is made) — is growing in popularity, thanks in part to its greater structural rigidity.

And when looking to green your property, don’t stop with just your home itself; also give some thought to what’s around it — your yard and landscaping. Consider water conservation and stewardship of land around the property. Prioritize native species that thrive in your environment and support the wildlife you want to protect — our pollinators and songbirds and bats, for instance. Trees planted strategically can shade your home in summer, reducing the need for AC. 

“If someone is buying an existing home, it’s a good thing to get an energy audit done,” Izumi says. There’s a tax credit available for energy audits. You can find this, along with the list of credentials an auditor should have, on the Department of Energy website

Izumi also notes that some lenders offer “green financing” to help buyers get improvements to the homes they buy. The bank factors the cost of improvements into the purchase loan, and some of them offer lower rates for doing energy efficiency upgrades. 

And one final thing, Joe: Be cautious around homeowners' associations, know better as HOAs. Roughly a quarter of Americans live in communities governed by HOAs. Not only will you need to factor in potential additional association fees to the price of your home, but also, you’ll want to fully understand the HOA’s regulations, which may forbid such eco-friendly (and cost-effective) practices as clotheslines, electric car chargers, vegetable gardens, and lawn rewilding. 

Constructively, 

Dot

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