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Live Green

Go Green When Building

These steps help you get closer to an environmentally friendly home. 

Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens®

You’ve heard about the green movement. Now it’s your turn to join the effort by going green with your next home-building endeavor. Making conservation-conscious decisions can save money and resources. All it takes is some homework and the effort to find the best products and designs that allow you to make the most of the green building initiative that is spreading across the country. Here are 10 steps to get you moving in the right direction.

Go Green When Building

1. Get oriented. Before you build, study the lay of the land, and put the sun to work for you and your home. Notice how the sunshine travels across the property, then orient your house so the rooms you'll use most often catch the best rays.

Take your climate into account. Are winters brutally cold? Plan your home so main living areas -- or any rooms you might use during the limited daylight hours of winter -- receive southern exposure. If harsh winters swing into sizzling summers, invest in high-efficiency windows (such as those with low-E glass) to keep cool.

2. Don't waste space. Do you really need a guest room? How often would you use a den? Eliminating rooms that you'd rarely use will help keep your building budget in line. In addition, you'll save the cost of heating and cooling these rooms in the future. Sit down and examine how you'll use each space in your home. What you decide might not adhere to conventional design standards, but if it will work for your family, go ahead.

3. Help out your HVAC system. Make your building materials and home design work double duty. That way, you can purchase a central air-conditioner and a furnace with less power -- and a smaller price tag. For example, use argon-gas-filled double-glazed windows. Then you can let in vast sheets of sunlight and save on the heat bill at the same time.

Ventilation is also an important part of heating and cooling. Strategically placed doors at either end of the house, along with double-hung windows at reachable heights, can be opened to let breezes sweep through the house. Similarly, an open floor plan allows heated or cooled air to pass easily from one space to the next.

Money, Doors, Surfaces, Water

4. Spend money where it counts. How your building budget is allocated is largely an individual decision, but creating an energy-efficient home usually requires a few up-front expenses that will save money in the future. Paying extra for custom work can maximize a modest space; that can be more economical than spending money and resources on additional square footage.

5. Skip the doors. Of course, doors on certain rooms, such as closets, bathrooms, and the master bedroom, are a must, but limiting the use of doors can help decrease costs. Consider separating rooms with a simple step down, a corner, or a change in ceiling height that allows the entire space to drink in the same sunlight and air (whether heated, cooled, or fresh from the outdoors), while still visually dividing the spaces.

6. Leave surfaces exposed. Drywall and the labor required to install it can get expensive. Think about leaving ceiling beams -- and the recessed lighting therein -- exposed in several areas of the house, including the breakfast room and part of the kitchen. Exposed structural elements provide visual interest and give the illusion of more volume and a higher ceiling.

7. Save water. New toilets are stingy with water, using a standard 1.6 gallons per flush. Some toilets have dual-flush handles, which allow you to choose between flushing less water (just over a gallon) for light waste or using the full amount for solid waste.

Opting for short showers rather than baths will conserve even more water, as will installing low-flow showerheads. Especially if your house has a septic tank, it's important not to overuse water. You're also saving a natural resource.

Coatings, Recycling, Natural

8. Use simple (or no) coatings. Chemical paints and coatings can be a source of major irritation in a new home. Not only can they aggravate asthma or allergies -- especially in children -- but they also require adequate ventilation and drying time.

Use water-base paints. They have less odor and require less cleanup than oil-base or alkyd paints. Treat wood floors with a citrus-base oil for a light sheen rather than with layer after layer of polyurethane.

9. Use renewable or recycled products. Simple choices in finish materials can help make your home ecologically sound. Opt for flooring manufactured from recycled materials where possible, such as rubber with embedded neoprene chips in an entryway. Not only is rubber resilient, easy-to-clean flooring, but using a recycled version keeps the material from ending up in landfills.

In the absence of recycled materials, select products that are renewable. Purchase exterior wood doors from a company that buys its lumber from a conservation forest (the company plants a new tree for every tree that's harvested).

Use maple butcher block for kitchen countertops, or fireslate, a material that looks like slate but costs about half as much. Fireslate is used in laboratories, especially in school science classrooms, because of its durability, heat-resistance, and low cost.

10. Go natural, not synthetic. Select cellulose insulation, which is made out of plant fiber, instead of fiberglass, and Homasote, a recycled newspaper product, as a substitute for drywall in some places. Use linoleum for the kitchen floor rather than vinyl, carpet made of wool and sisal, a natural grasslike fiber and wood floors. A metal roof shields the house from harsh sunlight, and since it's not petrochemically produced, is a nontoxic material.

More Tips

Green building, while certainly not difficult, is not quite mainstream yet, at least in most regions. That's why it's a good idea to research the subject on your own so you know what to ask for and what sort of things will work for your new house. Scour home improvement magazines and books for tips, and explore the Internet for information (conducting a search for the term "green building" will help you get started. Your search will lead you to local, regional, and national sources for eco-sensitive materials and methods.

"You have to dig and find out about these things for yourself," says architect James Sterling. "It's still a kind of underground thing." It's also important to work with architects, designers, and other home-building professionals who are familiar with environmentally friendly materials on the market. These people will know what's available, where to buy, and how to get a fair price.

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