IN PRAISE OF LEED
I read recently about a larger than 10,000 sq. ft., LEED certified Platinum house that was built in Aspen. The article extolled all the “green” elements that had been used into his house to cut down on energy use. Nothing was said about all the energy it cost to build this structure bringing in materials from all over the world and carting them by truck way into the beautiful Colorado Mountains.
Beyond this, I have a contractor friend in California who specializes in high-end work. He recently finished a huge, LEED certified house sitting on an expanse of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He told me that the couple that owned the house said they built it “because they could.”
Can you help me? What about this am I not understanding? Sometimes I still feel like I am still the country boy who migrated out of western Nebraska 60 years ago with mud on his boots and frost on his nose.
With all the LEED bashing going on what can I say that is praiseworthy? From my point of view, down here in the trenches, what LEED has given us is awareness. They have given us a list to measure the greenness or sustainability of a building. They told us that we can, really must, do better using the finite resources we find on this tiny spec of a planet we call home. If we can truly understand, actually feel, the importance of this knowledge and begin to introduce it into how we build, then I think that LEED is worthy of praise.
By the way, can you help me with this? Where does this “bigger is better” concept come from? Is this the American way—“Don’t tread on me”—I will build whatever I want so get out of my way. Should we take note that Native Americans encourage their people to not undertake any project unless they consider what effect it will have on the next seven generations?
There is a mega-house not far from where I live that has seven bathrooms and five fireplaces. A granddaughter says it looks bigger than her middle school. Are the couple and their dog that live there happier than we are in our 1000 sq. ft. house? I hold no moral high ground, but I have never lived, by choice, in a house with more than 1,200 sq. ft. even with a growing family. I say by choice because small houses allowed me to be free to do what I really wanted to do rather than work to pay a large mortgage and insurance bill, spend endless hours in upkeep, pay property taxes beyond my means, and worry about whether I was keeping up with my neighbor or not.
Let’s look at what the LEED list means down on the local, house building level? I asked a builder friend what he thought about LEED and building green. He, like me, was somewhat intimidated by the list. He wanted information that was easy to use that would cut down on energy use and not add 15% or more to the cost of a building. Who in this area, he asked, can afford all that “green bling?”
Here is what his company is doing in this bottomed out construction time. As far as I know they are the only ones building here on the coast, 4 or 5 houses each year for the last several years, most of them pre-sold. The only dead weight they have is a big spec house they built 3 years ago that is sitting empty on a hill.
First of all, they build relatively small, 15,000 sq. ft. or so. Building small seems to be the greenest thing we can do. Dare we even consider what we should do with the 8 million foreclosed houses sitting vacant across our country?
They build as local as they can not bringing in tile from Italy, hardwoods from Brazil, or drywall from China. Even more important, they are not building boxes. They know how to design a house, both inside and out, that welcomes you home with open arms.
Beyond that, here is part of their list, simple things, for the most part, that we can all do without adding much to construction costs:
- Site the house for maximum heating from the sun.
- Build in 2 foot increments—A house 31 ft. 4 in. long uses lots of extra material.
- Seal the sill and all other areas where cold air might infiltrate.
- Use caulking that won’t shrink and crack before escrow closes.
- Many walls are built with studs 2 ft. o.c.
- Windows are double glazed and exterior doors insulated.
- Plumbing for kitchen, utility room, and bath are kept close together.
- Grey water is diverted to flush toilets or water outside plants.
- Low-flow faucets and double-flush toilets cut down on water usage.
- A 300 gallon tank under a downspout allows for rainwater collection.
- They install a small solar hot water heater.
- Skylights let in natural light and let hot air escape.
- They use extra insulation in the floor, walls, and ceiling and put it in with care.
- Large roof overhangs, where needed, shield windows from the hot summer sun and let in the winter sun.
- Timers are put on lights and heaters to help control energy use.
- On the outside, they use material other than concrete to allow water to seep back into the ground.
- Native plants are the norm. No need to buy a lawn mower.
I encouraged them to put in a clothes line. This is not a total list, by far, of rather simple things we can do to “green up” a house. I invite you to add to it in hopes that it might be helpful to builders across the country.