Q&A: Is building green worth it?

DoeringinhallQuestion: I'm somewhat of a beginning investor/builder. I'm not passionate about green since it’s my belief that it's just that much more costlier and time consuming for me. I know its better for the environment. That doesn't move me as I’m a bottom-line kind of person.

However, I want to educate myself (without having to go back to a four-year college) on reasons it’s cost effective for a builder to go green so that, if nothing else, I don't skirt my profit margins. And, as a bonus, if it works for the environment, super!

Any suggestions on where to start? People I could meet with? As an FYI, I looked into ICFs (insulated concrete forms) but when we did the case study on single family residences in average areas, they were not cost effective at all. It is cost effective for the homeowner after 20 years, but realizing the fact that 90 percent of people will not stay in their first homes more than five to 10 years, it's really not beneficial for them. Anyway, any help would be appreciated. — Saul Garcia

Answer: Saul, thanks for the question. I'm going to give you some thoughts, and then invite other bloggers here to join in on the discussion.

You bring up an important fact about people not living in their homes very long. When homeowners consider installing a solar energy system that pays for itself in seven years, and the homeowners know they will be moving in five years, well, there's no financial incentive to get up off the couch and take action.

We are at the early stages of what I believe will be a monumental change in thinking about our habits, waste, energy, and the survival of the natural world. Many have been passionate about these issues for decades, but now it seems to me the vast majority of people are concerned.

Still, as far as technology goes, perhaps only those who are passionate (and you say you are not) will see the benefits of building green at this time.

(Photo: SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times)

You may be the type of investor or builder that needs to wait until there are more statistics that show green homes sell for more and sell faster. Right now, those statistics are emerging, but not enough to motivate a conservative investor. There are already cost benefits in generating less waste during construction, as your dump fees will be less. But this takes advance planning and an intention to make it work. Without passion, it’s easier to just do things the way they’ve always been done. My husband likes to joke that he will do anything as long as it doesn’t take any time, effort or money.

I believe that homes that are built green — energy efficient, water conserving, with good air quality and natural lighting and air flow — will soon sell at a premium and make conventionally built homes seem inferior.

Eventually, as municipalities give you breaks on your building permits and expedite those permits (and this is happening in some places), and as economy-of-scale and research dollars bring down the cost of products like solar panels, for instance, and raise their efficiency, then it will be folly not to build green. As there is such a long lead time from conception to sales in home building, it might actually be risky not to build green as the market may be totally focused in that direction when your project is done.

Bottom line: Unless you’re passionate about it, and see your work contributing to the greater good for your future buyers and for society at large, you probably need to wait and see what happens and follow the lead of others. At this time, I’d say green building is mostly for those who consider themselves leaders.

For those who are interested in learning more:

• There’s a green building conference coming up Sept. 20 to 22 in San Francisco called West Coast Green. Here you will find all the superstars of the green building movement: Sarah Susanka (author of the Not So Big House books), Ed Begley Jr. (star of Living with Ed on HGTV), and Michelle Kauffmann, designer of the green prefabricated Glidehouse, among others.
• The American Institute of Architects put out a list of Basic, No-cost Green Building Strategies. (Just FYI: Architects and the AIA have long been passionate promoters of green building.)
• The U.S. Green Building Council has developed rating programs to certify buildings as being green. The council focused first on commercial buildings, municipal building, schools, and residential high-rise, and is now rolling out a LEED for Homes rating program that you would be wise to learn about. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
California Green Builder, a program developed by builders for builders that is less strict than the LEED program.

So that’s my two cents. Anyone else got some thoughts for Saul?

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5 Comments on Q&A: Is building green worth it?

  1. zeta cross

    Mr. Garcia should talk to a realtor about marketing his projects as “green.” To do that he needs to consult with an Ecobroker (a realtor who specializes in energy efficiency) and an energy rater as he plans his project. A lot of “green decisions” : building orientation, window choices, duct sealing,are in the planning. Some communities are already primed to pay more for “green”. Once the project is built, Mr. Garcia needs to demonstrate to buyers that his buildings are energy efficient. Do this by getting an energy rater to do a report that can be given to potential buyers. If the realtor markets the property with energy efficiency emphasized, Mr. Garcia can definitely sell his property at a premium price…and definitely faster. It is about marketing. Green definitely sells. An Ecobroker can also find lenders for potential buyers who will approve them for more money because the monthly mortgage payment will be offset by lower utility bills. You need to advertise that and put the marketing materials in the property for the potential buyers to pick uo.

  2. zeta cross

    Resale…that is what you are missing in the equation. You do the right thing by paying a little more for energy efficiency and even if you sell in only a year or two, your house will be much more desirable to buyers. Buyers recognize and will pay a premium for quality

  3. sheila

    as for building smaller, why don’t our state and local governments “tier” the property taxes so that everyone pays their 1.25% or whatever it is, for structures up to 2,500 square feet, and it goes up, say .25% for every 1,000 sq ft after that, with offsets for measurable energy efficiency (LEED, etc.)? the money would go straight into environmental programs, so that way the “wasters” are paying R & D money for how to salvage the earth.
    in other words, let’s stop making it “easier” and/or “cheaper” to poison the planet, because all these builders are doing is laying the “real” costs of their shoddy work off onto the rest of society. if there is a cost to non-green building (and we all know there is), the owner and builder need to bear it themselves.
    in the meantime (and i am just a citizen, not a PAC), please lend your voice to passing the bi-partisan tax-credit bill HR 550, which has been sitting in committee for 6 months. call your congressperson and tell them you want tax breaks NOW for installing renewables at your home — this will shave close to 50% off the startup cost, and we can all see much quicker paybacks.

  4. Kathy Price-Robinson

    You’re so right, Jay. I forsee a day when living in an overly large home will look as goofy as driving a monster SUV is starting to look these days.

  5. Jay Mohler

    One green solution that I think is badly needed in the country, and where you don’t have to look any further than searching you own heart to decide about, is simply build SMALLER. High tech solutions may not be yet practical for a mobile lifestyle, but livng smaller has immediate obvious rewards.