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November 2007 Issue: FeatureCommentaryCurrents SafetyGardenEnergy SolutionsFinest Cooking More

Going for the GreenIf you are planning to build a home be sure and talk to your local electric co-ops energy advisor and ask for a copy of the Illinois electric cooperatives’ Certified Comfort Home manual. It will explain how to build an energy efficient home.

Going for the Green: Building Tomorrow's Homes Today

By John Lowrey

If you are building a new home or remodeling an existing one, you should consider going green. Green building is a new trend in home building that simply combines some old-fashioned common sense with new technology.

Green building might be defined differently by some, but essentially green buildings are energy and water efficient; use renewable, recycled and non-toxic materials; reduce waste and help improve the environment, including the indoor environment where we spend up to 90 percent of our time.

Even President George W. Bush has gone green at his Crawford, Texas, home. He installed a geothermal heat pump, captures some solar energy and has a cistern that gathers rainwater and wastewater that is used for irrigation.

So why go green?

The benefits of going green are both altruistic and selfish. Here are some examples:

  1. Save 30 to 50 percent on energy costs
  2. Save 20 percent on water use
  3. Reduce asthma and allergy problems
  4. Reduce waste
  5. Reduce CO2 emissions (buildings represent 48 percent of CO2)
  6. Improve property value
  7. Improve health, comfort, productivity and quality of life

First it's about saving energy

One of the cornerstones of green building is energy efficiency. Electric co-ops across Illinois have been preaching the advantages of building and remodeling with energy efficiency products and techniques. If you are building a new home ask your local electric co-op for a copy of the Certified Comfort Home manual. It provides an easy to follow and illustrated description of the energy efficiency building techniques recommended by electric co-op energy advisors.

One green building product that electric co-ops recommend is cellulose insulation. Made from recycled newspapers, cellulose fits both the recycled and energy conservation attributes of green buildings.

Cellulose insulation also does a better job of sealing, as well as insulating. Director of Member Services and Public Relations for Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, Dana Smith, says, "We've been promoting cellulose insulation and energy efficiency for a long time. It's getting more and more popular now. Several of the builders in our area recommend it and are using it in the majority of the homes they build."

Natural Lighting

One way to cut down on energy consumption is by making use of natural light. It is possible to build a home where you don't need to turn the lights on until darkness falls. This can be achieved through strategically placed windows, as well as through use of skylights and sun tunnels, which will provide natural light as well as privacy in bathrooms.

"Green building doesn't have to be complicated. It really just combines existing technologies and common sense," says John Freitag, Vice President of Operations for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC). He says co-ops have been leaders in promoting the use of geothermal heat pumps, the most efficient heating and cooling systems available today.

"Combining the renewable geothermal energy from the earth with the best in heat pump technology, you can cut your heating, cooling and water heating costs significantly," says Freitag. "I know from personal experience. I've had a geothermal heat pump in my home for seven years now and have saved a lot of energy and money. On top of the savings, the comfort is phenomenal."

Heating, cooling and water heating represent close to 85 percent of the total energy consumption in most homes. Homeowners are cutting utility bills by 25 to 70 percent with geothermal heat pumps. But Freitag says commercial and public building owners have been slower than homeowners to accept this new green technology.

To help ramp up the use of geothermal heat pump acceptance in public buildings, the electric co-ops joined forces with the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) to form the GeoAlliance geothermal grant program. One of the grantees is Sarah Bush Lincoln Medical Center in Mattoon.

Dick Shelton, former Facilities Service Director for the hospital, says the geothermal system installed in a remodeled cancer wing has cut annual energy costs from $8,500 to $1,200. "These savings are extraordinary," says Shelton. "Consider the impact on limited energy supplies, the environment and financial budgets if just 10 percent of the commercial establishments in this country converted to geothermal systems."

Touchstone Energy® co-ops in Illinois also have a lot of green energy conservation help to provide, says Nancy Nixon, Marketing Administrator for the AIEC. Nixon also administers the GeoAlliance geothermal grant program with Freitag.

"In addition to the personal energy advice many of our co-ops' member service employees can provide, Touchstone Energy provides several Web-based energy savings tools," says Nixon. "One is the Light Bulb Energy Saver that can help you quickly calculate how much you'll save by using compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). There is also the Home Energy Saver online home energy audit. You can find these resources on your local electric co-op's Web site or you can go to"

Bryce Cramer, Member Services Manager for Egyptian Electric Cooperative, says there is a misconception that building green is too expensive. While some components can be more expensive, some items and techniques for building green are low cost or no cost solutions. The true average cost for building green is about 5 percent higher, but the return on that small investment is quickly paid back.

"To me, green building means the project has been designed to minimize the impact on the environment," says Cramer. In addition to minimizing energy consumption, Cramer says green building techniques take advantage of recycled products and minimize the amount of scrap material that would otherwise go into a landfill.

"The benefits are leaving a better place to live for our children and their children and ensuring they have adequate resources to live as good a life as we have," says Cramer.

Cramer says that even if you are just remodeling you can take advantage of green building techniques and products.


Weather Sealing

Using caulk to seal up cracks around windows and other building components is an easy way to improve your home's energy efficiency for just a few dollars. This is an easy do-it-yourself project, or an inexpensive job for a contractor.

Remodeling Green

In 2006 the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), Des Plaines, Ill., ( launched a new green remodeling educational program. "We are starting to do a lot in relations to green remodeling education. For example, we have a homeowners guide on our homepage," says Stephanie Maola, Marketing and Communications Assistant for the NARI.

In addition to improving energy efficiency, a remodeling project can improve indoor air quality by improving ventilation systems and by using less toxic paints, adhesives, sealants, carpets, vinyl and wood products. These products release volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde and benzene. Also, to improve indoor air quality you should check for radon, a naturally occurring yet toxic, gaseous, radioactive element that can seep into a home through leaks in the basement, foundation or floor over a crawl space. Mold is another naturally occurring indoor air quality problem that can be minimized and controlled by proper green building and energy efficiency techniques.

The NARI gives 10 ways to go green in your home:

  1. Use non-toxic paints and sealants
  2. Install programmable thermostats
  3. Invest in energy efficient appliances
  4. Install natural flooring
  5. Use local building materials
  6. Choose natural fiber rugs and fabrics
  7. Select recycled material roof shingles and tiles
  8. Specify energy efficient lighting
  9. Insulate hot water pipes
  10. Landscape with native plants

One of the interesting new green building materials is bamboo that can be turned into flooring and cabinet materials. Bamboo is a fast growing, renewable resource that has the beauty of hardwood flooring, but is actually tougher than standard hardwoods such as maple. Another advantage is bamboo flooring can be cheaper than hardwood flooring.


Bamboo Flooring

Homeowners don't have to sacrifice the beauty of hardwood floors to help save the rainforests. Quickly renewing hardwoods as well as fast-growing grasses like bamboo can make for durable and beautiful floor coverings. (Photo Courtesy Wood Flooring International)

Cork flooring is another green flooring product that is good for kitchens where it provides a unique soft feel. It costs about the same as hardwoods, but requires less maintenance. Cork is made from bark and can be harvested without cutting down the tree.

Countertops are also being made from green products such as recycled glass and granite.

Going green at school

Schools could also benefit from a bit of the green building trend. But higher upfront costs and short-term budgeting priorities are limiting the growth of green schools. However, a 2005 report that reviewed green schools in the U.S. found that the average cost premium of building green was only 2 percent or about $3/ft2 more, while the financial benefits are 20-times that cost premium.

The 30 green schools studied for the report averaged 33 percent less in energy use. High performance lighting systems that take advantage of daylight management, as well as efficient lighting, can improve student performance. Indoor air quality improvements can help reduce asthma plus colds and flu viruses.

Illinois' green resources

Research in building improvement has a long history at the University of Illinois School of Architecture's Building Research Council. It started out in 1944 as the Small Homes Council as part of an effort to meet the demand for housing when soldiers came home after World War II. In the 1970s the Lo-Cal House, which was designed to reduce energy consumption, attracted a lot of attention during that decade's oil crisis. The Green Neighborhood Project was designed by the council to develop a process for constructing environmentally sound and energy efficient family housing neighborhoods for military families. The process was then used at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Today the Building Research Council is working with the Illinois Department of Community and Economic Development (DCEO) and the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium to encourage renewable energy systems and energy conservation practices in commercial buildings. The program is called the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC - Businesses can receive free energy audits and design assistance.

The U.S. Green Building Council is hosting its annual conference Nov. 7-9 in Chicago. The Greenbuild Conference is the world's largest conference dedicated to green building and is expected to attract 20,000 attendees. They will learn more about the rapidly growing green building industry and the council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.

Celebrated as the center of American architecture, Chicago was one of the first cities to adopt the LEED rating system for publicly owned buildings, and has the largest number of LEED registered projects in the world.

Other rating systems

The Energy Star rating program, a joint program of the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, also has a rating system for buildings that are energy efficient.

In the small town of Paxton, 112 miles south of Chicago, Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative provides an extensive home energy rating system using the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). The HERS rater is a highly trained inspector who verifies and documents a home's energy efficiency based on an unlimited point rating scale. The lower the points, the more energy efficient the home. An average Illinois home today rates about 150 points. Homes built to today's standard building codes average about 100 points. An Energy Star home rates at a much more efficient 84 points.

"The ultimate goal is to get homes down to 0 points, meaning that they use zero net energy. But very few homes will ever attain that," says Bob Dickey, Manger of Marketing and Economic Development for Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative. "What we would like to see is homes down to around the 68 point level. That level would make for an energy efficient and comfortable home."

Dickey says that lowering a home's HERS rating by 10-20 points can equal a 25 to 40 percent savings in utility bills.

"The service benefits homeowners, home buyers, builders, realtors and lenders by giving the home an independent and expert energy rating," says Dickey. "A HERS rated home gives you some assurance that the home is comfortable and affordable."

Are you ready to go green? Whether you have a major building project or simply need to change a light bulb, we can all make green choices and like Cramer says, "leave a better place to live for our children and their children."

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© 2007 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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