By Michael Tobias
Faced with a climate crisis globally, there are numerous very real threats facing humanity, especially since it is acknowledged that as much as 25% of greenhouse gas emissions come from housing of one sort or another. It is also recognized that buildings have a substantial impact on the planet as well as the wellbeing and health of people.
The harsh reality is that however aesthetically pleasing a modern home may be, like all buildings, it uses resources, generates waste, and is relatively costly to operate and maintain.
As a result, every professional person who is part of the home design process is strongly encouraged to utilize a sustainable design philosophy, irrespective of the type and style of building to be designed and built.
Engineers play a particularly important role including those who provide mechanical engineering services in Chicago, New York, and other cities throughout the world.
In essence, sustainable design advocates decisions that will reduce any type of negative impact on the environment and improve the health of those living or working in buildings, without compromising the bottom line.
Green, eco-friendly building involves designing, building, and operating homes and other structures using fewer resources, reducing waste and typical negative environmental impacts, maximizing the health and productivity of those who occupy the building, and decreasing life-cycle costs as much as possible.
As the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) states, it is an integrated approach that encourages compromise throughout the life-cycle of a building, including its design and construction, operation, right through to its decommissioning and possible demolition.
While the role of the GSA is directed at federal buildings, the approach is one that everyone in the construction industry should be following in conjunction with other green building standards.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
The GSA utilizes the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification tool to measure and evaluate sustainable design, and requires all facilities owned by the federal government to be built or renovated to LEED Gold standard, the highest level of certification. Interestingly, nearly a third of the GSA certifications are in historic buildings, which shows that the system is as effective for new buildings as it is for renovations and restorations.
LEED is available for the full range of building projects, from high-rise structures to one-story single-family homes. It provides an effective framework for those in the construction industry to design and build healthy, highly efficient buildings that will ultimately save money.
A widely recognized global symbol of sustainability, LEED is the most widely used green (or eco-friendly) building rating system in the world. Used by the GSA since 2007, it ensures a lower use of resources, including energy and water, makes certain indoor spaces are healthier, and results in buildings that are generally better not only for the environment but also for the community and those who live and work in them. Additionally LEED buildings cost less to operate, offering value for money.
There are LEED certifications for all types of buildings, and all phases of building, including building design and construction, and homes. Certifications work on a points system earned in different categories including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, and indoor environmental quality. There are four rating levels, certified, silver, gold, and platinum.
LEED for the Design and Construction of Homes
Like all LEED buildings, LEED homes are built with safe building materials and designed to be healthy. Indoor air quality is excellent and they use less water and energy, which means that they cost less to run. They are a good investment too, selling considerably more quickly and for more than similar homes that aren’t green or eco-friendly.
LEED certifications are available for all homes, both single- and multi-family up to eight stories in height.
Michael Tobias, the founder and principal of New York Engineers, specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. A LEED accredited professional and certified energy manager, his company also offers engineering services and engineering solutions in Chicago.
Discussing the need for modern home design to be sustainable, he outlines some of the benefits of LEED certification for homes:
- Sites on which homes are built are sustainable, which includes low impact rainwater management and non-toxic pest control.
- Water efficiency is maximized. The use of various plumbing fixtures in fittings that conserve water can reduce water usage by 30% or even more. Gray-water plumbing and rainwater harvesting strategies conserve even more water but they do involve a greater, more substantial investment.
- Energy performance is maximized for space heating, operation of appliances, electronics, and lighting, water heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning. Average certified LEED homes use 30-40% less electricity than other homes and they save more than 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over their lifetime. Even a modest investment in climate-friendly and energy-saving technologies can make homes more comfortable, healthy, energy-efficient, durable, and ultimately more environmentally responsible places to live in.
- Management of materials and resources results in the use of certified tropical woods and environmentally preferable products, and construction waste is carefully managed.
- The environment quality of indoor air is maintained at the highest level by well-designed ventilation, combustion venting, air filtering, control of contaminants, and by balancing heating and cooling distribution systems.
Other Important Certifications for Eco-Friendly Homes
Of course, LEED isn’t the only certification for homes. There are a number of others including the Green Globes green building initiative, and the performance-based Passive House Institute U.S. building standard. The latter has the capacity to issue the U.S. DOE Zero Energy Ready Home certification. Additionally, there are international programs in a few countries including Hong Kong, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and South Africa.
There are also many highly respected green product certifications for water and energy performance as well as for a wide range of other products including wood, textiles, insulation, paints and adhesives, windows, indoor air quality, tiles, and a wide range of building products.
Two of the best known are managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Energy Star, a well-known government certification that relies on third-party testing or data provided by manufacturers. Jointly managed by the Department of Energy (DOE), it focuses on products that consume energy, including a wide variety of appliances, lighting, and heating and cooling equipment.
- WaterSense, a government label that is based on third-party testing. It focuses on toilets, urinals, showerheads, faucets, and valves. To earn the “WaterSense: Meets EPA Criteria” label, products and services must be at least 20% more efficient without compromising performance.
Ultimately, there is little point in owning a beautiful modern home if it is not sustainable.