Friday, December 07, 2007

Real green construction is affordable construction.

The Press Herald's environment reporter John Richardson published a feature today about a 4-unit LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -certified subdivision being built by Habitat for Humanity in Portland's North Deering neighborhood.

John writes that the LEED "stamp of approval... often equates to expensive," but I'd strongly disagree. Green building is inherently frugal, because it makes more sensible and practical use of our natural resources. It's true that a huge LEED-certified McMansion in South Freeport, Maine is going to be expensive - just like every other huge McMansion in South Freeport. But applying LEED standards to more sensible homes isn't that expensive - in fact, taking long-term savings in transportation and energy savings into account, a LEED-certified building is going to be considerably less expensive than it would be without green building features.

For example, Portland's new LEED homes will focus on using recycled materials, many of which are donated from older homes through Habitat's ReStore. And energy-saving features may have more expensive up-front costs, but most typically pay for themselves within five to ten years - and that period will only get shorter with rising energy costs. "We're providing affordable houses to those who can least afford electricity and oil, so it's a natural for us to go there," said Stephen Bolton, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter.

The fact that lower-income people spend such a big proportion of their income on heating and electricity, especially here in northern New England, makes green building features a natural fit for affordable housing. And since residents of these homes are more likely, by necessity, to live frugally without indulgences like 'great rooms' or four-wheel-drive minivans, affordable housing should be a natural fit with the LEED framework.

But while more and more affordable housing construction projects will incorporate green building features, it's still going to be some time before LEED certification becomes standard for them: certifying still requires a lot of extra work from architects and contractors, and that added expense means that your million-dollar shrines to jackass environmentalism are more likely to get certified than a truly sustainable, middle- or low-income apartment building. In other words, the "stamp of approval" might cost a bit extra, but everything that justifies that stamp will lead to big savings for the homeowner.

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