Scientists have been painting an increasingly gloomy picture of the Earth's environmental health. No matter where you stand on environmental issues, it's hard to avoid the scientific community's mounting concerns related to pollution, ozone depletion and global warming.
Even with our increased focus on these issues, the United States still utilizes resources at a greater per capita rate than any other country in the world. In the United States., we consume over 10 tons of new resources each year per citizen, including virgin wood, fuels, and other materials. To make matters worse, 90 percent of these materials become waste within one year [source: Howard].
The building industry is one of the biggest causes of our current environmental crisis. According to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), building construction and operation represents 70 percent of electricity consumption, 39 percent of energy use, 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 40 percent of raw materials used, 30 percent of waste generated, and 12 percent of potable water consumption here. Consider this: An entire acre of forest must be cleared just to build one single 1700 square-foot home [Source: Global Green].
You would expect that with all these resources being expended, we would at least produce greener buildings, right? Wrong. More than one third of the buildings in the United States suffer from poor air quality, leading to $15 billion in productivity losses each year for American businesses [source: Global Green]. In addition to the financial costs of poor air quality, consider its impact on our health. Poor air quality leads to respiratory illnesses, weaker immune systems and a lower quality of life.
While the commercial building industry has taken great strides towards streamlining the construction process and producing greener buildings, residential construction has a long way to go. One company that has taken the lead towards creating environmentally friendly homes in the United States is EarthCraft House. Earthcraft is a residential green building program of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association in partnership with Southface Energy Institute, both of which are Atlanta based non-profits that has developed its own guidelines and ratings system to help homebuilders create eco-friendly homes. The EarthCraft system is currently the largest system for green home development in the country and fills a much-needed niche in the residential market.
In the next section, we'll learn more about the history of EarthCraft, how the company has evolved and what the future holds for this company and its green building programs.
The EarthCraft Program
Although homebuilders had already started to note the rising demand for green building techniques, they had few industry models to follow. While it was possible to install solar panels or energy-efficient heating and cooling systems in homes, no guiding standard existed for green homebuilding as in the commercial market.
Inside an EarthCraft Home
EarthCraft homes look like average homes, but if you spend a little time inside one, you'll begin to notice subtle differences. Because the heating and cooling systems are customized for the space and are some of the most efficient units available, the home will be remarkably quiet. The EarthCraft system emphasizes the inclusion of natural light, so windows and skylights are plentiful, with many homes incorporating natural light through unique and creative home designs. Finally, the well-sealed exterior makes it easy to maintain the comfort level in these homes, so you'll be impressed by how perfectly temperature is maintained and controlled. Click through here to explore an EarthCraft Home in Charlottesville, Va.
Two Atlanta-based companies, Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association (GABHA), saw the need for green building guidelines in the residential construction market and decided to fill this void. Southface, a non-profit group formed in 1978, focuses on promoting environmental education and conserving resources. GAHBA, also a non-profit, was formed in 1945 to strengthen and promote Atlanta's building trades while helping to form sustainable and desirable communities.
In 1999, Southface and GAHBA formed a partnership called EarthCraft House. EarthCraft is designed to serve as a blueprint for the construction of energy and resource-efficient homes. By using energy and natural resources wisely, homeowners save money on utilities and do their part to protect the environment. Since the program began, over 4,000 single-family homes in the Atlanta area have been certified as EarthCraft homes [source: EarthCraft House].
Homebuilders and developers in other states eventually began to request that the program be expanded to their areas. To meet the growing demand, EarthCraft opened a Richmond, Va. office in 2007 that focuses on helping builders create EarthCraft homes in Virginia and Washington, D.C. areas. EarthCraft has since expanded its system to Alabama, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
With the success of the single family homes, EarthCraft has developed guidelines and certification programs for multi-family homes as well. This program focuses on low-rise residential units under four stories tall. As of 2008, 1,200 multi-family units have been certified by EarthCraft in the Atlanta area, with another 22 completed in Virginia [source: EarthCraft House]. EarthCraft has positioned itself to take advantage of future opportunities in the green homebuilding sector. In 2006, for example, only 2 percent of homes were built with a focus on green building. In 2010, that number is expected to jump to 10 percent nationwide [source: GAHBA].
In 2003, EarthCraft developed a program called "EarthCraft Communities." This program is designed to help developers create communities that are not only environmentally friendly and resource efficient, but also promote walkability and community connectivity. Five EarthCraft communities have been developed in coastal Georgia, with many more in progress in Virginia.
Recently, the company has also expanded their offerings to include guidelines and certification of existing homes through their renovation program. This allows homeowners desiring a green lifestyle to achieve Earthcraft certification without leaving their existing homes.
EarthCraft Certification Criteria
Courtesy of Seville Consulting
Certification under the EarthCraft program requires that a home meet three basic criteria:
- Earn Energy Star Compliance -- Energy Star is a program developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that requires newly-built homes to be at least 15 percent more energy efficient than required by the 2004 International Residential Code, the current benchmark for home building. Under Energy Star guidelines, homes achieve resource efficiency by incorporating features like effective insulation, high-performance windows and efficient heating/cooling systems and appliances.
- Pass EarthCraft Inspections -- Official inspectors from the company will visit the house twice during the construction process. Once after the house has been framed and again when it is complete. They ensure compliance with building plans and that mechanical systems are installed and operating correctly and at maximum efficiency.
- Earn a Minimum of 120 points on the EarthCraft Homes Worksheet -- The EarthCraft homes worksheet offers point for the completion of certain activities in specific categories, including site planning, building energy-efficient systems, meeting Energy Star guidelines, waste management, air and water quality and home buyer education [Source: Complete EarthCraft House Guidelines].
The points system is very effective because it allows the EarthCraft program to work in different parts of the country where some environmental concerns may be more important to home buyers than others. It also allows the home to adapt to any local building codes while still achieving certification. To see the complete worksheet, visit EarthCraft's website.
On the next page, we'll explore the EarthCraft home certification process.
The EarthCraft Certification Process
The EarthCraft home certification process begins with home builders and developers attending a training program through their local EarthCraft office. During training, builders are taught the basics of the certification process and given an overview of environmental guidelines used to build EarthCraft homes. Builders must be accepted to both the local and national chapters of the National Association of Homebuilders, and must also join the EarthCraft program. At that point, they're officially ready to start building.
The Annual EarthCraft Awards
Certification requires several key steps. First, the homebuilder must send plans of the home along with mechanical and other design information for EarthCraft to review. Energy Star compliance should also be filed at this point.
As building progresses, the builder must next request a pre-drywall inspection. This takes place after the building foundation has been completed and basic framing has been done. The building is still just a shell at this point, and inspectors have easy access to most areas. The pre-drywall inspection allows EarthCraft to make sure the home is on track for certification, and also helps catch any potential problems before the job progresses any further.
At the job's completion, a final inspection takes place to make sure the home is built correctly and all systems operate as designed. Duct and air leakage tests are completed, and the results are sent to EarthCraft for review. Finally, the builder must submit the EarthCraft House Worksheet. A minimum of 120 points is required for certification, though homes that earn 200 and 230 points can be labeled "Select" and "Premium," respectively. These labels mean more efficient homes that typically command higher prices.
The fees for EarthCraft certification are surprisingly low. There is a minimal fee for becoming a member of the program, inspections and design review. Finally, EarthCraft charges 10 cents per square foot to certify the home, with a minimum fee of $250. An average-sized home could easily achieve certification for less than $1,000.
How EarthCraft Homes Benefit the Environment
Courtesy of Seville Consulting
How exactly does an EarthCraft house help benefit the Earth? Sure, they're resource efficient, but what does that mean for the planet? To understand how EarthCraft homes can help, you must first understand how global warming works.
Every day, people all over the world drive cars, run machinery and use equipment fueled by coal, oil and natural gas. The process of burning these fuels produces gaseous by-products. The three most common gaseous by-products produced this way are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Luckily, trees and other vegetation capture some of these gases during photosynthesis, converting them into oxygen and rendering them harmless. Unfortunately, while we're busy burning fossil fuels, we're also hard at work clearing land and cutting down trees all over the world. In fact, over 1.2 million acres are cleared every week [Source: Rochen].
Rapidly Renewable Materials
This term is used a lot in green building circles, but what does it mean? Rapidly renewable materials are those whose growth cycle is less than 10 years. For example, cork flooring is growing in popularity every year because of its soft texture and unique look, but did you know it's eco-friendly as well? Cork floors are made by scraping the bark off of cork trees. The tree doesn't have to be cut down, its growth cycle isn't interrupted, and the bark quickly regenerates. Other rapidly renewable materials include strawboard or wheatboard (pressed straw or wheat panels used to make doors, cabinets, and furniture), linoleum, wool carpet, cotton insulation and bamboo flooring.
We're dealing our planet a double blow by releasing these gases, then destroying the trees that would have helped to neutralize them. These greenhouse gases eventually migrate into the earth's atmosphere and form a barrier that keeps waves of sunlight that have reached the earth from reflecting back out into the atmosphere. The heat from the trapped sunlight increases the earth's temperature, creating global warming. Global warming not only affects temperature, but will also eventually change our weather and sea levels, and cause flooding that could devastate many areas.
EarthCraft homes are designed to be 30 percent more energy efficient than other homes. This efficiency allows less fuels to be burned, and results in an 1,100 pound reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per year for each EarthCraft house built in lieu of a regular house [source: EarthCraft House Environmental Benefits]. In addition, because EarthCraft homes encourage the use of sustainably harvested wood as well as recycled and rapidly renewable materials, they require fewer virgin resources be consumed.
Finally, EarthCraft homes use 12 percent less water than traditional homes through the use of low-flow fixtures and efficient landscaping irrigation. This helps preserve our water supply and prevents waste of this resource, which is in such short supply in so many parts of the world.
Financial Aspects of EarthCraft Homes
Sure, EarthCraft homes are more resource-efficient and good for the environment, but who can afford such an ultra-modern home? The answer may surprise you. When EarthCraft homes are built per the company's guidelines, construction costs are no more than 3 percent higher than the cost of constructing a traditional home [source: EarthCraft House: True Cost of Ownership].
When you include the average savings in energy bills over time, it turns out that EarthCraft homes are actually cheaper than traditional homes that are less energy efficient.
Standard New Home
Home Price (Assumes 10 percent down, 8 percent interest)
True Monthly Cost
In addition to the energy savings these homes offer, they also allow homeowners to take advantage of tax credits aimed at eco-friendly building. The federal government allows owners of EarthCraft and similar homes to claim a $2,000 credit on their federal income taxes [source: Atlanta Building News].
Many local governments and utilities offer rebates and incentives as well. In Virginia, homeowners are eligible for a $500 state tax credit. In Atlanta, Georgia Power offers annual $300 rebates to EarthCraft homeowners. As more jurisdictions recognize the benefits of green building, these tax programs and incentives will continue to expand.
Finally, there's the increased marketability and value associated with green homes. Many people are eager to do their part to help the environment and are excited to find that they can help simply by purchasing a home. In addition, green homes are quieter and more comfortable than traditional homes due to efficient heating and cooling systems and properly sealed building envelopes. All of these factors make EarthCraft homes more desirable and increase their value when the time comes to sell.
Learn a bit more about other programs dedicated to green building growth on the next page.
Alternative Green Housing Programs
Green Building and Hurricane Katrina
Maybe you remember hearing about Global Green in association with the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. As New Orleans began to rebuild, Global Green spear-headed a green building campaign designed to build affordable, zero-energy homes. Major celebrities like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie joined the cause and helped fund the effort. The result is Global Green's Holy Cross Project, which includes single and multi-family homes, a community center and a resource center to advise citizens on green building. The project serves as a blueprint for green, affordable housing and has provided inspiration for similar projects throughout the country.
Of course, EarthCraft isn't the only company getting in on the green housing market. With the percentage of green homes expected to grow to nearly 10 percent by 2010, the introduction of new green building programs can only help the market grow.
Currently, the most widely used green building program in the world is the USGBC's Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design system (LEED). Thousands of commercial buildings have been certified under this program. In 2007, the USGBC introduced a pilot program to address LEED certified homes and multi-family units.
The residential LEED program is very similar in both pricing and structure to EarthCraft. Both are based on building guidelines and worksheets scored on a points system. Like EarthCraft, LEED for homes addresses the entire project, from site work to energy efficiency to air and water quality. One of the ways that EarthCraft has succeeded is by focusing their marketing programs on affordability and monthly cost savings of energy efficient homes. One of the criticisms of the LEED system, both in the commercial and home building markets, is that it's perceived as being too expensive. In reality, the cost premiums for building LEED homes are similar to EarthCraft, but LEED has focused more on marketing the environmental benefits of their system, and de-emphasized the associated cost savings.
The EPA's Energy Star program is another option for homeowners that want to go green. Energy Star focuses exclusively on efficient heating and cooling as well as appliances, and does not address some of the other areas that EarthCraft does, such as air quality and efficient materials. To this extent, the program is useful for lowering utility bills and improving energy efficiency, but Energy Star homes don't necessarily address all the concerns of those interested in green building.
Beyond the EarthCraft program, the National Association of Home Builders has its own program, called NHAB Green. This program utilizes an online scorecard on which homes can earn points based on the incorporation of green features. The idea behind this system is to simplify the certification process and make green building more accessible. While the program is fairly new, it shows promise for expanding green building across the country.
Another organization, Global Green, has focused its green building programs on affordable homes. Through its Greening of Affordable Housing Initiative, Global Green has developed single and multi-family units across the nation. These homes make use of solar panels and other green technologies to create zero-energy buildings. These buildings help residents save tremendously on utility bills, as the home uses no outside energy sources to operate mechanical and electrical systems. Not only do these buildings help the environment, they also help low-income families save money. Considering the average low-income family spends up to 19 percent of their annual income on utilities, this type of housing can improve residents' lives substantially [Source: Global Green]. The federal and many state governments also offer tax incentives for families using solar panels to generate power for their homes.
For more information on EarthCraft Homes and other green building programs, please see the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Green Building Works
- How to Make Your Home More Energy Efficient
- How Home Energy Audits Work
- How LEED Certification Works
- How to Save Money on Home Energy
- How House Construction Works
- How the EPA Works
- How Global Warming Works
More Great Links
- Atlanta Building News. "EarthCraft House Helps Atlanta Grow Green." March 2007. (9/29/2008)
- EarthCraft House. "EarthCraft House Guidelines." June 2005. (9/30/2008)
- Federal Citizen Information Center. "Energy Efficient Mortgage Home Owner Guide" (9/30/2008)
- Flammer, Carol. "EarthCraft House 2008 Builder Awards Announced." Atlanta Real Estate Forum. 3/20/2008. (9/30/2008)
- Global Green. "Why Build Green" Date Unknown. (9/30/2008)
- Howard, Bion. "Resource Efficient Buildings." Green Building Primer. 11/7/2007. (09/30/2008)
- Rochen, Andy and Stock, Jocelyn. "The Choice: Doomsday or Arbor Day." Date Unknown. (9/30/2008)
- Smith, T. "EarthCraft House Named 2008 Green Builder Program of the Year." Atlanta Real Estate Forum. July 12, 2008. (9/29/2008)
- United Nations. "Earth Summit." 5/23/1997. (9/30/2008)