Green Construction: Is it worth it?

Man installing solar panels
Installing solar panels is a more costly project that will take time to pay dividends. See more green science pictures.

Green construction has been around forever. For millennia, people routinely sited and built their homes to best take advantage of the sun's heat and light, for example, while various businesses and equipment were powered by water and wind. As the pressing need for these methods waned, we forgot about them. It wasn't until the 1990s that green construction really began to catch on in the United States once again, following steadily rising oil prices that began in the 1970s [source: The History Calendar].

Today, green construction is increasingly incorporated into homes and businesses. In fact, 90 percent of those surveyed in 2006 by the American Institute of Architects said they'd shell out $5,000 or more above regular price to build or buy an eco-friendly home [source: Max]. But is it really the best way to go? It depends on the technology, the building and your needs. Before you automatically jump on the green bandwagon, consider a few things.


While the cost of green construction has decreased over the years, it's still generally more expensive than traditional building. And depending on which green features and materials you use, the payback can be relatively short or quite long. It can also cost money to have a building certified green through programs such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and since home listings don't track green certifications, you won't know whether the cost of obtaining one adds value to your home [source: Firestone].

Many builders claim to build green, but they don't really know what quality green construction entails. If you want to build a truly eco-friendly house or commercial structure, you must take time to find someone who really knows what he's talking about. And such expertise might come at a premium [source: Max].

Finally, it's possible that even if you build a well-designed green home or business, you'll actually use more materials and energy than if you retrofit an existing structure. According to a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Green Lab, demolishing an existing building and constructing a new one almost always has a more negative environmental impact than reusing the existing building. And it can take between 10 and 80 years for that building's energy efficiency to offset its negative environmental impact during construction [source: Preservation Green Lab].

Of course, this issue is a bit complex. Despite the above-mentioned study, not all construction projects involve demolishing an existing building. And you can't strictly look at cost, because building a well-designed, well-sealed, well-lit home or commercial structure offers numerous less-tangible benefits.

Those advantages include creating a more pleasant environment -- one without cold or hot spots, and where natural light floods most spaces, improving emotional health. A green building also contains fewer toxic substances (such as those found in paint with volatile organic compounds and certain carpeting), which can mean reduced sinus and respiratory issues for people. In fact, businesses have found a well-designed green office even lowers employee turnover and absenteeism [source: Robison].

Even if cost is a major factor for you, remember that it's likely energy costs will continue to rise in the future -- possibly dramatically -- which will make green construction more advantageous more quickly [source: Robison].

So there's no definitive answer to this question. Look at your motivation for building green, then see if the likely results are worth the cost and effort.


Build Green or Conserve Energy?

Some argue the cheapest kilowatt is the one you don't use -- meaning it's wiser to concentrate on conserving energy in your existing building rather than chucking it in favor of a new, green one [source: Robison]. If you're willing to investigate this possibility, start by hiring an energy performance company to evaluate your building's envelope. A building envelope is the space between a building's finished interior, which is heated and cooled, and the outdoors -- it includes components like walls, doors, windows, the roof and foundation [source: Wonderling]. You'll need to plug any leaky spots before installing photovoltaics (materials and devices that convert sunlight into electrical energy) and other upgrades. Yes, an evaluation and subsequent fixes may cost a few hundred dollars, but they may enable you to reduce energy consumption by as much as 40 percent per month [source: Robison.]

Once your building envelope is secure, dig into the small items. Some of the wisest energy conservation efforts include installing automatic lighting sensors, compact fluorescent light bulbs and solar-powered hot water heaters. Such minor changes can equal big bucks; research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows those automatic lighting sensors, which switch off lights when a room is unoccupied or when it's daylight, can save one-quarter to one-third of energy costs, and nearly 40 percent in buildings using multiple controls strategies [source: Williams et al.].


Once you've taken care of some of the easier, less time-consuming things, then you can consider larger-ticket items that require more than five years to pay off in savings. A large solar power system, for example, may be a wise investment -- or maybe not, depending how much you've pared down your energy consumption by some of the above actions. In the end, whether you build green or work on energy conservation, the main thing is that you're working to reduce energy use.

Author's Note

Nothing's ever simple. You'd think building a green home would be the smartest choice, but while it's certainly not a stupid thing to do, there are a lot of things to consider before you automatically sign on the (green) dotted line, as I learned while writing this piece. One thing I do know: It's always smart to hang your laundry on the line -- which is a good thing, because that's always been one of my favorite chores.

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