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Does Green Building Have to Break the Bank?

by Roger Valdez

Myth buster: Green building doesn't mean expensive and complex.

The intuitive view of most people might be that building green is going to be vastly more expensive and complex than building to the most basic standards required by local code. It follows that we assume affordable housing probably isn’t going to be green. But a recent article in the Communities and Banking magazine published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FSB) this spring busts the myth that affordable housing and green housing are opposite and mutually exclusive concepts.

The myth doesn’t hold up locally either. We’ve looked at a study of green housing and the energy savings it creates for residents of the Seattle Housing Authority. And in Portland the Housing Authority built its first HOPE VI project green as well. We’ve also looked at the study of housing and health  where there is growing evidence that along with materials the location of housing can have an effect on resident’s health – and health care costs. And we’ve considered the savings that building green can create for schools and their communities.

What the FSB article does is to put some of these points together in a useful definition of an affordable green housing project. Their definition fits well with what we’ve already learned. A green affordable housing project would:

  • Reduce energy use and carbon emissions,
  • Reduce water consumption,
  • Improve the health of residents; and
  • Save money for both tenants and owners through efficiencies 

The authors of the FSB article, principles at New Ecology Inc, cite another concise article by  Davis Langdon on “What Does Green Really Cost?”  This isn’t a blow by blow accounting of material and construction costs but rather a guide on how to create housing that is both green and affordable.

Langdon suggests that projects begin with defining a sustainability goal and a quantitative measure of whether those goals are reached. The measure might be LEED certification, or Energy Star certification using the HERS Index or the new EPS rating developed by Oregon’s Energy Trust. A clear sense of sustainability outcomes is essential to defining what green affordability really means and whether the building can achieve it in a reasonable time frame.

Next step is integration. The project ought to consider materials, energy consumption and how the building will be used. As I wrote in a post about energy efficiencies in schools  users and operators of green buildings need to be consulted and trained on how to use the building. Langdon’s point is that the design should focus on making that easy so users don’t override the very systems set up to create savings.

Finally, when asked the perennial question “how much will it cost”  Langdon suggests the response should be “compared to what?”  He suggests three useful ways of looking at cost comparisons for green elements in a building:

  • How do the green elements compare overall in terms of the existing plans or code requirements?
  • Are there components of the design that are expensive but can be offset by using cheaper—but just as sustainable—options in other parts of the building, and
  • How does the building compare to similar projects in terms of costs and long term operations?

These are really sensible questions and if asked throughout the design and development of a project would yield valuable information about how to make building green and affordable the same thing. Breaking down the dichotomy between what is commonly considered green versus affordable is a key element of arriving at a definition of affordability that includes sustainability along with factors like monthly income and transportation – and perhaps most importantly, how much it costs to actually live in the building once it’s finished. 

This piece originally appeared in Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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This is a great post. A lot of people do think that GREEN = More expensive. While this may be true in some cases, it's not always to the extreme that people imagine.

By building a home with Insulated Concrete Forms for example, the savings on utility bills would quickly offset the building price. Plus with the way prices on all green products are coming down and the incentives offered from the Federal Government, it can be cheaper to build green if you do it the right way.

Excellent post! We write a lot about green building on our Green Technology Blog I'll definitely be linking back to you often.

Posted by: Alternative Green Technologies on 24 Jun 09

As an architect I have encountered a fair share of such beliefs settled into the minds of potential clients, but indeed they could not be farther from the truth. It is true that there are many green technologies and materials that are coming down in price as industries mature, but one thing most people miss is that a talented designer can give a building a huge leg up without even dipping into techno-fixes.

From solar orientation, to spatial efficiency, to natural stacks, to runoff water management... all of these things can make buildings (and their occupants) use less energy at no extra cost at all. It is not always about sticking in gadgets, but knowing about how energy goes in and out of a building and how buildings get put together can allow for some opportunities for ingrained environmental stewardship.

Posted by: T. Caine on 26 Jun 09

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