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Finished Your Green Home: A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly New Home by Alex Wilson (3/5). This is a must read for anyone building a home (it could also be useful for renovations, but it focuses on construction). It describes what a green home is and best practices for making a home green. This book deserves a better score than 3/5, and it would have given it one if I had read it a year ago; however, one year into building my own green home, I was already familiar with most of the material presented.

When you think of a green home, you might think of the visible things: solar power, low VOC paints, energy efficient appliances, green roof, etc. These things do make a home greener, but the largest environmental impacts of a home are energy and material use. A huge house that leaks energy isn't going to be very green no matter how many green features are slapped onto it. A truly green home is so much more. 

Before I go into details, a caveat. As Wilson emphasizes, a home doesn't need to have all these features to be considered green. A home should take into account as many features as is practical. Every house is, in many ways, bad for the environment. A green house is simply a house that is less bad for the environment, and any amount of less bad is valuable.

The first thing to consider is where and how much to build. Infill development is going to be greener than developing pristine land. Smaller homes are, due to their smaller energy and material use, inherently greener than larger homes. Homes in walkable communities are greener than homes that require you to frequently drive longer distances. 

Having decided where to build, the next most important thing is to build an energy efficient home that minimizes material use. There is an alignment in goals here. Material minimizing framing techniques, such as advance framing, use less wood, and less wood in walls generally means greater thermal efficiency. 

An energy efficient home should be well insulated and air tight (with a mechanical air exchange system). Windows should be efficient and placed so as to provide appropriate solar gain -- in the Pacific Northwest, as in many moderate climates, appropriate means getting as much sun as possible in the winter while trying to minimize solar gain in the summer. Of course, energy efficiency also means choosing efficient appliances, lighting, etc.

Energy efficiency is the single most important thing that can be done to make a house green. A "boring" traditional home with standard appliances, materials, etc., will run circles around a super modern house with all sorts of cool green features if the traditional home is energy efficient and the modern home is not. Over the lifetime of a home, energy efficiency trumps everything.

However, water is becoming an increasingly precious resource, and Wilson indicates that water conservation is soon going to be a big thing in green home construction. Water conservation techniques involve using efficient appliances and landscaping that does not require a lot of additional water. Wilson also mentions greywater, rainwater harvesting, and storm water management.

One of my favorite water conservation features is one that is invisible but increases comfort: decreasing the amount of time that people have to wait for hot water. When hot water has to push cold water out of pipes, the cold water is wasted. Adding to the problem, the hot water remaining in the pipes after use will cool and waste energy. This waste can be reduced by insulating pipes, circulating hot water (on demand is more energy efficient than constant circulation), or, for low flow faucets, having narrower pipes go directly from the water heater to the faucet.

As briefly as I have been covering the book's contents, I am going to even more briefly mention that Wilson covers renewable energy, green materials and products, and minimizing indoor pollution (e.g., from paint, mold, etc.). He also has a chapter on the cost of green building an d a great chapter on minimizing construction waste through a combination of reducing waste and recycling; given the amount of materials that go into a house, this is a vital part of making a house green. 

As I said, this is a really good book, and one that you should read if you ever are looking into building a green home. My learning curve would have been much less steep if I had had this book a year ago. As Wilson makes clear, a lot of the features that make a home more green also make it more comfortable and cheaper to live in (but not to build). Even if you don't want to build an explicitly green home, you could still get a lot of good ideas from this book.
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Erika RS

May 2012

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