Here’s a statement, and you identify whether this is cutting-edge green building theory or a pioneer sentiment promoted by our great-grandparents: We should approach construction, renovation, and the operation of our homes and buildings in a healthy, energy-efficient manner and conserve resources. Maybe both? While there is a lot of buzz and a fair amount of confusion about what it means to build sustainably or green, the values behind it are straightforward. People build green homes because they are healthy, they use fewer resources, homes have a longer life because of quality build practices, and buildings save considerable energy.
A movement toward green building in Flathead Valley is gaining momentum, propelled by the hope of committed entrepreneurs trying to make change, the deeply rooted local values of respecting and conserving the land, and experienced professionals eager to embrace a new and different future for the built environment. Different from the past, this new movement is employing some exciting technology and new materials and financial incentives are propelling more favorable economics.
Forces at work
The environmental impacts of buildings can be staggering. These figures from the US Green Building Council indicate that in the US buildings account for:
Green building is one answer for lowering this high level of consumption.
What is green?
Green building goals benefit the health of the building’s occupants through better air quality and less toxic materials; they benefit the community by lowering infrastructure requirements; they enhance the value of the building, and lower operating and life-cycle costs; they result in lower water and power use; and they support a better environment by conserving natural resources and protecting ecosystems.
About the same time, a statewide group started meeting and after discussions eventually embraced the relatively recent standards and green certification process of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines. As a result, Flathead Buildering Association, the local NAHB’s Chapter, has an active, 30-member Green Committee. Local builder Brad Reedstrom is a member, and his firm, Bigfork Builders, was part of the first group to be nationally certified by NAHB. Reedstrom says the real impetus for building green is coming from the consumers. “Our clients are concerned about cleaner and healthier homes as well as energy efficiency,” he said. “We’re confident we will see much more support for green in the future. However, what we realized during the training is that we were already doing a good job, especially with energy efficiency, and there’s not a big gap between what we have been doing and certification.”
A third force is local enthusiasm for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Saddlehorn, a development by Bigfork with a strong commitment toward sustainable development, is using the national LEED program as a standard. “Saddlehorn engaged the services of Kath Williams & Associates of Bozeman to ensure that the development and its homes are as green as possible,” said Clint Walker, Saddlehorn spokesperson. Williams has served as past president of the World Green Building Council and is a principal force behind implementing the LEED standards in Montana, nationally and abroad. Saddlehorn is trying for the difficult-to-reach Platinum level LEED certificate for its Welcome House, which according to Walker would be a first for Montana.
Homes can certainly be built according to green principles and not be inspected and certified. The advantage of a certification program is that an independent verifier signs off that the conditions for certification have been met. This is a condition for some financial incentives, which is not surprising where money is involved.
NorthWestern Energy has a handy online calculator for energy use to encourage reduction. Their benefits vary somewhat by service area, but generally include: $30 for a programmable thermostat; $120-310 for high-efficiency natural gas equipment rebates; $100 for a gas convection oven as a replacement; varying amounts for improving boiler and furnace equipment; efficient water measures (water tank insulation, low-flow shower heads, and faucet aerators) rebates or installation complimentary for participating in an energy audit; free weatherization starter kits; varying rebates for switching from electric to gas hot water heating; and a rebate for energy efficient new construction.
At Flathead Electric, customers can sign up to purchase renewable energy for $5 per month. It offers the following incentives: a $750 rebate on electrically-heated manufactured homes meeting standards; a $1,000 rebate for new construction or retrofit commercial lighting; $1,000 for air source heat pumps; a ground-source heat pump rebate; $60 for a high-efficiency electric hot water heater; and Energy Star appliance rebates ranging from $25-$70, and including clothes washers, refrigerators, dishwashers, and freezers.
There are positive mortgage programs for green. For VA Energy Efficient Mortgages, the VA (Department of Veteran Affairs) offers financial incentives for energy-saving home improvements for the loans it guarantees. With the Fannie Mae Energy Efficiency Mortgages, borrowers can get funds for energy-efficient improvements and add 5% to the home’s value if it is Energy Star® rated. The FHA Energy Efficient Mortgage allows homeowners to incorporate the costs of energy-efficient improvements into their new or refinanced FHA loan.
In the tax code, the federal government extended the Residential Energy Efficiency Federal Tax Credit through 2008 for a maximum credit of $500. The IRS also offers the Residential Solar and Fuel Cell Federal Tax Credit for solar and fuel cell systems, including up to $2,000 each for solar electric or solar hot water heating.
In Montana, the Department of Environmental Quality offers a guide to save energy. The State offers a 25% energy conservation tax credit, a residential Alternative Energy Systems credit up to $500, as well as substantial help to businesses pursuing alternative energy.
What to expect in the future
Ann Glimm, co-chair of Flathead Building Association Green Committee, is definitely optimistic. “Everyone is acknowledging our need to conserve. With the momentum green building is gaining and the way costs are going down, I think that when the dust settles in the next five years, it will be the standard.” ~ By Ann Zimmerman