18 Lessons We Learned While Building a Green Home

18 Lessons We Learned While Building a Green Home

This is a guest post by Anna Hackman, the editor of Green Talk, a green living and gardening website and the owner of Anna Lee Herbs, a homegrown herbal tea, hydrosol, flower essence, and dried herbs company. Anna was also formerly a LEED certified consultant. She and her husband built an energy star, low toxic home in 2005.

Fourteen years ago, my husband and I decided to build a nontoxic green home to create a better home indoor air quality environment for our four children.  They have learning disabilities and other health related issues.  Building products, at the time, contained harmful chemicals which we felt may have contributed to their health related problems.  Armed with my binder of energy efficient features, a handful of green building books, and the internet, in 2003, we started building our home. At the time, there were few green homes and little guidance. Although green building materials have become more accessible, the lessons we learned while building have not changed.  Listed below are 18 lessons that we learned which are relevant today for the homeowner who wishes to build or renovate green.

At the time, there were few green homes and little guidance. Although green building materials have become more accessible, the lessons we learned while building have not changed.  Listed below are 18 lessons that we learned which are relevant today for the homeowner who wishes to build or renovate green.

#1 Be on the Same Page

Before starting to build or renovate, make sure you, your architect, and builder are on the same page.  When I was consulting, I provided my client with a list of acceptable zero or low toxic products to use.  The builder kept asking to change the list and substituting products that his subcontractors used.  Often, the products were more conventional and not the type my client would use.  Although, the builder told my client that he would follow her product specifications, he clearly didn’t.  It caused undue stress for my client.  

Fortunately, I was in charge of buying or sourcing the green building materials for my home.  My builder and I worked together like a team.  He asked that I wouldn’t hold up the progress of the construction from delays in sourcing hard to find environmental materials.  I only had one issue with a drywall spackle I wanted to use.  The contractor refused to use it since he didn’t know how to work with it.  Luckily, using a conventional spackle at the time wasn’t a deal breaker since we were sealing the wall with a particular sealing primer.

I would highly recommend using a builder who has built or renovated green. Ask if the prospective contractor built a LEED, National Green Building Standard, or similar green designation certified home.  (See HERE for additional third party certifications.)

In any event, be sure to ask for references to verify if your prospective builder has built a home to your green standards as well as the quality of the work.

#2 Changes Happen

Be flexible about some of the products you requested.  However, don’t be so flexible that you run into the same problems as my client.   As I mentioned above, I had to be flexible with my drywall products.  

A subcontractor may not be comfortable with your product specification although your builder approved the selection.  You don’t want to be a guinea pig for a product your subcontractors has never used.  Mistakes cost money.

Do your homework for any change requests.

#3 Make Sure of Local Supply

When we chose our paint, we decided ultimately to source from a local paint store rather than use the best non-toxic paint.  We initially ordered paint from across the country from a small eco-conscious paint company. Remember when we started building there weren’t the abundance of green products that there are now.  

If we didn’t order enough paint, then it caused building delays since we had to wait a week for the new supply.  

Also, we used a particular white on all our ceilings. The paint manufacturer kept changing the formula.  You would be surprised how many “white” color variations exist.  Sometimes the color would have a gray tint or other times it was way too white.  In any case, we decided to opt for consistency and ease of obtaining the product.  At the time, we used Benjamin Moore Eco Spec which was limited in colors, but it was easy to get at the local paint store.

Was it the greenest paint choice we could have obtained?  No, it wasn’t; however, time delays cost us money and the paint choice fit within our toxicity parameters.

#4 Stick to Your Budget

Building green can be like chasing a shiny ball.  You can always be greener.  We decided if the product cost more than 15% above the cost of a conventional product, we passed.  Consequently, we made hard choices.  We did not install FSC certified hardwood.  The cost at the time was at least three times the cost of conventional wood sourced from the United States.  Even reclaimed wood was way too expensive.

Make sure you spend the time to learn the costs of your green options. Many people who initially want to build green get sticker shock when they start sourcing.  

When you build, there will be mistakes, or you might change your mind.  For example, we changed every bathroom layout.  Save that room in your budget for changes.

#5 Put your Money in your Walls and Major Building Components

We decided we would put the bulk of our green budget in the walls by installing geothermal heating and cooling, foam insulation, energy star windows, and denim insulation for sound proofing. Also, all cabinetry was custom and contained no added formaldehyde materials.

Our payback for the geothermal system was about 5 to 7 years due to rebates and efficiency.  Our utility bills are less than a house half our size.

We also received rebates for our appliances and lighting.

#6 Don’t Always Listen

I was talked out of a rain harvesting system when we installed irrigation.  Our irrigation contractor didn’t have the experience with rain harvesting systems.  It was the eleventh hour, and I had to make a decision. I couldn’t find a contractor to help me.  

I should have held my ground.

No one could have predicted that I would build a small farm.  Over the last ten years, I have spent way too much money irrigating my crops.  The cost at this point to install a tank would be too expensive.  The time to install the tank would have been when they installed the septic tanks.

If you want to install a green feature which isn’t readily available, then do your homework.   Find the right contractor at the beginning of the building process.

#7 Subcontractors Will Use the Wrong Products

I had talked to each contractor before they started their respective jobs.  I wanted to make sure they used the products I purchased.  I always wanted to be assured we were both on the same page.  

Guess what?  I would walk into the house, and they weren’t using the products that I bought despite promises of the subcontractor!  You need to be on top of each of the subcontractors or at the least make sure your builder is.

Although my builder was great, building green was a new venture for my subcontractors.

#8 Subcontractors Must Have Experience in Your Requested Products

Again, when we built our home, many of the green building products were new.  Most of my contractors never installed some of the products I specified.  And yes, there were mistakes.  The subcontractors don’t always take the time to read the instructions that accompany the products.

Now many companies have certified installers.  It isn’t a guarantee they won’t make a mistake; however, the subcontractor is less likely to install incorrectly.

So make sure you have your major components such as windows and siding installed by a certified installer (if available) not the cheapest bidding subcontractor.

#9 Do Your Homework

Do your homework.  Know the pros and cons of certain materials and systems.  Just because the building store tells you it is the best thing next to sliced cookie dough, do your research.

We purchased a particular water filter system based on the advice of a so-called expert.  Unfortunately, the filtration system was for a well rather than a public water system.

Always, look up the reviews online. Read green building books, information on the internet such as the article contained in Elemental Green and traditional building magazines such as Fine Homebuilding.  

You can also attend green building exhibitions to gather ideas such as GreenBuild and the National Association of Builder’s International Builders’ Show.    

We spent two years just researching and finding sources.  We were fortunate that we had a green building supply store in Brooklyn.  It was at least an hour away, but the owner was extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  

Also, employing a certified LEED for Homes or experienced green design architect, builder, or designer will short cut your homework efforts.  But again, you still must do your homework.  (See HERE for more information about LEED for Homes certification. This certification wasn’t available when we started to build.)

#10 Use Companies That Have a Track Record

My builder told me he wouldn’t use a product that hadn’t been around at least five years.  You don’t want your house to be the guinea pig.  When we had to replace products due to failures, those companies were still in business.

Some of my green suppliers are no longer in business or discontinued the products.  Dow terminated wheatboard which is the material used for my cabinetry and another business who supplied my recycled content desk countertop is no longer in business.

#11 Check All Warranties

Check the length and the quality of your warranties. Read the fine print. Compare each company to the other. Building products fail.  It just happens.  You need good warranty terms.

Our window company had excellent warranty coverage.  We had numerous seal failures.  The company stood by all of our issues.

#12 Obtain Parts in Your Country

That nice Italian tub may be appealing but what happens if your tub has a failure?  Where will the parts be sourced?  Who will install it for you under the warranty?  

We installed Italian faucets in the kitchen.  I waited a year for the replacement part! Our distributor told me every month it would arrive shortly.

#13 Local Repairs

Before you set your sights on any building product, find out who fixes it especially windows, doors, and heating systems.  The manufacturers of our building components were for the most part in the United States.

Ask each manufacturer for the major components of your home whether local service contractors are available.  A local window servicer repairs our windows.

#14 The Cheapest Isn’t Always the Best

If you receive bids which are too good to be true, then there is always a catch.  When we sought bids for our heating system, the geothermal contractor’s bid was cheaper than the conventional heating and cooling contractor.  We just thought the heating and cooling contractor was just way too expensive.  

We decided to hire the geothermal contractor because his bid was more reasonable than the other contractor.  Also, we always wanted to install geothermal heating and cooling.

In retrospect, we think geothermal contractor underbid the job requirements so that we would hire him.  He undersized some of the components of our system which we later fixed.  

#15 Mark all Plumbing Valves in the House

Our plumbing contractor marked all plumbing valves on the basement floor.  However, the drywall subcontractor didn’t install doors for access when they installed the ceiling drywall. If you have a plumbing leak, you will have to cut the damaged drywall instead of opening up a panel for repair.

Make sure you coordinate installing panels on all plumbing outlets before installing the drywall on the ceiling and walls.

#16 Buy a little More

If you install certain flooring like cork, dye lots change over time.  The manufacturer stopped producing our tile and cork pattern.

Accidents happen so although the color may change slightly due to the sun, at least you will have extra.

#17 Keep a Record of Everything You Buy

I kept each receipt of everything we bought and each contractor’s bills.  I organized them in notebooks alphabetized by contractor and supplier.

Also, I also have a design notebook with the color of the paint, caulk, granite type, and tile for each room.  I also have a list of each of the light fixtures installed.  

Organization of your building products comes in very handy when you need a part, color or there is a system failure.

#18 Most Importantly–Videotape the Inside of the Walls

I videotaped the insides of all the walls and ceilings before drywall so if we needed to find a wire or component inside the walls we knew where it was.  It has come in handy.

Building or renovating isn’t for the weak at heart.  It takes time and the ability to make multiple decisions.  It can be aggravating and exhilarating at the same time. The peace of mind of building or renovating a home that is low toxic and energy efficient is priceless.

I hope the lessons I learned above will help you with your next green project.  

Happy building or renovating.

Anna Hackman is the editor of Green Talk, a green living and gardening website and the owner of Anna Lee Herbs, a homegrown herbal tea, hydrosol, flower essence, and dried herbs company.  She and her husband built an energy star, low toxic home in 2005.

NOTE: The house featured above is not Anna’s house.

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