Clark County Setting the Bar for Green Building

Green techniques and products helping builders construct healthier, more efficient homes

Green Home

“The housing industry is headed for an entire paradigm shift over the next decade.”

So says Troy Johns, a home innovation expert with Urban NW Homes. Johns, who is also a board member for the National Green Building Standard (NGBS), foresees a new wave of green and sustainable building products and techniques. In addition, said Mike Selig, coordinator of Clark County’s Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Program, the downturn in the economy and housing industry has buyers looking at every dollar they invest.

“They’re beginning to understand the [return on investment] in terms of housing,” said Selig. “A little bit more frontend cost, compared to higher indoor air quality and energy efficiency are worth investing in.”

Setting the bar

This combination of economics and a new focus on healthy environment has sparked several sustainable building projects in Clark County.

“Vancouver is leading edge in the Portland metro area,” said Johns. “Not many on the other side of the river are even doing something similar.”

For example, the county, in partnership with Habitat Humanity, recently completed the “Emerald House.” This house meets the five green standards, including the Emerald level of the NBGS, as well as adheres to the county’s Universal Green Design principles. Universal Green Design is a long-term approach to building and remodeling that combines environmentally sustainable elements of green building with design principles that make a home more comfortable for a wide range of people.

Urban NW Homes has built a “net-zero” house, one of the first in the U.S, which means the house has zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions annually. The Wild Glen (Salmon Creek) development where the net-zero house is located is the first Emerald-rated development west of the Mississippi.

Joe Bjorklund, real estate agent with Bella Links Real Estate, said he is working with the owners of the regional Multiple Listing Service (MLS) to upgrade the database to include Home Energy Rating System (HERS) information.

“Part of my job is to help the MLS get greened up so the green info is available to other real estate agents and consumers,” said Bjorklund, who is one of only a handful of real estate agents in the county that have received the National Association of Realtors’ Green Designation.

Johns said that his company does not hire real estate agents without this certificate.

“You can’t sell the product if you don’t understand it,” said Johns. “It’s hard to compete in a price-driven market if no one knows how to tell consumers about the green amenities.”

Timely standards, techniques and products

Timothy Buckley, principal of Greenstone Architecture PLLC and architect for the county’s Emerald House, said that compared to other green building standards, the NGBS is easy to use and document, which reduces the cost and time to get approved at your target level.

A high-performance envelope, said Buckley, is the key to building an affordable green home. By focusing on energy conservation and quality of material, said Buckley, you can reduce the size of mechanical systems, and over time, energy consumption.

“At a recent conference,” said Buckley, “I learned that one of the undervalued elements of a high-performance envelope is the long-term value-added benefit. Upfront investments can actually save more on energy bills than the added premium to your mortgage.”

Some of the elements that contribute to a high-performance envelope include the following:

  • Ductless heating and cooling – uses a high-efficiency exterior air-to-air heat pump with small pipes running to each living space. Buckley said these systems avoid the average 30-percent leakage associated with ducts.
  • Heat recovery ventilator (HRV) – provides fresh air to the building and exhausts stale air, while transmitting heat energy to incoming cold air. Johns said that older energy-efficient homes have mold issues because they don’t properly deal with latent moisture. Buckley summarized the technique as “build tight but ventilate right.”
  • Clustered hot water use – utilities and fixtures that use hot water are clustered around the water heater. Buckley said this provides occupancy convenience (you get hot water faster) as well as energy savings.
  • LED lighting – Bulbs are more expensive than traditional bulbs, but can last 20 to 25 years, plus saving drastically on energy bills. According to Selig, LED prices are plummeting as technology becomes more mainstream.
  • Staggered stud framing – uses an 8-inch plate, with studs staggered so that no stud touches both the outside wall and the sheetrock, increasing the energy efficiency of the home by eliminating thermal bridging.
  • Passive heat and solar gain – Johns said intelligent orientation of the house, location of windows, and overhang width can significantly reduce energy bills.

To gain the Emerald rating for the Wild Glen development, said Johns, it was important to recycle at least 85 percent of construction debris – about 8,000 pounds for an average home.

“It doesn’t make sense for consumers to be into recycling, but throw away a lifetime worth of debris during construction,” said Johns. Also, he said it’s illogical to haul off loads and loads of dirt that you’ll have to haul back in later.

A no-brainer

Selig said that the Emerald House helps erase perceptions that green building means very expensive.

“Meeting the NGBS is achievable in an affordable way,” said Selig.

Bjorklund stated that he believes most lending institutions will start using the HERS rating to set mortgage rates, because a house with a lower HERS rating will cost less to live in.

However, although economics is an important motivator for consumers to choose a “green” home, Bjorklund said that increasingly, health is also important. Technologies such as heat exchange ventilation, low-volatile organic compound (VOC) paint and radon monitoring systems can lead to a healthier environment.

Selig said that when he was a building inspector, his eyes would burn and he would feel sick while inspecting a new home, due to the VOCs being emitted by paint, carpeting, etc.

“Show consumer two houses that are similar in price, and one won’t poison their children – it is a no brainer,” said Selig.

Selig added that building supply stores are carrying more low-VOC products, which just a few years ago were difficult to find.

Education is the next step

Clark County’s PlanetClark initiative, said Selig, focuses on educating appraisers and real estate agents.

“We want to demystify ‘green’,” said Selig. “It’s about a sustainably built, high-performance house (not about saving icebergs in the Arctic or hugging trees).”

Bjorklund said one of the reasons he pursued the NAR Green designation is to educate consumers.

“The real estate agent is a conduit of information between builder and consumer,” said Bjorklund.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.