Sustainable homes are a growing and important sector.
A strategy for sustainable structures

In 2020, 6 weeks into being quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on the morning news, I saw a photo of the Himalayan Mountains taken from over 100 miles away. Because of smog and pollution, the site had not been viewed from this distance for over 30 years. The same news story also showed other images of heavily polluted cities around the world as they experienced crystal-clear blue skies for the first time in decades as a result of the decrease in emissions. That moment highlighted for me the impact that human activity has had on the planet—or better yet—the impact of the lack of human activity. According to CBS, the world has had twice the number of weather disasters than in the previous 20 years, at a cost of $3 trillion. And recently, 40 million acres burned in California. Scientists predict that if we continue on our current course, agriculture yields will be cut by half in the not-so-distant future. These staggering facts inspired me to look for ways to make my building projects at Ziman Development more sustainable.

 

Planting Trees to Negate Carbon Emissions

In my research, I was blown away by the evidence and the science. We have pumped more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 20 years than we have over the previous 800,000 years combined. And the business of building is contributing greatly to the carbon being released into the atmosphere. As builders, we are part of the problem. The good news is that many builders are now actively seeking ways to be part of the solution. I decided for my business the best and most natural method of carbon capture is through trees. Nature provides the perfect solution to climate change and global warming. Trees naturally breath in carbon dioxide and expel clean oxygen, and they live, on average, for more than 50 years.

 

 

In crunching the numbers, I discovered I could offset all the greenhouse gas emissions from my buildings by planting just one tree for each square foot of structure that I build. Trees capture 10 pounds of carbon every year and the average home emits 20,260 pounds of carbon per year from electricity and natural gas usage. The average home measures 2,368 square feet. By planting one tree for every one square foot (for the average home, that would be 2,368 trees), I could make the home carbon neutral.

Those 2,368 trees will consume 23,680 pounds of carbon each year for approximately 50 years, which is more than the 20,260 pounds of carbon that the home will emit. And this does not factor in renewable energy or sustainable building practices. The question then became how to plant that volume of trees.

I created a partnership with American Forests, the nation’s oldest preservation organization, to do the tree planting at a cost of only $1 per tree. Working closely with the United States Department of Forest Services, the organization plants native species of trees on federally protected land in areas of need. For the cost of only $1 per square foot, I am now building homes that will be carbon neutral for approximately 50 years. I started the One Tree Pledge to invite other business owners to join me.

As builders, we can offset the emissions from the homes, offices and commercial structures we erect by planting just one tree per square foot. Make the pledge now at onetreepledge.org and plant a better future for the families and companies who will be living and working in the structures you build.

 

Energy Efficiency Ratings

 

Many builders are now focusing on energy efficiency to reduce the amount of electricity used in the home. Builders like Ziman Development and Point B Properties both aim to make homes as airtight as possible to prevent the loss of energy, thereby reducing the quantity of natural gas and electricity used for
the home.

According to Robert Linn, owner of Point B Properties in Chicago, Illinois, “At Point B, we focus on the energy efficiency of our developments as part of our triple bottom line. An energy-efficient building improves the life of the occupant by saving them money and improving their health, and it improves the health of the planet by reducing the carbon footprint.”

In addition, builders are carefully selecting their materials, using less plastic and more biodegradable products, such as petroleum-based siding and decking made of lower quantities of petroleum byproducts. Sourcing as close as possible to the building site is also beneficial.

Local sourcing reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions related to freight shipping. Many construction companies are also now using renewable energy systems on-site, such as wind turbines and solar water heating. These factors are considered in the energy ratings systems.

The Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) is a not-for-profit, nationally recognized standards-making body for building energy efficiency ratings and certification systems in the U.S. RESNET’s Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index rates the energy efficiency of the new homes being built.

 

Considered the gold standard of home energy efficiency, the HERS Index gives builders a specific rating for the home being built, based on a wide variety of factors including the carbon footprint, annual projected energy savings of the home and the cost savings gained by the greater energy efficiency.

According to RESNET Communications Director Valerie Briggs, “RESNET certified raters have rated the energy efficiency levels of nearly 3 million homes in America. We are proud to work with some of the largest builders in the country, as well as smaller independent custom builders, all of whom are working hard to reduce the amount of energy used in our homes, creating not only cost efficiency, but also a lesser carbon footprint for the homes.”

RESNET has over 2,000 raters who rate homes across the country based on many factors such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), duct work, window quality and installation and more. Other rating systems include the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiency (EDGE) and EnergyStar. The LEED certification provides independent verification of the green features in a given building’s design, construction, operation and maintenance. Energystar.gov also provides third-party ratings that certify a home or building’s energy efficiency, similar to the grading given to home appliances. A building must earn an Energy Star score of 75 or higher to receive certification, indicating that it performs better than 75% of similar buildings nationwide. Achieving these types of certifications not only reduces the environmental impact, but also increases the value of the building and helps it sell for a higher price.

 

Smart Home Technologies

Builders can also incorporate the latest technology into the structures being built to manage energy more efficiently and create a more sustainable future. An added benefit is that using energy efficient options also creates cost savings for the people who will ultimately use the homes and buildings.

 

LED lights last longer, and they use a fraction of the electricity of an incandescent bulb, creating a smaller carbon footprint and cost savings. Smart thermostats and smart home technologies like Amazon’s Nest learn the habits of the people using the building to automate power usage. The system automatically shuts off electrical power when not in use, creating a 16% to 22% reduction in electricity and natural gas usage.

Energy-efficient appliances also reduce carbon emissions. Opt for only Energy Star appliances to reduce both energy and resources (for example, Energy Star washing machines reduce the electricity use, as well as the amount of water used in each load of laundry). Consider new options like tankless hot water systems that heat water on demand, reducing the use of gas and electricity. Windows are also rated for efficiency and heat loss.

In the second-home market, smart switches and leak-prevention detection devices help to avoid or mitigate water damage and unnecessary water usage. Sourcing windows and appliances with the latest technology ensures a lesser carbon footprint and long-term cost savings on utility bills.

Building structures with greater climate resiliency is another effective method of reducing waste. Particularly in coastal cities, flood zones or tornado alleys, builders are creating stronger frames and using better windows to mitigate weather damage and reduce insurance costs. Hurricane-ready windows are rated by design pressure (DP) and performance grade (PG), measuring the window’s air infiltration, water infiltration and structural load. A window must meet specified criteria in all three aspects to achieve a hurricane-ready PG rating.

 

Economy & Values Align

Today, there are so many options available to builders for creating more efficient homes and buildings. From nature’s solution of tree-planting to technological enhancements and energy-efficiency certification, there exists a wide variety of best practices that modern builders can use to reduce the carbon footprint of their homes and buildings and to be a part of the solution to the existential threat of climate change. The market continues to prove that homes and buildings with greater energy efficiency can be sold or leased at higher prices and can be operated at lower rates. Not only is it right for the planet, but it is also what is best for our businesses.

Pursuing opportunities like the ones covered here and making an effort to go green is a scalable game-changer—and it cannot wait. Make a commitment today to start reducing the carbon footprint of the structures you build. Let’s build a better tomorrow for everyone.