I am about to build a new house on my land in Arlington County with several objectives.
First I want a place where I can age comfortably and safely. Second I want to have a house that will be light on the environment with a lot of “green” technology. Third, I want to reserve as much land as possible for garden and landscaping. And finally, I want a place that is just as geared toward my menagerie of dogs, cats and birds as it is for me.
At first I thought I could simply renovate the existing house, but grandfathering in the sub-minimal setbacks was not going to be possible and retrofitting the existing house with state-of-the art insulation would have meant effectively tearing down the existing house and rebuilding. So now that I have absolutely free rein to build exactly what I want, I am still going to rebuild on the same small footprint, moved a few feet away from street and from the side property line.
For the past few months I have been recounting the steps toward this dream, slow and sometimes painful, though they are.
This entry will be about a few of the bewildering list of programs that exist to encourage green home design.
Many of them score a project using a point system and reward the highest scores with certificates. Something about earning points and getting rewarded with certificates named after precious metals (such as silver, gold and platinum) make these programs particularly attractive.
I started at the local level by visiting Helen Reinecke-Wilt of Arlington County’s Green Home Choice Program. Whether a builder participates or not, her advice and the benefits of her experience are freely available. The object of the program is to encourage new home construction and renovations that are least taxing to the environment, and this is in everyone’s interest. In Arlington, Helen has become a kind of clearinghouse of local projects, a fund of ideas, and the center of a social support network.
If a builder does participate, the project can earn one of three levels of certification. The other incentives are being featured on green home tours, being allowed to boast about the project with a cool yard sign, and being invited to an annual reception for participants. No doubt the biggest lure of all is that the house will eventually be easier to sell. There are, unfortunately, no tax incentives for participating although some of the technologies that earn points may, independently, be good for tax credits.
The Green Home Choice guidance manual is about 72 pages long and even includes the kitchen sink. Property clearing, silt control, tree conservation, landscaping with native specimens, tight construction, efficient heating and cooling, appropriate air-handling, materials that produce few VOC gasses and are obtained in sustainable ways, rainwater control and recycling, window glass with a low “U-factor,” Energy Star appliances, water efficient toilets and showers, use of recycled and recyclable materials, and recycling of surplus building materials are all on the list.
If your plans include enough elements that qualify, you then receive a score sheet and a binder with information from the Green Home Choice Office in Arlington County. If you are building an entirely new house, you then apply to the independent Energy Star. That is when a rater (whom you must pay) gives constructive advice, inspects at two stages, and issues a separate score for energy efficient technology. This evaluation is included into Arlington County’s Green Home Choice score sheet. After the final inspection, conducted by Arlington County, the score is tallied and may earn the home a regular certification, a silver certification or a gold certification depending on that score. At all stages, there is give and take and sharing of tips and ideas.
So far there have been more than 100 houses in Arlington that have earned Green Home Choice certification and a few that have attained a “gold” standard.
The guidance manual and the score sheet that Arlington County uses come from one that was developed specifically for the mid-Atlantic by Earthcraft House Virginia. This program depends on the Energy Star rating system as well. But unlike Green Home Choice, Earthcraft Virginia offers a higher, platinum certification. Is that enough of an inducement to participate? Participation also requires that the contractor or architect attend a one-day training session that costs $175. These are held frequently. The overlap between Green Home Choice and Earthcraft Virginia makes it hard to justify getting both at once.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-homes) ratings are recognized nationally and are managed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Not only does it rate construction, it also offers certification for builders and architects who are well versed in LEED standards and pass their qualifying exams. Again there is a checklist that includes all aspects of site preparation, construction, sustainability, water use, energy use, sustainability and toxicity of materials, and even proximity to public transportation and open space. The project earns points toward either a plain, silver, gold or platinum certification. There are application, registration and certification fees. Two stages of inspection are required.
There are already several LEED-certified houses in Arlington and some more in the pipeline. The first LEED platinum house here is featured on an inspiring Youtube video.
The Energy Star rating system falls under the Environmental Protection Agency. It is the foundation for the other programs and addresses only questions of energy conservation. It can certainly be used alone when other aspects of the project (such as landscaping, interior air quality, water conservation, and erosion control) are not as important to the project. Most people are familiar with the logo for Energy Star on new refrigerators or microwaves. Buying these, as opposed to less efficient, appliances can earn points. The home’s insulation, the heating and air conditioning systems, the choice of lighting and windows all earn points. To be formally rated under Energy Star costs well under $1,000.
So what’s in it for me? There is no tax incentive to any of these programs, and I can implement any of the energy saving ideas and technologies without participating at all. But the lure of winning a certificate and earning points on a score sheet appeals to my inner schoolgirl. The cost of participating in any of these is enough to be a deterrent, but the desire to do something that will make my house easier to resell is attractive. The bureaucratic fuss with checklists and special inspections seems a drag, but the layer of technical oversight may point out flaws in construction and design.
Comparing Energy Star alone, Arlington County’s Green Home Choice program, Earthcraft Virginia, and LEED-home, my tendency is to go local and join with Arlington County Green Home Choice with its required Energy Star component. It seems to offer the best of all the attractions and the fewest of the costly and bureaucratic hassles.
Mary McCutcheon is a retired professor of anthropology at George Mason University. This is her story of transforming her house from something she doesn’t want into something she does.