Friday marks 35 years since the first Earth Day. Have America's homes turned "green" yet?
Not quite. But the outlook for what is called "green building" -- that is, designing homes or other structures to be energy efficient, water conserving, and built in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment and is protective of indoor air quality, among other things -- is the sunniest it has ever been, according to advocates and housing experts.
Geothermal well-drilling during construction of the Eastern Village condo building in Silver Spring.
(Photos Courtesy Of Edg Architects)
Green building has generally been regarded as a fringe concern, important to only hard-core environmentalists. But with steadily increasing energy prices looming over their heads, many in the boomer generation that brought us Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and many of their kids are thinking harder about how to cut energy costs, experts say.
Buildings consume 39 percent of the energy used in the United States, more than cars or manufacturing plants, according to the federal Department of Energy. Although new homes are twice as efficient as they were in 1970, residential buildings still account for about 20 percent of national energy use, says the nonprofit Virginia Sustainable Building Network.
Americans are also looking twice at green building because they have become more concerned about indoor air problems linked to toxic chemicals found in some building materials, carpets and furniture. The chemicals have been blamed for asthma and other respiratory problems. Eliminating outdoor pollution caused by burning fossil fuels for power plants also has always been an environmentalist cause.
Making a connection between buildings and these problems has taken a while. It wasn't until 1993, for instance, that plans to green the White House were announced, on Earth Day by President Clinton; they were completed within about a year.
But the connection finally is being made, say green building groups.
"It's not just for crunchies, it's not just for granola-eaters anymore," said Sean McGuire, coordinator of the Green Building Network in Maryland, an informal information-sharing service for developers and consumers that meets monthly to discuss new technologies and trends.
The nation's big builders, meanwhile, are starting to buy into the concepts for their own reasons, say housing trend watchers.
"Historically green building has been the domain of a relatively small number of niche builders," said Ward Hubbell, executive director of the Green Building Initiative, a nonprofit group set up by the National Association of Home Builders to sell its new green guidelines program to local chapters.
But building green is a way for bigger, high-production builders to distinguish themselves from the pack, Hubbell said. "Good builders are using a lot of this already, they're just not calling it that. This raises the bar for the mass builder," he said.
Also helping to raise the bar is the realization that perhaps going green doesn't require as much green from consumers' pocketbooks as once thought. Advocates say that as more builders use green products, costs will drop, and the energy savings over the life of the house will be enough to outweigh the upfront cost differential. In some cases, they say, homeowners can cut their energy bills in half or more.
While big and small builders generally have focused their efforts in going green on states facing energy and water shortages or with extreme climates, such as California and Colorado, they're watching consumer polls that show general support nationwide for green practices, say National Association of Home Builders officials.
And it doesn't hurt when the topic comes up on national television, said John Loyer, a specialist in the association's Energy and Green Building Department.