Tighter Standards and Smaller Homes: A Prescription for Real Progress

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by Brent Katzmann

In a recent press release, the National Association of Home Builders suggested “The key to the mainstreaming of green is to make sure that consumers understand the value of green upgrades – and exactly how cost-effective sustainable construction can be in the long run”. Indeed, helping people who own a home, or are considering purchasing one, understand both the long term and short term benefits of building and remodeling to a higher performance standard is critical in enhancing the rate at which we improve our housing stock and, not inconsequentially, improve the comfort and inherent value in our homes.

Yes, green building is largely about reducing our demand for fossil fuels that generate our heat and our power. But, in a more holistic approach, green building is also about improving our comfort by controlling heat loss, water vapor, indoor air quality and interior lighting. Taken a step further, green building also considers the impact of site development on transportation and utility infrastructure, ecosystems, surface and subsurface water, and native vegetation. It concerns itself with access to solar energy and daylight to generate power or heat or to provide abundant natural lighting. And it addresses the broader impact of material sourcing, manufacturing, waste and transport.

Energy Star®, a program of the US Department of Energy, was the first universal rating system that provided builders and homeowners with a prescriptive path for designing and building homes that were more energy efficient than required by the building code. It set as a benchmark a 15% reduction in energy use versus a building built to code.

Since then, the United States Green Building Council introduced its LEED® for Homes program which took the basic objective of energy savings and added important additional considerations including land use, social transformation, global ecological impact, material and resource efficiency and water resource management, among others. And, as of 2009, the National Association of Home Builders has released another rating system called the National Green Building Standard. Patterned in many ways after the LEED® for Homes Program, it too covers a much more comprehensive look at the impacts and opportunities in building homes that are more efficient, more healthful and more responsible. And now, Energy Star® is introducing an enhanced, more aggressive rating system to be rolled out over the next two years called Energy Star® 2011.

Taken together, these are all significant steps in the right direction. However, by their very nature, they address opportunities for building better new homes, but are not yet broadly applicable to existing housing. And, since they need to enable builders and manufacturers of all sizes to participate, they still fall short of what’s possible with current knowledge, materials and technologies.

There is a simpler, more immediate approach that could have an even greater impact on “greening” our way of life.


Since 1995, the size of new homes has continued to climb every year, without exception, until 2008 when size declines occurred in most areas across the country. Whether this is the start of a trend only time will tell, but it’s a hopeful sign. A larger home requires more materials, more environmental impact, more land area, and takes more energy to operate. And building these to current code leaves far too much opportunity on the table.

Fortunately, the movement toward smaller homes is growing. And, given the recent economic softening, looking into smaller homes, whether new or existing, can be a smart strategy for achieving your green living goals. Quoting from a December 2009 article in REALTOR® magazine, “For buyers trying to play it safe in the softening housing market, a smaller home may be the way to go. Smaller homes tend to not only be more affordable but more energy efficient.” Here in Tompkins County, our housing stock tends to be largely made up of older, smaller homes. Many have been upgraded with more efficient systems and newer windows, while others remain largely unchanged since their construction, a future “green” home in the waiting.

If you’ve been considering taking steps towards creating a healthful, quality and highly efficient home for yourself, then I encourage you to learn about what’s possible by identifying and then selecting resources available here in Tompkins County, including architects, designers, builders and Realtors®, who understand the market, the industry, and the opportunity to make real progress in living green.

Brent Katzmann is owner of Balance Studio, LLC, a local firm that specializes in green design and interiors, a licensed Realtor® with Warren Real Estate, specializing in green homes, and a founder of the Ithaca Green Building Alliance. He can be reached through his website: www.balance-studio.net or by phone at 607-280-8353.

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