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Green Streets: How Sustainability Is Transforming the Housing Market

September 15, 2014 | By

Every homeowner has nightmares about losing power and water, and many have seen those bad dreams become reality with the extreme weather of recent years. But you’d sleep soundly if you lived in one of architect Michael Reynolds’ “radically sustainable” homes.

Even if an entire region’s electricity, water and other public services suddenly came to a halt, a dweller of one of Reynolds’ Earthships would barely bat an eye. The toilets would still flush, the lights would turn on, and — perhaps best of all — any trash that can’t be composted would go to the community waste station for reuse or disposal.

“`Sustainability’ is a word people are using for housing that sort of takes care of itself,” Reynolds tells The Home Story. “The home will sustain regardless of what’s happening on the planet.”

Welcome to Reynolds’ universe. His homes, which at around $225 per square foot cost about the same to build as conventional ones, are engineered for the growing number of homebuyers who want to be less dependent on municipal utilities and have a smaller environmental footprint.

These ultra-sustainable homes demonstrate that the goods and services that seem like an inescapable part of modern life — electricity, water, sewage, food, garbage — can still be attained without making a significant dent on the environment.

You can supplement power from the city grid with solar panels or wind energy, or cut the need for electricity in the first place. Harvest rainwater to reduce your reliance on a municipal supply and use recycled shower water to flush toilets. Treat sewage on-site with botanical cells and use it to nourish landscaping.

After growing fresh vegetables and fruit in your garden, you can compost table scraps or use them to feed chickens or other livestock. Most other garbage can be recycled, as well. Indeed, Earthships and many other ultra-sustainable houses incorporate repurposed supplies — from salvaged wood to tires to glass jars — into their building design.

Not Just ‘Green Bling’

Sustainability means moving beyond surface modifications, however. “The challenge is to not just create green bling, or things that you can point to that just look cool,” says Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. “You have to also make those less sexy but more cost-effective investments.”

The sustainable housing movement has been quietly gaining momentum for decades, but things really began to pick up in the mid-1990s and early 2000s — for better and for worse. When home sellers realized that words such as “sustainable” and “green” were becoming vogue, some seized the opportunity to make a quick profit by unjustly slapping those labels on any property. “There was a lot of green-washing — people just saying something was green because they could,” says Platt.

To address this problem, the U.S. Green Building Council unveiled its green standard, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), in 2000. “LEED was originally designed as a standard to ensure that there was a common definition that would at least preclude the most outrageous, bogus green-washing claims,” Platt says.

LEED rates the sustainability of homes and buildings — from basic (or certified) to silver, gold or platinum — so you can make a direct comparison of properties you’re considering.

LEEDing the Industry

When they started, the LEED creators “had this highly unlikely idea that by coming up with a standard for what constitutes a green building, they could change an entire industry,” says Platt.

Fourteen years later, LEED has nearly lived up to that original vision. To date, there are more than 56,000 houses certified under the LEED for Homes rating system — with another 90,000 in the pipeline. Every week, LEED-certified projects equivalent to the space of about three Empire State buildings are constructed, across 150 different countries.

“It’s an international language,” Platt says, “and one that investors and bankers have become familiar with and are using.”

Today, certifications such as LEED and Energy Star, which is issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, make it much easier to ensure a home and its amenities are environmentally friendly. It’s still important to educate yourself on what the certifications actually mean, however. LEED-accredited experts, as well as resources such as the Green Home Guide, can help get you up to speed.

As more and more people catch on to these greener living options, it’s likely the market for sustainable housing will only continue to expand. Some states are already incorporating green building codes into their legislation, or providing tax incentives for those adding sustainable features into their new home. You also may be able to take out a bigger mortgage to buy or refinance an energy-efficient home, including several programs supported by Fannie Mae.

In certain parts of the U.S. — mostly in California and the northwest — nearly half of the homes being sold have some degree of sustainability built in, whether it’s Energy Star certified or a less formal green design feature, Platt says. People already living by those standards “provide a kind of demonstration for what in 10 years might be mandatory, but right now is being adopted on a voluntary basis,” he says.

Whether you’re considering building an Earthship from the ground up or just greening your remodeling project with the help of programs such as REGREEN, there are many ways to make your living situation more sustainable. For example, using low-flow showerheads in the bathroom, moving the fridge further away from the stove in the kitchen, or sealing air leaks to weatherize the outside of your home can go a long way toward improving sustainability and lowering your utility bills.

The shades of green to choose from for your home will only multiply in the future. “We’re still just scratching the surface,” says Reynolds.

Here are some things to consider when shopping for or building a sustainable house:

  • Does the home get any wind or solar power, or does it depend primarily on municipal utilities?
  • Is the home well insulated and designed to take advantage of natural light?
  • Are the home’s building materials repurposed or recycled?
  • Are there facilities on the property for capturing and using rainwater, or for composting and treating waste?
  • Does the landscaping take advantage of native plants that could need minimal water, fertilizer and pest control?”
  • Is the property close to public transportation or within walking distance to schools and supermarkets?
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