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All You Need to Know about Green Building: An Interview with Caroline Kostak of the U.S. Green Building Council

By Caroline Kostak

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

I spent 12 years as a Flight Controller at NASA working on construction of the International Space Station, one of the highest performance buildings ever built. As the Space Shuttle program wound down, I realized I wanted to bring the skills I had learned at NASA out into the public sector (or the "real world," as I like to call it).

The space station was built with an integrated design approach, so that was very familiar to me and I've always been a "greenie" at heart, so green building was a natural fit for me. Now, GreenHouse Integration works with builders, trades, realtors, and homeowners to help them understand the green building process and how to incorporate "green" into their standard way of thinking.

Please elaborate on the concept of "green building."

The basics of "Green Building" are really the same as the basics of "good building." A "green" house has been thoughtfully designed, with attention paid to the interaction of the different systems of the house and the different players in the building process.

For example, in a traditional wood frame house, the cracks and joints have been sealed which keeps the conditioned air inside the house and also keeps bugs out of the house. This is good for energy efficiency and also keeps toxic pest-control chemicals out of the house. Water Efficiency is also important, and a green house will incorporate strategies to reduce water use both inside and outside the house.

Care is taken to reduce the amount of contaminants brought into the house through formaldehyde-free materials and low-VOC paints which, together with high quality filters on the air conditioning systems improves the Indoor Air Quality. It is also encouraged to think about where you're siting your house ? locating the house on a small lot in an already-developed neighborhood close to community amenities like a grocery store is encouraged over locating the house on previously undeveloped land in an area where you'd need a car to get to the grocery store.

What are the main differences between the process of green building and a regular building process?

In a regular building process, an architect or designer will design the house and hand it off to a builder, who will then hire sub-contractors to do the work. In a green building process, an integrated design approach is preferred, where the builder, architect, home owner, green building consultant, and trades all work together throughout the whole process to understand the goals of the project from the beginning and develop synergies.

For example, if foam insulation is used, a smaller HVAC system can be installed, which saves the homeowner money on both the upfront costs of the equipment and also the operating costs once the house is built. The green building process isn't that much harder than a regular building process, but there are certain things that must be done early in the process, so it is important that the builder be aware of the goals from the beginning.

For example, it is difficult to decide to make the house "green" after the drywall has already gone in. By the time the framing is enclosed and the insulation is installed, it is likely that some green concepts have been missed.

What are some of the benefits associated with the green building?

Green homes use less energy and water than typical homes, which reduces the operating costs of the home. They also have better indoor air quality, which is especially important for children and people with asthma. The materials chosen for the building are often manufactured locally, which reduces transportation costs and carbon impacts and supports the local economy.

Also, because durability measures have been incorporated into the building of the home, there are often less issues with moisture problems in walls. Builders also report fewer callbacks after the house is completed because so many things have been tested and verified before the homeowner ever moves in.

There is also the idea that we take better care of things that are beautiful, so green houses are often very attractive both inside and out. This makes the spaces very pleasant and comfortable to live in. I have never met an owner of a green house who didn't just love being in the space after it was completed.

What are some of the myths associated with the concept of green building?

Many people think that building a green home is going to cost significantly more than building a conventional house. While there is about a 5% increase due to the third-party verifications and some extra steps, the cost is not nearly the 20% increase that surveys have reported that most people think "green" will cost.

In fact, one of the biggest growth areas in residential green building is in affordable housing, where occupants really can't afford high energy and water bills, so it makes sense to make as efficient a house as possible.

There are also the misconceptions that you have to put solar panels on a house and that the house will look "weird." Solar can be very useful and can certainly lower the conventional energy use of a house, but it really should only be considered after the house has been made as energy efficient as possible. First the house should be well-built, with cracks and joints sealed, with proper ventilation and efficient appliances.

Many people who have built green houses have done so wanting to make a statement. And as such, they have designed houses that look out of the norm, that make a visual statement with their green features. While that is certainly a choice the architect can make, building green doesn't dictate that the house has to look any different than a conventional house next door.

What can you advise homeowners who wish to have greener homes or homes that are more energy efficient?

The energy codes are getting more strict all the time, and if your city builds to the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), you will already have a fairly tight house. Unfortunately, many cities are slow in adopting the more stringent codes and you will often have to find a builder who is familiar with above-code programs.

If possible, find a builder who already has experience building to Energy Star, LEED, the NAHB Green Standard, or another green program's standards. If the builder you like does not have experience, it is best to find a consultant who can help the team through the process. It often feels like a builder is paving a new path if they want to build a green house because they're not familiar with the process.

At this point, a lot of people have built green houses and it's not a new path to pave. It can still be daunting, though, if new to the process. It's helpful to have a guide show you the best way to navigate the process.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you or your company?

I can be reached at ckostak@greentegration.com or by phone at 832.215.3885. I also teach LEED-Homes classes for Homeowners and Homebuilders for the Texas Gulf Coast Chapter of the US Green Building Council (http://usgbctexasgulfcoast.org/). Check the calendar page for the latest schedule. I am happy to come give classes or talks to interested groups. My mission is to see green building become the norm for home building because everyone deserves to live in a green home.

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About The Author

Caroline Kostak is a board member at U.S. Green Building Council.

Phone: 832-215-3885

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