A decade ago, searching for a metro Atlanta house built in harmony with the Earth seemed like a snowball hunt in Hades: Good luck, pal.
Atlanta's home builders thrived, and largely still do, on stamping out as many units as quickly and cheaply as possible, hindered by few regulations and a lowest-common-denominator approach to standards.
Flash-forward to 2008. Three separate programs offer certification for green-built homes in metro Atlanta. Some 200 builders claim to specialize in green home building. And more than 5,000 homes have been sanctified by the EarthCraft House or one of two other green-certification programs.
"Even with the downturn of the housing market, builders in our program have found that building EarthCraft homes has separated them from their competition," says Ku'ulei Sako, spokeswoman for Southface Energy Institute, the region's primary advocate for green construction.
But what about the homeowner? Is it worth it to pay extra for a house or renovation that's meant to save the planet? Put another way, can spending more on environmental features actually save money on a new home or a renovation?
There are two ways to look at that question, and in both cases the answer is a qualified "yes."
The first is by considering the home's operating cost. You certainly can blow a wad on pricey gadgets that are unlikely to return your investment for decades, like windmills or systems that treat your own wastewater and recycle it through the house.
But more carefully considered projects – for example, insulating walls or buying a high-efficiency air-conditioning system – can allow you to come out ahead in as little as three or four years. And if the costs of such improvements are folded into a new loan, the monthly drop in utility bills might actually be greater than the portion of the loan that paid for the green improvement.
Let's say, for example, that you insulated your walls and sealed your ducts at the same time you built an addition. You borrowed $100,000 for the addition, of which $2,500 went toward those energy-saving features. If your loan payment will be $600, the portion going toward the insulation and duct sealing would run $15 a month. But if the improvements cut your monthly gas and power bills by more than 15 bucks, you've come out ahead on day one.
"The real question needs to be how much energy savings I have to have to cover that portion of my debt service," says Gray Kelly, director of sustainable developments for EarthCraft. "And in most cases they should have an immediate payback."
The second way green-housing certification can help home buyers or renovators is with resale value. Green-building advocates argue that certification is another way of saying the builder followed high standards – a nice thing to know in a state where there's little oversight of construction. The window jambs are properly installed, the foundation is protected from water and so on.
Six years ago, an EPA study found that a green home's higher sale price typically more than offsets investments in energy-efficiency features. And that was before higher fuel costs made saving energy more attractive.
"If you've got two homes sitting side by side and both were renovated last year and one was EarthCraft, the EarthCraft one definitely will do better," says real estate agent Carmen Pope, who sells homes in Glenwood Park, an eco-friendly development near Ormewood.
EarthCraft is the most popular of the three green-home certification programs in Georgia. It's homegrown: Southface developed the program with the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. And it's comprehensive: Homeowners and builders can get credits for energy-saving steps, as well as anything from water conservation to recycling materials.
EarthCraft actually incorporates a more limited program, Energy Star Home, which was developed by the U.S. EPA. Energy Star strictly deals with energy efficiency, so it's less expensive and involved than EarthCraft.
LEED for Homes is part of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which began with commercial buildings. LEED for Homes can be more intense than EarthCraft because homeowners can shoot for higher levels of certification.
The easiest place to find out which program's best for you is probably the Southface website at southface.org.
Ken Edelstein's My Green Dream House blog can be found at www.mygreendreamhouse.wordpress.com.
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