It's the little things that count -- and they can add up to increased profitability. That is part of the mantra chanted by the green building professionals at EarthCraft House, a joint venture between the Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. While the program is firmly focused on environmentally friendly development design and construction processes, the program's leadership recognizes that there's nothing like a boost to the bottom line to get a production builder's attention.
The biggest bang for the buck may come in the reduction and recycling of on-site waste and in air sealing, which allows builders to use smaller heating and cooling units.
With steadily increasing costs to dispose of job site debris, the EarthCraft House program has found a willing and able partner in companies like Packer Industries, a recycling firm that has helped builders shave costs by grinding lumber, wall board, and cardboard -- which are used for erosion control -- and brick, which is often reused as driveway gravel or landscaping backfill. Nails, staples, and other metals are sorted out by a magnet to produce clean, biodegradable fill.
Ken Patterson, with Packer Industries, says his grinders can handle 85 percent of job site waste, sending only plastic and Styrofoam to the landfill. Cost for the grinding is 50 cents per heated square foot of the house, about half the cost of dumping fees in the Atlanta area, which average $2,000 to $2,500 per lot.
Builder Steve Graff, with Hedgewood Homes, says he used to have one to one and a half truck loads of drywall per house to haul to the dump before he started grinding his job site waste. Now he gets two to three houses worth of waste on a truck and keeps much of it on site for landscaping and water retention. Not a bad pay off for being nice to the environment.
Established in 1999, the EarthCraft House program focuses on protecting the environment and reducing utility bills through helping builders design and construct cost-effective, environmentally smart homes. More than 600 homes have been certified under the program, with 1,000 more expected to be certified in the next year.
For a home to be certified as an EarthCraft House, builders must first attend a one-day training session and submit the house plans for design review. They agree to incorporate a variety of measures, each of which has a point value. It takes 150 points to earn certification, which can be used in sales and marketing materials for the home.
In addition, builders can earn bonus points for such items as building on sites located within a quarter-mile of mass transit, building within walking distance (on sidewalks) to a business district, building on a brownfield site, using a solar electric system, and exceeding EnergyStar specifications.
The quickest way to EarthCraft House certification is to meet EnergyStar standards for appliances, lighting, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. That alone earns a builder 90 of the required 150 points. Another 20 points can come from certifying duct leakage of less than 5 percent. From there, it's small steps toward certification, including grinding stumps and limbs for mulch, preserving trees on the site, using engineered steel or recycled building materials, having a job site framing plan and cut list and a central cutting area, having a light-colored roof, insulating the water heater tank, using gray water for irrigation, using low VOC sealants, adhesives, paints, stains, and carpets, and giving homeowners the name of the local recycling center.
Putting Theory Into Practice
The best way to appreciate what makes an EarthCraft certified house is to follow Rob Johnson, an inspector for EarthCraft, during a typical day's set of walk-throughs. During a pre-drywall walk-through of an infill spec house last fall, Johnson pointed to the use of guaranteed OSB for roof decking. They will not have to be replaced if it rains before the sheeting is applied. Engineered floor trusses eliminate the use of wood and create quieter floors, which reduces warranty work for squeaks.
Then it was on to Hedgewood Homes' Longleaf community, an infill project of 50 homes on 5.5 acres (a higher density site plan with open space earns builders extra points on their EarthCraft certification). The order of the day was a final duct inspection of a three-story, 2,700-square-foot luxury home.
The inspection begins with a simple visual walk-through. As Johnson starts in the basement with the furnace and the hot water heater, his intern starts setting up the frame for a blower door test that will check for air leaks throughout the house.
Johnson likes a lot of what he sees. Hedgewood Homes is one of the program's most active supporters, and his energy-efficiency measures are generally followed on their houses. Graff gets points for installing a sealed combustion furnace, what Johnson calls a completely clean system, and placing it in a conditioned space that's well sealed from the unconditioned garage. That way, any air leaks stay in conditioned space.
He points out the use of mastic for sealing the seams from duct to duct and from duct to collar seal. It's the only way to get a true seal, he says. "You can't build a house too tight," Johnson says. "Our goal is 5 percent duct leakage. The standard on new houses is 10 [percent] to 25 percent."
From there, Johnson takes a walk to the water heater in a niche of the garage. It's as it should be, isolated from the conditioned space because it eliminates the chance of carbon monoxide gas getting into the living areas. Another option is a power vented heater to vent outgases.
To reduce heating and cooling costs, EarthCraft recommends low-e, double pane windows to reflect radiant heat.
A major goal, Johnson says, is to seal between conditioned and unconditioned space. Exterior doors should be weather-stripped all the way around. All penetrations in floors, ceilings, and walls -- including fans, lights, vents, and electrical outlets -- should be caulked. Air leakage is substantially greater around double doors than single doors.
EarthCraft House standards also call for air handlers, and at least 90 percent of all supply and return ducts, to be located within conditioned space instead of in the attic, basement, or crawl space, where it's often located.
"We want them in conditioned space," he says. "If the ducts are in the attic, the system will have to work twice as hard." EarthCraft recommends duct insulation of R6 for conditioned space and R8 for unconditioned space. The perfect EarthCraft house wouldn't have a fireplace, Johnson says, because they are "an energy nightmare." But since fireplaces are a popular selling point in many parts of the country, the EarthCraft House standard is a sealed combustion fireplace with a blower to pull the heat up and direct venting to the outside. That way, you get a lot more heat and you're not spending money to heat and cool air that's drawn in to run the fireplace.
In the kitchen, Graff gets points for selecting EnergyStar rated appliances and the installation of a power down draft vent by the cook top that pulls moisture out of the house.
On water faucets, Johnson says the national flow standard is 2.5 gallons per minutes; theirs is 2.2 gallons per minute. They also shoot for low-flow toilets with 1.45 gallons per flush; most low-flow toilets are at 1.6 gallons. The goal on the blower door test is an air exchange of .35 air changes per hour. The national standard is .35 to .65. The score for this house is .39.
"We're really close," Johnson says.
Looking for Leaks
He quickly identifies two culprits: the open space in the cabinet supporting the jetted tub and the pull-down steps to the attic that could solve the problem and bring the number down. The exterior wall behind the tub often isn't insulated, and the plumbing beneath the tub isn't sheathed and foamed.
But it's nothing compared to the issues he sees with attics. The access to the pull-down steps is a quarter-inch sheet of uninsulated plywood with no seal around the hatch that opens into the master bedroom closet. "This is a major leak path," he says. "It's worse than a hollow door."
EarthCraft says it recommends R30 insulation on the floor of the attic and an attic hatch cover. They're easy to make, he says, and don't cost more than about $150. Graff counters that they're clumsy to get around when homeowners need to get into the attic and cumbersome to put back in place.
One leak path is easily eliminated. For reasons Graff can't quite figure, a tiny hole has been drilled in the center of each of door jambs beneath the striker plates. A dab of caulk solves the problem.
The Big Bang
Despite what sounds like a laundry list of tasks and materials, Graff says the EarthCraft House requirements only add about 1 percent to the cost of building the house. Johnson estimates that the cost to meet the minimum requirements is between $500 and $2,000.
A substantial savings can be realized, he says, in the ability to accurately size HVAC systems to the actual cooling needs of the house. Plus, builders benefit from fewer callbacks and decreased liability. Home buyers will realize up to a 30 percent savings in energy costs, he says, as well as seeing cleaner indoor air, fewer bugs, and a lot less dust.
The biggest difference Graff says he's noticed since building to EarthCraft standards is in the houses' indoor air quality and reduced energy use. "When you have a tight house, the temperature is constant," he says. "You run the AC, it gets to the temperature, and it stays there."
The houses stay cleaner and the indoor air quality is much better than on most houses, he says. It's been a marketing feature for Hedgewood, which even ran an ad that featured a customer whose son had serious allergies that improved when they moved in.
With the extra insulation and sealing, he's also been impressed with how well the houses keep out exterior sound, even though the neighborhood adjoins a major road.
"We don't give points for it," Johnson says, "but it's a benefit. Sound moves through air."