Upscale Goes Green: Homeowners Focus Increasingly on Sustainable Energy, Renewable Building Material

By Aldene Fredenburg

A quiet revolution is going on in the real estate sector. Many successful professionals are putting considerable money into building their own dream homes, and many of those professionals are choosing to build according to green principles.

Perhaps the first decision these new homeowners face is how to heat and cool their homes. Before even considering what sort of heating and cooling system they will choose, they need to decide on a design and materials for the exterior structure. Alternative building methods including rammed earth, straw bale, and flying concrete construction feature thick walls, often over a foot thick, which conserve heat in the winter and keep the home cool in the summer. Some homeowners are even opting for subterranean dwellings, using the natural insulating quality of the earth to lessen their need for additional heating. Even when opting for conventional wood structures, homeowners are choosing the latest insulation materials, which offer optimal heat conservation with little to no outgassing of toxic fumes.

Energy-conserving heating systems, some of which create radiant heat from hot water pumped through pipes beneath the floors, save on energy; passive solar construction – homes with south-facing exposure and large windows – allows the sun to warm the home. Solar panels provide electricity for lights and electrical appliances, and gray water systems recycle used water for additional use in the home. Some homeowners in colder climates opt for wood- or wood-pellet-burning furnaces rather than the conventional oil furnace, installing modern furnaces designed to minimize emissions.

Green-building homeowners and more and more developers opt for natural and sometimes manmade materials created from renewable resources, materials which do not expose residents to health risks. Vinyl, which is infamous for outgassing toxic fumes, is rejected in favor of safer materials; hardwood flooring, much of it harvested from old-growth forests, is replaced with materials like bamboo, and cork, two renewable materials providing two very different, attractive looks in flooring.

Those not in the position to design and build their own home still have the option of "greening" an existing home, using a wealth of safe, nontoxic natural materials. Conventional plywood, which is manufactured using urea formaldehyde, can be replaced with a number of new, safer materials, including "Plyboo," created from bamboo. Kiln-fired clay tiles, wood from sustainable forests, natural, safe interior and exterior paints, and a host of other materials help create a clean, healthy home environment.

Building and renovating green currently costs more than using conventional materials; some green builders estimate the difference at about 15 percent. However, recently wood prices have soared, and increasing transportation costs due to the rising cost of gasoline and diesel has impacted the price of building materials, so the difference in cost between conventional and green building may well even out. As it stands now, increasing numbers of prospective homeowners are willing to pay a premium for a home made of attractive, sustainable, and healthy building materials.

Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire and frequently contributes to Tips and Topics. She has published numerous articles in local and regional publications on a wide range of topics, including business, education, the arts, and local events. Her feature articles include an interview with independent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a feature on prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. She may be reached at