Green renovation – go it alone or hire an expert?

Do you need an environmental expert to guide you in a green home renovation?


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    Martin Sheridan considers the work and cost of installing a geothernmal heating unit at Sheep Dog Hollow, a 1902 farmhouse that was abandoned and is now being restored.
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I begin this post with a confession. I have not yet hired a “green expert” to guide us as we undertake the massive renovation of Sheep Dog Hollow. The primary reason is that we are also trying to do it in a budget-conscious way. (We definitely don’t want to go broke in the process.)

I figured that with the resources available on the Internet and wise counsel from friends, colleagues, and experienced contractors, we could figure out how to go green ourselves and save some money.

And then I remembered the idiom "penny wise, pound foolish." And so I began to research how I’d go about finding a “green expert” as well as the rationale for using one.

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The most obvious one, of course, is that such a consultant will already know (or at least is supposed to know) what he or she is doing. Green Advantage, a “collaboration between the Nature Conservancy, Science Applications International Corp., and the University of Florida,” provides green certification for builders.

It sums up the advantages of hiring a green certified builder this way:

Green Advantage building practitioners have proven knowledge about green building techniques and approaches that use:
• Overview of the green building industry/green building materials.
• Energy- and water-efficient building technologies.
• Sustainable construction technologies that enhance disaster resistance and resistance to termites and other biological hazards.
• Healthy construction methods that improve air quality and the health of building occupants.
• Land planning, land development, and land management practices that protect wildlife habitats, soil, and water, and foster biodiversity.

They’ve also got a handy site where you can locate a Green Advantage-certified builder. I duly put in my ZIP Code and found, to my dismay, that there was only one Green Advantage-certified residential builder within 50 miles of Sheep Dog, and they were in a different state.

It turns out that only about 6,000 builders and contractors nationwide are certified by Green Advantage.

The real big foot in green building is the US Green Building Council, which developed the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ) rating system. It has almost 20,000 members, and they, too, have a handy site where you can locate LEED-certified builders, engineers, and architects.

There I found 30 LEED-certified people in the state of Connecticut. Unfortunately, many were with large construction corporations and architectural firms, folks I knew were out of our price range.

I was also surprised that I didn’t find any of the people that I’d already been referred to as local pioneers in green building, such as the engineer who had built his own green home using wood and stone he harvested from the building site or the heating and air conditioning contractor who’d been putting in geothermal systems for the past 20 years. (You’ll meet both of these folks in the next few months.)

I also began to understand the complexity of acquiring a LEED rating for our home. First, you need to have a LEED-certified person involved in the project from start to finish, documenting everything from the early design to the working conditions for the carpenters, concrete pourers, etc., to the final interior air quality.

The documentation in itself could add thousands to the cost, to say nothing of the tens of thousands that hiring an LEED-certified architect would add.

I soon found that others were sharing my hesitancy. Fast Company, a business and technology magazine, sums up some of the problems with LEED certification and its costs in this article. My favorite graph:

In February, the mayor of Park City, Utah, told a building-industry publication, "On the Park City Ice Arena [$4.8 million project cost], we built it according to LEED criteria, but then we realized that [certification] was going to cost $27,500. So we ordered three small wind turbines instead that will power the arena's Zamboni."

One of the arguments in favor of using a LEED-certified expert and getting certification is that it’s a good marketing tool.

But since we are building this as our home, not an investment with a dollar value that could be increased by having a LEED rating, my instinct is to forgo the official certification and just use the LEED system as a guide.

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but for now, at least, we’re going to go-it-alone-green.

Editor's note: Alexandra Marks will be blogging twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. See a photo gallery of the early days of the project by clicking here.

You'll find numerous articles about the environment at the Monitor’s main environment page. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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