A greener home

CARAG — For some people, the phrase “green building” still calls to mind the image of a ’70s-style dome house covered in solar panels.

“While all of those are components of green [building], it’s not really the core of what green is about,” said Mike Otto, who operates Mike Otto Construction out of a CARAG office. “It’s about building sustainable buildings.”

Take Otto’s recent remodeling of the Kraft family’s home near Cedar Lake, for instance.

There’s nothing that screams “green” in the comfortable addition, which expands main-floor living space in the split-level house. The materials and building techniques were meant to be environmentally friendly, but not necessarily stand out, homeowner Lauri Kraft said.

“Our goal was really to make it blend in with the rest of the house,” said Kraft, who shares the home with her husband Larry and their two young children.

The Kraft addition was one of 20 metro-area projects to test the new Minnesota GreenStar home-remodeling standards in a pilot program that began last summer. It makes a good case for Otto’s argument that green building doesn’t have to be overly complicated, expensive or time-consuming.

“Everybody can be a little green for little or no cost,” he said. “It just depends on how green you want to go.”

With the official launch in March of the Minnesota GreenStar certification programs for both remodeling projects and new homes, proponents hope more Minnesotans will decide to build green.

Michael Anschel of Minneapolis design-build firm Otogawa-Anschel said GreenStar took the best bits of green-building programs across the country and customized them for Minnesota builders. There are three levels of certification, ranging from bronze, the easiest to achieve, to silver and then gold.

“Bronze is very doable,” Anschel said. “I don’t see why every project couldn’t reach that level with a little bit of effort.”

Green on the surface

In early February, the Kraft remodeling project was nearly at an end. An electrician was taking care of odds and ends, and some landscaping work would wait until spring.

Walking through her new great room and expanded kitchen, Lauri Kraft pointed out a few of the green materials used in the project: new cupboards built of sustainably harvested maple; wine-red countertops made of recycled paper; the blond-tinted bamboo flooring underfoot.

She also asked that contractors use healthier paints and finishes that were low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

“Especially with two little kids, we wanted to try and minimize the chemicals we bring into the house,” she explained.

Each green choice the Krafts made earned them points toward GreenStar certification in one of five areas: energy efficiency; resource efficiency and durability; indoor environmental quality; water conservation; and site management and use. A checklist gives homeowners a variety of options for earning points in each area.

“It was really helpful having the GreenStar checklist because it made us think of some things we hadn’t thought about,” she said.

Things like the dual-flush toilet in the upstairs bathroom, or the rain barrels that will be buried in the backyard as soon as the ground thaws. The barrels will collect runoff from the Kraft’s roof for use in watering their garden and new, low-maintenance lawn.

… and beneath

Still, many of the green components of the Kraft project are things you wouldn’t necessarily notice on a tour of their home.

Otto used “optimal-value framing techniques” in the addition, limiting the number of studs required to build the new walls. He filled in the gaps with spray foam insulation, which is slightly more expensive than traditional fiberglass insulation, but more effective, he said.

Otto realized the Krafts had very little insulation when he measured how airtight the home was with a blower door test, a step GreenStar requirements encourage. GreenStar also encourages homeowners to measure levels of radon, a radioactive gas that seeps into basements from underground. When that test returned mixed results, the Krafts opted to install a radon remediation system.

Otto said he might not have discovered either issue if it wasn’t for GreenStar.

“[The requirements] make you aware of a problem so you can go fix it,” he said.

Cost and value

Installing a radon remediation system was an extra expense that the Krafts didn’t anticipate. While making other green choices “certainly did cost us more,” Lauri said, she wasn’t sure just how much more.

Otto estimated that going green added about 4 percent to the total cost of the project.

Rottlund Company Vice President Mike Swanson, a member of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities Board of Directors, said homeowners should expect to pay a small premium to go green in most cases, around 2 percent when remodeling a single-family home.

Still, Swanson was quick to add that green choices potentially pay for themselves in the long run, through lower utility bills, for example. GreenStar certification could also make a home more attractive to buyers, and help it stand out in a slumping housing market, he said.

“I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say your resale value of that home is going to be better,” Swanson said.

Otto predicted the cost of green materials and technologies would become more affordable in the future. Prices are already coming down, a trend driven by the federal Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for commercial building projects, he said.

“The commercial side of construction drives the costs of materials,” Otto said. “With the advent of the LEED program by the federal government, more and more commercial buildings are going to green standards. Thus, the cost of residential materials is coming down.”

An early adopter of green building techniques, Otto is a firm believer many items on the GreenStar checklist will be standard practice within 12–15 years.

“The clients are going to begin to demand it,” he said. “… As they start taking their business to green contractors, other contractors are going to start waking up and saying, ‘Oh, well, I’d better figure out what this green stuff is.’”