With the economy reeling, luxury homes are a bit politically incorrect these days. That’s especially true in areas of the country that are suffering most, like Las Vegas – the site of the 8,800 square foot 26th New American Home, unveiled last month at a show hosted by the National Association of Home Builders. The New American Home – or New American Mansion, for those of us (ahem) who live in 700-square foot studio apartments – is beautiful and modern, but how green can such a massive residence be?
The mansion is studded with 12,000 khz worth of solar panels – that’s an 11 kw system with dual-sided panels. It’s also stocked with LED lights and built with insulated concrete and spray-foam insulation with R-values of up to 50. It’s outfitted with a natural gas-powered heating and cooling system and a solar water heater. It’s got windows with low-emission coatings and mechanized sunshades to shield some of the desert sun. The builders are striving for a yearly gas and electric bill of $2,500 and net-zero electricity usage.
The New American Home was also planned to optimize its input of solar energy and limit water and energy demand. Soil erosion was minimized throughout construction and the builders monitored disturbance on site. The house is surrounded by native plants and drought-tolerant, non-native plants that were planted instead of grass to decrease water use.
On-site recycling? “During construction, a recycling and waste management program included on-site bins for collecting and sorting materials to be recycled off-site,” the press release says. Recycled materials? The teak foyer table, elm office floor, and the chaise lounge’s velvet and the countertops were all made from reclaimed materials.
The first hint of greenwashing comes from the press release on the International Builder’s Show web site, which declares that “the home scored at the gold level under the NAHB National Green Building Program.”
The NAHB Green Building Program offers two scoring options – the rigorous ANSI ICC 700-2008 National Green Building Standard and the more lax Model Green Home Building Guidelines. The New American Home was certified under the Guidelines.
The Guidelines are not much different from the rules and regulations in many state and local energy codes, says Tom Coalson, a LEED-AP and VP of commercial and sustainable construction at C&A Companies in Colorado. The Guidelines have the same intent as programs like ENERGY STAR and LEED, but differ greatly in point structure and requirements for verification. He calls it a “developer-friendly approach.”
“On many of the ‘requirements,’ the point structure is heavily in favor of taking the path of least resistance,” Coalson said in an email. “As noted in the NAHB Guidelines (Introduction, p. 5): ‘A line item will have a positive environmental impact only if it is implemented. Line items that were relatively easy to implement (and therefore more likely to be implemented) were assigned a greater point value than the items that are more difficult to implement.’ My experience with the HBA has left me with a different definition of ‘easy’ than most may have: ‘easy’ means having little or no cost effect on the bottom line.”
Furthermore, the NAHB Guidelines don’t require third party verification to claim a rating. The builder can essentially “verify” the information herself, called the “Prescriptive Path.” This is in sharp contrast to the bulky, lengthy, expensive verification process required for LEED-H certification.
The builder, Blue Heron, says they chose to use the Guidelines and not pursue LEED-H certification because they wanted to support the home building industry and the NAHB standards rather than LEED-H. Tyler Jones, principal of Blue Heron, said the NAHB guidelines “are equally as relevant, but much more practical for residential construction.”
A home that qualified for a rating under the NAHB Guidelines would “most certainly not” qualify for LEED-H certification, Coalson said. The reason is because LEED-H awards points for implementing more difficult solutions, while the Guidelines do the opposite. LEED-H also has some mandatory requirements that aren’t listed in the Guidelines, and the lack of verification would doom the home’s application.
Carlos Martin of the NAHB led me to believe the opposite. “It depends on the threshold levels for both rating systems, but most of the homes that are getting the Guidelines certification would qualify for LEED-H but just aren’t doing that. We do have some homes that are going for the NASCAR effect though (multiple certifications),” he said in an email.
Is It Green?
So is the place green? That would be a lot easier to answer if the home in question was a lot smaller. The NAHB Guidelines award points for building small homes, but don’t deduct any for large homes the way the LEED-H program does. If this home were occupied by a mom, a dad, a daughter and a son, they’d have a separate floor and 2,200 square-feet of space each. And how much energy would they use to turn on those LED lights, keep the house cool in the desert sun and heat the outdoor pool?
“The majority of any home’s energy requirements are in its heating and cooling system and its heating and demand for domestic hot water,” Coalson said. “This home uses natural gas to do just exactly that, in fact about 300 million Btu’s of natural gas every year. When converted to kWh of electricity (293 kWh = 1 million Btu) that’s about 87,900 kWh of electricity. In my estimation, that’s a far cry from an energy-efficient home. When natural gas use in the typical American home is converted to kWh and added to normal electrical usage, that home’s annual energy footprint is a little over 27,000 kWh, or about 31% of the New American Home, and that’s without the typical home employing any energy saving features!”
A few closing thoughts: The green features of the New American Home show thought and commitment, but this house is just too big to be green. Developers deserve some sympathy, but green building guidelines that don’t require verification are an invitation to greenwash.