Adrianne Jeffries

IS IT GREEN?: The New American Home

by , 03/12/09
filed under: Architecture

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

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?

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

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.

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

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.”

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

“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.

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

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.

new american home 2009, sustainable architecture, green building, recycled materials, greenwashing, is-it-green, national association of home builders

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.


+ The New American Home

+ NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines

Via Popular Mechanics



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12 Comments

  1. daniid May 31, 2011 at 10:38 am

    i love this house!its like the dream house i have always wished for!!!!!

  2. eikat2@aol.com January 31, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Unfortunately, I think people will always cut corners as long as they are able to.

  3. marymadolin April 8, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Public funding of Green projects is even more offending. Architectural Sunshades are now the latest craze on public buildings including Federally funded Embassies and the North Dakato (yes N.D) National Guard. Upwards of 100k for a ton of geometric decoration that, these shades trim out expansive convex shaped, shatter proof glass curtain wall, and sometimes are partially located with a southerly orientation. But, sunshades qualify a project’s green status. Sunshades, most of them being static are composed of aluminum shapes, tubes, rectangles and bar, welded or loosely screwed to aluminum outriggers, designed all for aesthetic appeal and not function. The main stream blade angle is 45 degrees. In climates where there is also snow and ice, the load on the few screws or welds that hold these several ton structures in the air above walking areas is only a bit less frightening than the uplift and fatigue they introduce on structural components of the building where they are attached. Hurricanes must have been forgotten about when aluminum architectural shades were introduced. Sunshade coatings are paint; not reflective space technology by any means. Convection, radiance of heat from the shades painted to match the building trim makes for more heat not less, a theory that even my cat understands. And then there is the production of the material these shades are made out of. Aluminum. Tons of aluminum held up by a few screws, cut out in fancy geometric wastful shapes, comes from aluminum manufacturers who buy their way out fines, consume more energy than any other industry, and emit more ozone depleting gases per pound of material produced than what is actually produced. Shame on LEEDS for allowing this industry to call itself green, and shame on the federal tax dollars funding this industry. Popular architects know more about getting funding than design but go around acting like their aesthetic taste is wizardry magic only they have been blessed with, They seem to think they are the most intelligent creatures, and for them to jump on the green design industry, is frightening. The way I see it, architects are now designing what is green, organizing federal funding, generating a misperceived green appeal from the public, land still designing with looks, design and some sort of warped idea of comfort in mind. If their idea of green is what is, the society that wants to preserve what we have left of our ecology should pick another color!!!!!!!

  4. marymadolin April 8, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Recently involved with sunshade projects. All were for public buildings, and rated “green” at least by the architect. The new trend in public buildings incorporates vast areas of glass and/or curtain walls, with added exterior sunshades for climate control. The most hideous was the North Dakota National Guard Building, with a shatter proof glass curtain wall, and three tiers of sunshades that cost in excess of 180k. But, even if the sunshades were capable of shading enough of the interior, (but didn’t due to the sunshade’s uniform blade angle, uniform projection length ) the orientation of the convex shaped cutain wall was not even full south. These are our tax dollars at work, making a climate look green. There’s a few other federal buildings on the way with shades too, embassies in fact. What is not green? To start, why put large glass areas in to begin with? Well, it makes a nice environment for the workers. But most often these shades are not above workers offices but are decorative in nature. Second, how can the pollution generated from the production of several tons of aluminum, cut and painted with just regular PPG paint mind you–to go with the building (never did I see a paint or coating designed to reflect heat), and then strung up with a few stainless steel bolts be good green design. Public building are putting in static sunshades, and polluting our environment to make them. For every ton of aluminum, how many pounds of gas go into the air? How much electricity is used? How much coal fired electricity? Aluminum polluters pay their way out of fines, threat to move off-shore and even install their own power plants when they are faced with electric constraints. Aluminum Architectural Sunshades are NOT green building. Is there a process around that considers public LEED funding of such projects?

  5. jesus March 16, 2009 at 11:31 am

    it’s still brown bioman!

  6. Bion Howard March 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    A show home for the annual convention of NAHB should be compared to production homes in terms of design elements, technology included, and level of performance. Surveys show builders are actually marketing smaller more efficient homes across the Nation in response to consumer demand and our stressed-out economy. Modern homes are an assembly of thousands of components, all with different performance levels and properties. I think readers need to bear in mind that no matter whether a builder uses the NAHB Voluntary or ANSI Standard approaches, or the US Green Building Council “LEED for Homes” program the end result is similar for consumer’s. If customers really matter in a down market, then let’s give them verifiable assurance that the green home they buy really is green, and how much better is it than the ordinary one down the block. Today’s newly approved verification processes can say so. Both NAHB and LEED stress good building science as the key to durability. Both systems take great pains to encourage sustainable site work. Builders and customers get performance values reflecting what ACTUALLY is in their green home to save energy, improve water efficiency, use solar heat, and keep occupants healthy and comfortable. As a member of USGBC since 1993, current voting rep in the Technical Advisory Group system for LEED Energy and Atmosphere section, as well as accredited NAHB program verifier, I know the thing consumers and builders ask for first is clarity. Green building is complicated, reminding us of Kermit’s well worn statement — “it’s not easy being green.” Good rating systems bring that clarity into uniform performance certificates, containing much more information than an MPG rating of your auto or pickup. The rating may be taken to more sophisticated lenders for better mortgage terms — called an EEM (Energy Efficiency Mortgage). So let’s pull together to make more green homes a reality. Sure this show-house is huge but remember; size penalties are taken into account in both NAHB and LEED rating systems. Actually bigger homes “going green” is a good idea since it helps offset their larger natural resource consumption. ~ Bion

  7. jesus March 13, 2009 at 11:39 am

    it’s not green, it’ brown!

  8. alexjameslowe March 13, 2009 at 10:49 am

    This house is really cool- it also probably costs about 3 million dollars, even in the depths of the mini-depression.

    Most people live places where the sun isn’t always shining and where it gets cold in the winter. And they have to live there for cheap. Build a 2000 sq ft green house for a middle class family of four in Minnesota and I’ll tell you how to save the planet’s environment.

  9. Cassandra March 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    This house is most certainly not green. I mean, it’s nice that they tried, but I feel like it was only attempted because “green” has become a fad, not a way of life like it should be.

  10. M2JL M2JL March 12, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Well at least the house is greener, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that everyone who typically buy these houses will completely change their lifestyle and buy smaller homes, but if at least their home is more environmentally friendly, it’s a step in the right direction.

  11. anitaengs March 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    My opinion is that people need to rethink what it means to be enviromentally and socially responsible, I don\’t think it can be all about the individual and how much they can acquire. The house is way too big to be considered green – no matter how many state-of-the art systems are in place.

  12. crackgerbal March 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Well, this home is really beautiful. I would like to point out that the LED lights and low water usage plants a definitely a plus as well as the solar panels. I think this building is a step up from out current building format, however, its still not great because:

    That large pool of water and all the water decorations! This building is in Las Vegas, A DESERT! Because of the water fixtures, I would say that this building would waste quite a lot of a highly valued resource for the area, water.

    But this is my only main concern. That we are falling back into ideals of building what we want rather than what the environment around us can support.

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