Being efficient and choosing wisely is how you attain an affordable green home, three industry experts told attendees during a presentation at the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo last week.

Sarah Stehil Howell, AIA, of John C. Williams Architects, is the project architect for Make It Right, the non-profit organization founded by actor Brad Pitt to redevelop New Orleans’ low-income Lower 9th Ward after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Howell provided a number of tips for keeping sustainable homes affordable, including:

  • Designing a 4-foot module for width to save on subfloors, studs, and drywall ceilings.

  • Designing a 2-foot module for length to minimize green finish materials. 

  • Anticipating dropped ceilings for HVAC ducts and identifying locations where low-ceiling duct runs are acceptable. 

  • Having shared wet walls. 

  • Utilizing standard door and window sizes. 

  • Installing kitchen cabinets in 3-inch increments with 24-inch maximum depths. 

  • Developing chronological, intuitive construction documents and avoiding open-ended notes to the general contractor and subs. “Confusion is expensive,” she said. 

  • Adhering to the manufacturer’s written instructions by cutting and pasting the instructions into the construction documents. “If you don’t say, ‘Comply with the manufacturer’s instructions,’ the contractor will build the way he knows how to build it,” Howell stated. 

  • Producing a quality-control manual for each project. Make It Right’s manuals contain photos of the right and wrong ways to install specific products and materials as well as construction techniques.

Finally, if you want attain a green certification, don’t over-prescribe green materials and construction practices. “Be confident in the points you are trying to achieve,” the architect said.
In addition to the points Howell made, Tony Mainsbridge, an Alabama-based construction consultant who has worked with Habitat for Humanity, said employing advanced framing 19.2 inches on center will save 30% of the lumber required for framing, equating to a $1,000 to $1,500 savings for a $150,000 house.

“It is the only thing you can do to significantly reduce construction costs, waste, and materials,” said Mainsbridge, who works with Edgefield Lumber Co.

The consultant also said that advanced framing leads to a more energy-efficient dwelling because by reducing the number of studs, the builder can boost insulation in the wall cavities. 

Although advanced framing costs less than traditional construction, Jon Sader, construction director for Make it Right, said that many builders charge more for it. “When working on a green home with a general contractor, a lot of prices will go up for no apparent reason,” he said.

Still, Sader noted that a number of eco-friendly products do cost more than their counterparts, including no-VOC paints, formaldehyde-free cabinets, fiber-cement siding, spray-foam insulation, high-efficiency HVAC equipment, and metal roofing. So Make It Right found a clever way to afford these and other green wares. In New Orleans, solar installations typically run $25,000 per house, so Make It Right paid $100 for a Louisiana solar installer license and another $2,000 for solar panel installation training. The non-profit organization’s total solar installation costs now are $12,000 to $14,800 for the equipment and $2,800 for the labor. Make It Right garners $13,000 per house in utility rebates, dropping its solar costs to $1,800. 

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor, Online, for EcoHome.