Local LEED home

From the outside, it looks like any other new house. Fresh and clean with signs of construction fading away, the house quietly blends in with the rest of its historic neighborhood.

But the details tell a different story. From the tight panels to the recycled porch, the house was designed with the Earth in mind.

“We have talked about it for several years. Both Andy and I work in this business and we both do work in the environmental and energy fields and just through that know the benefits this type of house gives to our own personal health and our smaller community health and more global climate change,” said Shanna Draheim, who owns the East Lansing, Michigan home with her husband, Andy. “We both feel strongly that going forward this is how all houses are going to be made and we wanted to be part of demonstrating how effective it is and how easy it is really.”

The Draheim’s house is one of a growing number of LEED homes in the Great Lakes area. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 1998. The program provides an outline for green building practices and is based on a point system.

LEED drives “excellence in the green building profession by providing a commonly understood benchmark of knowledge across all relevant industry disciplines,” said Erin Emery, marketing and communications manager for the USGBC.  LEED ratings range from certified to platinum.

LEED standards serve as a guideline to architects and builders and make sure sustainability remains a priority.

“LEED provides a concise framework with measureable goals within a process that holds all parties accountable,” said Jhana Frederiksen, an architect at the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based firm Quinn Evans Architects, which has worked on LEED projects throughout the Great Lakes. “If cost reductions or design changes occur, LEED requires sustainable strategies to remain in place to maintain certification level.”

Points can be earned in a variety of ways.  The Draheim’s earned points for things such as having Energy Star appliances, low-flow faucets, dual-flush toilets, a tankless hot water heater and using mostly local, drought-resistant plants. They also added refurbished wood floors from an old Detroit building to the first floor of their house, which is Andy’s personal favorite part of the house.

“The idea of Detroit going through what it’s going through and to find this company that’s putting people to work reclaiming these materials that are available because of the unfortunate fact that people have left the city in mass numbers over the last decade,” said Andy.  “To take something good out of that.”

The LEED rating system also takes into account location and lifestyle factors. The Draheim’s earned points for being near a bus route and having easy access to a downtown area.  Because of this location, they were able to cut down to one vehicle.

Although the LEED system is often praised, it does have its downsides.

“If the intent in pursuing a LEED certified project is entirely related to the level of certification in lieu of holistically sustainable design, synergies in credits and systems become secondary to the points that can be earned,” said Frederiksen. Points and certification are not as important as having a sustainable design, added Frederiksen.

Another, more common criticism of LEED homes and green homes in general is the cost. Green homes often require a higher upfront cost, which can be difficult to justify to some people, said Frederiksen.

The Drahiem’s noticed this when building their home.

“It is definitely more expensive, at least at the front end,” said Shanna. “I’ve heard estimates sort of in the range of 10 percent more. I’m sure if you really do some of it might be even more than that.”

This could lead to a decrease in demand when money is tight, said Soren Anderson, an agricultural, food and resource economics professor at Michigan State University.

But, despite increased building costs and the recession, the number of LEED certified homes in the Great Lakes region has risen in the past few years.

The number of LEED certified homes in the region increased over 200 percent from 111 built or renovated in 2009 to 347 built or renovated in 2010, according to official documents from the USGBC. In 2008, there were 64 homes in the region built or renovated to LEED standards.

Frederiksen has seen evidence of this in her firm.

“The demand for sustainable design has increased due to the fact that operating costs are generally lower and occupant satisfaction is generally higher,” said Frederiksen. The term “LEED equivalent” has also become common in contracts for those who want a sustainable design, but do not want to bother with the certification, said Frederiksen.

The Drahiem’s said they are certain the cost will be offset by long-term savings in utility costs.

“Our assumption is that we are going to make it up within a decade, less probably. Within five years, some of that difference will be washed away because of reduced utility costs, reduced fuel usage,” said Shanna. “Most of the people we have talked to who have done LEED or green homes have seen an overall utility decrease.”

They also hope to save money in overall maintenance, since LEED standards account for a home’s durability, said Shanna.  For example, the Draheim’s planted vegetation away from their house to avoid bugs and other environmental factors from wearing away at the house as quickly.

“You can’t overlook the fact that long term, I think, is a sound economic, financial decision to do it this way,” said Andy.  “Fuel prices aren’t going to go down. And because we are using less of it, less water, less natural gas, I fully expect to benefit financially from that. It’s all those things together.”

In addition to lower bills, the Draheim’s also considered their family’s health when building their home.

“The materials, both us feel, are very important,” said Shanna. “All of our kids have very good friends who have allergies, asthma so knowing that the house has great indoor air quality is really great.” The low-toxicity materials, such as the paint, are safer for the Draheim’s and their three children, said Shanna.

Overall, the Draheim’s had a great experience and would recommend a LEED house to anyone, despite the upfront cost. A green home can be built around any lifestyle or home preference, said Shanna.

“We live in a historic district, so we had to build this so it would fit in a historic district as well and part of our goal and our builder’s goal was to build a house that looks totally normal and boring on the outside. This looks like any other house in a historic East Lansing neighborhood,” said Shanna. “You can do it in any way that you want and still meet your environmental goals.” It is also important to choose a builder who knows the system and how LEED works, said Shanna.

“You can do a house that’s comfortable and meets your needs and have it be energy and water efficient,” said Andy. “I guess I’d advise people to think simple first and then move onto complicated.”

It is also important to think about sustainability first and certification and points second, said Frederiksen. The best approach is to have an integrated design, whether LEED is used or not, said Frederiksen.

For more information on residential LEED standards, visit http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=2135.   #30

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