The Greenwash Brigade

Green homes – speedy sales in a slow market?

Janne K. Flisrand Mar 12, 2008

For a year, I’ve been trying to convince Minnesota’s affordable home builders concerned about a slowing market what Greg Pinn, a San Jose home-builder, already knows. “When a buyer has a choice between a home that isn’t energy-efficient and…one that [is], the choice will be very easy.”

In his Orchard Heights subdivision, seven of nine available green homes sold the first weekend they were available. He added that it only works when you’re comparing apples to apples – homes that buyers can afford, with good layouts, in the right location.

While the marketability of green homes seems like a gimme this year, the details of the story raise several questions:

Can 3,600 square foot homes be green? I argue “no.” Bigger homes take more energy to heat and cool, tend to house more continuously electricity-sipping gadgets, and lots more stuff. 3,600 is more like “huge.”

Is Orchard Heights, the focus of this article, green? Who knows! There is no evidence that the homes achieve LEED standards. The marketing materials lack mention of LEED or any other verifiable benchmark, and the touted energy efficiency features (see page 10, PDF) list the super-basic: programmable setback thermostat, full weatherstripping on exterior doors, and code-mandated dual pane windows and water-saving shower heads. My Greenwash Alert is howling.

Does it matter if there are multiple green home programs in a single housing market? Within reason, it’s fine. Different programs reach different home buyers. Nationally, LEED, with its relatively costly process, targets top performers. Green Communities has affordable housing covered. There’s a gap in the middle which is either filled by local programs or still up for grabs. (The National Association of Home Builders is trying). All help educate the market and expand capacity for building green.

Do buyers have the choice to buy green? In most locations, no. There are individual green homes scattered about and a few green projects, but in my dense, popular, environmentally aware neighborhood, I can’t find anything that meets both my location and sustainability expectations.

Why does solar installer Aaron Nitzkin of OCR Solar & Roofing predict the percent of a household’s electricity their system will provide? Ok – so I asked this one as an excuse to share a really cool chart. Habits and choices make a big difference in how much electricity people use, so when Nitzkin says that the Orchard Heights systems will “meet 40 to 60 percent of a homeowner’s electricity needs,” he hides the importance of individual choices. Each bar in the chart on the left (data from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District)

shows electricity usage in one of the 11 homes in a different subdivision. All of the homes are identical with the same photo voltaic arrays. The only difference is the occupants. As a result of how families live in these homes, some homes produce power and get checks from SMUD… and others pay $100 a month.

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