The Benefits of Green Building

Kirk Lyman-Barner is the former Director of U.S. Field Operations for The Fuller Center for Housing.

In honor of Earth Day 2011, we sat down to discuss the many benefits of green building with him.

Q: What does Earth Day mean to an affordable housing provider like The Fuller Center?

A: Earth day is a time of reflection and awareness. It’s a time to think about how we’re doing, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it as related to housing.

Housing requires resources, building materials, and it creates an environment within an environment. You have to ask, how will that house perform to help the people live comfortably in a healthy home, and what will the cost be for the family to live in the home and maintain the home?

Earth day is a time to think about all of that, and if we get a whole lot of people thinking about it, then we could have a huge impact in terms of our responsibility to be good stewards.

Q: Why should we as an organization be prioritizing green building and energy efficient techniques and resources?

A: There are three main reasons. First, we have a theological mandate. Secondly, green building saves people money over the long run, and finally, it’s not that complicated to do.

Q: And how is green building a theological mandate?

A: As a Christian organization, we believe God created the earth. So as part of God’s children, we have responsibility to the creation. And that means being good stewards with the resources.

We have a mandate in the bible; Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. Well, we can’t love our neighbor if we’re messing up their environment, or poisoning their wells, or if we’re draining the resources from their country because our high standard of living is demanding that we take resources from third world countries. That’s not loving your neighbor.

So the more we can do in our little piece of this puzzle – providing affordable housing for low-income people, people who couldn’t afford housing without our help – is to make decisions that honor our requirement to be good stewards. This requirement involves using local materials whenever possible. We are very good at that when we build houses internationally. We need to learn to do this better in the United States.

And then, is the house going to take a whole lot of coal and oil to heat and cool? We want to reduce that as much as possible so we’re minimizing the harm to the earth.

And then especially through our repair ministry, saving and renovating a home, keeping them out of landfills, is an important response to that stewardship mandate. If you’ve got God’s resources right there in front of you, it’s better to fix up that dilapidated house than to just let it get thrown into a landfill only to find yourself in the position of needing more resources and materials to build a new house. The more we can save structures and help people live comfortably and live healthy lives in those structures that already exist, we should certainly be doing that. And Earth Day is just a good time to think about all of that.

Q: Can you elaborate on these three reasons – the first one being that green building saves people money over the long run?

A: If you build a house that’s cheap, it may be convenient to the builder … say you build a stick frame house and you don’t put enough insulation in and you do as little as possible to make the house have endurance, then it becomes expensive for the owner.

You think about the mobile homes that fall apart – they don’t last a long time, and they didn’t have good roofs. Manufactured homes are getting much better than they were, but there are still a lot of those older, poorly constructed homes around and it’s because they were built quickly without much thought and for the convenience of the builder.

If you place the family that will live in the house first and think about it over time, they would want to pay as little as possible for heating and cooling the house, and maintenance. So you make decisions on the construction based on the long-term life of the house.

Q: What are some affordable ways to increase the longevity and sustainability of a house?

A: It doesn’t have to be very expensive adjustments to make a better house, but it has to be thoughtful. For example, in the old days there was a philosophy that a house had to breathe. The air had to blow through the structure, and it was not a concern of the builder to make the house very tight.

Now we know we need to get a very tight house because if moisture gets in though a crack, that’s a place for mold to grow, and it can make people sick. So you have the problem of not just the R-value of the building envelope, and keeping the house well insulated, but you also have these penetration points you have to worry about. There are lawsuits all over the country because people are getting sick over mold.

To make a house tight you spend a lot more time caulking the seams, the sill plates and around the doors and windows. Caulking is not expensive but it takes time and attention to detail. We train our volunteers and encourage all of our covenant partners to be very efficient in their insulation techniques and their caulking. It does not add a lot of expense but saves a lot of money over time.

You can train a subset crew on the build that focuses on green.  The members of the “green team” runs around the house to make sure it’s all caulked. You give them a checklist of additional things to monitor. It’s worked very, very well.

You can also do a blower door test, which measures the tightness of the house. Building scientists have figured out what a good result is. This is typically done by a third party energy rater. You can predict utility costs by how tight the house is.


Q: How can builders pursue sustainable housing in a simple way?

A: Every region has organizations that help builders learn green building techniques and National Association of Homebuilders has their national green building program … there are energy raters around the country that can do blower door tests. These are building scientists, people that study these issues, and they are more than willing to come out and train volunteers in green building practices. They have great checklists that volunteers can learn from and follow.

It’s not expensive. It’s all possible, it’s all available, and now with the Internet it’s accessible … no one should be afraid of building green.

Q: Sometimes the mentality is that somehow these green building practices and energy saving techniques are viewed as frivolous because the upfront costs are higher. What would you tell people who are still skeptical of green building and think it’s more important to house as many people as possible for as cheap as possible?

A: The cost increase can be as little as a couple thousand more than conventional construction methods. Some things don’t cost much extra, such as a foam panel wall system, which allows us to keep the heat system within the building envelope. There are trade-offs. Paying a little more for a better performing wall system will be made up by a life time of utility savings.

Of course, if you spend 10 percent more on a house and you’re trying to house ten families, by the time you get to the tenth family, theoretically you’ve run out of money. You could leave a family out in the cold, so there’s logic in keeping the cost of the house of the house down, so that’s one trade-off. The lower you can keep the costs of your house, the more people you can serve. That’s very important to consider as well.

But the flip side of that is that if you can keep the energy costs of the house down, you’re saving the family money for as long as they live in it … and by doing that we can work with a lower income population because their monthly housing costs will be lower in a certified green home.

About Kirk Lyman-Barner:
Kirk graduated from East Stroudsburg University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science in 1988. He went on to start Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity, which developed a progressive green building program building with strawbale, soil cement block, structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms.

• Learn more about The Fuller Center’s green building projects around the country
• Contact your local covenant partner about starting a green building project in your community

• Get practical green building tips
• Read about The Fuller Center in Atlanta’s EarthCraft certified renovation project
• Read a letter by Millard Fuller on incorporating green building in The Fuller Center’s mission
• Read an Earth Day litany by Kirk
•  Visit the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center Green Building Website
• Listen to green building podcasts