What's Red Hot in Green?

Alaska's experts weigh in on the latest in green building

Green building isn't just a fad or a preferred option for tree huggers. More and more, builders are incorporating green materials, technologies and products into the homes they are creating. As "green" gains popularity, Alaska's experts stay on top of what's new in sustainable building.

When it comes to green building, Alaska is ahead of the pack – and has been for decades. "What the rest of the country considers 'green' building, we've already done because of the demands of the market," says Cody Lee, a certified green professional (CGP) who runs Grayling Construction. Alaska's cold weather and various climate zones pose a challenge for builders who want to construct sustainable homes, but our frigid winters also inspire them to make Alaska's homes use energy more efficiently.

Clai Porter, president of NCP Design and co-founder of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, describes Alaska's population as especially savvy about sustainable building and remodeling. "People are asking builders to be environmentally minded all the time. They want to see it in all phases – in the construction phase, in doors, windows and insulation. People want longer-lasting, eco-friendly materials."

In addition to being good for the environment, there's a practical side to Alaska's eco-friendly mindset. The fastest growing trends in recent years all have to do with one hyphenated word: energy-efficiency, says Mike Bodolay, of Cold River Construction.

"With fuel costs rapidly rising and house prices staying flat," says Bodolay, "our customers have been looking less toward purely aesthetic remodels and more toward ones that can reduce utility bills."

The Hottest Trend

Whether you're building a new home or upgrading an old one, "the biggest bang for your buck," says Lee, "is the furnace."

Furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters have come a long way, according to Porter. "We're seeing forced-air furnaces and boilers in the 90-97 percent efficiency range being installed now. Most boilers in the houses built in the '60s and '70s were 50-60 percent efficient. So there's a tremendous change in these heating units."

Stacey Dean, who runs Grayling Construction with Lee, says another hot trend is combined units: "You can combine your furnace and your boiler, or your boiler and your hot water heater, into one unit." These "combi" units produce hot water for central heating while also supplying hot water for the whole house.

"The other popular product is on-demand hot water heaters," adds Lee. "With these, you don't have 50 gallons of water heated there all the time; they heat the water as you need it. That's a big energy saver."

Keep It Inside

Boosting the efficiency of your furnace won't help, though, if all that warm air escapes your house. "People are choosing Energy Star-rated windows and doors" when they build, says Bodolay – but consumers aren't the only ones keeping energy-efficiency in mind.

"Manufacturers are also encouraging this behavior," he says. "I deal with a window manufacturer, for example, who's offering an upgrade to triple pane windows for the cost of their double pane units."

For homeowners wishing to remodel, Porter cautions that although new windows are often the easiest change, they aren't always the most energy-effective improvement if you're on a tight budget.

"Most heat goes up, so it's better to do the roof if you've got a limited amount of money to spend," he says. While manufacturers of roofing materials haven't made significant strides in offering more eco-friendly options, homeowners can make a difference by putting extra, environmentally friendly insulation in their attics.

"Some of the spray-foam insulations are soy-based now, which is better than fiberglass," advises Dean. "They don't have the formaldehyde or urethane issues you get with other insulations."

Another area of the home that often gets overlooked, she adds, is the garage. "It's such a big space that we usually heat in Alaska." Upgrading to a newer, more energy-efficient garage door can stop warm air from escaping, cutting down on the energy used.

Popular Green Products

While bamboo is a durable green product often used for flooring and cabinets, Dean likes to remind consumers: "American woods are renewable. People look at bamboo, and that's nice, but America has been a leader in reforesting. Any time you do a hardwood floor, or cabinets, in American wood, those are renewable resources." Specifically, green-minded consumers should choose American hardwoods like oak, maple, cherry and ash, since these hardwood species reproduce so prolifically that, according to the US Forest Service, for every one tree that's harvested, two new trees grow through natural reproduction.

Dean adds that stone tiles and floors are also gaining popularity – especially since the price of stone products has significantly decreased. "Stone is right from the earth and doesn't have to go through a huge amount of processing, unlike ceramic or porcelain."

Lee is also excited about the rising popularity of water-based finishes over solvent-based ones. "Not only do water-based finishes wear better than oil-based finishes," he says, "but using a water-based finish means you're not using that smelly stuff; customers don't have to be out of their houses for days." The drawback is that while oil finishes immediately enhance the colors in wood floors or cabinetry, those vivid hues don't come through right away with water-based finishes. "The wood will gain that richness through naturally occurring oxidization, but it takes time. On the upside, with the way manufacturers have perfected these finishes, we can actually say water-based holds up better over the years."

What the Future Holds

"What really drives green building is when technology makes green products as cheap as traditional products," says Lee. That's starting to happen, little by little: Engineered wood used for framing houses is now less expensive, not to mention better in quality, than dimensional wood.

While other green products are more expensive up front, Lee says the investment is worth making. "With high-efficiency furnaces and LED lighting, you can show people where they're going to save money in the long-run and in the longevity they'll get with that energy efficiency."

Similarly, green decking, like the kind offered by Treeline Construction in Anchorage, may be initially more expensive, but pays for itself over time. Composites like Trex decking materials – made from wood fibers and plastic that have been recycled from other sources – don't need staining or maintenance and don't weaken over time (the way wood does). That means consumers who choose composites are not only being green, but saving money over the long term.

Bodolay points out that for Alaskans looking to upgrade their existing home's energy efficiency there's help through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation's Home Energy Rebate Program. "Homeowners can get on a list to have their homes inspected for energy-efficiency. A certified energy rater makes recommendations for the most cost-effective upgrades, and once those upgrades are made, the program reimburses some percentage of the cost of the project." AHFC also offers a rebate for buyers who choose to purchase newly constructed 5 Star Plus homes.

The popularity of green building will increase, Porter predicts, as consumers continue to educate themselves through programs like those offered by the Alaska Craftsman Home Program. "These classes are done at no charge all across the state, from Ketchikan to Nome to Barrow, and they've had a tremendous effect on the consumer, to start asking, and knowing about, creative ways to save energy."

Resources: Mike Bodolay, Cold River Construction Company; Derrick Jabaay, Treeline Construction; Clai Porter, NCP Design; Stacey Dean and Cody Lee, Grayling Construction; Cold Climate Housing Research Center; Alaska Housing Finance Corporation; Alaska Craftsman Home Program; American Hardwood Information Center