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WNC Business

Construction Industry Spotlight - The rise of green building technology

Mar 12, 2023 08:48AM ● By Randee Brown

Sean Sullivan of Living Stone Design has been in the construction industry for 30 years. A builder of certified green homes, Sullivan said that he has had some realizations with how he can educate his clients to live green. 

“Green-certified homes are 30 percent tighter than standard construction homes,” Sullivan said. “This means that there are less drafts coming in, and it also means that there is less fresh air exchange with the outdoors. Since homes are tightly sealed for energy efficiency, indoor air quality has become more important than before. We need to put in systems to mechanically exchange the air, and clients need to make sure that everything they bring into the house including finishings and furniture are healthy.”

Sullivan said that the onset of Covid led people to start understanding how important indoor air quality is. “People don’t want to breathe in the virus, and they also don’t want to breathe in chemicals off-gassed by harmful materials either,” Sullivan said. “Non smoking-related lung cancer rates are up and asthma rates are up. Where years ago no one was talking about indoor air quality, people are starting to catch on.” 

While costs of constructing homes have gone up, green home building prices are relative. “The standard for our company is green, so our costs have not increased differently than standard construction, but yes, it can be a bit more expensive,” Sullivan said. “However, there are varying degrees of green certifications, and some of those additional costs have decreased compared to when they were first introduced. Even Habitat For Humanity builds to the minimal degree of green, and if they can do it, anyone can do it.”

Certified green homes consist of five main aspects – indoor air quality, water conservation, energy efficiency, renewable resources, and the use of local materials. The California Air Resources Board created regulations that help in maintaining healthy air quality, protecting the public from exposure to toxc air contaminants, and providing innovative approaches for complying with air pollution rules and regulations.

“California has actually provided a great achievement by creating the CARB2 compliance standard,” Sullivan said. “Without them, we wouldn’t know what products are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds). They are doing the testing for us.” According to Sullivan, CARB2 compliance is increasingly important in any products that go into the house. “Glues, plywood, drywall, and everything else inside the home needs to be safe,” Sullivan said. “This is becoming a national standard, and our company does its best to make sure every part of the homes we build follow these guidelines.”

The layout and the orientation of homesites is also important to green building. Many are passive solar which refers to a design that minimizes and/or maximizes the sunlight entering the house based on the season. “For example, a passive solar home might have larger or lower overhangs than a standard home,” Sullivan said. “In the winter, the sun is lower in the sky and can enter the windows below the overhangs to warm the home naturally. In the summer when the sun is higher, the overhangs shade the windows and keep the home cooler.”

Sullivan said that Living Stone Design strives for each house to be as close to net zero or net zero ready as possible. “Net zero means that a house produces as much energy as it consumes,” Sullivan said. “A home with this rating requires its energy to come from solar or geothermal sources. Even if a client doesn’t want to put in all of the required equipment during the building process, the home can be net zero ready by having the proper conduits installed during construction.”

Indoor airPLUS is a voluntary partnership and labeling program that helps new home builders improve indoor air quality by requiring construction practices and product specifications that minimize exposure to airborne pollutants and contaminants. “Our company strives to reach this standard in each of the homes that we build,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know of anyone else doing that as a standard.”

It’s important to try to use as many native materials as possible, according to Sullivan. “We try to source natural materials locally,” he said. “Certain woods are more resistant to rot and decay. Plastics expand and contract with temperature and humidity, and though most materials do this to an extent, concrete, stone, and wood handle this movement much better.”

While Living Stone Builders works on mostly residential projects, they have done a bit of work in the commercial construction sector as well. “For commercial, LEED-certified buildings are on the rise, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk in that direction,” Sullivan said. “We do see more interest in green construction in and around the Asheville area than outside. It’s definitely a more green-friendly bubble.”

Sullivan said that over recent years he has seen a slight increase in the interest in green construction. He also said that he is working to spread the word about green building and indoor air quality. He teaches continuing education across the state with the NC Builder Institute, an educational arm of the NC Home Builders’ Association. He also conducts educational workshops at the green furniture store owned by himself and his wife, Atelier Maison & Co.

“People are statistically proven to be happier, healthier, and more productive when they live in a green home,” Sullivan said. “Our goal is to help all of our clients feel that way, and to spread the word that healthier living is possible inside your home.”