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Green on a budget?

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Provided by Networx.com

Green design is getting a lot of ink these days, as well it should; environmentally-conscious building has gone mainstream and that means more structures worldwide are built with ecological issues in mind. That includes commercial and industrial buildings, those belonging to institutions like the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and of course private homes and multifamily buildings. That's great news for the environment and the building trades, but what about your wallet?

The thing that often stands out about green design beyond its obvious environmental benefits and frequent aesthetic appeal is the high price tag. Sometimes it feels like these buildings are unattainable for ordinary people when you sit down and price out a project, or when the writeup of an amazing building is polite enough to include information about costs. That's a big problem, because being ecologically sustainable should be economically affordable so it will be accessible to everyone!

After all, while individuals can do a lot when it comes to reuse and recycling, making small changes in their own homes and lives, and trying to do their best when it comes to decisions like which cars to buy, they might want their shot at a green home too. And many of us can't afford multimillion dollar homes, or even those in the mid to high hundreds of thousads, which leaves us feeling like the green revolution is zooming past us (in a zero emissions vehicle, of course).

But that doesn't have to be the case. Projects around the world are starting to demonstrate that green design can be beautiful, cutting edge, and affordable, all at the same time. A fantastic example can be seen in Vancouver, Canada, where designer Lukas Armstrong built a Passivhaus triplex without breaking the bank. The Passivhaus or passive house design focuses on building homes that sustain themselves using passive means to result in a net energy demand of zero.

The great thing about passive means? They don't require a big layout of cash. Passive homes in fact rely on very simple design principles like aligning the home towards the south, sealing the home well to prevent air leakage, and laying it out in a way that will promote air circulation to keep internal temperatures stable. Passive solar measures are often a key part of the design scheme. You can use a variety of materials in a passive house, including recycled building materials, to keep costs down.

This particular triplex has solar thermal panels to help with heat, and an on-demand boiler to supply warm water. The whole design is aimed at maximum energy efficiency, but with an eye to economic efficiency as well, and the construction firm managed to keep costs in line with typical custom home building. Which can still be quite expensive, but is a step in the right direction, illustrating that it shouldn't cost extra to build a passive home as long as the design firm is creative and focused.

More experience and practice will help firms like Armstrong's build passive houses even more inexpensively, making them possibilities for home developments and projects intended for low-income housing. Everyone deserves a shot at environmentally-friendly design, not least because living in a passive house cuts energy costs radically and can help people conserve their funds. The fact that many designers are aware of the cost concerns and how they affect accessibility is a great sign: this is a movement interested in engaging everyone, not just those who can afford it.

Construction on a passive house requires incredible cooperation with a big team of construction professionals, from roofers all the way down. There are also region-specific concerns, like in the Midwest, where harsh, cold winters are an important consideration for design firms interested in building homes that meet passive standards; as Chicago electricians work on more passive house projects, for example, they'll get the hang of special needs to consider, which can make them faster and more adept at their work.

The more passive homes we build, the easier the process will become, and the more cost-effective it will get. That's good news for everybody, especially people without a lot of money to spend on their homes who still want to participate in the green building and design movement.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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