Vermont and the Green Building Movement


The Vermont Independent, March 24, 2016. Image credit: johnoghue

Here in Vermont, as everywhere, the built environment has a vast impact on the natural environment, human health, and the economy. 40% of our energy consumption comes from the building sector, and buildings also hold the greatest potential for achieving a significant reduction in green house gas emissions. By adopting green building strategies, Vermont can maximize both economic and environmental performance and collectively help create a healthier and more resource efficient form of construction. With statewide programs such as Efficiency Vermont, which was created by the Vermont Legislature and the Vermont Public Service Board in 1999, Vermont has seen progress in the “green building movement.” The city of Burlington is seeing positive changes take shape today, in terms of moving towards supplying 100% renewably powered electricity to its 42,000 citizens. Burlington is a symbol of an increasingly positive and more renewable energy future here in the once and future Republic of Vermont. Let’s take a look.

vermont green buildingIn 2000, Efficiency Vermont began to deliver services designed to help Vermonters reduce energy costs and to protect Vermont’s natural environment. The creation of Efficiency Vermont enabled all Vermonters to receive a consistent and comprehensive set of services and to achieve more ambitious energy targets that ultimately reduced system-wide electric costs. Incredibly, since the year 2000, Efficiency Vermont has helped save enough energy to power every home in the state of Vermont for 5.3 years. Their work benefits all Vermonters by helping to achieve their statewide energy goals, strengthen our economy and protect the environment. Vermont was the first state to bid energy efficiency savings into a regional electric grid, demonstrating the critical value that energy efficiency provides as a reliable and cost-effective resource. In late 2008, Efficiency Vermont was authorized to provide thermal efficiency services to reduce Vermonters’ heating fuel costs.

[bctt tweet=”Since 2000, @EfficiencyVT has saved enough energy to power every home in the state for 5.3 years.”]

Look regionally. Many states in New England have an energy efficiency program. Efficiency Vermont in Vermont, NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) in New York, Mass Save in Massachusetts, NHSaves in New Hampshire and Efficiency Save in Maine. These programs help state citizens receive a lower cost on their energy use by promoting cost effective energy efficiency and alternative energy solutions. Weatherizing, financing and appliances are all ways the targeted programs help homeowners. Towns across the east coast are working towards energy efficiency. Earlier this month, my hometown of Holliston, Massachusetts (and 5 other communities in the area) exemplifies this effort as received a grant of $736,655 for clean energy projects. Governor Charlie Baker stated, “These municipalities will use their Green Communities grants to reduce energy use, reduce cost, and help us meet our ambitious greenhouse emission reduction targets.” So overall, how does Vermont’s energy efficiency savings compare to other states?

[bctt tweet=”The transportation sector of #Vermont is responsible for 37% of the total energy consumed.”]In 2007, Forbes picked Vermont as the greenest state, a choice consistent with conventional thinking about low-impact living. Vermont also ranks high in almost all the categories on which Forbes based its analysis, including LEED and energy efficiency public policies. However Forbes’ ranking was unfortunate because Vermont, in many ways, is not a leader in efficiency, spreading people across the countryside – for example, a typical Vermonter consumes 545 gallons of gasoline per year, almost a hundred gallons more than the national average. The transportation sector of Vermont is responsible for 37% of the total energy consumed, more than any sector in the state and is overwhelmingly from fossil fuels. Travel behavior in Vermont is heavily influenced by the state’s rural and village-based land-use patterns. Per capita vehicle miles of travel in Vermont have been falling but remains above the national average. Automobile usage is the dominant mode of travel, accounting for approximately 85% of all trips made in the state, but public transit and rail ridership have increased above the levels reported.

Let me brag about my home state for a moment, Every year, the ACEEE ranks states on their energy efficiency policy and program efforts and this year my home state of Massachusetts was #1, while Vermont was #3. With the climate clearly becoming more of an issue in colder, more northern areas, Vermont certainly faces more challenges with their building envelopes and efficiency concerns, bringing questions about different techniques and housing materials. Vermont was rated 39.5 out of 50, and the worst state in the country was Wyoming, rated 5.5 out of 50. Wyoming’s ICBO Uniform Building Code is voluntary for both residential and commercial buildings, while in Vermont, our most recent commercial and residential energy codes went into effect in March 2015 and are based on the 2015 IECC. The state is required by statute to update its codes every three years. “A lot of it has to do with the cost: green building is a compromise between what is 100% green and what is economically feasible. And that’s the way it all goes,” states UVM professor Charlie Ferreira. “In Vermont, it has been scientifically proven that conservation is more cost effective than strictly green construction. No demand for new electricity as a result of conservation. The demand for electricity has decreased in Burlington in past 8 years, which can be attributed to conservation practices.”

Vermonters are currently receiving loans now to install more/better insulation from Burlington Electric, helping the “green building” movement gradually improve. The main reason we see only a small percentage of green buildings today is because of the high upfront cost. If building a more efficient home was the same price as a conventional home, I’m positive that 90% more people would be able to achieve the personal agency and motivation needed in order to move in a more sustainable direction. However, the key to building a green home is a high initial investment, with a return on your payments. Many Vermonters today simply can’t afford the initial down payment and do not see the clear benefits of saving money in and for the future; they want to save money from the start.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t to say that only wealthy clients can build green homes. The process is about being effectively educated with the smart decisions to invest in your home you will live in for many years, having to pay high costs at first, but over time, receive lower bills and even get paid for your electricity usage with options like net metering. LEED as well, is just as expensive. So what is the solution? Easy alternatives which do not have to be expensive can be just as effective as a LEED home. My advice – talk to a consultant, educate yourself as a homeowner on ways to improve your home efficiency and consider that in the end, your electricity bill not only decreases, but your emissions as well as overall impact on our planet can change be minimized for the better.

While the diverse array of architects across the state of Vermont have disagreed on many aspects of green building, they have certainly been able to agree on one thing: the building envelope is one of the most important aspects of a building. I conducted a survey among five local architecture firms: TruexCullins, MacLay Architects, Freeman French Freeman, Gossens Bachman, and SAS. All five greatly emphasized the building envelope and how vital a high R-value insulation can be when considering heat loss. Architects and energy auditors have shifted their focus today to pay more attention to moisture barriers and air barriers in buildings today. The architects are now reaching out to their clients about how to make a change in their own homes through building envelope commissioning and retrofitting.

During my interview with Laura Bailey at MacLay Architects, she and a few colleagues touched upon their goals towards sustainability, more specifically related to passive homes and net-zero (ready) homes. “We strive to target for higher than code,” Laura said. A firm like MacLay is currently using R-60 material for insulation of ceilings and R-40 for walls up to 2 feet thick, far about standards and focusing on the cold climate of New England for the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in New Hampshire. This building is the first passive home MacLay is designing and brought up the challenge most firms face with satisfying their client with concerns regarding the climate. This client wanted to maintain its rustic feel and keep most of the interior decorations and design; however, the lighting had to be altered with more windows and the exterior had to be well changed to meet the insulation codes for a passive home while keeping the log cabin look. Orientation is also important because most homes should face south to optimize sunlight intake – however the view of Moosilauke faces west. Compromising energy efficiency with the client’s requests is any firm’s major task – not all clients want what the architecture firm wants.

While conducting my interviews with these architecture firms, the biggest issue I became aware of was surprisingly not how expensive building a “green home” can be, but how expensive the LEED certification can be. According to recently filed court documents, the minimum cost of LEED certification is $2,900 for a new building under 50,000 square feet while LEED certification fees for a newly constructed building over 500,000 square feet can reach up to $20,000 (plus a $900 initial registration fee). Clients of these architecture firms are still building efficient buildings however are refusing to pay for this “LEED label.” Other alternatives to take into consideration are the Passive House certification or the Living Building Challenge. If buildings can show they are energy efficient such as the Aiken building on The University of Vermont’s campus with the television screen showing its energy usage throughout the building, why spend upwards to $20,000 for a label on your door?

LEED is a driver for building codes, a change for the market place. It is “being used informally as a framework for green design of hundreds of projects and is officially referenced in the building guidelines of several local governments and federal agencies and unofficially used by many more.” My interview with two architects at TruexCullins spoke to not only its high cost, but also how tedious LEED has now become throughout the entire certification process. Our discussion focused on LEED touched on how “It [LEED] is a great way to push buildings to become green, but at the same time, this book on the LEED credits is something anyone can buy and use as guidelines for their new building and therefore follow what needs to be done to make a building efficient without paying thousands of dollars on a LEED label for their building door. It could be that simple.” And the architect was right, but is that what everyone is doing?

So what does the future hold for us in regards to green building? “Green building is the way of the future that will inundate the entire real estate industry,” says Jerry Yudelson, a leading green building consultant. A growing focus on energy efficiency in all kinds of buildings and net-zero energy buildings is slowly reaching out to many people, and as time moves on, not only will green building technology moving forward, but the green building rating systems will improve, as well. The World Green Building Trends 2016 report by Dodge Data & Analytics stated “green building continues to double every three years, with strongest acceleration in emerging economies, and clients and tenants worldwide increasingly demanding sustainability – for both energy efficiency and occupant benefit (“New Report Highlights Latest Global Green Building Trends and Projections”).” Across all of the regions studied, respondents increasingly projected that more than 60 percent of their projects would be green projects by 2018 with a doubling from current projects across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s safe to say Vermont is not the only location focusing on energy efficiency, and thankfully for our future generations, it is in fact a world trend.

While the green housing industry is growing, the overall housing market is said to be suffering. The Los Angeles Times has mentioned how surveys say this year “the green building is expected to represent 6% of the residential construction industry, up from just 2% in 2005. An enhanced awareness of the occupant and tenant benefits of green buildings emerged with healthier neighborhoods (15%), higher return on investment (11%) and employee recruitment (5%) increasing as drivers.” Some may say conservation and sacrifice are the solutions to the energy crisis. It is happening and it has become today’s architectural trend, yet the industry must find a better solution of getting information into people’s hands when they’re looking for it. UTC Chief Sustainability Officer John Mandyck stated, “The result seen from green building only reinforce what those in the green building industry already know – they are better for the environment, better for business and better for the people within them (“New Report Highlights Latest Global Green Building Trends and Projections).” The green building movement continues to advance today, seeing the development of real, concrete deliverables, such as awareness of occupant benefits. Our planet has a vast amount of resources to take, and while we may think it is our right to take them, we must consider our needs and our future generation’s needs to live more sustainably. May Vermont continue to help lead the way.

Elana Cole is a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

This article originally appeared on The Vermont Independent.