GreenStar shines in Seward remodel

New state certification program guides sustainable home construction

The home of Neil Cuthbert and Louise Robinson, located at the foot of a tree-studded hill on the West River Road, was “green” long before the term became a marketing buzzword. Their living room coffee table, which Neil crafted out of old stage sets from plays the pair produced with their daughters, is a testament to the fact. So when the couple was offered a chance to be the first home in Seward to have their remodeling project certified through the new Minnesota GreenStar pilot program, they naturally jumped at the chance.

“It immediately appealed to us,” said Robinson. “These things are just values for us.”

Minnesota GreenStar brings together a consortium of builders, architects, remodeling companies, and utility representatives from across the state to create a program to rate construction and remodeling projects based on their environmental footprints. The group has spent more than two years drafting a checklist to guide aspiring eco-builders through the process; the final version is expected in March. It’s broken down into five categories: energy efficiency, resource efficiency, indoor environmental quality, water conservation and community impact.

Though new to Minnesota, the project isn’t the first of its kind. GreenStar project borrows ideas from green certification programs in states like California and Colorado, as well as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), currently considered the yardstick for measuring green building nationwide. In addition, Greenstar incorporates elements uniquely Minnesotan, taking into account the state’s laws and climate.

“None of these programs we have can be copied wholesale. They’re all flawed,” said Michael Anschel, the project’s interim executive director and principal at Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build. “They all have something that’s not up-to-date or doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do. We stepped back and said ‘Let’s define “green” before building our program.’”

To participate in the program, either the builder or the homeowner is required to take an eight-hour course on the theory behind green design. They can then get to work on their project, seasoning it with green elements to fit their taste and budget — anything from solar overhangs to natural wool carpeting. But before becoming certified, the house must pass a rigorous examination by third-party certifiers trained by the GreenStar program. The test includes things like photographing the house with a thermal camera to identify areas of heat loss and measuring the efficiency of bathroom fans with a device called a “blometer.”

Once inspected, the homes are ranked on a point system, with each building earning a different “medal” based on the number of points it nets in each category. Unlike other existing programs, a minimum in each category needs to be met; developers can’t cut corners by focusing on only one piece of the environmental puzzle such as heat or water conservation to gain points.

Additional emphasis and points are placed upon the use of locally sourced construction materials like granite from the state’s quarries or windows from Northern Minnesota factories.

Cuthbert is excited that his home construction choices might open local commercial avenues for new green and recycled products.

“If you have to spend a lot of time and money finding salvaged doors, is that a good thing?” he asked. “If it becomes something that can exist in a marketplace, it’s a much better thing. I think one of the benefits of having this kind of program is encouraging those secondary markets to emerge. These businesses could employ people and help with a lot of environmental issues at the same time.”

Of course, having a green-certified home does entail some additional cost. Registering a project to be certified will cost anywhere from $100 to $1,500, depending on its size, and the mandatory class is about $325. Homeowners’ costs will vary depending on the steps needed to meet certification, but Anschel argues that, in the end, homeowners will more than make up the cost of their initial investment through energy savings and increased home value. GreenStar-certified homes will also add to factors like health and quality of life that can’t be reflected by a price tag, he added.

It was Jay Stills, of Seward-based Buck Brothers Construction Company, who first encouraged Cuthbert and Robinson to go green. Now, Buck Brothers will handle the remodel.

While Stills said home construction practices have become safer in the last several decades — such as the banning of lead paint, which was common just 30 years ago — a lot of work still needs to be done. He points to a growing awareness that health problems like asthma that can be traced in part to the sea of toxins such as formaldehyde-laced glues, dioxin, and other volatile organic compounds in our housing stock. This budding consciousness is moving green building, once considered a fringe concept, into the mainstream, said Stills. The GreenStar Program, he said, is bringing the evolution of the neighborhood full circle.

“It’s cyclical,” said Stills. “If you look at a neighborhood like Seward, you can see examples of passive solar, things showing that 30 years ago people were aware that we needed to design our homes in a way that gave us a smaller footprint. People have been applying these concepts before there was any certification, but it wasn’t mainstream.”

Judging by the number of applicants for the program, it seems that many are now ready to bridge that gap. To date, 20 remodeling and 41 new home construction projects have been given the green light, most of them in the Twin Cities area. Yet, the program is still in its infancy, having only recently gained non-profit status and acquired permanent office space. After the program officially opens to the public in March, “We’ll most likely be processing at least a thousand applications within the next year,” said Anschel with a grin, barely containing his enthusiasm.

For more information about the MN GreenStar Project, visit www.mngreenstar.org.

last revised: February 27, 2008