Best Practices for Creating
Affordable Green Homes

September 5, 2012

Best Practices for Creating Affordable Green Homes

Everyone needs to stretch a dollar these days. This is certainly true for home builders. And it’s at least equally (if not more) true for homebuyers in the entry-level, affordable, or workforce housing sectors. Green building, once widely perceived to be a “luxury” approach to home building, can be a viable solution for both builders and consumers in the affordable market. 

Constructing a green home does come with some costs, but a lot of builders find that green practices can actually reduce their construction costs and increase the quality of the homes they build. Many green practices also result in operational/maintenance savings for homeowners that are particularly helpful for those in the market for an affordable home. 

Using a combination of input from builders participating in the National Green Building Certification Program, and results from recent research we did for HUD on the costs and benefits of green affordable housing, Home Innovation Research Labs has identified some of the most beneficial practices to consider when building green for the affordable market. Below are some tips on how to make green building as cost-effective as possible so that you can pass the construction savings on to your buyers.


Work with Your Suppliers
If you’re new to green building in general or to building green homes with a lower price point, you may want to start your journey by talking with your product suppliers. 

First Richmond Associates of Richmond, VA, has been building quality workforce housing for nearly two decades, but more recently decided that going green with their homes may provide even greater value to their customers and set them apart in their market. Susan Hadder, CGP, CAPS, president of First Richmond, admits they didn’t know much about green building when they decided to add it to their repertoire. So she let her suppliers know about the new direction they were taking and asked for their help. “A lot of them were as new to ‘green’ as we were,” Hadder found, “but they were excited to help us find the best product options available from various manufacturers. It was kind of fun for everyone to discover something new.” 

Hadder said she got very quick responses from all her product reps, along with some incentives, which helped her identify what the company needed to get its new green homes certified to the National Green Building Standard (ICC 700). She was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the green product options that would garner points for the home in the certification process were actually an even swap for her in terms of price. Specifically with flooring options, she found that recycled-content carpet and padding, engineered hardwood flooring, and recycled tile for the bathrooms were all competitively priced with the products she’d traditionally used – some a few pennies more per unit, some a few pennies less. First Richmond now has two of their “Earth-Friendly” workforce homes – sales prices range from the $170’s to low $200’s – Green Certified to ICC 700 by Home Innovation Research Labs and has plans for more.

Look for 2-for-1 Green Product Benefits
To maximize green benefits while keeping construction costs low, use products or practices with multiple green features. For example, when specifying cabinets or cabinet materials, look for those that have low- or no-formaldehyde content and are made of recycled material. That way, you may be able to gain green certification points for both indoor environmental quality and resource efficiency. While most green rating systems won’t allow for “double-dipping” on points – i.e., claiming points in more than one area for the same green attribute in the same product or practice – most will allow for multiple green attributes in the same product to be counted across multiple point categories.

Don’t Forget Water Efficiency
In our work with HUD, we found that water efficiency improvements for both new and renovated affordable projects are commonly overlooked, but offer a quantifiable benefit to homeowners for little to no additional construction cost. Be sure not to discount the cost benefits for affordable clients of low-flow faucets, toilets, and showerheads, as well as rated water-saving appliances.

As for finding the products you need at an affordable price, today there is a much wider array of low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads on the market than even five years ago, which has made most basic models cost neutral with comparable non-low-flow fixtures. Most major plumbing product manufacturers now offer these products, eliminating the need for costly special orders in most cases. With bathroom sink faucets, even if your manufacturer of choice doesn’t make a low-flow version, you can buy replacement aerators that satisfy the requirements of most national green rating systems for around $2 a piece.

Consider Alternative Framing Materials & Techniques
Some changes in your framing materials or techniques might provide both cost- and time-saving measures and a means to an end in securing points toward green certification. Consider using panels or trusses, for example. These techniques are labor and resource efficient, resulting in less on-site waste and possibly even lower labor and materials costs overall. Fabricated systems often create greater thermal efficiency over stick frames. Many green rating systems, including the National Green Building Standard, also award points for use of panels and trusses. 

If you want to continue framing totally on site, there are several Optimum Value Engineering (OVE) techniques that can save on material and/or labor costs, and can generate some green points for you at the same time. Look into options like:


Explore Low- to No-Cost Strategies with Design
Green, at any price point, is not accomplished through product selection alone. Many of the other “ingredients” for a green home involve strategies that can cost very little or nothing at all. For example, depending on the orientation and size of your lot, flipping a house plan is a very low-cost, low-effort activity that can result in green benefits like positioning the majority of windows on the south side of a home for passive solar and natural lighting gains.

Pay Attention to Placement & Sizing of HVAC & Plumbing
Optimize your duct runs and centrally locate your mechanical room for material cost savings and increased energy efficiency. Even for smaller homes, be sure not to have more ducts or longer duct runs than you need in any part of the house. Using a central return also reduces material costs and is a simple system that can provide adequate circulation and cost savings to both you and your buyer. 

Placing all your HVAC equipment, including ducts, in conditioned space within the home is also beneficial in all green home designs. In addition to creating significant energy savings for homeowners, this practice may also allow you to spec smaller, less expensive HVAC equipment and limit or eliminate the need for additional insulation for the duct system. Many homes today, even those that may be otherwise very energy- and resource-efficient, have oversized HVAC equipment. As the building envelope of your homes becomes tighter and more energy-efficient, the HVAC burden is significantly reduced. A smaller system obviously costs less and could offset other green upgrades you’re making in your homes.

For your plumbing system, make sure you have chosen the most efficient design for your purposes. For multi-story homes, consider a stacked system, which will probably require shorter plumbing runs, less piping, and possibly less labor/time from your plumbing contractor. Also consider centrally locating your water heater – a central location makes the average of every run shorter, thereby reducing material costs.

Rely on a Green Team of Professionals
While hiring or contracting with a team of green design professionals for your affordable projects may seem counter-intuitive – i.e., more people on the payroll equals a higher cost for building the house – there are plenty of green builders out there who would tell you from experience that not having your own “green team” will cost you more in the end. Green homes often require a higher degree of precision in their design and construction to ensure that the finished product works the way it was designed to work, as a whole house relying on interdependent systems for its optimum efficiency and homeowner comfort. Having a team of experts well-versed in green products, practices, and protocols can end up saving you thousands of dollars in trial-and-error and callbacks.

That being said, there are certainly different ways to go about creating your team. One way is to seek out experts in areas such as mechanical systems, plumbing design, and landscape architecture, with specific expertise in green building practices. Another tactic is to rally those with whom you already work to the pursuit of greener, more efficient homes. Similar to the enthusiasm and excitement Susan Hadder generated with her suppliers when First Richmond began seeking green solutions, you may generate the same kind of interest with your existing construction partners to learn all they can and contribute. Either way, it’s important to get everyone in your construction chain on the same page with what you’re trying to accomplish – contractors and suppliers who are not informed can create inadvertent barriers to your ultimate success.


Regardless of what green features you incorporate into your affordable homes, be sure to provide your homebuyers some education on how to keep their homes operating optimally. Just like a new driver with a high-performance car, new homebuyers with green, high-performance homes need guidance on operation and maintenance too.