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Living in a Green Building 101

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Considering the technological and environmental leaps we've made in recent years, it looks like the old saying had it wrong: Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses has got nothing on seeing it through green ones, especially when it comes to the spaces and places we live. Making sustainable building and living choices has become less Jetsons and more mainstream whether you're living in a state of the art custom estate in the 'burbs or a downtown affordable housing unit, and the trend doesn't show signs of stopping. And why should it? Experts say eco-friendly real estate not only benefits your health and the planet's, but your wallet's too. Here's what you need to know if you're interested in going green:

What to Look For

As sustainable features and amenities have gotten more popular, many realtors and landlords tout the sustainability of their property as a selling point. But don't be taken in by exaggerated claims of bamboo flooring and Energy Star appliances. If environmentally-sound features and amenities are top priorities in your house or apartment hunt, you want to find a property that's received a third-party certification of some kind, which means its gotten the green light from a body like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes program or the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Program. These certifications, and others like them, rate homes' greenness in areas like water efficiency, indoor air quality, energy systems, and eco-friendly building materials, among other areas. And, experts say, they're valuable because they emphasize a holistic approach to green living rather than a few green fixes.

"It's important because there are a lot of people that make claims of being green and it's not necessarily verified or quantified if it's just a claim without any kind of third party back up," Brandon Weiss, owner of Chicago's eco-minded Weiss Building & Development and a member of the U.S. Building Council's Illinois Chapter Residential Green Building Committee, says.

Finding a real estate agent who's well-versed in green properties helps too.

Living the Green Life

Moving into a green home or adding features that make your existing space eco-friendlier shouldn't require too much of an adjustment, but it is important to know how to live with the fixtures and equipment you may be unfamiliar with.

"Owners, contractors and architects can all design and build the greenest home in the world," green home consultant Jason LaFleur of Eco Achievers, says, "but if the occupants of that space don't understand how to maintain and live in it there are some problems." For example, not using the fan in a green ventilation system properly may result in pollutants and other contaminants being trapped in the house or apartment's stale air.

To curb these kinds of problems, most green home certification processes require an educational element of the renter or homeowner. LEED for Homes Illinois provides its prerequisite manual on its website, along with a host of other resources. Other sites, like lifestyle blog Green Living Bees offer maintenance tips (in this case a handy dandy list) as well. Locally, the Chicago Center for Green Technology, operated by the city's Department of Transportation, teaches seminars on topics like Low-Impact Living, as well as more technical greening subjects.

Going Even Greener

Renters or homeowners looking to up their property's environmental scorecard (studies have shown green-certified homes sell for more?green) are advised not to do anything drastic until they've had a professional take a look at places where they might benefit most from such upgrades.

"Don't shoot blindly and replace your windows because your home is drafty. Get an energy audit, much like you go to the doctor to get a health diagnosis, to find out exactly what the problems are and fix those," LaFleur says. "The windows themselves may be okay but the gaps around them can be sealed with a $4.00 tube of low-VOC caulk instead of replacing the window itself for $400.00."

Weiss recommends finding such an auditor through the Building Performance Institute as they have the necessary background in building science and can point you in the direction of good contractors or builders who are experienced in similar fields.

Smaller scale projects like swapping traditional light bulbs with LEDs or replacing faucets or toilets with low-flow or dual-flow models shouldn't require the same level of scrutiny, but that doesn't mean they're not important. Every little bit helps.

Other Resources

The web is overflowing with resources on green living topics so if you're interested in learning more, you shouldn't have any trouble. Weiss and LaFleur direct renters and homeowners to the U.S. Green Building Council's Green Home Guide. The site's Chicago homepage lets residents pose questions on green homeowner topics and get answers from local experts and also lists area realtors, contractors, architects versed in eco-friendly skills and subjects. The EPA's green homes page has its own nifty little graphic that shows you potential updates room by room. Another site that won high praise from our experts: REGREEN, a program of the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation and the U.S. Green Building Council, which offers everything from online certification courses to an interactive remodeling strategy tool that uses a pull-down menu to makeover your home makeover using green products and practices.

And if you prefer your research off-line? The aforementioned Chicago Green Technology Center's Green Tech Resource Center might be worth visiting or heed LaFleur's advice and join in this summer's first annual Green Built Home Tour, July 20th and 21st, at various sustainable homes throughout Chicagoland.
·LEED for Homes [USGBC]
·Curbed University [Curbed Chicago]