Energy Stars & Green Builders

Austin's innovative programs for the built environment

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 19
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

For more than seven years, the city of Austin, Texas, offered a voluntary energy efficiency rating system for new homes. The Energy Star Program appealed to builders who use favorable energy ratings to market houses as "green" and economical.

The program also appealed to the city utility, which saves an estimated 0.5 to 1.0 kilowatts per home. Energy Star staff estimated that the program kept more than $125,000 per year in Austin that otherwise would have been spent on importing energy.

Last year, with the encouragement of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (see page 20), the city decided to expand the program by including water usage, building materials choice, and solid waste in a comprehensive rating system; the result was the Green Builder Program. Doug Seiter, who heads up that program, sent us this account of its progress to date.

Since the Green Builder Program was introduced to the public in January 1992, the support has been overwhelming, much more so than when we were promoting energy efficiency only. It appears there was a pent-up demand for building practices that contribute to a healthy environment.

The Green Builder Program, the nation’s first sustainability rating system for buildings, focuses on residential homes but also is applicable to small commercial buildings. The relative success of the Energy Star Program and the subsequent rapport established with builders gave us a head start.

The program offers a Green Building Guide, which takes builders and home buyers through a sustainability rating process based on a home’s water and energy use, choice of building materials, and solid waste handling. Builders use the resulting overall score – ranging from one to four stars – along with a score for each of the four areas as a marketing tool.

Shortly after being introduced to the public, the Green Builder Program was one of 12 finalists in the United Nations Local Government Initiatives Honours Programme, presented in a ceremony at the Earth Summit.

This acknowledgment by the global community of the importance of green building gave the program an early shot in the arm. It helped builders here see that they had an opportunity to participate in a new trend that appears to be gaining ground in all parts of the world – and the builders have responded. Representatives of the local builders’ association helped develop the Green Building Guide and have participated in an advisory capacity since the program’s introduction. This involvement laid the groundwork for the association’s early endorsement of the program.

An unexpected result of the program has been the strong interest among owners and developers of commercial property; such a level of support had not surfaced for the energy rating program in its seven years of operation. The program has also drawn the attention of the local Habitat for Humanity organization, which is considering modifying its basic designs to appropriate Green Builder guidelines.

Another unanticipated result has been the formation of the Sustainable Building Coalition, which has consistently drawn 60-70 people to presentations on healthy homes, straw bale home construction, rainwater harvesting, passive solar design, and other building innovations.

The Green Builder Program addresses a small piece of a very large picture, yet it gives us a chance to help accelerate the recognition that nothing we do happens in isolation. Connecting home building to the local, regional, and global environment allows other elements of sustainable community building to fall into place.

For more information about the Green Builder Program, write 206 East Ninth Street, STE 17.102, Austin, TX 78701. Tel. 512-499-3506.

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