Building a more efficient home

Sustainability is living on nature’s income rather than its capital.

Passed from Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann to a desk calendar, the impact of the statement resonates with REAL building co-founder Taylor Ralph.

“That’s pretty powerful statement,” Ralph said. “People try to say green is sustainable but really, green is kind of a fad word. It doesn’t really mean anything. Sustainability is reducing your impact on the environment.”

Founded in 2007 with business partner Darren Brinkley, their “green” building design company was launched with a mutual interest in sustainable development and a common goal to bring more efficient homes to the area. The acronym REAL stands for responsible, efficient, attainable living.

“Around here, you tell someone you are building a green house, and they ask ‘well, what does that mean? Are you painting it green?’” said Ralph, who is also the Vice President of Business Development.

The first home project designed by REAL buildings remains the only LEED certified Gold home in Tampa Bay.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental design, is an internationally recognized green building certification system. Buildings can qualify for four levels of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. These structures are designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in energy savings, water conservation, emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and conservation of resources.

The Gold home, in St. Petersburg, is a featured addition of the Green Building Council’s ‘LEED-for-Homes’ program, which specifically promotes the design of high-performance green homes. During his first project, Ralph says he “studied hard” and learned a lot about material specifications.

REAL buildings completed three homes in the Tampa Bay area from 2006-2009 and are currently constructing another in South Tampa. Ralph says the company also has three projects in different phases of design or construction drawings.

“We felt like we were on the cutting edge of green home building construction and just continued on that path.”

• • •

Although the perception of “green” often translates to a rise in cost, Ralph says green homes should not cost the home owner any more than a comparable home with the same finishes and fixtures. A typical REAL buildings design uses natural lighting, bamboo floors and low-flow appliances.

Additionally, Ralph and Brinkley do not rely on renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, to power the home. Instead, they focus on trying to reduce the amount of energy a home is using by relying on natural ventilation systems and more efficient processes for every day activities.

“A lot of green materials and construction techniques are just better methods, better materials, better efficiencies,” Ralph explained. “One of the big things we really advocate for is the planning of a green home. It’s very important to integrate green into the whole process from concept to design to construction.”

Another common feature found in REAL building’s designs are structurally insulated panels, or SIPs. These panels, used in floors, walls and roofs, are typically made with a core of rigid foam plastic insulation. All of the panels are manufactured in controlled factory conditions and are prefabricated to the custom design of each home. The SIPs are delivered on site for assembly, cutting down on labor costs and work site pollution and waste.

“They all fit together like Legos,” Ralph explained. “The amount of construction work on site, the amount of saws and drills and hammers is really limited.”

Other benefits to building “green” are the long-term energy efficiency and structurally soundness of SIPs.

“If you build it right the first time, it’s going to be intrinsically efficient and you’ll be able to save money for the life of the home,” said Ralph.

Efficient homes also provide healthier environments for their residents. Ralph cites VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, recycling air through cooling systems and carpets as common contaminants in homes. By making conscious decisions to use wood or bamboo flooring and low or no-VOC paint, home owners can greatly enhance the quality of air inside the their homes.

Another issue REAL buildings tackles when designing “green” homes is water conservation.

“We kind of take that on as something that should be mandatory in all homes,” said Ralph. “It may be cheap right now, but that resource is very limited.”

One of the most common water conservation practices is storing rainwater under or outside the home. This water can be filtered and used indoors for bathing, washing and drinking. Greywater systems are also becoming more popular; these systems allow residents to conserve water by recycling and reusing bath, laundry and sink water.

“I think we (Tampa Bay residents) have unique issues that really demand us to be conscious about our resources,” he continued. “Our energy resources, our water resources, our material resources, our land…we have to really pay attention to those issues.”

• • •

For homeowners who want to retrofit, more options are becoming readily available.

According to Ralph, the best places to begin green remodeling are checking insulation in the attic, installing dual-pane windows and taking out as much carpet as possible. Homeowners can also retrofit or install new toilets that are low-flush, exchange showerheads with low-flow fixtures and replace appliances with their Energy Star counterparts.

“Green remodeling is going to be a big thing,” Ralph explained.  “It’s going to have to be because the amount of homes that will be existing for the next thirty years completely trumps what we could ever build.”

For more on REAL building, check out their website.

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