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Green building future looks bright, says Mr. G

GREENFIELD — The construction industry may have seen better days — before the recession hit, for example.

But things may be starting to turn around with the emergence of the green building industry, Peter Yost of the Brattleboro-based Building Green consulting service told a gathering of job-seekers and students in energy-saving and sustainable building practices this week at Greenfield Community College.

Yost, who said that when he started paying attention to use of energy-saving and environmentally friendly practices in construction more than 25 years ago, it was a little known field. Now, as evidenced by the dozens of students and other attending the “Green Careers Connections” event sponsored by Franklin-Hampshire Career Center’s Green Careers program and GCC’s Renewable Energy-Energy Efficiency Program, there are signs that’s changing, said Yost.

“First, (hurricanes) Sandy and Irene have really gotten people’s attention on how buildings work,” said Yost, who among other things teaches courses on building high-performance, efficiently operating houses built with materials with low environmental impact. Those courses — some of them at GCC — have typically attracted architects, engineers and builders. But now they’re starting to draw bankers and appraisers as well.

“The first banker who took the course, up in northern New Hampshire, said, ‘It’s tough to compete for loans right now, but there are two things that banks are interested in: low risk and high value. And right now, when we give out loans, second mortgages or even first mortgages, we have no idea how much those buildings are actually worth, even though their worth is tied to how long they’re going to last and their operational cost.’”

He told Yost he thought he could be ‘a better banker and do better loans for my company’ because green buildings done properly could lower risk and increase the value of the buildings.

“So we’re starting to get the finance side of things to catch up with the fact that when we build better buildings, they’re worth more,” with lower risk and lower operational cost.

As a result of the election this month, Yost added, “We have an administration that’s going to stay focused on the energy side and also the durability side of things,” with growing opportunities for not just improving the energy profile of buildings but also how long they are built to last.

For example, Yost predicted more attention paid by the insurance industry, which is seeing the need to control risks it needs to better identify buildings that are better performing.

Some builders, like Bigelow Homes of Chicago, are even guaranteeing how their buildings perform. The homes have had energy bill guarantees for the past 30 years, and every single one of the 300 homes it builds each year comes with an energy cost guarantee. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is now examining how there can similarly be energy use guarantees for commercial buildings.

“When any of us goes to buy a computer or a car, we don’t buy based on price,” Yost said. “We buy them based on value. If we based them on price, all of us would be driving Yugos, and we don’t. So when people go to spend the most money in their lives, which is for their home, they never think if it as a performance item.”

Home buyers may look at how close it is to the nearest fire hydrant, the cost per square foot or whether there’s a “bonus room” over the garage,” Yost said. “We never have people going to a car dealer and saying, ‘Can you tell me how much your car costs per pound, because I want the most mass for my dollar.’ No one does that; They think of the automobile as a performance item. One way to have us turn our industry around is to have us work on educating consumer about fact that if anything, their home is a performance item. And we’re starting to do that.”

A Pennsylvania home builder, for example, hands prospective home buyers an infra-red camera when they show up at one of their model homes. “It’s going to let you look into the walls,” the visitors are told, and then sent off to inspect the house for themselves. “When they come back they probably haven’t asked for the distance to the hydrant, they’re totally tuned into how that building worked.”

Turning the conversation around to how buildings perform is going to take some public education, said Yost. The result will be sorting out engineers, architects and buildings who truly understand better how buildings work, and constructing ones that perform better.

“When we change that conversation, people are going to be stumbling over themselves to find builders, energy auditors, remodelers and architects that understand the difference between the two,” said Yost.

Attracted by the possibilities, attendants at Wednesday’s networking session stopped at booths of Victory Energy Solutions, energy management programs offered by GCC and Mount Wachusett Community College, Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and other offerings to learn about the growing field of green.

Kathleen Capuras, Green Careers Coach at Franklin-Hampshire Employment and Training Board said 44 people have found jobs in the field as a result of federally funded training in the program’s two years, primarily in doing energy audits and weatherization and training other workers for that work.

“What’s really driving movement, has been and will continue to be in contracts with utilities for energy efficiency work,” Capuras said. “There’s a little bit of solar going on here,” but not a lot of hiring for installers, since most large-scale solar installations are being done large businesses from outside the area.

But Capuras added, “Even though building construction is down, because of the (state) Green Communities Act we have a lot of incentives for people to put additions onto their houses that have renewable technologies, or to weatherize their houses. That’s what’s really driving a lot of the market around here.”

On the Web: http://web.gcc.mass.edu/renewable-energy/

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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