Construction materials and techniques that take the environment into account are becoming more and more common, and for a good reason. Implementing green practices reduces waste, conserves natural resources, improves air and water quality, and protects biodiversity. Green-building concepts extend beyond the walls of a building and include site planning, community, and land use as well.
Of course, the environment is important, but you’ll find many consumers aren’t sold on the global impact of an Energy Star water heater, let alone advanced eco-friendly building materials and systems. In real estate, the agents who are best able to sell a green building for top dollar are the ones who frame the innovative features as long-term “money savers.” You’ve got to be able to effectively communicate the value of eco-friendly homes, even if you aren’t in an eco-conscious market or up-to-speed on the latest green building jargon yourself.
Here are some of the most common confusing terms and acronyms that are thrown around in the eco-friendly home market. Some of the phrases are simple and straightforward, while others require a bit of explanation. Use the slimmed-down definitions in your marketing channels. The better your audience understands what to look for in an eco-friendly building, the more likely they will be to spend their dollars on sustainable home features.
ACC (aerated autoclaved concrete) is compressed and cured by the steam pressure inside an autoclave kiln, which produces a material that is lighter than conventional concrete and has good insulation properties.
How to market it: “This home was built with a new, lighter type of concrete that costs less to heat and cool.”
Blower door tests measure the air tightness of a building and determine the home’s air infiltration rate. How it works: A certified auditor mounts a powerful fan onto an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher outside air pressure then sneaks back into the house through all of the unsealed cracks and openings. It’s important that auditors use a calibrated door for this process. The calibrated blower door’s data allows the auditor to quantify the effectiveness of any air-sealing job by the amount of air leakage. That leakage is measured by the amount of air it takes (in cubic feet per minute) to change the air pressure in the house by 50 Pascals, or cfm50. A good rule of thumb is that your house should have a cfm50 equal to or less than its square footage.
How to market it: “In a recent test, this 2,000-square-foot home was certified to have 1,800 cfm50 air leakage, which means it leaks less air than the average home, which will likely mean lower heating and cooling costs.”
The building envelope is the separation between the interior and exterior environment of a building, consisting of the roof, doors, windows, foundation, and walls. Think of it as a building package because it contains more than just the roof.
How to market it: “You’ll often hear experts talking about the tightness of a building’s envelope. Really they’re just talking about energy leakage here, so the tighter the envelope is, the less homeowners will spend on heating and cooling.”
XPS (extruded polystyrene) is produced from a solid bead of polystyrene. There’s a small amount of gas in every individual bead, so it’s denser, more rigid, and more durable than expanded polystyrene, or Styrofoam. The gas expands when exposed to steam, forming the closed cells of XPS. These beads expand to over 140 percent of their original size and can be fabricated to form customized shapes, including rigid insulating boards used in home construction.
How to market it: “This home uses XPS insulation, which provides a higher insulating value per inch than Styrofoam.”
GHP (geothermal heat pumps) use the natural flow of the earth’s energy to provide cooling and heating for a home. Fluid circulates through underground piping in a closed loop to control a building’s temperature. In the summer, the colder ground temperature provides indoor cooling. In winter, the warmer below-ground temperature heats the home.
How to market it: “This home actually pumps temperatures stored underground up to heat and cool the living space, reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed and lowering utility costs.”
Gray water systems reuse water from laundry, bathing, dishwashing, and the like for non-potable activities like irrigation, toilets, and exterior washing. A simple plumbing system separates this reusable material from “black” toilet water.
How to market it: “This home uses an incredible recycling system to conserve water that results in significant utility cost savings.”
ICF (insulating concrete forms) are plastic foam pieces that hold concrete in place during curing. They remain in place afterward to serve as thermal insulation for concrete walls, floors, and roofs. The foam sections are lightweight and result in reinforced, durable, energy-efficient construction.
How to market it: “This home’s poured-concrete walls are insulated with foam forms, making them even stronger and more energy-efficient than similar concrete-block homes.”
Low-flow water fixtures use an aerator to reduce the flow of water while maintaining water pressure. Faucets and toilets are typically the most popular low-flow fixtures in a green building.
How to market it: “This house has low-flow faucets, shower heads, and toilets, which means your family will use fewer natural resources—and you’ll save money on your utility bills—without noticing a difference in water pressure.”
A photovoltaic system is a fancy way to refer to solar panels. They capture light from the sun and convert it into electricity through panels that are usually installed on roofs. If a roof is oriented correctly in relation to the sun, it may be a good candidate for a PV system.
How to market it: “This home generates its own electricity using solar panels on its roof, resulting in much lower energy bills.”
R-value is a measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of a material, usually insulation. The R-value of insulation in a 2-by-4-foot wall, for instance, is R-11 to R-13 whereas a 2-by-6-foot wall has an R-value of R-19 to R-21. In theory, the higher the R-value, the higher the resistance to energy transfer. Most people think the higher the R-value, the better the overall insulation of a home, but this isn’t necessarily true. Heat transfers in and out of a home in four ways: conduction, convection, radiation, and air infiltration. Because R-value is primarily effective against conduction (heat transfer by physical contact), a material with a high R-value may be less effective against radiation (heat transfer by infrared electromagnetic waves) and convection (heat transfer by fluid or gas), and greatly compromised by air infiltration, depending on how it’s made and installed.
How to market it: “The new insulation installed in the attic and exterior walls has a high R-value, which means it’s more energy efficient and easier to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.”
SIPs (structural insulated panels) are used to construct floors, walls, and roofs and are made up of an extremely durable and energy-efficient material. Think of SIPS as a sandwich: Rigid foam insulation is the filling between two structural skin surfaces, such as oriented-strand boards or plywood.
How to market it: “This home’s walls and floors were built with insulated panels, which are stronger and more energy-efficient than conventional lumber and plywood.”
Xeriscaping is a landscaping method that incorporates native plants capable of tolerating drought. This is a common tactic in arid areas, where water restrictions can make lawn care impossible at times. And the curb appeal is actually often quite stunning—proof a home can be eco-friendly and still look fabulous.
How to market it: “The yard’s landscaping uses native plants, which require less water to remain healthy and will withstand periods of drought without wilting and turning brown like conventional lawns.”
There are a limited number of resources available on this planet, and residential real estate has an important role to play in conservation. Breaking down the vocabulary is the first step in helping clients understand how energy efficiency not only saves the environment but also saves the green in their wallets.
Moreover, this financially sensible aspect of green building and energy efficiency could be the impetus for moving eco-friendly housing from a niche market to one that encompasses a larger share of U.S. real estate in the future. So study up on the subject now, to learn the jargon and educate your customers—and prepare for the inevitable future.
Editor’s note: This article has been changed since the original publication to correct two errors. The abbreviation for extruded polystyrene has been changed to XPS, and the expansion of closed EPS cells is over 140 percent, rather than 40 as originally stated.