Urban Living - Schooling the layman

Southface course teaches green-building techniques

If you asked me a couple of months ago how I'd like to spend Sunday morning, I probably wouldn't have answered, "Why, examining whether Mastic was installed properly on heating ducts in the basement of a tract home, of course!"

But, hey, examining Mastic in a basement can be kind of fun. Especially if it's part of a lengthy dialogue about duct planning, HVAC sizing, sealed combustion and all kinds of other groovy things.

The occasion for the nerdy talk was Southface Energy Institute's Homebuilding School, a weekend course I took recently to learn more about sustainable construction techniques before my wife and I started our own renovation project. For an evening and three days, I was one of nine laypeople bombarded with lectures and slides on everything from foundation drainage boards and project spreadsheets to the relative benefits of different types of plumbing pipe.

"Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance," Southface's Daniel Harvey told us during a presentation on construction components. Most of what Harvey and others said was more technical and less, shall we say, colloquial. The issue in this case: Foundations need to be measured carefully before the concrete's poured. But Harvey could have been talking about anything in the workshop. I wish I'd taken it six months ago – before our plans had been firmed up and we'd gotten into serious interviews with contractors.

Southface is a 30-year-old nonprofit that advocates sustainable construction, particularly in homes. It has gained particular notoriety for its EarthCraft House certification program, which stresses cost-effective, energy-efficient techniques that aren't too radical for a good contractor to handle.

A core idea is to create a "tight building envelope" by installing the right insulation in the right places and by sealing out moisture. That way, your air conditioner doesn't have to work as hard (or be as large), and you – rather than leaks – will get to determine how much outside air gets into the house.

Despite the emphasis on fairly mainstream building techniques, our instructors admitted that a lot of the best green practices are virtually foreign to Atlanta-area contractors. But more contractors are becoming more familiar with a lot of the techniques. In many ways, they simply amount to construction done right. And at the same time, a wide range of eco-friendly building products are becoming increasingly popular and familiar to builders.

Given the extra precision that goes into an environmentally friendly house, it's hard to imagine a nonprofessional serving as his or her own general contractor. "If I've scared you from being your own contractor, I've done my job," Ed Gibson, a former homebuilder who runs a consulting and inspection business, told the class.

But gaining a little expertise made me feel as if I'd at least be able to do a better job of protecting my biggest investment, of making sure it will be environmentally friendly and – quite possibly – of driving my contractor crazy.

On the last day of class, the organizer, Southface's Steve Herzlieb, took us to a nearly completed home that was undergoing an inspection for EarthCraft certification. It was clear from that peek that declaring a building "green" is a relative thing. My wife and I are hoping, for example, to build our home out of prefabricated "structural insulated panels" and maybe, just maybe, to install a geothermal heating and cooling system.

But large developers are taking more basic steps to gain EarthCraft certification: insulating ceilings, properly sizing air-conditioning units, or sealing ducts with a special tape called Mastic. "The EarthCraft program is about progress, not perfection," said Stephen Christensen, the staff member who was walking us through the home's inspection.

The same could be said for the Homebuilding School: If I took away just one lesson, it was that there's no magic bullet that makes a house – or for that matter, a small renovation project – "green." With a little knowledge and a lot of attention, however, homeowners can ensure their homes are at least headed in the right direction.

For more information on the Homebuilding School, go to www.southface.org. According to a Southface spokeswoman, the next course will be scheduled based upon homeowners' interest.

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