National green certification programs now exist to recognize and encourage green building. They share the same goal—to promote green construction and create buildings and homes that use less energy, water and other natural resources; improve indoor air quality; and create less waste. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system for commercial, retail and schools structures, while a “LEED for Homes” rating system is expected this summer. LEED has four levels of recognition. Energy efficiency is a consistent prerequisite.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has its Model Green Home Building Guidelines. Energy efficiency also is one of six criteria. The guidelines are evolving into the National Green Building Standard certified by American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Expected before year’s end, the standard will be the latest vehicle to help quicken the market acceptance of green building.

And it doesn’t stop there. Municipalities and states have their own guidelines, sometimes duplicative to NAHB and LEED. According to the USGBC, 11 federal agencies, 17 states and 53 municipalities require buildings to meet their green standards or those developed by USGBC.

Defining the market

Residentially, consumers as a whole aren’t clamoring for green construction, but the numbers are growing as it becomes part of a national discussion.

“Green home construction stands under 1 percent today,” said Emily English, NAHB construction, codes and standards specialist. “But, by 2010, as much as 50 percent of home construction may have up to three energy-efficient and/or green design elements and features.”

Today, green housing developments are cropping up. And, in the commercial world, there is more green adoption. Some of it is unassuming. Then there are flagship projects such as the new four-story green headquarters of Heifer International in Little Rock, Ark. The organization’s building features many green elements including solar lighting and heating.

Green adopters and intrigued consumers sense the start of something big, and the building industry is taking notice.

Home green home

Belcher Homes is a green building and land development company headquartered outside St. Louis in Wildwood, Mo. Matt Belcher founded his firm in 1993. He is the national director for the NAHB and serves on its Green Building Subcommittee.

“The market is there if the consumer is there, and we see some encouraging signs,” Belcher said. “A number of things are at work. First, the media is filled with information on green building. Then, there’s the spotlight on global warming. The cost of energy is skyrocketing, while energy-saving technologies advance and come down in price. If a home or office can use half the energy and be a safer living environment, the consumer is starting to get it. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, and we’re expanding.”

Karen Childress is environmental stewardship manager for Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., also an early green builder. WCI constructs a variety of luxury homes, some of which are designed specifically for green-minded customers. Like Belcher, WCI follows NAHB green building guidelines and seeks LEED certification. WCI also follows the Florida Green Home Standard.

“I suppose green homes began as a novelty, but the consumers’ knowledge and awareness have grown exponentially,” Childress said. “We introduced green homes in 2001 and market ‘green’ as part of a better quality house. All things being equal, if house A and B are both beautiful, how each is put together and what’s in it are purchasing factors. Green construction is starting to be an attractive choice.”

Building interest in green construction often is a savvy mix of press attention and drawing in the right players. A good example is a March tour of a green construction cul-de-sac development by Belcher Homes.

“We had tours for industry types,” Belcher said. “It was a trickle-down PR opportunity. We invited builders, architects, subcontractors and [local officials]. Though the homes are still under construction, we wanted to build interest—buy-in, if you will—in regard to green construction. The goal is the mainstreaming of green building in the public’s eye.”

At a NAHB green building conference in St. Louis, Belcher estimates attendance was up 25 percent, which built on a 20 percent increase the year before.

Getting up to speed and being part of the team

Both Belcher and Childress see opportunity for the electrical contractor who seeks out green building projects.

“Once electrical contractors complete their first green project, they have added a new skill,” Belcher said. “Now they can promote themselves to other green builders and expand on the kind of projects to bid. The more they learn and can exhibit, the more notoriety they gain in the green building community. For instance, if an electrical contractor understands LEED certification and can come back to me with a list of what was done and what will earn me LEED points, that sub has made himself an invaluable part of the project team.”

Childress said, “If an electrical contractor is familiar with energy conserving products and can offer conservation ideas, we want him.”

For Childress, that could mean a recommendation for ICAT (insulation contact, airtight) sealed canister lights or a thorough knowledge of EPA Energy Star-rated items from lighting to appliances.

Knowing green building materials also can help an electrical contractor.

“Recognizing materials unique to green building at a job site is an advantage,” Belcher said. “For instance, there’s an exterior wall product known as OSB. It’s essentially two pieces of plywood sandwiched between a 6-inch thick layer of eco-friendly, nontoxic poly foam. It helps create a tighter, leak-free home. The savvy EC knows the panels have been premarked indicating where the wiring needs to go. In fact, the carpenter sees where to drill, so the EC can come in and immediately start pulling wire.”

Get comfortable with alternative energy

Energy efficiency is an important tenet of green habitats. The inclusion of alternative power sources introduces ECs to a whole new playing field. Solar, wind and earth power all are available today. They are emerging from an early adopter stage as their technologies refine and their costs reduce. By keeping up on the latest developments, ECs can position themselves for alternative energy installation work.

This observation hasn’t gone unnoticed by curriculum developers of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC).

“In January, we completed our textbook on photovoltaic [PV] power systems,” said Todd Stafford, senior director, instrumentation, alternative energy and ITC operations. “The book is an authoritative guide covering the technology today, its installation, cost/energy payback and marketing.”

Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity.

“PV isn’t a packaged power system,” Stafford said. “It’s incrementally installed one panel after another. The inverters that translate the solar energy into electrical power have really evolved to help this renewable resource become more reliable.”

Though labs and demo installations still are being developed, the NJATC solar energy training program is set to be unveiled later this year.

“Some would argue that solar is still some years out, but I don’t agree,” Stafford said. “There are any number of rebates and incentive programs going on across the United States. Many are commercial, some are residential. A great resource on what’s available can be found at www.dsire.com.”

The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is a joint project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Stafford added that, when selling solar power, it’s important to recognize the “cost” means different things to different people.

“Some customers see the payback as a simple commitment to renewable energy,” Stafford said. “Some are even willing to go completely off the grid. Many use solar installations as supplemental energy sources to reduce costs, be it through peak shaving, cogeneration and/or selling surplus power back to the utilities.”

Residential customers may try out solar using an appliance such as a solar water heater. These use solar thermal collectors or panels that trap the sun’s heat without requiring direct sunlight. The energy collected is transferred and used to heat the tank’s water. The Partnership for Advancing Housing Technology (PATH) listed solar water heaters as a 2007 Top 10 Technology. Its Web site, www.pathnet.org, offers information on the latest energy-saving housing technologies. The 2007 version lists other intriguing appliances as well, including an all-in-one washer/dryer and home-sized combined heat and electricity systems.

A stronger wind

Part of NJATC’s mission is to follow new technologies and changes in existing technology that offer mainstream possibilities. Wind power may be the next alternative energy source to receive a full training curriculum.

“We want to make sure the contractor who bids on a particular kind of work has training in place to understand the market,” said James Boyd, NJATC senior director of craft certification and technological awareness. “Right now, NECA and other union contractors are working on wind power projects.”

Driven by wind towers (a sort of high-tech windmill), small wind turbine generators are creating up to 100 kW for intrepid farmers and investors investigating wind power’s potential. On a bigger scale, wind farms feature hundreds or more such towers generating mega- to gigawatts worth of power. A wind farm on the San Gorgonio Mountain Pass in the San Bernardino Mountains contains more than 4,000 separate windmills and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs, Calif., and the surrounding area.

“Where you site wind towers is essential,” Boyd said. “You need atmospheric studies to see if there is enough wind. In addition, you need to determine if the land will support the weight and stabilize the tower. You also want the towers close to the grid, otherwise you’ll need to build a high-voltage carrier. If you bid on this work, recognize that wind farms are typically utility-owned or tied into a utility.”

The fuel cell

Fuel cells seem to be the most elusive when it comes to broad commercialization. Natural gas fuel cells are the most developed.

“Today, the focus is on small, portable applications such as auxiliary power for cars, even computers and phones,” Boyd said. “There have been some great gains, but as a power source for residential and small commercial, the technology, its cost, and reliability isn’t there. The good news is the day it becomes a viable power source, it will be easy to tie into a home or commercial power system. Picture a self-contained power source akin to a generator. We are trying to keep contractors up to speed on the state of the industry and what they can expect to see. A training curriculum is on hold for now as the technology evolves.”

As all green and sustainable building grows, there will be more opportunities for electrical contractors. Pay attention to products; attend trade show events, such as “Think Green” Day being held at the NECA Show 2007 in San Francisco; and be ready to move into this area. Being proactive will prepare your company for a bright future in sustainable building. EC

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction and landscaping industries. He writes trend, design and other business articles.