It's easy to become foggy about the many terms that define environmentally friendly housing and building materials. Words such as "green," "sustainable" and "healthy" are often tagged to such properties.
But what is clear is this: investing in a healthier home can easily translate into more money for you, the homebuyer.
For more than a decade, sustainable living practices have gained momentum and become an integral part of the building industry. Developers, focusing on customer desires and a change in the industry itself, have begun to use less wall-to-wall carpeting, for instance, in light of allergy concerns, opting for solid flooring. Those same air-quality concerns with standard paints and staining products have given rise to the use of versions with little to no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Homebuilders have become chief proponents of recycling, reusing and repurposing materials, easily selling such concepts to buyers who want to embrace a healthier environment and use of less energy.
Just pick a space, and there have probably been some energy-saving updates made to accommodate those interested in buying "green."
In kitchens, you can get energy-saving appliances that carry the Energy Star seal. Items like induction ranges, which heat and cook in a hurry, might even surpass that standard. Solid granite countertops that often require long journeys to reach a job site, and create waste afterward, are gradually being replaced by composite countertops that make use of ground-up stones, with no waste, which can be delivered in a fraction of the time.
Charles Wilkins, owner of C&M Wilkins Inc., says more often than not, cabinets are made with faster-growing trees, the left-behind wood chips are used in biofuels, and the resulting products contain less caustic chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Those shopping green become invested in the process of their products, he says, so when they buy their green-certified cabinetry, for instance, like the semi-custom line carried by Fieldstone, "they know that everything possible was done to leave a smaller (carbon) footprint."
In bathrooms, some builders are installing toilets that employ a single or dual flushing system, thus requiring less water than standard commodes. Faucets throughout the house are thoughtfully made to reduce the amount of water dispersed.
Tankless water heaters, which provide heated water only when needed, are becoming standard or at least available in some higher-end constructions.
And insulation, which used to be typically made of fiberglass, now warms the home even more thanks to such family-friendly products as a denim insulation made by Bonded Logic. Both insulation and drywall, in many cases, are also formaldehyde free.
While many of these updates impact what can be seen, Scott Simpson of Scott Simpson Builders says it is best to tackle what is out of sight first when it comes to greening a home.
"Go after the envelope, the waterproofing, insulation, the seal on the outside walls, the floors -- those things are the threshold to building green," Simpson said.
Then, he says, work inside on using local materials, reclaimed materials and materials that will last a long time.
Simpson and his team recently garnered a Platinum LEED-certification for a traditional farmhouse they built in Glencoe. The house includes solar thermal panels, which heat the domestic hot water and radiant floor systems, and to offset peak summer electricity use. The house also features passive, natural ventilation; water-efficient indoor plumbing fixtures including a waterless urinal; low and no-VOC finishes and fixtures; standing seam metal roofing; cement fiberboard siding; and prefabricated framing.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a third party-verified, voluntary rating system that promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes.
"The increasing cost of heating a home and getting power to a home are causing more people to be conscientious about home size, roofing and windows," Simpson said. "People desire to be more green. They understand the payoff if they do."
Simpson says the green concept is not just for the ultramodern aesthetic, as some believe. "The house in Glencoe is a traditional looking farmhouse," he said, "yet is still very green."
Other builders have also responded to customers' interest in living healthier lives in their homes. Peter Di Iorio, president and CEO of Dior Homes, says his company was the first to build a house using standards for air quality established by the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. Since that time, the luxury homebuilder has erected a new ALA "Health House" each year. The next is to be built in Inverness.
Each "Health House" boasts eco-friendly options that include sustainable technology with a focus on air quality, locally sourced materials, water conservation, energy-efficient technology and Energy Star appliances.
Di Iorio says customers interested in green homes shop carefully for the products that mean most to their families. "People are picking a la carte," said Di Iorio, who has been a homebuilder for more than 35 years. "Everything green is so much more expensive but (customers) are willing to pick and choose. They're willing to spend on things where the payback is reasonable. It's just too expensive to do 100 percent green."
Each room in Dior's 2010 Health House in Palatine has green features down to the smallest details, like draperies that are all-natural and Greenguard certified.
Maria Wilhelm, vice president of sales for the Illinois division of the Pulte Group, which includes Centex, Pulte and Del Webb, said all new Pulte houses include HERS (home energy savings) index ratings. The HERS score is based on estimated gas and electric costs.
"The rating scales are so easy to read," Wilhelm says. "The lower the score, the greater the efficiency, which means lower energy bills."
A typical home has a HERS score of 130, Wilhelm says, while the average new-construction house is about 85. "Our home energy rating is 68," she said.
Among the standard energy-efficient offerings in new Pulte models are a 90-percent rating furnace, a 13 SEER (seasonal energy efficient ratio) air-conditioning unit, a programmable thermostat; low-E with argon gas, double-insulated vinyl windows; a 50-gallon power vented water heater, Energy Star appliances and a seal package to reduce air infiltration and risk of moisture.
Wilhelm and others say there's no going back from going green.
"We approach every new project to continue the conversation of green, or at least to introduce it," Simpson said.
And customers are responding.
"It's mind-boggling how excited people get," Di Iorio said. "The more you touch, the more you see. It's exciting."