How do I learn how to build an all-around “eco-home?”

How do I learn how to build an all-around “eco-home?” My wife and I have some land in Delaware and would like to build a state-of-the-art green home on the site.

—Zachary Jahnigen, Frankford, DE

There are many ideas as to what constitutes an “eco-home,” depending upon how pure one wants to be. But certain common elements—such as energy efficiency, responsible materials sourcing and minimal landscape disruption—must be in place to meet most environmentalists” criteria. And with technologies improving and prices coming down, eco-homes are no longer the domain of the wealthy, as even a modest building can incorporate green features.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit network of practitioners of environmentally friendly construction, a green home “uses less energy, water and natural resources; creates less waste; and is healthier and more comfortable for the occupants.” The organization is continuously updating its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, which help realtors, developers, architects and builders create high performance green buildings of every stripe.

USGBC recently launched a special set of benchmarks—LEED for Homes—devoted specifically to the design and construction of residential buildings. Builders or owners can evaluate every step of the home design and construction process according to standards set forth under these guidelines, which aim for sustainably sourced materials, lower energy and water usage, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and less exposure to mold and other indoor toxins. USGBC research indicates that the net cost of owning a LEED home is comparable to that of owning a conventional home. Since LEED for Homes was launched in 2005, more than 375 builders representing 6,000 homes across the U.S. have built according to its standards.

Other organizations also weigh-in on what constitutes an “eco-home.” Juliet Cuming, of the Vermont-based nonprofit Earth Sweet Home Institute, lays out several criteria that anyone can use when planning the design and construction of an environmentally-friendly home: Does the home plan reduce energy and resources? Does it re-use existing resources? Are materials used recyclable or biodegradable once no longer usable? Is the home healthy to producers and occupants and also to the installers of the materials? Is the plan affordable and available? Will the resulting home be durable?

“The ideal eco-home would be built in a place where it will have as little negative impact as possible on the plants, wildlife and humans in the area,” says Cuming. “The home will be sited and designed to take advantage of shade in the summer and sun in the winter.” She adds that a true eco-home should be crafted out of materials derived from local sources.

Those looking to learn more about eco-homes have lots of information to wade through online and in print. A good place to start is Environmental Building News, a monthly newsletter on green design and construction published by Building Green, Inc. It features comprehensive, practical information on a wide range of topics—from renewable energy and recycled materials to land-use planning and indoor air quality.

CONTACTS: LEED for Homes; Earth Sweet Home Institute; Environmental Building News