The word “green” is being bandied about with increasing frequency these days, as more homeowners, builders, designers and real estate professionals jump on the earth-friendly bandwagon being fueled by consumer demand.

With increasing concern over global warming, the almost certain proliferation of government mandates to save energy, and rapid advances in engineering science and technology, you’ll be hearing it even more.

So what does ‘green” mean? There is no one answer, because just as there are many colors of green in a Crayola box, there are many shades of green when it comes to building a “green” home.

Home industry professionals, from builders to mortgage lenders to realtors and government agencies, are wrestling with definitions to be sure that when a home is marketed as green, the label has meaning. This is especially important in light of numerous tax breaks and incentives being offered to homeowners and builders who incorporate green features into their homes. Before tax breaks and other incentives can be applied, homes have to meet a minimum set of criteria to ensure they really are better than conventional code-built houses.

Almost any definition of a green home will involve energy usage. The federal government uses what is known as the Energy Star rating system to determine whether a home is “energy-efficient.” To receive an Energy Star rating, a home must use at least 15-percent less energy than a code-built house. This is accomplished with a checklist of items such as energy-efficient doors and windows, proper insulation, sealed ductwork, and energy-efficient appliances.

A standard code-built home leaks 20 to 30 percent of its heating and cooling, meaning that 20 to 30 cents of every dollar spent for heating and cooling is potentially wasted. An Energy Star-certified home must leak less than six percent.

While green advocates certainly applaud energy efficiency, few hard-core greenies would consider an Energy Star home a true green home. On the green spectrum, it would merit a lime green at best. Many feel the bar is set too low, saying a 15-percent energy savings is a start, but not enough to call a home green.

Another trade name you’ll hear tossed around is Earth Advantage, which is both a rating system widely used to determine the relative greenness of a house, and the name of an organization, the Earth Advantage National Center, a non-profit entity based in Portland. Earth Advantage homes start with energy-efficiency, and then go further by considering other aspects of a home’s construction.

To attain Earth Advantage certification, a house must meet four standards.
The first is energy efficiency, meaning a house must meet the Energy Star minimum of 15-percent less energy usage.

Second, it must meet clean indoor air standards, which may involve such options as air filtration systems, controlled ventilation and low-toxic building materials.
Third, the home must exhibit environmental responsibility, meaning materials and methods used to build the house contribute to a cleaner environment. This could involve the use of less toxic products to reduce atmospheric pollutants; plus site measures that minimize environmental damage, such as recycling job site waste, preserving topsoil and trees, and adding native plants to the landscape.

Fourth, the house must exhibit resource efficiency. Highly efficient appliances that conserve resources can be part of the equation, along with the use of items made with recycled materials, alternative materials such as bamboo that save wood, and construction techniques such as recycled steel framing.

If a home meets the minimum standards set by Earth Advantage, it is greener than a home which meets the minimum Earth Star standards, but neither will have achieved deep, forest green status.

Such a home would incorporate all of the Earth Advantage features and go even further, perhaps employing solar or geothermal energy, so it generates more energy than it uses. The house would be positioned wisely in relation to the sun and neighboring structures. It might avoid the use of virtually all toxic glues, paints, adhesives and finishes, and rely exclusively upon recycled or renewable materials. Such a home would still function during blackouts and brownouts. Entire cities of such houses would reduce the pressure on our overburdened energy grid, and perhaps even provide a surplus.

While interest in green building techniques is increasing exponentially in the Rogue Valley, the movement here is still in its infancy. A handful of local builders are erecting Energy Star and Earth Advantage homes, but the total number of such homes is still small.

In Ashland, for instance, the city offers rebates and incentives to builders and owners of Earth Advantage homes. Since 2002, 15 homes have been certified and another 16 are underway, a small percentage of the homes built during that time.

That means builders and contractors knowledgeable about green practices have a bright future, because consumer demand appears to be far ahead of the available supply.

“It seems we’re at the crest of a wave,” says Joe Charter, an EcoBroker from Ashland. “As people are becoming more aware of climate change, they want to do something, and this is a way to integrate personal actions and consumption patterns.”