LOWELL -- It's easy to be green.
Area home builders and other contractors just need the proper encouragement to begin more widespread use of "green" home construction techniques, which involve environmentally friendly and energy-efficient design and materials.
That's the finding of a recent study by the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Center for Family, Work and Community, which surveyed municipal green building programs in 21 communities across the United States.
"Different people are doing different things," said David Turcotte, the UMass Lowell's Center for Family, Work and Community project director. "What this allowed us to do is basically see all the possibilities of what's working out there and then try to determine what would make more sense in Lowell."
He said the number of "green" homes being built every year is increasing markedly, from 2,564 such homes built nationally in 2000 to 14,589 in 2004, according to the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.
An outgrowth of Lowell's master planning process of several years ago -- which identified so-called sustainable development as one area in which city and university officials could partner together in moving the master plan goals forward -- the center's work now involves a survey being circulated among Greater Lowell home builders to delve into their ideas for which techniques would work in this region.
"This is the future," Turcotte said.
So what makes a home "green?"
"There's not one simple answer to that," said Adam Baacke, deputy director of Lowell's city Division of Planning and Development, who spearheaded the crafting of the master plan, released in May 2003.
It starts with energy efficiency, Turcotte said, whether that be through the use of energy-efficient appliances, fixtures and low-voltage fluorescent lights or specialized insulation materials. In new construction in this part of the country, he said, it can also involve using south-facing windows to capture sunlight during winter.
The use of solar panels and direct heating systems -- which heat domestic hot water as it is being used, rather than a hot-water tank -- is another component.
Green homes also conserve water, through low-flush toilets, and incorporate recyclable materials, such as cellulose insulation, which is derived from recycled paper, as well as rely on shrubs and plants that require minimal watering and maintenance for their exterior landscaping.
Turcotte said green homes often incorporate special exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms to expel carbon monoxide and moisture and bring in fresh air to improve indoor air quality and reduce the potential for mold. The use of paints and caulking that don't give off volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in the home also is recommended.
"It means a lot of different things," Baacke said. "The core idea is we would reduce the adverse environmental impacts of building and operating buildings. That can mean everything from the choices of materials you use to making sure the production and manufacture of those materials is non-polluting and sustainable. It's a very holistic concept."
The UMass Lowell Center for Family, Work and Community looked at municipal green building programs in everywhere from Massachusetts (Arlington and Boston) to Memphis, Tenn., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Portland, Ore.
Turcotte said the only city to require the satisfaction of green guidelines as part of its building permit process is Boulder, Colo. All of the other communities surveyed have voluntary programs in which city officials offer incentives and provide education to encourage builders homeowners to use green construction and renovation practices.
Baacke said the biggest problem with green construction is financial: Most of the financial benefit comes as cost-saving on energy bills over time by the buyer rather than the builder, who must spend more upfront on materials.
"It's conceptually easy to just increase the sales prices ... but it isn't clear the marketplace understands they will get that money back over time so it's worth paying more up front," he said.
"We're just scratching the surface right now as far as green building in this area," said Tom Piekarski, owner of Concordia Homes in Dracut, which specializes in energy-efficient construction. Piekarski is also president of the North East Builders Association of Massachusetts.
He agreed that "If you're 100 percent profit-driven it's going to be hard to do because there aren't customers out there in droves buying green buildings."
In Lowell, the first step toward encouraging greener building practices has been instituted in city funded affordable housing projects, which now must meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star standards.
The mandate has been in place for about a year. The second home being renovated according to the Energy Star standards is a three-unit condominium project at 172 Lakeview Ave., an approximately $400,000 project that has involved the use of specialized cellulose insulation on the third floor, underneath the home's mansard roof, which was blown in wet, and a direct heating system on each floor.
"It doesn't cost a lot more money, but it's going to make a substantial difference" in heating costs, said Patricia Lucken, the project manager.