With the economy in the doldrums and homebuyers sitting on their wallets, builders and developers may be wary of anything but tried-and-true construction methods. But this slowdown may be a good time to get up to speed on important green building technologies that are sure to pique buyers' interests when a turnaround occurs. Low-impact development likely will top this list, and understanding its implications could save site and development-wide infrastructure costs, as well as add to home site aesthetics.
Low-impact development refers to building and landscaping techniques that limit the impact of stormwater on both municipal sewers and surrounding terrain. New driveways, streets, sidewalks and rooftops all can create runoff problems by replacing sponge-like soil with solid, impervious surfaces. This runoff can overwhelm storm and sanitary sewers, erode topsoil and carry silt and pollutants into streams, rivers and wetlands. Plus, water channeled away to treatment systems is water lost to the underground aquifers, which many communities count on for drinking and other purposes.
Builders interested in reducing these runoff problems can turn to a toolbox full of both new technologies and time-tested techniques, according to Chris Kloss, a senior environmental scientist at the Low Impact Development Center (LIDC). The center has evaluated low impact solutions for various land uses including larger-scale, subdivision-sized projects. In these situations, the LIDC urges builders to think about designing narrower streets and grouping homes together to allow for larger areas of contiguous green space.
But even builders and renovators of homes on individual lots have options for reducing their buyers' runoff problems, he says.
"Low-impact development is very flexible, '' Kloss says. ''There are always some tools available that will be applicable to a site."
Some options are new permeable surfacing products that resemble traditional asphalt and pavers, but allow water to penetrate the underlying substrate instead of simply running off into sewers and backyards. The most common applications for these offerings include driveways and sidewalks.
Jimmy Eanes, education director for the International Erosion Control Association (IECA), suggests landscaping options that can help reduce stormwater problems for individual lots. These include a couple of ideas that have been around for generations-rain barrels and rain gardens.
By running downspouts into rain barrels, instead of burying them or directing their flow across a yard, Eanes says builders can both limit runoff and provide homeowners with a new irrigation resource. Rain gardens incorporate plants that can handle both flood and drought conditions in low-lying areas likely to attract runoff. The plants also help filter pollutants that could otherwise end up in local wetlands and waterways.
Rethinking traditional clear-and-build techniques may result in added costs for builders. In addition, Kloss says builders with whom his group has worked have found their homes can draw a premium from buyers who appreciate the reduced environmental impact and more natural landscaping. In fact, he says, some builders are offering rain garden design options emphasizing popular sunflowers or plantings that attract butterflies.
"There is an added benefit to property value, '' Kloss says of the impact LID can have in today's environmentally aware market. ''They sell them higher and quicker."
Both the LIDC and the IECA offer educational programs for builders interested in learning more about low-impact design principles and techniques. Such knowledge will be especially important as the homebuilding market recovers. The move to more environmentally friendly construction that was gaining steam before the current downturn is unlikely to recede once a recovery begins.
"It's not like this is new technology-it's been around for quite some time, '' Eanes says. ''The reality is, it is just a better way to treat the environment."