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We got a chance to catch up with the ultimate home enthusiast, Steve Thomas, who has recently been traveling the world with Habitat for Humanity International as a spokesperson to help raise awareness for the need for decent, affordable housing. The Emmy®-award winning TV personality and former host of “This Old House” and “Renovation Nation” shares his expertise on creating more sustainable, energy-efficient homes right here on the North Shore.

Q: How did you become involved in green building practices?

A: I have always been involved in green building practices. What has happened in the past six to eight years is that green building has become a term unto itself. Twenty years ago, we were building houses that were energy-efficient, but at that that point we called it sustainable, low-impact, or zero-energy building. “Green building” is a relatively recent term.

Q: How would you describe green building? 

A: I like to envision green building as six interlocking rings: The first is energy-the total energy usage of house. This can be broken down into energy “in” and energy “out.” The ideal situation in green building is a house that does not use a lot of energy and is able to produce its own energy using renewables such as photovoltaic [solar] and wind turbines, for instance. Most people see these aspects as the greenest moves. But if you look at energy in terms of a pyramid, conservation is at the base of the pyramid. Simply turning out the lights like your mother told you. After that, choosing the lowest energy consuming appliances as possible is also important.

The second ring is workmanship. Better workmanship means a well-built house, which is more efficient. Better workmanship means less maintenance. And because it is well built, the house will last longer-making it inherently green.

The third ring is choosing materials that are appropriate to the house and have the low as an impact to part of that building. Cities are inherently greener than suburbs because you use fewer house miles to get around in the city.

All of these things have been around for a long time. What green building methodology has done is connect all these rings into a comprehensive way of thinking about buildings-whether its new construction or renovating. And there are many rating systems, such as LEED for homes and Energy Star, that help quantify the greenness of a building.

Q: What is the biggest myth behind creating a greener home?

A: The greatest myth is that green design is more expensive. But it depends on how you do the math. Builders say green building practices are about 5 to 10 percent more expensive than standard building practices. But the payback, especially in energy savings, is huge, and you can earn your money back within 4 to 5 years. And if you look at the lifecycle of a building, such as the house I had in Salem that was built in the 1700s, it is more efficient because it has been in use for hundreds of years.

Q: What are some trends you are seeing in green home design?

A:  Downsizing is definitely a trend, especially in regard to the Baby Boomer generation-they want to live more simply. Energy efficiency and low maintenance come along with downsizing.  The house I am building at the moment is 1,000 square feet. I also see people wanting fewer items of higher quality.

Q: What are some tips for homeowners 

A: For older homes in New England, the first thing a homeowner should do is get the house tested for air leaks. There are a number of companies who do overall poor performance testing to figure out where the air leaks are, and then come up with an insulation and air sealing program to air seal the house. There are subsidies and tax incentives you can take advantage of-the average cost is anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. But once sealed, a house is immediately more comfortable and it’s quieter. Sealing and insulating your home can give you a savings of save 30 to 50 percent on heating bills.

Q: What are some sustainable moves you can make to your home while on a budget?

A: Insulation and air sealing is so important! If there is only one thing you can do, insulation. I can’t stress how important this is.

Q: What are some things to consider in creating both a greener house as well as a healthy house? 

A: Choose low-VOC paints. If buying new cabinets, make sure the cabinetmaker is using materials that are formaldehyde free. We can’t do the tracking on every piece of hardware and wood, but hiring a professional green consultant or an interior designer to source materials is a great idea.

Q: What sustainable practices are the Habitat for Humanity affiliates implementing on their projects?

A: I started doing stories about Habitat about 20 years ago with “This Old House” and more recently with “Renovation Nation” and have watched them over years. I have seen Habitat come to understand in a very central way that building green is the biggest favor you can do for the community. All of its houses are now built to some green standard, whether it is LEED certified or Energy Star rated or another sustainable rating system. Habitat services families who would not otherwise get a commercial mortgage. It is able to secure nonprofit loans, and part of that package is to build a house that is extremely efficient in terms of its energy use. Habit is the 6th largest builder in the nation right now. I’m very proud to be working with Habitat and spreading the word not only for affordable housing, but also green building. Each Habitat Regional Chapter selects projects they are going to build. And every Habitat project is very focused on green design. The projects will blend professionals-mason, carpenters, plumbers-with volunteers. And between the strength of knowledge and the strength of a volunteer labor base, Habitat is really focus on green building-which is better for the homeowner and the planet.


Builder’s Blitz

From June 4 to 10th, 2012 Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the country will build 250 homes in the span of one week as part of Habitat’s 2012 Home Builder’s Blitz.

The Merrimack Valley Habitat affiliate is building two houses in Lawrence as part of this nationwide event.  The labor and materials for these homes is being donated by local builders and vendors so that the homes can be built by a professional team in one week at little cost.

Builders Blitz Leadership Team: Blitz Chairs Steve & Susan Howell, Howell Custom Building Group; Team: Steve Cote & Bill Foster, Cote & Foster; John Rodenhizer & Sara Elmer, JSR Adaptive Energy Solutions; Dave West, Meadowview Construction; Ken Kumph, Premier Builders;  Marc Simon;Azimuth Construction; Bob Gosselin, Correct Temp.

For more information on how you can volunteer, visit