Trends come and go in the construction industry. But these days, according to local building pros, those trends are less about accent walls and open floor plans, and more about being green.

“The biggest trend right now in residential construction is sustainability,” says Anthony Maschmedt, owner of Dwell Development, a Seattle-based firm that focuses on sustainable residential building.

In the past, he says, most special requests from customers were for luxury items such as wine cellars and custom fireplaces.

“Now it has really shifted — people are worried about climate change, they’re worried about toxins in their home and [access to] fresh air,” Maschmedt says. “They want to live in a healthy, more sustainable, earth-friendly environment.”

He says these are areas in which Washington is leading the way. “We are at the forefront of creating energy codes that support [efforts to] fight climate change,” Maschmedt says.

Along with being better for the environment, incorporating the right green building elements into a home can also be good for the wallet. 

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“Green homes perform anywhere from 10% to 40% above code in terms of energy performance,” says Sonja O’Claire, the program manager for Built Green, the green home certification program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. A home that is constructed using Built Green standards will also have a better resale value, she says.

Airtight, insulated and ventilated

The biggest focus of current green-building efforts is on the “building envelope,” which is the thermal barrier between the inside of your home and the outdoor environment.

“The building envelope needs to be airtight,” Maschmedt says. “People are looking for ways to keep the heated air that they’ve produced in their homes from leaking out. From an insulation standpoint, airtight construction and air-sealing the home are critical. It’s like a blanket around your house that insulates it from the cold and from the heat.”

However, when you have a home that’s airtight and insulated, it’s important that it also be well-ventilated. That’s where a heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system comes in.

Maschmedt says an HRV system pulls stale air out of the home and refreshes the space with air from the outside. The key to efficiency is that the system preheats or cools that outside air before it enters the home. 

“If it’s, say, 0 degrees outside and you keep your house at 70 degrees, the system preheats all that cold air coming into your home,” Maschmedt says. “Now your thermostat’s not kicking on and you’re not expending energy, and you have fresh, filtered air that’s constantly flowing through your home.”

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HRV systems are a fairly recent innovation in homebuilding, he says, but “they’re going to be a huge thing” going forward.

Another trend in green building is a move away from below-ground crawlspaces and vented roofs, Maschmedt says.

About 30% of heat loss is through your foundation, your slab or your crawlspace, and another 30% is through your roof, he says. “If you put rigid insulation underneath your concrete slab and your foundation, you’re keeping all that heat inside your building envelope,” he says.

The same concept applies to the roof. A vented roof is designed to allow indoor air to escape the home. Instead, Maschmedt says, “we’ll do a non-vented roof system, which is designed to not have air leakage, so you keep all the heat in.” 

The power of solar

Maschmedt predicts rooftop solar panels will soon become “the new normal in homes” and adds that his goal is “the addition of solar to every rooftop in the city of Seattle.”

“Renewable, on-site energy production is absolutely a part of the future in residential construction,” he says. “It’s silly that we’re not putting solar on every rooftop in the city of Seattle right now. The energy that can be produced could change the world.”

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One drawback to solar panels — and with newer solar tiles that double as shingles, which some find more aesthetically pleasing than traditional panels — is that they require a large monetary investment for purchase and installation. But Maschmedt says there are incentive programs that can significantly offset that investment, as well as federal tax credits. And once installed, he says, the energy they generate will help them pay for themselves.

The tree cover that’s so prevalent in local neighborhoods can sometimes limit the amount of sunshine that gets through to residential solar panels. But Maschmedt says even tree-heavy sites can get around the problem when panels are installed on an awning rather than the roof.

New homes that don’t include solar panels are increasingly built to accommodate them in the future, O’Claire says.

“Some builders are leaving space on the electrical panel and providing a conduit, so that in the future, a homeowner could [then] add solar,” she says.

Abuzz about electric

Another big trend in the home, O’Claire says, is a move to electric power for heating and appliances. 

“Some electric appliances are more efficient and actually provide a better experience than their natural-gas equivalent,” she says. “Another thing that we are seeing more of is what are called mini split heat pumps, and specifically ductless mini split systems. They provide zonal control, meaning you can choose which rooms you want to heat or cool, rather than having a central system that does everything no matter where you are in the house.”

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As the number of electric vehicles on U.S. roads continues to grow, homebuilders are keeping pace by increasingly adding EV-charging capabilities to homes. O’Claire says this can take the form of adding a charging station, or getting a home ready for one with the correct wiring.

Remodeling and retrofitting

While it can be easier to apply these practices to new construction, there are plenty of green strategies that owners can incorporate into their current residences. Many existing homes can undergo energy retrofits that mirror the installations in new homes, O’Claire says.

Remodeling, rather than building new, can be an act of eco-friendliness. “When remodeling a home, most of the materials remain and less new material needs to be produced, compared to a newly built home,” she says.

But homeowners don’t have to make big or expensive changes to make their homes more environmentally friendly. 

“The simplest and most cost-effective thing you can do is change out all your lightbulbs from incandescent to LED,” Maschmedt says. 

He also encourages homeowners to consider replacing their windows with energy-conserving units, and installing water-efficient toilets.