Smarter Business: Green Building

energy-efficient house
This energy-efficient re-engineered home in Fairburn, Georgia saves money for the homebuyer and the builder.

The size of the American family is shrinking, but the American house keeps getting bigger. The average new home today is almost twice as large as one built in the 1960s, despite having fewer occupants. And almost every one of these new, large homes is made out of wood -- roughly three-quarters of an acre of forest. Much of the destructive logging around the world is fueled by our demand for housing. But homebuilding doesn't have to translate into forest destruction. By using smart design and forest-friendly products, builders can create new homes that save trees and money.

Many houses today are still built using outdated, inefficient construction methods. About one-sixth of the wood delivered to a construction site is never used, but simply hauled away as waste. And much of the wood that goes into the frame of a house is simply unnecessary. A combination of techniques like these can reduce wood use in a new home by about 35 percent:

  • Floor beams, wall studs and roof rafters can be spaced 24 inches apart, as opposed to 16 inches in traditional homes.

  • The overall dimensions of the house should be designed in multiples of 2 feet, in order to match the size of standard lengths of lumber and avoid wasteful trimming.

  • Side panels can be made from rigid insulation instead of plywood or lumber. They're faster to install and increase the energy efficiency of the home.

  • Solid roof rafters and floor beams can be replaced with a series of interconnected, small triangular frames called trusses.

These are just a few examples of framing techniques builders can use to save hundreds of thousands of acres of forest each year. Another way to build a forest-friendly house is by using certified forest products and reclaimed wood from demolished buildings. Certified wood from sustainably managed forests can be used for framing lumber and decks, and reclaimed wood, with its unique weathered look, is in demand for exposed beams and flooring.

More than 20,000 homes across the country have been built using these and other efficient building techniques, saving consumers and builders millions of dollars in energy and construction costs. If you're interested in building or buying a better home, find a participant in the Department of Energy's Building America program. Partners in this program build and finance homes that use 30 percent to 50 percent less energy and help builders cut back on waste and construction time by up to 50 percent. Or, refer your builder to the free information on Building Science Corporation's website,

The House as a Whole

Even though they're working on the same project -- your house -- contractors, architects, engineers, designers and suppliers rarely sit down together to plan a home. Most of them work independently, and as a result, most houses aren't nearly as efficient as they could be when it comes to conserving wood and energy. That's why innovative companies like Building Science Corporation are using an entirely new approach to building houses. Their "reengineered approach" views a home as a complete, integrated system, rather than a hodge-podge of different parts. Homes are designed as a collaborative effort, from the ground up, with materials, mechanics and design playing off each other to create an efficient building. An engineer, for example, who knows that the contractor is using high quality energy-efficient windows can reduce the size of the air-conditioning system accordingly. Concepts like these save builders money on overhead construction costs, and save consumers money on utility bills. Reengineered homes are no more expensive to build or buy than other homes. They look the same, and actually tend to be more comfortable -- people living in reengineered homes experience fewer problems with drafts, moisture and mold. These better-built homes yield fewer customer complaints and warranty problems, and happy homeowners generate more referrals for builders.

See also our handbook and resource guide, EFFICIENT WOOD USE IN RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION: A Practical Guide to Saving Wood, Money, and Forests.

last revised 7/22/2004

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