Understanding Green Living

Home buyers appreciate the benefits of “green” communities, but residents don’t necessarily lead more eco-friendly lives than their neighbors in traditional homes, according to two University of Florida studies conducted in the fast-growing state.

The findings could mean some homeowners in green communities don’t know enough about how to reduce their environmental impact, said Mark Hostetler, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Green communities are designed to have less environmental impact than traditional housing developments. The homes often feature energy-saving appliances, extensive insulation and yards with native plants; common areas typically include lots of green space and drainage systems that minimize stormwater runoff.

People moving into green developments may simply be interested in open space, energy efficient homes or the chance to see wildlife, Hostetler said, and may not bring with them a strong commitment to environmental issues.

“You have to engage the people that live in these communities,” Hostetler said. “It’s a combination of things, of not only education, raising awareness, but understanding the barriers that everyday people have, to make it easier for them to involve themselves in sustainable type of living.”

In the studies, Hostetler and graduate student Krystal Noiseux queried new homeowners in two pairs of Central Florida communities. Each pair consisted of a green housing development and a traditional one of similar size, home value and location.

The researchers mailed questionnaires to more than 900 households in total, of which 340 responded. The questionnaires were sent in June 2006 and mailed only to residents who bought their homes in the past two years.

Residents of both types of communities were concerned with indoor air quality, green space and energy efficiency, all of which are usually priorities in green developments.

But residents of both types of communities had only a moderate- to low-level commitment to environmental issues, responses showed. The questionnaire contained a total of 40 questions about environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.

Those results are significant, Hostetler said, because all homeowners can influence their own environmental impact. Day-to-day choices such as setting the thermostat, watering the lawn or choosing plants for the yard influence a household’s resource consumption. The studies indicate that residents of green communities don’t necessarily conserve resources better than residents of traditional developments.

He believes that in any community, green or traditional, there’s a small percentage of people who’d go all-out to live sustainably, and another group who’d refuse to inconvenience themselves in the least.

The rest — perhaps 80 to 90 percent, by his estimate — are willing to reduce their resource consumption but may not understand how. For example, using ceiling fans rather than an air conditioner may save hundreds of dollars per year, but a homeowner may not think to do it.

It’s hard to say how much the UF findings can be generalized to other parts of the country; the studies need to be replicated elsewhere, Hostetler said. However, the results do indicate that developers of green communities should thoroughly educate home buyers.

What’s certain is that home buyers — and the general public — will be hearing more about green homes and communities, said Hal Knowles, a consultant for UF’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities, part of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

Green construction became popular in the United States during the 1990s, following the formation of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable building practices and offers a widely recognized certification program, Knowles said.

Green certification can be an important marketing tool, said Nancy Richardson, director of Audubon International’s Audubon Signature Programs, which certify new developments.

“A developer is looking for something that makes them unique in the marketplace,” Richardson said. “There’s no doubt that (certification) does help.”

But some environmentalists debate which standards are needed, Hostetler said.

“There is much discussion about the bar being set too low in these certifications and it is sometimes too easy being green,” he said.

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