He started by ordering a hybrid car online, the only way he could source one at the time. "It just hit me, that our whole economy is based on cheap energy," Needle says. "And we need to rethink the way we're all doing business. It's an obligation, a responsibility."
Needle, who started building homes when he got out of college, took a hard look at his business practices and decided it was time to build green. It's a commitment that recently earned him the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Program's first New Jersey certification for a home he built on Overhill Street in Westfield.
Needle, whose new homes start around $949,000 and go up to $4.5 million, incorporated the NAHB's green guidelines into everything -- from the type of paint he used to the installation of water-efficient plumbing fixtures, as well as energy-efficient windows. "The first step is making the commitment, then it's a matter of making choices to back that up," he says.
While green mega-mansions are beyond the range of most mortals, the principles that Needle follows to build his homes can be applied on a smaller scale -- to home remodeling and renovation projects. Determining the exact shade of green you're going for is the place to start.
"The first thing we try to do with clients is understand their true objective," says Ed Schwartz, who started his Ridgewood construction company, Green Living Solutions, last year.
Going green can speak to saving dollars in energy efficiency, indoor air quality, using sustainable materials and technology, and incorporating reclaimed and recycled products into the building process, for starters. "First, we need to understand the home's pre-existing conditions and take stock," he says. "There's a lot that can be done within a budget."
Schwartz, whose company follows Energy Star specs and is certified with the Building Performance Institute, offers green audits, a comprehensive evaluation of a home's energy usage, air quality, water efficiency, insulation and HVAC, and more. The process, which costs between $1,000 and $2,500 (depending on the size of the home), gives homeowners a baseline from which to work.
Schwartz is restoring his own home to meet the most stringent green specs. A circa 1757 Victorian in Bergen County, the home was last renovated in 1860. The project includes restoring a shuttered wing to bring the total square footage to 5,000 square feet Close to two years in the works, he and his fiancee Julie Tung hope to be finished in early 2009.
"It's surprising how adaptable older homes are," he says. "Back 100 years ago, builders stayed much closer to Mother Nature than we do now. It's only been in the past 60 years ago, with the advent of modern HVAC, that we've lost our way and built in complete disregard to nature."
The project incorporates everything from reclaimed and salvaged materials to a rainwater harvesting system to optimize long-term benefits to the planet.
"If homeowners have to pick one thing to change, the biggest bang for their buck is the combination of insulation and air sealing," Schwartz says. "Most insulation is just thrown up, without regard to the science of thermo-dynamics."
"Trying to build a home that is healthy for the planet and your family, while keeping in mind your design goals and cost constraints, can be a complex equation," notes Christine Mason McCaull, co-founder of the website GoGreen Online. "Just remember, any greener choice you make is a benefit."
A few of McCaull's top considerations include the choice of building materials and picking the right sustainable energy system. She recommends asking these questions: Where does it come from? What is it made of? How long of a life will it have? How will it be disposed of?