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Green homes can be affordable

When people hear the term "green building," most think of homes covered with solar panels, bamboo floors and metal exteriors that make them look like spaceships. In other words, homes that most people wouldn't want to live in.

At The Home Depot Foundation, our definition of a "green building" is different. For us, a "green building" is simply one built with environmentally friendly materials such as nontoxic insulation, caulk and paint and that uses water-saving faucets and energy-efficient appliances. And since our primary goal is to provide homes for working families, we want these "green" homes to be affordable to own and maintain over the long term.

When we started down this housing path, many were skeptical that we could help non-profits build homes that were green and affordable. But I can report that we are proving green building can be affordable. Through our Partners in Sustainable Building program with Habitat for Humanity International, we are nearly a third of the way through our five-year, $30 million mission to build 5,000 healthy homes around the country. We've already built 1,500 homes that meet a certified green building standard, like Energy Star Plus, and in the coming year, we'll support 136 Habitat affiliates' efforts to build 2,400 more healthy homes.

Baltimore is about to become the next proving ground in our mission. As part of our program, Baltimore Habitat for Humanity will build 92 affordable homes during the next year that will be built to conserve water and energy and to provide a comfortable, healthy environment for a family. As a result, homeowners will save an average of $6,000 on heating, air conditioning and water in the first six years alone, according to the U.S. EPA's Energy Star statistics. According to a survey by Habitat for Humanity, building to Energy Star standards adds less than $2,000 to the cost of a home. We can't wait to see the 92 families in Baltimore begin living in a healthy, energy-efficient home that puts money back in their pockets each month.

Every time I talk about how much money homeowners are saving through our green-building partnerships with Habitat and other housing organizations, I wonder why we all aren't focused on green homes. If homebuyers with the least to spend are realizing these kinds of benefits, why aren't we all doing the same? Why are we all leaving money on the table by not paying attention to how efficiently our homes are running?

Through our initiatives, we've learned that a few simple changes can make a huge difference. Appliances and light bulbs may not be the sexiest ways to start, but they're the easiest and usually deliver the quickest, and largest, financial returns. Replacing a washer, air conditioner or refrigerator? Look for the label from Energy Star, a government-backed program that promotes energy efficiency. Americans who bought Energy Star products in 2009 saved a combined $17 billion on their utility bills in just the first year.

And then there are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), those twisty-looking light bulbs. CFLs consume 75 percent less energy and have a long lifespan — 10,000 hours versus 1,000 hours for incandescent bulbs. With each CFL bulb generating about $40 in savings over its lifetime, we could save about $600 million collectively each year if every household replaced just one old light bulb with a CFL. We'd also be reducing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.

Looking to paint? Opt for low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and you'll eliminate the chemical fumes that can cause breathing problems.

These are just a few ways that The Home Depot Foundation is using green building to create affordable, healthy housing for working families. Studies show that children growing up in healthy homes are less likely to suffer from respiratory problems and are more likely to succeed in school. Healthy homes generate higher resale values, and the communities they form see lower crime rates and greater neighborhood involvement.

Proud as we are to be part of a construction project for 92 healthy homes in Baltimore and another 1,500 families across the country, we want to help everyone live in a home that is healthier for their families and their communities.

Kelly Caffarelli is the president of The Home Depot Foundation. Her e-mail is XX.

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