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When it comes to basic human needs, shelter follows food. First and foremost we need something to eat, and then, we need somewhere to live.

Just as we make many choices everyday when it comes to fueling our bodies, by building green homes today we can create healthier indoor and outdoor environments. When we choose to conserve natural resources by reducing consumption, green gas emissions and solid waste, we are protecting our local air and water quality and ultimately preserving natural habitats, watersheds and ecosystems.

According to guidelines set by the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Program, “the design, construction, and operation of a home must focus on energy and water efficiency, resource-efficient building design and materials, indoor environmental quality, and must take the home’s overall impact on the environment into account.”

Green building also has tangible economic benefits, including reduced energy and water utility bills with greater efficiency, lower maintenance and replacement costs due to the greater durability of materials and better health from the use of nontoxic materials.

According to industry estimates, going green can increase the cost of new construction around 20 percent. However, documented operating cost savings demonstrate how that and more will be made up over time. Plus, green is now viewed as one of the keys for improving the overall value of your home.

Tax incentives from the federal government, along with a growing number of significant rebates for qualifying items, add even more financial encouragement for going green when building a new home.

Locally, you’ll find more and more local builders taking the steps necessary to reduce energy use thanks to the support of NiSource through NIPSCO’s EnergyHarvest Energy Efficiency programs.

A comprehensive program with benefits for customers, builders and NIPSCO, EnergyHarvest provides rebates to customers who purchase and install qualifying energy-efficient appliances, including Energy Star® furnaces, boilers, water heaters and/or programmable thermostats. Currently available for natural gas customers, the goal is to expand the offerings to electric as well by the first quarter of 2011, according to Nick Meyer, communications manager for NIPSCO.

“Builders have the opportunity to apply for an equipment rebate as well as a new home Energy Star® rebate on the same home,” he said. “Since the inception of the program in July 2008, we’ve had 530 Energy Star® certifications in our service area, with 292 of those in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.”

One of the earliest participants in the NIPSCO program, Cook Builders is recognized by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for committing to build and label 100% of its homes to Energy Star® performance guidelines. In fact, every one of the last 30 homes built by Cook has been independently tested and received the highest possible rating of 5-Star Plus.

“Green building is about best practices,” Brad Ericks of Cook Builders said. “It’s certainly about the materials you use, but more importantly, it’s how you use them.”

One of just a handful of local builders certified by the NAHB in green building, Cook was the builder of choice when Nenad and Biljana Uzelac were ready to make their green dream home a reality.

“The Uzelacs wanted their home green certified at the highest level,” Ericks said. “They came to Cook Builders for our record of building energy-efficient homes and reputation of providing outstanding customer service.”

After securing their homesite in Lake Hills of St. John, several years ago, the Uzelacs worked closely with an architect to design a plan that perfectly matched their lifestyle needs with their eco-friendly goals.

“When they came to us, we took a look at the plan and reviewed their goals,” Ericks said. “Many of the same energy-efficient products we use as a matter of course, such as a 95% efficient furnace, fit their needs well. It’s not like we were reinventing the wheel, we’ve been doing this all along.”

A few of the key features contributing to the Uzelac’s coveted gold certification through the NAHB’s green building guidelines include extra insulation at all levels below the floors and in the ceiling, a very efficient use of space (at 2,616 square feet the home is just barely beyond the minimum requirements of Lake Hills’ covenants), wireless remote control of all lights, heating and cooling plus windows specially designed for the south side of the home.

“The orientation of this home is based on the position of the sun throughout the year,” Ericks said. “Windows can account for up to 25% of the annual heating cost for a home. With low E 179 glass these windows are the perfect cold remedy. In the winter they help the home stay warm and cozy by blocking heat loss to the cold weather outside and allowing the winter sun’s heat inside. There’s also an extended eave to help reduce the sun’s warming effects when it’s highest in the summer.”

With options from increased energy efficiency to tight insulation, water conservation and smaller, more efficient living spaces, additional opportunities for going green in new construction include a selection of earth-friendly (low volatile organic compound-VOC and recycled) materials based on their durability and where they come from (the shortest possible travel distances save even more resources).

As Neil Armstrong said when he took that much-anticipated first walk on the moon, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

NIPSCO’s energy-efficiency programs, including EnergyHarvest appliance rebate programs for builders and consumers, offer ways to help manage your energy usage while helping the environment at the same time. For complete details, go to nipsco.com on the internet.

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