Kermit the Frog and Willie Nelson were right: It's not easy being green. Contractors, of course have a different problem, namely, figuring out just what “being green” really signifies. Slippery as it is, the definition of green construction has never been more important. With its rapid ascent to the mainstream, green is transforming the construction industry.

So, just what is green? It embodies both a set of principles and complex, interrelated practices. Generally, experts agree on three essential components:

  • Indoor air quality
  • Energy efficiency
  • Resource conservation through the use of durable and sustainable materials. The first two components, efficiency and indoor air quality, are often grouped under the heading “building science” because they relate to the performance of a building and are dependent on how it was built. Ideally, those elements combine to create an environment free of mold and toxins and that uses a minimal amount of natural resources.

    Carl Seville, a former remodeler who is now a green building consultant, says that for most remodelers, green is really about sound construction practices. For example, where moisture is a factor, properly sealing, insulating, and ventilating a house will promote energy efficiency and better air quality by regulating temperature and moisture content in the air; well-sealed houses are also less dusty because they aren't blown through by drafts.

    “In many cases, caulk and duct sealing can make a house infinitely better for a minimal effort,” Seville says. “The bulk of [green] is about doing things right, but most people just don't do things right. If you improved every house in America by 10%, it would make a huge difference.”

    Remodelers who want to build green, says David Johnston, a green consultant, educator, and author, have to do whatever they can to maximize safety, durability, and performance. Earning energy-efficiency certifications and using green products such as low-VOC paint are part of it, but neither alone makes you a green remodeler, he says. “It's a systemic approach to understanding how a building works, not just looking at what you can throw at a house to earn green points.” —David Zuckerman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.