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Green Building

green building

Color mainstream green


Tuesday, September 7, 2004

It’s time to move green building beyond its current niche status and into the mainstream.

We know how to measure the affordability and availability of building products, but how do we determine which materials are environmentally friendly?

“Sustainability is a term that is still being defined,” says Dana Bres, a research engineer with Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing in Washington. “We want products that are durable. We want products that are affordable. We want products that don’t adversely affect the environment. We want products that can be used flexibly.”

Fortunately, tools are being refined that help builders and consumers choose. Life cycle analysis is the science of examining a product’s entire life from extraction of raw materials and manufacturing to transportation and installation to final disposal or recycling.

Two of the most important environmental features of products are renewability and durability. Renewable materials and energy sources are green by nature. Durable materials last longer and require less upkeep.

A material that’s both highly sustainable and practical from a cost perspective is wood. Wood is the most abundant renewable building material on earth. Wood demand keeps land forested that might otherwise be permanently cleared. Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gases associated with climate change.

Wood also scores very well on life cycle tests. Life-cycle analysis shows wood requires far less energy to manufacture than either steel or concrete. It can be used for a wide variety of applications including framing, cabinetry and cellulose insulation.

What’s durable as well as affordable? Plastics such as vinyl, polyurethane and polystyrene. Vinyl has led the way in plastic’s growth in home and commercial building and is now used for everything from piping, siding and windows to flooring and wall covering. Guaranteed for 50 years and requiring no painting, vinyl siding eliminates upkeep costs. More than half derived from common salt, vinyl scores well on life cycle tests, including energy usage.

A model sustainable home might use a wood frame, vinyl siding and polyurethane or polystyrene insulation. The home might have a combination of wood and vinyl flooring, allowing for both the natural beauty of wood and the durability and affordability of vinyl. Composite windows, decking and railings also could combine the best properties of both materials.

If vinyl isn’t your idea of a green home, consider this: Money saved upfront on durable, energy-efficient materials can be spent on other environmental add-ons. The dollar savings could be applied to purchasing that ground-source heat pump, in case the long-term dollar savings didn’t already make the sale.

We need an example of such a home — one that consumers, builders and architects can point to and learn from.

Building the model home should involve cooperation among practically minded environmental organizations, affordable housing advocates and the building industry groups that represent these materials. It might include a non-profit, such as Habitat for Humanity, which builds cost-effective, quality homes for those who could otherwise not afford them.

No other aspect of our lives has a greater environmental impact than the materials and energy sources we use in our homes. Green building on a mass scale would have a profound impact for the betterment of this Earth.

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