Explore the aspects of green building in our neck of the woods!
Building Green means incorporating environmental considerations and resource efficiency into every step of the home building and land development process to minimize environmental impact. During the design, construction, and operation of a home, a number of efficiencies should be considered, including energy and water efficiency, lot development, resource efficient building design and materials, indoor environmental quality, and homeowner maintenance. Although we cannot entirely avoid affecting the environment when a house is built, green building can work toward minimizing the environmental impacts.
Today’s green homes incorporate not only climatic considerations, but are safer for occupants, less expensive to maintain, and make more efficient use of energy and other resources. The articles found in this section will explore the different aspects of green building and help consumers better understand the process.
Many of the energy-efficient qualities of a green home are easy to spot. Appliances, windows, and water heating systems will likely have ENERGY STAR® ratings. The home should also include efficient lighting fixtures and bulbs.
Fixtures and appliances such as low-flow showerheads, faucets, and toilets, and ENERGY STAR® dishwashers and washing machines all conserve water. Programmed, low-volume irrigation systems, rainwater collection systems, wastewater treatment systems, and hot water recirculation systems also save water.
These decisions—from home size, to orientation on the lot, to floor plan layout—are made in the design of your home and development of the lot. The house orientation and design should take advantage of natural daylight to reduce lighting needs, and should use strategies to reduce heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter. The home should contain renewable materials, including rapidly-renewable wood species, and recycled-content materials in carpets, tiles, and concrete formulations.
The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) must be appropriately sized for an efficient and properly ventilated home. Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home.
Resource-efficient site design and development practices help reduce the environmental impacts and improve the energy performance of new housing. Principles such as preserving trees and utilizing storm water retention/infiltration features are basic processes used in the design and construction of green homes.
As both local and national government seek to increase the practice of green building and its regulation, we will be publishing articles on regulatory concerns.
This section will be for the latest info on innovation in green building and products that are deemed to have “green attributes”. Please note that no product is truly green because it will always have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. We will mention those products that are the most efficient use of natural resources while producing the least amount of negative impacts on the environment.
Building Green positively affects our environment, health, community, and the economy. There has never been a better time to build green. These articles are designed to help consumers as well as the building community and will serve as a resource for Green Building questions.
For many years, the humble light bulb has bathed our homes in “natural” light. In moving towards higher energy efficiency, the challenge is to provide comfortable illumination that is consistent with the incandescent lighting we have come to expect as a standard. This challenge is being met in the form of the Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and Light Emitting Diode (LED) technologies.
Although it is commonly believed that the higher the wattage the more light produced, this is not actually the case. Wattage is solely the measurement of the amount of energy consumed. Truth be told, the traditional light bulb is not very energy-efficient. It requires 100 watts of energy to produce 1600 lumens of light. By contrast, a compact, corkscrew-shaped fluorescent tube has been on the market for some time, now. It is roughly the same size and shape as the standard light bulb and conveniently screws into the standard bulb socket. Those same 1600 lumens can now be produced using a 23 watt fluorescent tube, or only ¼ the energy of the 100W light bulb.
In terms of life expectancy, a fluorescent tube can be expected to last approximately seven times as long as a standard light bulb. Using energized mercury rather than a heated filament to produce light, the fluorescent tube operates at a much cooler temperature as well. There are, however, some drawbacks that come with using fluorescent tubes. For the most part, dimmer switches cannot be used with them. There are some dimmable ballasts (a circuit that limits the current flow in a fluorescent lamp) available, but they are still very expensive. Also, fluorescents do not perform well in cold weather, so outdoor applications in Minnesota winters are discouraged.
Since they contain mercury, fluorescent tubes cannot be thrown out with the trash. However, Olmsted County Hazardous Waste Facility accepts discarded tubes free of charge, as do some retailers.
In addition to the newer, fluorescent lights on the market, LED lights are now available. They produce not just four, but ten times the light for the same wattage and last fifty times as long as the standard light bulb. Technology has advanced to the point where LEDs may be substituted for either incandescent or fluorescent lighting in many standard applications. These mini-lights use reflectors to focus and direct the light, with the end result being lighting that meets homeowner expectations. They operate at low voltages and can be used in a variety of situations. Rope lights can be both functional and decorative. Small, individual, energy-sipping LED lights are used down stairways, along hallways, under cabinets and above toe-kicks. Low voltage lighting provides safety and convenience for outdoor applications, such as along sidewalks and around landscaping. This form of lighting uses a transformer to convert 110 volt alternating current into low voltage 12 volt direct current. At this low level, installation does not require a permit or a minimum in-ground depth for running wires to the light source.
Both fluorescent and LED lights are more expensive than incandescent lights, but as quantities and competition increase, prices are coming down. Various rebates are available through your local utility and forms may be available online. Local area lighting retailers may have them as well. Click here to get the Rochester Public Utilities rebate forms.
Green technology is constantly improving the efficiency of lighting. As things evolve, lighting retailers and utility companies are able to provide valuable information when the time comes to update your home’s lighting.
Whether you are building new or making improvements to your current home, it makes good sense to ensure that it is insulated properly. Stringent building codes assure that new construction is energy-efficient. However, in existing homes, this may not be the case.
Along this line, a little background may be in order. Until the 1930s and ’40s, not much thought was given to home insulation. Energy was relatively cheap and conservation was not an issue. Even today, remodelers tearing down inside walls separating the interior from the exterior find horse hair, tarpaper, old newspapers or basically anything that people thought would help keep out the cold. In fact, there are still older homes that have no insulation within their exterior walls. It wasn’t until the 1950s that more attention was given to wall and ceiling insulation. And currently, although Minnesota Building Code has specifications for insulating new homes, there are no requirements for existing homes, even when they change hands in a real estate sale. Consequently, buyers of older homes should find out the extent to which their homes are insulated.
The most basic function of insulation is to create a barrier between two different temperatures. As homeowners, we don’t want to dilute warm air inside with cold, winter air outside, or vice versa during the summer months. The effectiveness of insulation is rated as "R-Value.” This R-Value is important, but it only works in conjunction with an air or vapor barrier. If, for instance, cold air can pass through or around insulation with a high R-Value, that value is greatly diminished. If the insulation being used is not dense enough to prevent air flow, a means to diminish or stop the flow of air must also be used. Air barrier material is often called “housewrap” and is applied to the outside (referred to as the “cold side”) of the house. Housewrap significantly reduces the air flow yet still allows trapped moisture to exit. Plastic sheeting or “poly” is used on the inside (“warm side”) of the house to prevent moisture from entering.
According to James Essig, owner of Expert Insulation, a simple walkthrough can help discover many problem areas. This can be done by the homeowner, but most generally is performed by an insulating contractor or a weatherization expert, who has a trained eye. In the attic, the type and amount of ceiling insulation is determined. Minnesota code requires R-38 for new construction, but going up to R-60 makes sense. Beyond that, there is no gain, either through physics or economic payback over time. Other critical areas are rim joists, rafter tails and cantilevered structures. A very common source of significant heat loss is around recessed lights in the top story ceiling. Holes drilled in the attic for plumbing stacks, vents, electrical wiring, phone, cable and so forth allow air to enter the home. These openings need to be sealed with caulk or insulating foam. Wide open soffit areas are sealed with foam, sheetrocked over or covered with some form of rigid insulation, typically foil-faced rigid foam. Within the house itself, the amount of exterior wall insulation should be determined. Homes built sometime into the 1970s used 2" X 4" exterior walls. After that, 2" X 6" walls were code-mandated. The R-Value of the thicker wall should be at least R-19, with the 2" X 4" walls being closer to R-11. Outlet covers can be removed to see how much insulation is in the walls and also whether air is flowing around the outlets themselves. Another option is to drill a small hole in a discreet area of an exterior wall to see how much insulation there is.
The three common types of insulation are fiberglass, cellulose and spray foam. Cellulose is in particle form. Fiberglass comes in either particles or batts. Spray foam is either open cell or closed cell. Both types of foam insulation expand when applied. With cellulose, fiberglass or open cell foam, a vapor barrier is required. With closed cell foam, a vapor barrier is not necessary, since the closed cell product does not allow air or moisture to penetrate and, in fact, becomes rock hard when it dries.
The least expensive insulation is fiberglass batts, followed by cellulose and fiberglass particles. Open cell foam is more expensive and closed cell foam is the most expensive in this group. Topping the list is a hybrid combination of closed cell foam and fiberglass batt. In evaluating the cost-effectiveness of various insulation options, the factors to consider are current and projected energy costs, costs associated with the upgrade itself and local weather conditions. Additionally, an ethical factor comes into play. Saving energy is just "the right thing to do," regardless of payback timeframes (often referred to as ROI, or Return On Investment).
Once it has been determined that the exterior walls need more insulation, there are basically two methods that are used. On an extensive remodel, the interior sheetrock or plasterboard is removed, insulation is applied to the walls and new sheetrock is installed. Sometimes in older homes the exterior walls do have insulation, but it is a kind of shredded cardboard-like fiber that has settled and no longer insulates much of the wall area. In this case, holes the size of a tennis ball are drilled along the top of the outside walls, one for each wall cavity. Each cavity is filled from bottom to top with cellulose, fiberglass or expandable foam insulation. The holes are then sealed, often leaving a round, visible patch on the exterior.
Insulation reduces most of the air infiltration within the home, but does not eliminate it totally. Air can also enter the home around or through leaky windows and doors. A weatherization expert has the equipment necessary to identify and quantify air leaks. "Although most insulation companies can perform a visual inspection of the home,"says Essig, "it makes good sense to work with someone who has the equipment, tools and knowledge to not only evaluate your insulation, but also every aspect of your houseâ€™s envelope." There are community action agencies within various counties that now offer energy audits as part of their weatherization programs for certain categories of homeowners.
In the "good old days," houses were so leaky that fresh air was always available within them. Now that homes are becoming airtight, breathing recycled air can cause health problems. Air exchangers are used to ensure that there is a constant supply of fresh air, without interfering with the heat balance. The topic of air exchangers goes beyond the scope of this article and may be addressed elsewhere.
Properly insulating the home makes both environmental and economic sense. The decision to do so results in a comfortable home with lower energy bills and the good feeling of knowing that you are doing your part to reduce the consumption of energy on our planet.
Although many people still take it for granted, water is precious and needs to be used in a thoughtful manner. Bob Gander, owner of Gander Plumbing, puts it succinctly by saying, “Water is one of the most important resources in our lives, which is why it is important to save and protect it.”
Simple, everyday activities can be modified to reduce water consumption. Washing clothes or dishes only when having a full load, not allowing the faucet to run continuously while shaving or brushing teeth, repairing dripping faucets or leaking pipes – these are but a few of the things that can be done to reduce the wasteful consumption of water. Water can also be recycled by saving rainwater or “gray water” that has been used to wash dishes or clothes and re-using it to flush toilets, rather than using fresh, potable water for that purpose. Although water is commonly re-used in commercial car washes, etc., this option is still in the early stages of development for residential use. For now, the successful and practical use of either rainwater or gray water lies somewhere down the road.
Here, the focus is on three areas within the home that can easily be altered to help conserve water. Once changes have been made, each system can be used day to day without having to give it a second thought. All three carry the label of “high efficiency,” and they are familiar to us all; toilets, faucets and shower heads.
There are still a few 5.5 Gallons per Flush (GPF) toilets around, but typically, older toilets are equipped with holding tanks that make 3.5 gallons of water available for each use. When thought was first given to the amount of water being wasted with each flush, simple innovations to reduce the amount of water inside the tank were employed. Commonly used items to offset water volume included bricks or plastic bottles filled with sand. But as is often the case, the solution to one problem led to the creation of another one. Although the reduced water volume was adequate most of the time, the toilets themselves were not designed for less than 3.5 gallons of water per flush. Consequently, toilets occasionally had to be flushed more than once, in effect wasting more water than the original, unadulterated flush would have consumed. In recent years, toilet design has evolved and low-flush, 1.6 GPF toilets are now required for new construction. In an existing home with a 3.5 GPF toilet, upgrading to a 1.6 GPF model will save the average family a substantial amount of money, as well as thousands of gallons of water per year. An even more efficient, 1.28 GPF model is also available, but at a much higher price. For this reason, the decision to choose the most efficient model would have to take return on investment into consideration.
The nozzle of a faucet is generally equipped with an aerator. This device mixes air into the flow of water from the supply lines, giving it a full, even flow. The typical aerator is rated at 2.75 or 2.2 Gallons per Minute (GPM). High-efficiency faucet aerators are around 1.5 GPM, representing a savings of over 30%.
Similarly, shower heads are equipped with aerators. And, since showering accounts for 22% of water usage in North America, reducing the GPMs used will save significant amounts of water and money. Since there is a wide range of shower head features and options, comparing product brochures makes good sense before making a purchase.
Replacing either a faucet or shower aerator is not difficult and can be done easily by most homeowners. No special tools are required and the aerators themselves are not very expensive. Toilets, on the other hand, require skill to install and, unless one has experience in this area, the replacement of a toilet should be done by a qualified plumber. Another advantage of working with a plumbing professional is that he will be familiar with product rebates that may be available from local-area utility companies. According to Gander, “Rochester Public Utilities offers rebates on many water-conserving products. We help our customers apply for them, and the rebates can be substantial.”
A little product research and comparison of specifications will go a long way towards selecting the replacement products that are right for you. Making these changes in how water flows through your home will result in much less precious water, and money, unnecessarily flowing down the drain.
When referring to paints, "Going Green" means reducing or eliminating the solvents that are released into the air when applying the product and as it dries. The acronym given to these noxious byproducts is VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds. The release of solvent fumes is called "off gassing," which is very noticeable during the painting process. Bruce Struve, owner of Struve’s Paint states that "VOCs are what evaporates after the paint film has dried." And just as with second-hand smoke, the residual effect of painted walls in our homes, offices, hospitals, and schools has recently raised concerns. What we know is VOCs in paints not only color our walls, but also our environment, and not in a good way.
In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rated paint as one of the top five environmental hazards. Air quality studies have found that, while paint is drying, indoor VOC levels can reach 1,000 times that of levels outdoors. However, it is difficult to directly attribute VOC exposure to specific ailments. The reason for this is that, although concentrations may seem to be below levels that would affect health, VOCs easily combine and accumulate. High concentrations can act as a central nervous system depressant, irritate the skin or eyes, cause headaches, drowsiness, respiratory or sinus problems, nausea, muscle weakness, and even liver or lung cancer. Children, seniors, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly sensitive to the VOC vapors released by paints. This is quite a list of potential health problems, and nothing that should be taken lightly, especially when all you want to do is paint your home!
Realizing the harmful nature of VOCs, beginning in the 1990s, gradual steps have been taken to reduce and eventually eliminate them from paint products. The road has been long and winding, with a hodge-podge of rules and regulations, depending on geographic area. Some large paint suppliers have had the ability to meet product requirements within any given region, but many have not. The best solution is a single set of regulations that would apply equally across the country. As of this date, the EPA has set no standards for VOC use in non-industrial settings. However, various regulating groups and the paint industry itself are moving in the direction of paint products containing very low, or zero VOCs. Already, several companies offer zero-VOC paints within their product lines.
Setting aside conventional paint, there are four categories of VOC paint: low-VOC, zero-VOC, natural, and recycled. Low-VOC must contain less than 50 grams of VOCs per liter, and zero-VOC must contain less than 5 grams per liter. Natural paint contains no petroleum products and is made from renewable or abundantly occurring natural materials, including clay, lime, linseed oil, citrus oil, or the milk protein-powdered casein. By its very "nature," natural paint is devoid of VOCs. Recycled paint is made from used latex (now referred to as "water-borne" ) paint that is more environmentally friendly than conventional paint, but does not necessarily fall into the low-VOC category.
As with any shifts in technology, many questions remain regarding the viability of low or zero VOC paints. And of course, as Mr. Struve notes, "Many consumers emphasize cost just as much, or even more so, than concerns for the environment. Important factors to weigh when considering low or zero VOC paints include lack of odor, drying time, spreadability, color quality, and durability." Other considerations include cleanup and disposal. As production has grown, costs have dropped to the point where the price difference is negligible or even non-existent in certain cases.
The driving force behind low or zero VOC paints is not only increasingly stringent mandated standards, but also the common sense understanding that they are better for the environment. Because they have become price-competitive, offer many environmental and health benefits, and work as well or better than conventional paints, low and zero VOC paints are here to stay. There are many paint manufacturers who produce these new paints in a wide variety of colors and with varying features. Improvements are constantly being made and the performance of low or zero VOC paints will quickly become the quality benchmark for all paint products.
Whether you have health concerns, concerns about colors, durability or the various aspects of applying the paint, those questions can be easily answered by consulting with your local paint store professional. He or she is thoroughly trained and up-to-date on the advancements being made and will assist you in making the proper selection for your specific situation.
Thoughtful stewardship is necessary for the sustainability of our ecosystem. With that in mind, homeowners are discovering a practical way to work with Nature to beautify their yards and greatly help the environment at the same time. The technical term for the benefits of natural processes is “ecosystem services.” This term encompasses several beneficial activities performed by plants. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants provide oxygen to the atmosphere. In addition, their root systems hold moisture in place, prevent erosion, filter out pollutants and improve soil quality. Plants also regulate temperature and provide habitat for many forms of wildlife. That is quite an accomplishment. And this whole process can be set in motion through the creation of one small, strategically placed rain garden.
A rain garden is simply a bowl-like depression filled with soil that has been loosened to allow water to pass through it. The soil is typically covered with low-maintenance plants and flowers that are native to the area and, consequently, tolerate the seasonal changes that are likely to occur. Rain gardens are generally placed in close proximity to gutter downspouts or in areas of the yard that channel the flow of rainwater. This water is trapped within the rain garden itself, allowing the water to work its way into the subsoil. Rain gardens are unobtrusive and lovely to look at. They develop deep root systems and thwart the growth of unwanted weeds. With the thoughtful selection of colorful flowers, they become an irresistible temptation for wandering butterflies. And contrary to a commonly held belief, rain gardens are not swamps and do not become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
A rain garden catches and holds water that normally flows quickly off the land, ending up as storm water runoff. On its rapid journey, runoff causes erosion, collects pollutants and deprives the soil of much needed moisture. This vast quantity of polluted water quickly makes its way into rivers and streams, subtly wreaking havoc within the ecosystem. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, storm water runoff is the number one threat to water quality in our lakes and streams. It has been estimated that the average combined value of all ecosystem services on the planet approaches $33 trillion. That, in itself, is an astronomical number. Though it is not all that obvious, the true dollar costs of water runoff are also significant. Individual actions can make beneficial contribution to maintaining a green planet. Every little bit helps, and every yard makes a difference. If a fair percentage of homeowners in the United States were to create small rain gardens in their yards, the ecosystem services savings would easily reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
In the forest, only about ten percent of annual rainfall ends up as surface runoff. But in residential neighborhoods, thousands upon thousands of gallons of rainwater run off roofs, flow through gutters, stream across lawns and pavement, are channeled through storm sewers, and finally end up being discharged into rivers. A small, thoughtfully located rain garden traps much of this misappropriated water and allows it to soak into the soil, eventually again becoming pristine groundwater.
Although a rain garden is easy to create and maintain, a bit of knowledge and forethought are required. For this reason, those considering the idea should first do a little library research or consult landscape specialists in their area. And of course, make sure to check with the local utility company (or call Gopher One) before doing any digging in the yard. Once completed, the rain garden becomes a beautiful and useful addition to the yard.
The "green revolution" is underway. Many people, homeowners, renters, landlords, builders, bankers, and insurance brokers alike have heard questions and made judgments based on "green thinking" customers. However, there seems to be a lack of information passed on from the design & construction community to the homebuyer / homebuilders marketplace. This article will focus on five essential components that make up a green building.
Buying or constructing a building always starts with this question. Where? Before you can entirely define what will be bought or built, the Owner needs to decide where will it go. Once the site is determined, the building can be laid out to maximize the use of its site. Before any building materials are used, before any money is spent, and before a site is wasted to developer convenience, a building Owner needs to make best use of the site on which the building will be placed. Seems like common sense, correct? The best "bang for your buck" in building or buying a green building is choosing a site and building orientation that aptly makes use of its natural settings and, of course, the sun. A building’s orientation to the sun can have a major impact on overall energy consumption, occupant comfort, glare issues, and natural light. When laying out your building on undeveloped land, the goal should be to maximize your southern exposure (in our climate zone). This means orienting a building the long way on its east-west axis. Focus your glazing efforts on the south face as it will increase the amount of "free heat" harvested in the winter months. Including massive interior materials such as a bare concrete floor, ceramic tile, or a masonry hearth in this area of the home will absorb heat during the day and radiate that heat at night when temperatures dive. In the summer months, these south-facing windows will need to be shaded by either a roof overhang, trellis, or sunshades. If the design of your roof already included eaves, a simple calculation is needed to determine the length of overhang needed to optimize passive solar gain. This strategy costs a homeowner no additional money, yet can save thousands of dollars in energy over a few years.
Many industries use the term "lean" in their operations. Simply put, it means doing more with less, and conceptualizes that anything left unused is a waste of money. Those ideals are embedded within green building. Doing more with less, not wasting materials, and optimizing the layout of your space through simple, smart design can have a major impact on the environment and the economics of building a new home. This strategy, again, costs no additional money. In fact, if done correctly, should save the Owner money on the cost of construction. The costs of construction are passed through to the homeowner as a building is
Conserving energy is at the core of a green building’s design. To create an efficient structure you must think of the house as a whole system. All the systems are intertwined: the furnace, the air conditioner, the appliances, the lighting, the building insulation, the water heater, and even the occupant’s behavior. All these pieces contribute to a building’s overall energy budget. Once you have taken advantage of passive solar harvesting (if you are able due to site constrictions), the next place to start is the building envelope (i.e. the floors, walls, roof, and associated insulation). Properly air sealing and insulating a home has the most economic benefit per dollar spent on construction… up to a point. Obviously, there is a point a diminishing returns on continuing to insulate. For a green home, I would recommend at least an R-50 roof and R-21 walls while implementing advanced air sealing techniques. Alternative envelope materials such as insulated concrete forms (ICFs) or structural insulated panels (SIPs) make for a very consistent and tight envelope while minimizing the risk of energy loss due to poor installation. After the envelope, attack the efficiency ratings of your home air heating and cooling systems. Installing a 98% efficient furnace with a 16 SEER rated air conditioning unit may cost more money up front, but will usually pay themselves off within a 5 year window. If you do not plan to stay in the house for 5 years, consider the investment a "green mutual fund" off of which you are earning 14% on your money. Next, make sure your home appliances, especially your refrigerator and water heater, are Energy Star(r) rated. Most appliances are capable of earning Energy Star’s stamp of approval and are at equal or negligibly different cost. On lighting… never mind, this one is too obvious to explain. DO NOT USE INCANDESCENT BULBS, ANYWHERE, PERIOD. Compact fluorescent and LED technologies are equal to or better than any light an incandescent bulb can put out. Another downside to incandescents is that they only convert about 10% of the energy they use into light; the other 90% is put off as heat. In the summer time, it does not make any sense to run your air conditioner while simultaneously run 15 to 20 "mini heaters" in the form of incandescent light bulbs.
Finally, do good by what your parents taught you. Turn off the lights when not in a room. Use a programmable thermostat. Do not open the fridge door only to stare and hope the food changes into something more appealing to eat. Isn’t it amazing that as we grow wiser, we realize that our parents were right along? But don’t tell them I said that.
It would be a mistake not to mention water efficiency in this category. As we all know but have not yet felt because of our geographical location, water is becoming a scarce resource on our planet. A green building does not ignore the relative cheapness of water. Low-flow fixtures such as faucets, showerheads, and toilets not only conserve water, but also conserve energy (hot water). In addition did you know we pay our sewer bill based on how much water we consume? Watering our vast, lush, green lawn is the utter hatred of green building enthusiasts. The concept of feeding grass delicious, treated, drinkable water in the face of a planet where potable water is unattainable by so many seems to cause moral conflict. As an alternative, consider reducing the amount of green lawn you have. Instead plant native grasses, plants, or create a rain garden. Besides the water you are buying, you also pay a sanitary waste charge for each unit of water sprinkled on the earth.
Buildings are an amazing compilation of materials that form the structure, feel, look, and reflect the personality of the homeowner. Consider these materials that make up a majority of our homes: wood, metals such as steel, concrete (water, aggregate, cement), masonry, oil-based products such as asphalt and vinyl, glass and gypsum. Each of these materials can serve a different purpose for a building, but which is the more-sustainable choice? Like every question ever asked, the answer is "it depends." On one hand, wood is a renewable resource. As it is cut down, a new tree can be planted in its place to grow and make more wood. On the other hand, concrete can be made from local components and can last for 100 years or more. Steel is 100% recyclable, while vinyl products are not (at least in our area). The material selection game could run a person in circles, especially when they consider the embodied energy that went into harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting a material to its final resting place. For example, wood comes from the lumberyard, which came from the distributor, which came from the secondary mill, which came from the sawmill, which came from the forester. Huh? Did it even come from Minnesota, a state rich in wood resources? Maybe. But, let’s say you went the extra step to purchase lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), thereby ensuring the wood was sustainably harvested and processed. This "green wood" surely came from a local source right? Most likely not. In comparison, concrete is an incredibly durable and flexible building material. Cement, a key component to any concrete mix, is extremely energy intense to mine and process. By comparison concrete is a much more energy intensive building material than wood, but if it lasts twice as long might we be better off? Only if its embodied energy is less than twice that of the wood. Strikingly, most people only focus their green efforts on finishes such as paint, flooring, and countertops. Choosing bamboo flooring, strawboard cabinets, recycled glass countertops, and finishes with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) might make a homeowner feel green and fuzzy, but what they fail to understand is that these material impacts are just a tiny fraction of the embodied energy within the home’s materials. Not getting bogged down by the details is important in materials selection. Generally speaking, recycled or recyclable materials are a better choice than virgin materials. Local materials are better than non-local. And do a little investigation into the manufacture/processing of the materials you are purchasing. If you have seen how it is made and you still feel good buying it, you have probably made a good decision.
A green building is a healthy building. We spend the majority of our lives inside buildings, whether it be at home or at work. We deserve fresh air, free from pollutants and toxins. To accomplish these goals we once again have to consider the whole house as a system. Each component of the system has the ability to affect the quality of the air we breathe within a building. The building’s HVAC systems can be designed to introduce fresh air into your building at a specified rate. With a tight, well-sealed building envelope, an air exchanger with heat recovery (often referred to as a heat recovery ventilator – HRV) can introduce fresh air to your building while recovering energy from the exhaust. Every well-sealed building needs one of these or you will have very poor indoor air quality. The interior finishes of the walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, and coatings also play a significant role in the quality of your air. Selecting products with low or no VOCs is a low or no cost decision that should not be a decision at all. Choosing particleboard and furniture assembled without the use of urea-formaldehyde is also a no-brainer. Generally, any material that gives off a "new building smell" or "new car smell" is not good for your health. Return it.
These 5 aspects can be related across any building: commercial, residential, existing, or new construction. The only difficulty with an existing structure is site selection and building orientation (although that can be modified with enough economic fortitude). Green buildings and homes are not a passing fad. However, I would expect the term "green" to eventually be replaced by "better," "smarter," or "healthier." Why would you not want to build a better, smarter, or healthier building? The economics of many of the aforementioned strategies work, it just takes a little bit of patience.