Published: September, 2004

Building Green, Without Spending It

Published: September, 2004

Editorial by Dr. Patrick Moore, September, 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?

Dana Bres is a research engineer with Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing in Washington. “Sustainability is a term that is still being defined,” says Bres. “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 (LCA) 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 wallcovering. 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.

The greenest energy system is geothermal energy, also known as ground source heat pumps. A single geothermal unit can heat, cool and provide hot water, resulting in a home that uses at least 50 percent renewable energy. Geothermal costs more than a conventional natural gas system but monthly bills are reduced by as much as 40 percent.

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 could also combine the best properties of both materials.

If vinyl isn’t your idea of a green home, consider this: money saved up-front 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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