Off hand, I can’t think of a single building product that doesn’t advertise it’s environmental benefits. To a consumer, it’s confusing. To the professional designer, it’s confusing too so it’s no wonder that many decide to follow a program like LEEDS or NAHB Green . Swimming in these waters alone is a daunting prospect.
How environmentally friendly you’d like to live your life is (for now) your decision. I’d like to propose an approach that I’ll call “Commonsense Green”. Before you can start to make informed decisions about product selections, you need to decide where you fit on the “Commonsense Green Scale” (something that I just made up for the purposes of this post).
The lowest point on this scale would be “social green”. You’ll want to choose trendy items so that your friends will be impressed by how environmentally conscious you are. Bamboo floors are a favorite here.
The mid-point on the scale I’ll call “practical green”. You are trying to use resources wisely, your friends often refer to you as “thrifty”, you wash and re-use baggies and aluminum foil, not to “save the planet” but because, to you, it just makes sense. Every purchase involves a “cost/benefit ratio calculation”. You’ll consider a rain water capture system for irrigation because you’d like to save water, but not if it’s a budget-buster.
Top of the scale is, of course, occupied by those who are dedicated to do their part to save the world, the “Eco-warrior”. You drive a hybrid, you’re a vegan or seriously considering it, you limit your travel to reduce your carbon footprint and you look at the very idea of building a house as either cause for nightmares or an exciting opportunity to demonstrate to others that a carbon-neutral house is a good choice for everyone.
To the “social greens”, I’d say “carry on”. The bamboo floors WILL make you look like you care. You might also be interested in that hybrid car, the trade-in values are pretty good.
“Eco-warriors” really need to consider finding an older house, size small, please. This is re-cycling in it’s highest form. In our market (Hilton Head and the surrounding Low Country) older resort homes are poorly built and unless someone pays attention to them, will have a life span of less than 50 years. Buy it, upgrade the insulation and HVAC system and replace the grass with mulch or clover to reduce your water use. There are other things you could do, like water saving appliances, “grey water” re-use and low VOC paint, but the important thing is keep that house out of the landfill and keep your carbon footprint low. A new green home isn’t out of the realm of possibility but, to remain true to the concept, you’ll have to fight the temptation to do things “because they’re green” which will entail consuming (and causing the manufacture and transportation of) products unnecessarily.
“Practical greens” have the hardest choices to make; that cost/benefit ratio thing, you know. This is where “Commonsense Green” comes in and here’s a list of things for you to consider:
1. Build small. NOTHING reduces cost and environmental impact like building no more than you really need. How often does all of your family really visit at the same time? Do you entertain often enough that your dining table needs to seat 12? How often will you use that home theater?
2. Buy as locally as possible. Those bamboo floors are made in China (by slave labor, using toxic glues), placed on (leaky) ships to San Francisco and trucked across the US. I don’t care what any “program” says, what does your commonsense tell you? The south is filled with a rapidly renewable building material, pine. Pine forest management these days focuses on top soil and wild life management. Also, under current selective culling, these forests are a beautiful addition to the rural landscape. It is possible to build a house predominately out of pine and pressure treated pine that would be a “Commonsense Green” wonder. Don’t forget to consider reclaimed building materials such as flooring, doors, hardware, even roofing. Spend time looking for where your products are manufactured, not only does that take less energy but the lower shipping costs may save money.
3. Consider the useful life of the material. More durable materials generally require less maintenance and won’t need to be replaced as often thus keeping them out of a landfill. It’s clear to anyone who visited this site before that I don’t like asphalt (fiberglass) shingles. They DO NOT last as long as advertised in our environment, they support a fungus that results in black streaks and blotches and they are the first part of your house that will be trucked to the landfill. There are other solutions that are better! Clay tile, slate, copper and even some recycled plastics are worth a look.
4. Insulation and HVAC work together. Indoor air quality should be as important as your monthly energy bill. (Ever thought to calculate health care cost in the life cycle analysis of your home?) Current heat pumps are very energy efficient, there’s really no payback in more exotic systems. Fresh “make-up” (outside) air needs to be introduced into the system. Pre-filters can clean and de-humidify outside air. Ductwork is often overlooked. “Duct board” has been used for years to fabricate the larger duct work in most homes. The inside surface, the one that the air passes through, is “raw” fiberglass insulation that may release small spun glass particles into the airstream. At the very least, it gives dust and things that live on dust (like mold) a place to grow. Insist on metal ducts. Also, your builder should keep the duct system sealed off until the construction dust and debris have been removed. You don’t want that stuff sucked into your duct system!
5. Work with a builder who will commit to environmentally friendly site management techniques such as recycling of construction wastes. Most people don’t care what happens to the construction waste generated during construction of their home or think about what happens when a painter washes his brushes on site. In my opinion, a builder who is going to be careful about these things is also going to be careful to order and use materials efficiently which should result in a lower construction cost.
6. Examine the cost/benefit ratio of trendy items. Solar might work for heating water but they are not environmentally friendly to produce and, for electricity generation, there is no point where the purchase, installation and maintenance cost will be offset by energy savings. Rainwater collections systems are a great idea, but using drought resistant plantings may be a “greener” and much more economical choice.
I’ve talked about keeping shapes and details simple before and I won’t go into that here, but a “Commonsense Green” approach can be incorporated into every aspect of the design. Most design and construction has an element of “we’ve always done it that way”. You and your team members (architect, builder, interior designer, landscape designer) need to be dedicated and focused on the goal. Make careful choices!