It’s Confusing Being Green

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!

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About More Than Architects

I’m Rick Clanton. Michael Ruegamer and I are architects and the principals of Group 3 Design on Hilton Head Island, SC. We provide architecture and interior design services for homes in the US and the Caribbean Islands.
This entry was posted in architecture, green design, home design, what to build. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s Confusing Being Green

  1. Vernon says:

    We like simple house shapes and have a question: is 40 feet wide x 25¼ feet deep a problem for builders? Our dream house plan works better at 40 feet wide and 25¼ feet deep than at 24 feet deep. We are looking at a simple gable roof. Will the additional 16 inches/1 stud depth tick off builder or is this done on occasion? Thanks.

  2. It’s done ALL the time! You’ll end up with 12″ of sheathing and a bit of sub flooring left over if the framer handles his materials well. Don’t get overly carried away with framing dimensions. Although it all comes in 16″ increments it’s impossible to build without a little waste. Making the spaces they need to be on the inside and therefore functional is much more important than saving a very small amount of material. Also, left over bits and pieces can be used as blocking, again, IF your builder and the framer are really tuned in to using every scrap possible.

    We saved almost all of the unused scrap framing, siding and trim material on our house. After 25 years, we still have a little bit that we’ll use on invariable repairs in the future.

  3. adiyhome says:

    Thanks for this post.. I’m in the process of planning a new home and I’m the middle guy (well, gal, actually) who isn’t quite vegan, but sees the bamboo floor for what it is. And, yes, I wash my used baggies and use them again and again. I do this because it makes sense and I try to save money where I can. I garden, can, freeze, thrift and yard sale, so why wouldn’t I plan my home the same way?

    However, trying to find advice tailored to someone like me–willing to do the work to research the best, most efficient home.. but not willing to pay to cover my home in solar panels for the sake of “green” is really hard.

    I’ve been told to get a “green designer” or “green architect” but I don’t really know if I need to go that far? We plan on having a very insulated home and heating and cooling with an air-to-air heat pump, but how far do we take our concerns? When can we say we’ve done enough for the sake of being efficient and saving money down the road? Must we forfeit the deep porches we love in our blueprint for the sake of a passive solar system? Do we break the bank going with triple pane (pain? Yes, definitely pain) windows rather than double? When do we hit a ceiling in savings and start turning vegan, with solar-powered cell phones?

    Can you help me find the balance and give me a little guidance as to how far to go and how to stay that middle gal?

    • First, questions. What climate type? Hot humid, hot dry, cold and wet, cold and dry… What’s the context? A house in the burbs, in the country, vacant city lot… What’s the orientation of the lot? Is it covered in trees, open, subject to shading from tall mountains… What’s your “program”? What rooms, what happens in them and what’s important to you about them? And, what’s important about the house emotionally? Given your preference, would you live like a hermit, entertain every opportunity, have your kitchen your kids and their friends preferred hangout?

      Warning: your answers will lead to more questions!

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