What Green Building Really Means
A couple quotes come to mind when I think about green building:
Sustainable development involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Earth Summit, Rio De Janeiro, 1992)
By making smarter choices about how you build and the products you use, you can significantly contribute to the health, wealth and well-being of yourself, your family, your community, and the world. (GreenBuildingBlocks.com)
As green building continues to become more mainstream, we are deluged with definitions of “green.” Be it through the media, trade publications or discussions with friends, it’s likely that the info is confusing or contradictory.
With this in mind, let’s review the basic terms. The notion of green building (or the green economy, or the green anything) is based on the concept of sustainability. A sustainable system is one that can go on forever, where the inputs are renewable and their acquisition doesn’t degrade the related environment.
The movement toward green products and methods reflects a widespread recognition that we can’t go on doing things the way we—as a society—have done in the past. With more than seven billion people on Earth, and our radically increased ability to process and consume resources, it’s due time that we rethink and retool.
Green building is our industry’s response to finding ourselves at this peculiar point in human history. To help you sort out whether a proposed practice or product is legitimate vs. “green washing,” here is a short list of things to consider when pondering “green-ness”:
- Energy and Atmosphere—How much energy went into the production and shipping of the product? Did the manufacturer use renewable energy sources and work diligently to reduce energy usage? Was the product shipped from far away (using more energy) or was it made close to where you’ll use it? If it is an electronic or other energy-dependent device, how much will it use during its lifetime? Is it efficient relative to alternatives? These questions impact the “carbon footprint” of that item and, hopefully, your decision to purchase it. The over-arching idea is to choose ways of fulfilling your needs that use as little fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources as possible.
- Materials and Resources—When it comes to materials and resources, the idea is to limit the use of non-renewable materials, those with a large carbon footprint and anything that’s extracted in a way that does damage to natural systems. As an example, from our industry, we try to incorporate as much engineered lumber as possible. This lumber can be made with smaller, less mature trees that are more abundant and easier to replace than mature trees. Products that incorporate recycled content do less damage to the environment. Another important consideration is product disposal. Can it be recycled or easily re-enter the system after its use? Or, does it contain toxins that make it difficult or impossible to re-introduce into the eco-system? An example from the past that we continue to deal with today (and will forever) are materials that contain asbestos and lead. When these materials were first introduced, we didn’t know (or maybe care) about the harm they would cause. Today, disposing of these materials is incredibly complicated. We have to hire someone to assess the level of hazard, then another person who is certified to take and dispose of it as safely as possible. Carpet is a more contemporary example. Elements of carpeting, like the glue, are toxic and some materials don’t break down. Typically, the entire carpet is thrown out. Because nylon doesn’t degrade and other components are toxic, it can’t be reused as a consumer product and doesn’t easily re-enter the eco-system. And this leads to my next point…
- Toxins and Indoor Air Quality—In construction, it has been common practice to use products containing toxins that “off-gas” into your home, potentially affecting your health. And after the useful life of the product, that toxicity will have to be dealt with as it returns to some other part of the environment.
- Water Conservation—I add this because, a) water is so precious in our region and its availability increasingly impacts our lives in many ways, and b) there is an important link between water conservation and energy conservation. It takes a lot of energy just to get the water to your home. And once it’s there, it takes even more to heat it and pump it to faucets. On top of using less water, it helps to properly insulate pipes and not to waste water that’s already been heated.
This is a lot to consider, but I hope it helps you sort out what “green” really means.