Mother Earth Living

Brick by Brick: A Guide to Basic Green Building

Don’t be overwhelmed by green building options. Use our guide to navigate the most important decisions you can make to increase the sustainability of your home.
By Miriam Landman
July/August 2007


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Greenbuild Build Up

It’s hot here in Atlanta. In more ways than one.

The world of green building can seem intimidating for anyone—start researching and you’ll encounter an array of websites on the topic, thick books with technical jargon, lengthy checklists and rating systems, and a variety of material choices. But you shouldn’t be discouraged by information overload and the seemingly infinite number of things you could do. Any positive change for your home and the environment makes a difference. 

If you’re building new, several basic steps will improve your project’s eco-sensibility; if you’re already in a home, you can make simple changes now to significantly improve your house’s energy efficiency and sustainability.

Even if you’re not ready to invest in solar panels or hire a green builder, you can make eco-conscious decisions that make a difference. Change happens incrementally—often with baby steps. A gradual approach can be more effective than trying to learn and apply every green practice at once. When your initial steps are manageable and rewarding, you’re more likely to take bigger strides on your next project.

Building Blocks

Consider these eco-friendly options when you build or remodel.

Materials:

Resource Reduction: Avoid unnecessary finishes. Leave concrete floors exposed in some rooms (rather than adding a carpet or flooring layer) or leave ceiling rafters exposed instead of covering them with drywall or plaster.

Paints and Stains: Select interior latex paints that are “natural” (non-petroleum based) or that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—chemical vapors emitted from the paint. Almost every major latex paint manufacturer now offers a low- or zero-VOC product. When buying wood stains, sealers and finishes, look for products that are low VOC, water based or made with natural oils.

Carpet: Select natural-fiber carpet (wool, jute), forgo carpet with synthetic latex backing, and use a tack-down rather than glue-down installation method. Even better, avoid installing any carpet, as it provides habitat for dust mites, bacteria and mold.

Composite Wood/Fiberboard: Instead of traditional particleboard, which contains urea-formaldehyde (a carcinogen), use wheatboard, exterior-grade plywood, or formaldehyde-free particleboard or  medium-density fiberboard (MDF). 

Non-PVC Products: Many materials, including vinyl siding, vinyl flooring, irrigation piping and shower curtain liners, are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which pollutes the environment and can cause health problems. There are non-PVC alternatives for almost every traditional PVC product. For example, flooring alternatives include natural linoleum, cork, ceramic tile, concrete, wood or bamboo.

Reclaimed Materials: Identify and reuse salvaged or reclaimed materials (doors, furniture, brick, stone castoffs, wooden boards, windows, hardware).

Local Materials: Use regional, local and onsite materials rather than ones that are extracted and manufactured far away and will be transported thousands of miles.

Insulation: Improving your home’s insulation is one of the easiest ways to enhance your home’s energy efficiency. If you’re building, install plenty of insulation and select a product with an R-value (thermal performance) that’s appropriate for your home and climate. Find a guide to the best insulation for your home at www.EnergyStar.gov. Make sure to find insulation that is formaldehyde free and/or has recycled content.

Roof: If you’re putting on a new roof and you live in a region with hot summers, choose a light-colored, Energy Star–labeled roof to keep your house cooler.

Energy and Water

Light Bulbs: Buy energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or light-emitting diodes (LEDs); select those labeled “long life” and “low mercury.”

Water Fixtures: Select low-flow fixtures such as faucets and showerheads that deliver less than 2.5 gpm (gallons per minute); ultra-low-flow toilets that use less than 1.3 gallons per flush; or dual-flush toilets, which allow you to decide how much water is used for each flush.

Appliances: Choose appliances, particularly refrigerators, with the most efficient Energy Star ratings. Also look for water-efficient dishwashers and front-loading washing machines. Some local utilities provide rebates for energy- or water-efficient appliance upgrades. Federal and state governments also offer tax credits (find a list at www.EnergyStar.gov).

Cooling Systems: If you’re adding or replacing an air conditioning system, first consider installing ceiling fans or a whole-house fan as well as deep roof overhangs, opaque window coverings or other shading devices, including shade trees. In most regions, using a combination of these strategies keeps a house comfortably cool even on hot days, eliminating the need to pay for expensive, conditioned air.

Furnace: Get the smallest unit possible to meet your household’s heating needs. Have a certified heating contractor determine sufficient furnace size for your home; this involves a heat-loss/heat-gain calculation that accounts for your insulation.

Windows: Innovative window technologies such as reflective glass, low-emissivity (low-E) coatings, frame type, and insulating gases help improve windows’ energy performance. Look for the most efficient Energy Star rating.

Better Building Practices

Envelope Efficiency: If you have an old or drafty home, hire a home performance contractor or experienced HVAC contractor to inspect your home and seal gaps where air can leak out around the ducts, structure or insulation. Fixing air leaks can save more energy and money than installing a high-efficiency furnace.

Indoor Air Quality: During construction, protect building materials from moisture and dust, and keep ducts sealed. Wait to install any absorptive materials and finishes, such as carpet or upholstered furniture, until all adhesives and sealants have dried and the house has been adequately cleaned, vacuumed and ventilated with outside air.

Efficient Wood Use: If you’re building a new wood-frame home or an addition, hire a contractor who uses “advanced framing” techniques, or “optimum value engineering” in which studs are spaced 24 inches on center instead of 16 inches on center to reduce wood waste.

Recycling and Reuse: Recycle, salvage or donate all eligible scrap and waste materials from the construction, demolition or remodeling process to minimize what’s dumped into the landfill (for a complete guide to salvaging deconstruction materials, see the article “Defeat Debris” from our May/June 2007 issue, available at www.NaturalHomeMagazine.com).

Before You Build

If you’re building (or buying) a new home, consider these big-picture, big-impact decisions during the early planning stages.

• New or “pre-owned”? Consider buying an existing home rather than building a brand new one.  If you’re thinking about tearing down a house to build a new one, consider renovating it instead. If a home is beyond repair and must be demolished, see if you can rebuild on its current foundation, and deconstruct it carefully so you can salvage and reuse materials.

• Where Is It located? Bear in mind that you’ll save resources, gas, money and driving time if you build or buy a house in an already-developed area (with infrastructure). Choose a location that’s close to transit, workplaces, shops and schools, rather than an undeveloped area that’s far from your workplace.

• Size matters. Choose a house that doesn’t exceed your family’s space needs. A smaller house requires fewer resources to build and furnish and less energy to heat, cool and light.

• Sensitive siting. If you’re building on undeveloped land, site your home on a flat, open area to prevent the need for extensive grading work and tree removal. This helps minimize soil erosion, dust, air pollution and habitat disruption. One exception to this rule may be if you plan to build your home into a berm or hillside to increase passive solar activity.

• Passive design. Orient the structure to take advantage of free natural resources such as sunlight, breezes and trees. Make the length of your house run east-west, and build plenty of windows on the southern façade to maximize light and to warm the structure in winter. To control summer heat, provide shadings for west- and south-facing windows during hot afternoon hours. Likewise, place windows so they open to prevailing breezes that ventilate the house. Work with existing trees on your lot; they control erosion and provide shade and privacy.

3 Simple Steps to Get You Started

1. List the environmental issues you’re most passionate about.
Do you want to focus your efforts on energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, water conservation, indoor air quality, waste reduction, sustainable forestry or other goals? Having your hot-button issues in mind will help you prioritize various green building strategies.

2. Identify a few practical, affordable green strategies that address your goals.
Many relatively simple, readily available green options—such as replacing old appliances with energy-efficient ones or beefing up your home’s insulation—provide a lot of bang for your buck.

3. Research how to implement your selected strategies. 
Start by consulting the resource listings that begin on page 78.  


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