Yes, we all want to help save the planet, but a little more immediate pay-off would be nice, too. The ideas here are not just about what you give up, they’re about what you get – more comfort, more light, cleaner air, less expense, for starters, and as you’ll see, the more you do, the more benefits you’ll find.
What’s Green Made Of?
“I think if you look at every major manufacturer of building products today, pretty much everybody has tried to figure out how they could make their product greener, and more environmentally friendly, because they realize that’s the way it’s going. This is the future.” (Mark Beidron, from the program)
Ten key ideas about sustainable materials, and innovative products that are working right now:
1. Recycled and recyclable. Two fundamental attributes of sustainable material are that they are made of large amounts of recycled content, either post-consumer (as when old carpet is recycled into the composite for the backing on new carpet, or pre-consumer, for example when manufacturing waste is recycled into the final product. And that they are recyclable again after their current use. For instance, the stainless steel in the Willow School roof was 85 percent recycled, and steel can be recycled almost indefinitely. A few of the many other recycled and recyclable materials in the Willow School include the linoleum flooring, the cotton insulation used instead of fiberglass, recycled tiles in the bathroom and bluestone salvaged from the Big Dig in Boston!
2. Sustainable harvest. Environmentally friendly materials begin at the very source. Can they be grown and harvested in a sustainable way? This also extends to sustainable mining, manufacturing and transportation. Every sector can make a contribution. In the case of wood, for example, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies lumber, FSC certified lumber ensuring that there is a chain of custody demonstrating that the wood is from a sustainably managed forest.
3. Salvaged wood and other wood options. A barn about to be bulldozed and thrown into the dumpster is carefully dismantled, each piece labeled, and resurrected as a school building, frame and beams intact (Willow School). Trees cut down during construction were also turned into furniture for the school. Recycled hardwood flooring is becoming more widely available, using only a fraction of the energy required to produce the new product. Wheatboard is a new alternative to plywood, used in the PNC branch buildings. And not only materials themselves but the procedures for their use are important to long term sustainability. For example, using optimum value engineering framing techniques reduces overall wood use.
4. Embodied energy. Agriboard is a structural insulated panel which uses compressed straw as the insulating material in the middle of the panel. Straw, also used in bales for insulation and as a building material in some very low-energy homes, is considered a material with very low embodied energy, meaning that it costs relatively little to gather (it’s usually agricultural waste) and transport (it’s often available locally or within a short distance of the construction site) so the total energy involved in producing, using and disposing of it is small.
5. Carpet makes up a large percentage of the waste in typical landfills, and no one is accustomed to thinking about “sustainable” and “nylon” in the same sentence, but there are actually an increasing number of alternatives becoming available. In the PNC Bank branches (featured in Green Builders), carpet was chosen that was 70 percent recycled material, and 100 percent recyclable. Start here to find out more recycled content carpet.
6. Low VOC. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are the stuff that outgassing is made of. In a typical hospital, literally miles of PVC piping (for railings, etc.) is used, with significant VOCs. At the Hackensack University Medical Center (featured in Green Builders), a low VOC version was used, resulting in much healthier air. Other low VOC products are available, like low VOC paints.
7. Durability. One of the key concepts in all green construction and materials is life-cycle cost. You might pay more for a product or a material – or a building – in the first place, but that is typically (depending on the product) only 20 percent of the total cost. The rest is in operation, maintenance, disposal. If you carry this concept over into materials, often a material that might cost more at first, for example, a stainless steel or other metal roof, might actually be more environmentally friendly than cheaper alternatives, because it will last for decades and can be recycled into another building when its current use is over, instead of landing in the land-fill. Interesting discussions at Environmental Expert.
8. On-site recycling. On typical construction sites the world over, the usual procedure is to throw everything into the dumpster at the end of the day, from whence it goes to landfills and builders pay for the privilege of disposing it. No more. Construction waste recyling is advancing rapidly, not only because many previously tossed items can be sold at a profit, but also because landfill space is getting smaller and fees are getting raised. (Along with, we hope, our consciousness!) Whole Building Design Guide provide a construction waste managaement database, a free online service for those seeking companies that recycle construction debris in their area.
9. Greener beware. Many retailers are now offering environmentally sound choices for the household and it’s a great step forward that so many wonderful and sustainable products are available. But it’s important to keep in mind that buying a lot of new stuff, however “green” it is marketed to be, is not really the idea behind sustainable living. Reduce, re-use and recyle is the mantra that is still at the heart and soul of green life. Often, there’s so much packaging (often plastic) and so much shipping involved, the greenness of the product begins to pale a bit. Still, if there is a better alternative to a product you use often, it’s definitely worth shopping for. Here are some places to start Greenfeet and Green For Good
10. More choices. Virtually every product manufacturer is now looking at making a greener product or material. Even allowing for some “greenwash” (the term when a green marketing spin is put on a not-all-that-green product), the expanding range of choices is a very good thing. More products also mean that technological innovation comes faster, and wider experimentation means faster lessons learned. Two places of many to start: BuildingGreen and GreenSource.