Sustainable building practices encompass a whole host of components. Environmentally friendly (green) building practices and materials are all the rage now, but what exactly is sustainable building?
Which is more environmentally friendly, building your house out of natural stone, which entails high energy costs to mine, transport, and construct; or using lumber from local forests which involves the harvesting of several acres of forest land? In practice, there are many variables that need to be considered when you want to utilize sustainable building practices to construct your home.
If you do a quick web search, you will come across pages of websites touting sustainable building products and methods. There are several groups that will certify your product or technique as sustainable, enabling you to market your product or service as green, but what does that really mean. After reading some websites that claim to offer sustainable building products, I’ve come to the conclusion that the term means something slightly different to everyone.
One obvious method of sustainable building is to use as much recycled material as possible on the construction site. Materials salvaged from demolition of other structures, such as doors, windows, trim, or other building supplies are obvious ways to recycle. Carpet and insulation made from recycled plastic will also benefit the environment. There are other, not so obvious ways to recycle. Structural lumber can be chipped and used for engineered wood products, concrete can be ground up and reused in new cement products, and glass and tile can be remanufactured into new composites for building.
When determining whether or not a product should be considered green, you need to consider the entire process of getting the material to the building site and installing it into the structure. Bamboo is considered a sustainable building product, but you need to factor in the fuel required to transport bamboo from the tropical locations in which it grows to the building site. Some forests are considered sustainable, while others are not. Concrete does not require the felling of any trees, is made of rock, sand, and lime, and results in a product that is long lasting. But it requires a lot of energy to manufacture and transport.
You also need to consider the long term energy savings of any product that you use in the construction. Installing foam insulation will seal the structure more effectively than more environmentally friendly shredded newspaper blown-in insulation and will save energy in the long run, though the material may be the “greenest” product available. Although there are some new spray foams made from soybean derivatives that appear to be “green”.
Manufacturers are continually trying to improve their products, or create new products that contribute to the sustainable building process. Be aware of the pros and cons of existing products, while keeping an eye and ear out for new products will ensure that when you build your house, it will be as environmentally friendly as you can build it.
Ultimately, I argue that NO building can be completely environmentally benign. Digging a foundation, transporting building materials, and feeding the workers all have an environmental impact. No matter what kind of materials or methods you use there are always costs and benefits to each type. In the end you should ask “which method has the least impact, both now and into the future?”. Compare building a house to last 300 years, even though some of the materials aren’t currently “green”, as opposed to building 4 shoddy houses that each last 75 years. In the end it’s a very personal decision.