Buying and building
Since the new millennium, “green” building has become a buzzword, but not everything is as green as it may seem.
“It’s important to ask the hard questions,” said architect Doug Graybeal, of Graybeal Architects. “There’s a lot of green washing out there. … People say ‘green product,’ but how are they green? ‘Sustainable’ has been way overused, and advertising (can be) misleading.”
It extends well beyond a construction company simply inserting the word “green” into its title when it doesn’t particularly follow any significant sustainable building practices.
It began, and continues, with marketing ploys that highlight the sustainability aspect of a particular product without pointing out the downside.
For example, when the bamboo flooring industry took off, much of it came from China. Bamboo was marketed as a sustainable resource, partially because it grows quickly. However, many companies sourcing from China ignored the large carbon footprint created in transportation from China to the United States. In addition, some companies producing bamboo flooring in China used old equipment, which resulted in buckling and other problems after installation, Graybeal said.
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Another example, he said, comes in the form of granite slabs. While the slabs may be sourced in North Dakota, much of it is sent to China in order for it to cut it into smaller slabs.
“You just need to ask the right questions and understand what’s important to you,” said Forrest Watson, project manager of Beck Building Co. in Avon. “For example, is minimizing the carbon footprint in America important to you?”
Green building covers the broad topics of human and environmental health through the subcategories of energy, water, and other resource efficiency; homeowners’ health; employee productivity; environmental protection; and waste and pollution reduction. That means there’s a lot to know — and a lot of wiggle room for manufacturers to focus on one winning aspect of a product and downplay, or ignore, the rest.
Some products, such as FSC-certified wood, are straightforward to assess for sustainability purposes. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council is a nonprofit designed to manage the world’s forest. It helps provide wood “without compromising the health of the world’s forests for future generations,” according to its mission on us.fsc.org. It guarantees that FSC-certified wood protects water quality, prohibits harvesting rare and old-growth forest and prohibits hazardous chemical use.
Further research shows that FSC-certified wood not only helps preserve forests but also sequesters more carbon dioxide than building with steel or concrete. One cubic meter of wood sequesters about 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide, as opposed to producing the same amount of concrete, which can generate, rather than sequester, more than a half a metric ton of carbon dioxide, according to research by J. Eric Karsh, a principal at Equilibrium Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia. He states that steel production also generates significant carbon emissions compared to wood.
So, the “hard questions” to ask and research when deeply delving into “how green” a product or material is involve:
1) How much energy is used to produce the product (in other words, to transform original materials into the final product, from mining or harvesting to production).
2) What environmental impacts are associated with it.
3) What are the transportation costs.
4) What are the potential health risks both upon the occupants and upon the installers (for example, high VOC paints were especially toxic for painters).
As homeowners become more knowledgeable, they may discover that some building materials have yet to become completely green, but some are less toxic or produce less waste than others. For example, homeowners may not be able to completely avoid all products containing formaldehyde (which range from plywood and fiberboard to household products and fuel-burning appliances), but it’s helpful to know that urea-formaldehyde (UF) pressed wood products emit formaldehyde at a considerably higher rate than phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resin, and therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends using the PF (exterior-grade) pressed wood products rather than UF resins.
RESEARCH ON THE WEB
“The beauty of the Internet is there are so many resources at your (fingertips),” Watson said.
American companies, which source bamboo in the states, can be found through websites like bamboo.org, maintained by the American Bamboo Society, which compiles source lists of bamboo products available from American suppliers. Plenty of other green building providers based in the United States can be found online or through local professionals.
“GreenBuildingAdvisor.com is a great resource for building and design professionals and consumers to ask questions and get feedback on what they’re buying,” Watson said.
Another “go-to” resource Graybeal uses is The GreenSpec Product Guide, because editors at buildinggreen.com conduct research independently upon products without charging for listings or accepting advertising. That means advertisers don’t bias them when it comes to assessing whether or not products are truly green and uphold manufacturer claims. The GreenSpec Product Guide includes more than 2,200 environmentally friendly products preferred by the editors, as well as the benefits of each product, the most critical green issues for each product category and manufacturer contacts.
Graybeal has used it for information on paint ingredients and the health impacts of such chemicals, as well as learning little known facts about “green” insulation produced from blue jeans, which sounds great initially, but upon further investigation turns out to contain a toxic fire-proofing agent.
For statistics on energy efficient appliances, homeowners can go to energystar.gov, and for WaterSense labeled products, they can visit epa.gov/watersense.
BUY LOCAL, ASK LOCAL
The Internet is a good place to begin researching green products. But then it’s important to reach out to local suppliers and ask how the products are actually performing, Watson said, “because companies jump on the (green) bandwagon, but consumer reports (aren’t always positive).”
Likewise, it’s important for homeowners to inquire locally about how green building materials stand up to mountain conditions.
And the same tough questions should be applied to architects and contractors homeowners intend on hiring. Graybeal recommends asking not only for specific information on LEED homes they’ve built but also for at least a year’s worth of data to prove the buildings are performing well by asking the homeowners how much energy they use and whether or not they think the home is healthy, in terms of lack of toxins.
“We’re in such a unique market in the mountains,” Watson said. “We’re able to build these awesome structures up against the challenges of weather and mountain terrain. There’s so much knowledge up here in the valley. There are good resources from building officials and contractors. It’s a community. We’re here to help everyone.”