Environmental Progress: Green Home Construction

When we evaluate the history of construction, it becomes evident that sustainability has only become an issue within the past hundred years or so. Prior to that point, virtually all construction was done in a sustainable manner. Green home construction was sort of the standard; local materials were used from natural resources. In some circumstances materials were imported from far and away; but it was certainly not the practice of everyday people for home building.

Society eventually modernized and industrialized. We began to experiment with various construction materials as well as materials for our paint, plumbing, insulation, and electrical wiring.

Health and environmental-conscious consumers have started to demand more from their builders. Consumers started looking for building solutions that were more sustainable and environmentally responsible. Thus the concept of green construction or green building was born.

The key to green construction is to not only use local and sustainable materials, but construct the building in a manner that reduces waste and energy construction of the home. An ideally constructed home would produce all of the energy it requires to operate (zero net-energy). Additionally, these homes must minimize the release of carbon to the atmosphere by not burning fossil fuels (carbon neutral).

Sustainability Lost Over the Years in Construction

Over years and eventually generations, we have managed to introduce many health hazards to our home. Many of these hazards came in the form of lower construction costs. Other challenges came while builders were trying to solve for an unrelated problem. Just some of the problems we’ve brought into the home include:

  • Asbestos: This material can be found in everything ranging from floor & ceiling tiles, roofing shingles, attic insulation, exterior siding, and the infamous popcorn ceiling.
  • Flame retardants: These are complex chemicals designed to do precisely what you’d expect. Unfortunately, they also bring with them a long list of health concerns including cancer. These materials exist in everything from the insulation in our attic to the chemical coating on your pillows.
  • Lead: Lead exposure has long been known to cause health risks to adults and developmental delays in children. Unfortunately we’ve brought this material in our home through the paint on our walls and the lead in our plumbing fixtures.
  • Mercury: Mercury remains in use in our homes more than you would think. It still exists in household thermostats as well as in the compact fluorescent lights you may have installed in recent years. You can also find mercury in regular fluorescent lights.
  • PVCs: Polyvinyl Chloride does not necessarily introduce tremendous health risk to your home; however, the manufacturing process is highly toxic and in no way sustainable.

At one time all home construction was green!

There are other practices that have been taken on that have contributed to a setback in sustainability. One of the concerning practices has been the use of exotic construction materials. Specifically, we’re talking about exotic lumbers.

Environmental Progress: Re-Evolution of Green Home Construction

Green construction practices have been one of the great revolutions of the past 20-years. In that time, a standard for green home and commercial construction has grown. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has become that standard.

There are plenty of sources to give you an in-depth analysis of LEED certifications and what they mean. We will focus on some of the basics. For example, there are several levels of certification, depending on your commitment. A building is evaluated based on several factors and a point system is assigned. These are some of the factors:

  • Location & Transportation: Floodplain avoidance, access to transit, compact development, etc.
  • Sustainable Sites: Construction pollution prevention, non-invasive plant usage, rainwater management, nontoxic pest control
  • Water Efficiency: Minimum energy performance, outdoor water usage, hot water distribution
  • Energy & Atmosphere: Energy usage, solar-ready design, HVAC, air infiltration, windows, insulation, lighting, appliances, renewable energy
  • Materials & Resources: Certified tropical wood, preferable products, efficient framing
  • Indoor Environmental Quality: Ventilation, combustion ventilation, air filtering, garage pollution protection

Following the implementation of these strategies, the building can be awarded certification at one of four levels ranging including Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Building certification is certainly a positive advancement in green home construction. Just keep in mind that the process is not a requirement for all new construction; but simply an option. There are many other advances that have taken place over the years to help improve the sustainability of our homes. Here are just a few of the pieces to consider:

  • Asbestos: The EPA’s Clean Air Act (1973) effectively banned the use of asbestos in most spray applications for fireproofing and insulation.  A more wide sweeping ban was issued in 1989 by the EPA; however, a strong lobby was able to get that decision overturned in 1991. Following that setback, the following products remained banned – corrugated paper, roller board, commercial paper, specialty paper, flooring felt and any new applications for asbestos.
  • Lead Paint: Lead paint was found in most homes built before the 1960s. Lead paint was banned in 1978.
  • Lead Plumbing: Many cities throughout the United States still rely on lead piping to deliver fresh water to homes. Natural chemical processes have worked over time to coat those pipes with a metallic oxide. Public utility companies also insert additives to the water (lime & orthophosphates). These additives provide another layer of protective coating that keeps the water from passing lead-laced particles to your faucet. So long as the chemical balance is maintained, things are fine; however, if that chemistry is altered as has been experienced in Flint, Michigan, the results can be disastrous. Consumers can also find lead in the soldered joints or older faucet fixtures in their home, more lead free options continue to hit the market.
  • Mercury: The amount of mercury found in homes has dropped slightly over the years; however, the reality is that it still exists. A couple of the biggest advances include the elimination of mercury from most batteries (not really a construction innovation; but good nonetheless). Additionally, mercury is found in CFLs; however, advances in LEDs made CFLs obsolete as fast as they hit the market.

More Green Home Construction Advances

Consumers have many methods to enhance their green home construction. Other techniques are to use sustainable materials, energy efficient solutions, and renewable energy sources.

Sustainable Materials:

Sustainability starts with the use of materials in a manner that does not negatively impact future generations. Here is a sampling of the advances seen in recent years.

  • Ozone attacking hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances were banned in recent years. These climate change drivers are now banned through most of the planet. This includes their use as a refrigerant in household appliances.
  • Sustainable lumber has become easier to identify through a number of certification programs. Certifications such as though provided by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensure the materials are derived from a sustainable source.
  • More carpeting products are being manufactured without the use of toxic stain lifting chemicals as sustainable alternatives come to market.
  • Non-toxic paints that emit little or zero VOCs have become available from several manufacturers due to consumer demand.
  • Reclaimed materials have become increasingly popular. Materials can be repurposed for floors, cabinets, and even roofing. It’s a great way to add character and a touch of history to your green home construction project.

Energy Efficient Solutions:

A vast range of materials are available to consumers seeking to be more energy efficient. Many of those products include the following:

  • Energy Star appliances remain the benchmark for efficient household appliances.
  • LED lighting provides a range of lighting solutions at high levels of efficiency.
  • Programmable thermostats while not new to the marketplace have experienced some remarkable advances. These devices are now Wi-Fi enabled and enable users to regulate household comfort using their wireless devices.
  • Water conserving faucets and toilets have become much more standard.
  • Advances in insulated concrete forms have helped establish higher levels of energy efficiency for home heating and cooling.

Renewable Energy Sources:

Builders and home owners seeking methods that allow their home to produce the energy it requires are consistently finding themselves with some outstanding options. While we won’t dig into the details of each here; you can find more in our alternative home energy article. Some of the more popular options available include:

  • Geothermal: Converting energy from the earth into electricity.
  • Hydropower: These solutions are not limited to large-scale dams. You can also find options that take running water on your property and convert it to electricity for your home.
  • Wind Turbines: A great solution for your home or an off-grid cabin!
  • Solar: Solar remains the blue chip alternative energy source. There remain a wide range of installation options and in recent years a new range of financing options to suit your needs.

Regardless of which approach makes sense to you, alternative energy sources are an outstanding mechanism to enhance your green home construction project.

Green Home Construction – Are We There?

We’re not there yet; but we are making progress. Most of the options listed out above are still optional; but we are slowing making progress to eliminate those options that cause a clear health concern. Still other areas of progress are also being made to ensure more consistent use of sustainable materials.

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