Building Green

by Catherine Haug

It must be recognized that humans throughout our history have been curious and inventive, loving to solve problems. We are very creative animals.

Today’s biggest challenge to innovative thinking comes from the use of fossil fuels: their depletion (peak oil), coupled with a warming planet resulting from their use.

One proposed solution is “green building,” which means the utilization of technology and construction materials/techniques that:

  • Increase energy efficiency of the structure by minimizing heat loss in the winter/maximizing heat loss in summer;
  • Generate power on-site (such as with solar panels), for total off-grid living, or to minimize consumption from the grid;
  • Reduce water waste and/or increase environmental water capture;
  • Minimize environmental impact of the project; and
  • Increase the value of the home or commercial property.

Words such as “sustainable,” “environmentally-friendly,” etc. pepper the conversation, generating hope that we can save the planet by maximizing energy return/savings in the construction project.

Wikipedia provides the following definition:

Green Building … is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction.

Consider This…

Might there be a flaw in this thinking? Remember my recent post on EROI (Energy Return On Investment)? That’s what I’m talking about here: maximizing energy Return and minimizing energy Input.

Read that definition of “green building” from Wikipedia again. By basing the concept on “throughout a building’s life-cycle,” the focus is on the structure, and not on what it took to get there. Not part of the discussion is the negative environmental impact of these technologies that offset at least part of their benefit.

  • Toxic waste and polluted groundwater produced by mining for the metals and silicon used in the building materials;
  • Toxic waste produced from manufacture of synthetic materials such as foam insulation;
  • Toxic waste and polluted air from energy production for the industrial processes to produce the construction materials (burning of fossil fuels);
  • Toxic waste and polluted air from transporting the materials from distant manufacturing facility to building site;
  • Loss of carbon-sequestering forests and prairies or fertile agricultural land to “green” suburbs or shopping complexes; and
  • Extinction of species as a result of all of the above.

So then, what sorts of buildings might we design and construct that would be truly sustainable – no negative impact at all – when all aspects of the problem are considered?

Well, to be brutally honest: None. We would live in caves or under a rainforest canopy for shelter.

But surely there’s a happy medium? Well, yes.

Approaching True Sustainability

Consider that little more than 100 years ago, people, especially those in rural areas, did live a fairly sustainable lifestyle without sacrificing health and comfort. They:

  • Lived in smaller communities that provided for their daily needs from the local environment, without having to import food and materials on such a large scale as today;
  • Lived inter-dependently, helping each other attain a rich and satisfying life;
  • Grew their own fresh foods, and raised their own livestock in community;
  • Helped each other build their homes; and
  • Supported each other in times of want.

Here are some ideas, borrowed by Permaculture and other low-energy concepts from that not-too-distant-past, to get you thinking not “green” but “Earth-supporting” living:

  • Designing smaller structures. Whatever made us believe that a 3000 SF home is “small,” when only 50 years ago, a 1500 SF home was considered spacious for a family of 4;
  • Utilizing low-tech construction materials native to the construction area (timber in a forested environment; stone in a rocky environment; sod on the prairie; adobe in the dessert);
  • Siting the structure and surrounding landscaping to maximize light and heat from the sun in winter, shade and cooling in summer;
  • Natural water-catchment systems;
  • Landscaping designed to minimize water runoff and to conserve groundwater;
  • Proper composting of waste materials, including humanure;
  • Reducing overall consumption; reuse of materials within the community; with recycling as a second choice and increasing waste as a last resort; and
  • Return to local, organic food production and in-your-own-kitchen food preparation.

My suggestion is to get together with your neighbors and friends. Discuss what you can do together to improve sustainability in your own neighborhoods. And feel free to add your own ideas to the comment section of this post.

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