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'Green' Builders Make Homes Kinder to the Environment

Interest grows in construction methods that consume fewer resources, produce less waste

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1995


JON ALEXANDER and his crew, like any builders, are hustling to pour concrete foundations for a new home. They want to minimize rental costs for a mixing truck. But Mr. Alexander also incorporates his concern for the environment into his budget-conscious line of work.

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Wood forms, which hold the wet cement, are braced not with new timber but with two-by-fours salvaged from the house that used to stand on the site. The new home will be framed using 25 percent less wood than is common. And recycling efforts will save several hundred dollars in dump fees for waste generated at the site.

Few builders go as far as Alexander does with such environment-conscious practices, but he represents part of a growing grass-roots movement. Eventually, proponents say, economic forces and environmental awareness among customers will push architects and builders to make buildings that use materials and energy more efficiently.

''One hundred years from now, we will perceive landfills as resources,'' says Christopher Kelsey, an architect with the Kansas City, Mo., firm Berkebile, Nelson, Immenschuh, & McDowell.

While most people probably don't think of buildings as a central environmental issue, experts cite several reasons why better construction and design are vital:

Waste. About 20 to 26 percent of the trash headed for landfills is construction waste, says William Browning, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.

Resource limits. Buildings account for about 40 percent of the raw materials, by weight, entering the global economy each year, according to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. The world's forests, in particular, are under increasing pressure.

Energy. Buildings use 36 to 45 percent of the United States' energy output, Worldwatch estimates. This figure includes making and transporting materials as well as operating costs such as heating.

Social trends. As living standards rise worldwide, homes are getting bigger and using more materials.

Health issues. Some medical experts say companies are losing billions of dollars in lower productivity and health problems related to building design. Key issues are poor ventilation and, in new or remodeled buildings, seepage of chemicals such as formaldehyde from furniture, paint, and carpets.

To counter these trends, advocates of environmentally friendly or ''green'' building say designs should aim for structures that are long-lasting, energy-efficient, adaptable to future needs, and easy to disassemble when they need replacement.

Some of these goals run counter to another trend in building, the quest for affordability.

Mr. Kelsey says needed changes ''will never occur if the economies don't continue to drive it.''

Rising wood prices are already causing some important shifts industrywide: use of more salvaged lumber (older houses often have high-quality wood), and the use of ''engineered lumber'' (beams made of bonded wood fibers) rather than increasingly expensive beams made of solid-sawn timber.

But in some areas, the green way simply costs more. The design process is typically more intensive, for example, says Mr. Browning.