Building that costs Earth less
Americans are getting "greener." They separate bottles and cans for curbside collection. They buy recycled paper. They install efficient appliances and low-energy lights.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now, many are taking a close look at sustainable construction.
For the first time, mainstream homeowners who are remodeling the family room or building their dream house don't have to throw out their environmental principles.
They can choose environmentally sensitive lumber, composite siding, and decking made from recycled shopping bags.
If they want to push the envelope, they can try new materials, such as mud bricks, rubble insulation, even particle board made of manure.
And it's not just the exterior of the home that's going green. Contractors are beginning to use more environmentally benign paint, drywall, flooring, and carpeting. It's not clear whether the movement will overtake traditional homebuilding, but it could change the way Americans think about the ecological impact of their homes.
"People increasingly are aware that many of the materials we're using aren't environmentally satisfactory," says Stephen Keiley, president of Foxfire Associates, a Middleburg, Va., company that is pioneering compressed-earth blocks. "You're beginning to see market forces accommodate."
"People are starting to take environmental issues quite seriously," adds Penny Bonda, director of interior design with the interiors group at Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, an architecture and engineering design firm headquartered in Butler, Pa. "These are technologies that are real, viable, and affordable."
The first question that pops up in most building projects is: Should I use lumber? Homeowners with an environmental bent have many options. They can choose environmentally certified wood, which comes from forests managed to preserve biodiversity. Or they can use old or "aged" wood, recovered from old structures that have been torn down. There's also the pre-engineered variety, made of waste wood but formed like a steel beam to increase strength and reduce the need for extra bracing.
Then there are plenty of composites, such as particle board that uses wheat or other waste fiber. James Hardie Building Products, based in Mission Viejo, Calif., makes lapboard siding that combines natural fibers with cement, sand, and water.
Building a deck? Consider plastic lumber. Companies such as Trex Company in Winchester, Va., create decking material that mixes waste wood with recycled plastic shopping bags. True, the material costs 15 to 20 percent more than ordinary decking. But the company guarantees it won't split, crack, or get infested by insects for 10 years. Also, there's no yearly staining or sealing.
"It's the high-performance benefits that [homeowners] go for first," says Maureen Murray, company spokeswoman. "The environmental aspect is a real bonus." The company already uses half of the nation's recycled plastic bags, and is eager to get more.
Sometimes these products cost more. But they don't have to increase the overall cost of a project, if well designed, argues Todd Jersey, a Berkeley, Calif., architect who has been using certified lumber for 10 years. "It just takes smart choices."
Homeowners have several non-lumber options. They can rely on recycled concrete or steel, researchers say, although opinions vary about how green such products really are.
Environmentalists point out that both require loads of energy to create, which requires the burning of fossil fuels and the creation of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, both products can be reused and recycled, points out Tom Rogers, a construction-management professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.