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.

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.

University researchers think they can build the frame of a building, including the roof, very inexpensively by using steel post-and-beam construction. Once constructed, builders can fill in the walls with locally available waste material, such as straw or even rubble. Such structures aren't as green as, say, homes that use only straw bales to support the structure, professor Rogers adds. But they're far more likely to get approval from a building inspector and, surprisingly, cheaper to construct.

Too often "green means expensive," Professor Rogers says. "We're trying to find green technologies that aren't expensive."

Drywall also falls into a gray area. Environmentalists don't like the environmental harm of gypsum mining. But "we have a very good environmental story to tell," says Rob Waterhouse, vice president of marketing for USG Corporation in Chicago. The company uses recycled paper, tons of recycled newspaper, and synthetic gypsum (a byproduct from coal-fired power plants) to make a significant amount of its drywall. At the end of this year, USG plans to introduce Fiberock, interior panels that use 100 percent recycled material.

Maybe you'd rather build like a Pueblo Indian. FoxFire Associates has developed a mobile earth compactor called the GreenMachine. The idea: Dig up the subsoil on your own building site, add a small amount of cement, and let the compactor turn out three earthen bricks a minute. The bricks are shaped with tongue and groove connections, require no mortar, and can create a load-bearing wall up to two stories.

Cover it with stucco on the outside and plaster on the inside, and neighbors will never know you've got dirt walls.

Mr. Keiley claims the structure saves 25 percent to 35 percent off the cost of traditional residential construction. The technology, which Habitat for Humanity is beginning to use, will first appeal to the poor and later to affluent consumers concerned about the environment.

It's not just ultra-greens who are snapping up these products.

"A lot of Yippees buy organic food every day, but they're not necessarily the ones building the new house," says Jason Grant, president of EcoTimber, based in Berkeley, Calif. His main buyers are relatively well educated, affluent, and politically center-left or further left.

"While they may not go way out of their way to [pick] an environmental wood product, when its positioned as attractive, competitively priced, and convenient, they'll go for it," Mr. Grant says.

The company's share price has ballooned to 13 times its level of five years ago - a signal that the company's environmental message is getting through. "The awareness has gone well beyond the fringes, and begun to really penetrate the mainstream of America," Grant adds.

Read before you build

For general information, check out "A Primer on Sustainable Building," by Diana Lopez and William D. Browning (Rocky Mountain Institute); "The New Natural House Book," by David Pearson (Simon & Schuster); "The Environment Comes Home," by K. David Pijawka and Kim Shetter (U. of Arizona Press).

The publication Environmental Building News ( features articles on green construction. The Environmental Home Center (800-281-9785 or offers a wealth of sources on such topics as low-toxic paints and eco-friendly countertops.


Inter-Americas Adobe Magazine offers articles on projects and training classes in the Southwest United States (505-861-1255 or


Co-op America's WoodWise program offers a quick overview of certified lumber and places to buy it (800-58-GREEN or For more in-depth information on what constitutes a certified forest, contact the Forest Stewardship Council (877-372-5646 or

Straw bale

For links to the many Web sites devoted to the technology, try Surfin' StrawBale (

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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