When it comes to protecting the environment, just about the most important influence we can have is in our homes and offices.
Some of the most severe environmental impacts, in fact, stem from our buildings. Changing the way we build and operate our homes and workplaces can have profound benefits for the planet and our well-being.
David Malin Roodman and Nicholas Lenssen, writing for The Worldwatch Institute, argue that the modern buildings we live, work and shop in rival cars and manufacturing as sources of harm to the environment. Modern construction techniques contribute greatly to deforestation, global warming, overuse of water, acid rain and other environmental problems.
In 1990, Kirk Smith, founder of the Greenhouse Crisis Foundation in Washington, D.C., wrote that United States homes and apartments account for the largest share of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by all industrial, commercial and residential sources worldwide.
Buildings that are unhealthy for the environment, not surprisingly, often cause illness in people, too.
Thirty percent of newly built or renovated buildings suffer from "sick building syndrome", exposing occupants to stale or mold- and chemical-laden air, Roodman and Lenssen say. Many homes built in this century contain radon or asbestos. The EPA estimates that lead-based paint was applied to approximately two-thirds of the houses built in the U.S. before 1940 and one-third of the homes built between 1940 and 1960.
Largely because of these environmental and health reasons, ecobuilding has become a hot trend in the 1990s.
Professional Builder magazine reports that 60 percent of buyers want "healthy house" features in their new purchase, and 25 percent say it is important to buy a home constructed with "green methods".
A green home can reduce environmental impact by as much as 60 percent compared to standard houses, according to Howard Associates, a building environmental science and technology firm in Maryland. Green buildings are more energy efficient, and use recycled, renewable and reused resources as much as possible.
Ecobuilding is a broad field, encompassing numerous innovative ideas. Almost any aspect of housing, remodeling and construction can fall into the category of ecobuilding. Even the household cleaners and paints we use make a substantial difference to the environment and our well-being.
The Environmental Home Center, a store just south of the Kingdome in Seattle, sells a wide array of eco-friendly supplies. The products—which include paints, adhesives, wood and timber, flooring materials, cabinetry, tile, insulation and roofing, sheet goods and decking materials, furniture, bedding and appliances, and even carpeting—share one or more of the following qualities: they are low-toxic, biodegradable, non-polluting, recycled and recyclable, energy- and resource-efficient, sustainably grown or manufactured, renewable, promote social and economic sustainability, or a combination of these factors.
Following are some of the major trends in ecobuilding:
INDOOR AIR QUALITY
Pollutant levels in the air inside our homes and offices may be two to five times higher than the air outdoors, according to Howard Associates. Some common indoor pollutants are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, suspended particulates, formaldehyde, allergens, smoke and radon gas.
While we spend as much as 75 to 90 percent of our time inside, many of the effects of indoor pollution are not yet well understood. But some of the known health impacts range from sneezing, itchy eyes and general discomfort to respiratory disorders and lung cancer.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimates that 11 percent of us, or 22 million Americans, suffer from allergies or asthma. These allergies can be aggravated by house dust and other indoor pollutants. Ecobuilders are just now learning ways to address these issues.
Some of the steps they are taking include using radon-resistant construction techniques, using products that emit less formaldehyde, and inserting electronic air filters in modern heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Also, asbestos-containing products have been banned or are being phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Healthy Building Associates, a Seattle firm owned by Dan Morris, inspects sick homes and offices. They can check your home for numerous pollutants, including chemical or other strange odors, excessive dust, dirty ducts, sooty or smelly heating devices, asbestos, radon and lead in paint.
IMPROVED ENERGY USAGE
Green homes are much more energy efficient than standard houses. But even if you don’t own a green home, you may be able to get a low-cost energy audit from your local utility. A quality audit, or home energy rating, will provide you with specific measures to maximize energy savings.
Some strategies that may work for your home include: sealing up air-leaks from construction cracks and holes, improving attic, wall and foundation insulation, installing high-performance windows and doors, using efficient electric lighting and plug-in appliances, and upgrading to high efficiency furnaces, heat pumps and boilers.
Doing these things can bring up to 65 percent in energy savings, according to Howard Associates.
Green homes use about half as much water as typical buildings constructed in the 1980s. That’s important because reservoirs and aquifers are shrinking in many areas due to overdevelopment.
Homes use hundreds of gallons of water each day. A green home typically conserves or saves much of this as "gray water", which can be recycled for watering gardens or lawns.
Low-flush toilets, well-insulated hot-water piping and low-flow shower heads, faucets, dishwashers and washing machines are all strategies you may follow to reduce water usage. Landscaping is another potential big area for water savings, through the use of drought-resistant plants.
Single family homes represent the largest market for solid wood products in the United States. In 1992, an estimated 41.3 million cubic meters of lumber were consumed in the construction of slightly more than one million homes. This drive for lumber has serious impacts on the planet’s forests.
The Environmental Home Center in Seattle specializes in "environmental woods"—from trees that have been harvested in a more eco-friendly manner than most wood. Environmental woods include timber and wood products that are selectively cut from well-managed forests. Some environmental woods are recovered from development operations, natural disasters and demolition and renovation projects.
EHC hardwoods are certified by the Rainforest Alliance Smart Wood Certification Program and the Forest Conservation Program of Scientific Certification Systems. These programs ensure that the hardwoods are harvested under sustainable conditions that maintain watershed stability, promote erosion control and preservation of habits of all native plant and animal species.
STRAW BALE HOUSING
Environmentalists have recently rediscovered an ancient building technique: building homes from straw bales. Straw—the dried plant material left after such plants as wheat, oats, barley and wheatgrass have matured—is used in walls covered by stucco. Straw has been found completely intact in Egyptian tombs. With proper care, a straw house could last as long.
Straw bale housing was used in the plains states in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many of those structures—including homes, farm buildings, schools, churches, community centers, government buildings and airplane hangars—are still in use.
Locally, the GreenFire Institute is a leader in the straw bale housing movement. The institute runs the North American Natural Building College, promoting straw bale housing and other environmentally friendly building techniques in the United States and Canada. GreenFire also offers workshops for the general public.
CONSTRUCTION AND DEMOLITION RECYCLING
One of the largest contributors to our rapidly filling landfills is construction and demolition debris. In California, for example, these materials make up 20 to 30 percent of the municipal waste stream. Many ecobuilders are focusing on the recycling and reuse of these materials to ease pressures on landfills and to use resources more efficiently. They see it as more economical to eliminate the generation of waste than to develop costly treatment methods once it has been created.
Building, demolition, repair and maintenance generate waste that can be used in new construction or recycled material. Such wastes typically include wood, roofing materials, tile, aluminum, plastic, asphalt,concrete, glass and insulation.
The new Recreational Equipment Inc. Flagship store in Seattle, designed by Mithun Partners, made extensive use of this technique. About 75 percent of the demolition debris was reused in the 100,000 square-food, $30 million building, recycled, or sold for salvage.
If the house or office building represents the micro, the community represents the macro. To be truly eco-friendly, homes and offices need to blend into their community well.
A well designed neighborhood can substantially reduce energy usage and auto emissions pollution by offering strong mass transit, infrastructure that reduces vehicle miles traveled, pedestrian options for recreation and light shopping needs, and accessible bike paths.