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Building green, getting real

by Steve McKee on April 22, 2008

To build green is to create a structure that is designed and built and operated in an ecological and resource-efficient manner. This includes the use of energy efficiencies in every way, lowering water consumption and selecting building materials for durability and performance and also providing for healthy indoor air quality.

Just about every article I’ve read about green building discusses this subject in big general statements like the above paragraph, and when I’m finished reading I usually feel no closer to being able to do anything real about it. It would be very easy for me to write my own article here in that way, with vague generalities, but readers of this column know that’s not how I roll.

Sometimes these articles about sustainable building contain a long list of design ideas in which every conceivable suggestion is heaped onto the pile (usually proposed by people with no idea of what it really takes to pull them off) so the good advice we should all be following gets lumped in with a long list of really difficult and expensive ideas causing the reader to feel overwhelmed and ready to just forget the whole idea.

I’ve found that the websites for the national green building organizations like USGBC (United States Green Building Council) are more geared toward their agenda of “third party verification” in order to ascertain if a mandated level of green-ness was achieved on certain projects, and not so much providing advice to us little guys building individual houses and trying to be responsible to generations not yet born.
Today’s column is for us little guys, with ideas that are both usable and useful.

My list of good green ideas for houses:

90% efficiency furnace: These furnaces cost about an extra thousand dollars compared to the usual 80% efficient furnaces, but pay for themselves in a few years with the gas they save. These efficient furnaces don’t require a metal flue that needs to find a path up through your framing to your roof, thus saving money and offsetting some of this extra cost. I think this is one idea that should be made a requirement.

Extra insulation: Use R-38 (or thicker) insulation in your attic even if the codes let you put in less.

Forest friendly lumber: Two competing rating systems exist for lumber. ”SFI” lumber (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) has been harvested with environmentally friendly techniques, but is not as rigorously monitored as “FSC” lumber (Forest Stewardship Council) which has a “chain of custody” certification process which tracks the forest friendly lumber from forest to lumberyard, but also charges for the extra monitoring. My research shows that FSC lumber will cost more, but is more certain to be environmentally friendly.

Adding fly ash to concrete: Fly ash is a waste product from coal power plants that needs to be disposed of but also happens to be a useful ingredient in concrete. Using it lowers green house gases needed in the production of concrete, but it unfortunately adds to the curing time of concrete and slows down the pace of building project by a couple weeks. To use this one you will need to plan around this delay.
Intelligent window placement: A favorite of mine, because we can bring creativity and intelligence to this one. For instance, don’t place two-story tall windows in locations where all you are getting is a view of sky and a lot of hot sun. Use your window “allowance” for more true livability. Also, go easy on west facing windows.

Overhangs on south windows: Position overhangs to allow winter sun but keep out summer sun.

Fiber cement siding: Use rot resistant synthetic materials such as Hardie plank siding that will last forever.

Composite decking: Trex type decking is made from wood fibers mixed with recycled plastic. It’s rot resistant and needs no maintenance.

Whole house fans: This is a big centrally located exhaust fan that pulls air out of your house and draws in cooler outside air. It’s a good way to cool your house after the sun goes down. Get the larger size with the fan belt drive. They’re quieter.

Air conditioners rated at “13 SEER”:
An air conditioner with the 13 SEER rating saves energy. Before defaulting to using an a.c. try more insulation, intelligent window placement and overhangs, and

Tankless water heater: Heats water only when you need it. Avoids the need to keep a big tank of water hot all day and night, twenty-four seven.

Energy star appliances: This label indicates that these appliances use less energy.

Low VOC paint: Use paint considered “Low VOC” (volatile organic compounds) because it has less harmful fumes, is better for your lungs and barely adds to the cost of your job.

Photovoltaic cells: I saved the best for last. These are the banks of blue metallic solar panels you sometimes see on south facing roofs. Expensive but fantastically green in their result. Pretty much eliminates the need to import electricity. Your meter will actually run backwards on most days. Parades should be held to honor all of you who do this one.

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