Building and Remodeling with Sustainable Materials

Building and Remodeling with Sustainable Materials

An Earthship in Taos, NM

An Earthship in Taos, NM

It wasn’t so many years ago that “green” became the next big thing, and people flocked to buy solar panels, soy foam insulation, synthetic parquet tiles (and other engineered wood products), and landscape plants to create green (or “living”) roofs.

It was a remarkable revolution, noted more for its enthusiasm than its skill or experience. Since then, those of us who follow environmental issues in the belief that going green is necessary if we are to preserve a viable planet, are becoming more aware of our relationship with the environment. Taking this rapport one step further, with a newly acquired sophistication based on trial and error, we have begun to see sustainability not as a goal but as a process, with each improvement leading to another.

This growing realization is a good thing, and well-timed to plan mitigation strategies regarding melting permafrost in the Arctic and the release of large quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas, or GHG, whose disruptive potential over a millennium is about 20 times that of carbon dioxide, or CO2.

Some Internet journalists are calling these methane releases “The end of the world as we know it.” I personally think that kind of yellow (or tabloid) journalism is irresponsible, if only because it’s so depressing that even the bravest question the value of any action.

Fortunately, green has reached a new maturity, and the building industry – whose technology stalled in the 20th century with the advent of double pane windows – is finally beginning to see the necessity for sourcing products that offer the hope of renewability, sustainability, and global temperature modification through reduced energy use and a concomitant reduction in GHGs.

Whether you are building new or renovating, you should be aware of the benefits these energy-efficient, sustainably sourced, 21st century building products offer. They include:

  • Pervious pavement, which absorbs stormwater runoff, thus replenishing ground water supplies and moderating the heat island effect. Use it for sidewalks, patios and driveway.
  • Recycled glass kitchen and bath countertops, made of 85 percent repurposed glass which would otherwise end up in a landfill.
  • Bamboo flooring (and countertops, and furniture), made from mature bamboo trees which take as little as three years to reach mature size, often on a lean diet of soil too leached for growing food and water rations that would make a camel groan. Oh, and did we mention that it’s as durable as maple or walnut?
  • Wool area rugs and carpeting, with all of wool’s durability and longevity. Expect to love them for at least 30 years, or twice as long as synthetic fibers, without the offgassing of noxious chemical fumes like toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene and acetone that synthetic carpet fibers are infamous for. Ick! Anyone bring a breathing mask?
  • Instead of boring, plebian drywall, or sheetrock, which has a huge manufacturing footprint in terms of energy used, why not build plaster walls? Clay earth plaster can be a do-it-yourself project that brings out your inner child again. Alternatively, you can put in the hands of a professional. But be aware, there are very few journeyman plasterers left thanks to drywall, but plastering techniques aren’t rocket science. More important, clay earth plaster regulates the moisture content of indoor air, and helps moderate temperatures as well. And most important, unless someone drives their car through your living room wall, clay earth plaster won’t need the patching, fixing and filling drywall requires with an active, busy family.
  • Energy Star appliances cost about 10 percent more than their counterparts, but will – over their lifetimes – save anywhere between $100 (for refrigerators) to almost $200 (for Energy Star-rated heating and cooling systems on a Smart Meter system) per year.
  • Using LED light bulbs instead of the older incandescent (Edison-type) bulbs saves beaucoup bucks – about $6 per year for each, which in the average home adds up to about $50 per year. Installing low-flow showerheads and faucets, as well as an energy (and water) miser dishwasher and save $40 a year. Add an ENERGY STAR washing machine and save money on both your utility bill $30 per year) and your water bill.
  • For serious water conservation, install water miser toilets, which use only 1.6 gallons per flush as compared to 3.5 for older ones. You can also use greywater (from sinks, tubs and showers) to wash your car, but this is a highly expensive plumbing project. Composting toilets are even more complex. Instead, go for rain barrels (one at each low corner of your home’s rain gutters).
  • Cheap and easy quick-fixes include clear plastic window covers in winter, weatherstripping around exterior doors, and turning your hot water heater’s thermostat down to 120 (from a factory setting of 140), which will save 20 percent. Finally, put your energy hogs (TV, computer, stereo, game systems) on a power strip diet and turn the strip off when none are in use. Lastly, buy a can of spray foam insulation (like Great Stuff) to insulate electrical outlets on exterior walls. Don’t think they leak? Hold a candle to them and be amazed!
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