What is Green Building?

Before we ask ‘why’, it is better to know ‘what’ Green Building is. While everyone’s perception of this term is slightly different, the general definition is widely accepted (from Wikipedia):

 refers to a structure and building process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.

 What this means is that a green building should be comprehensively considered though out its entire lifespan, and furthermore, the building is only as green as it’s inhabitants are. Let’s examine the life cycle from start to finish.

Planning– This is one of the more important aspects of green building. Thoughtful planning will make or break a green project from the get go. One must consider their needs, how they intend to use the space, and of course, budget. In 2007, the average house size in the US was 2,521 sq ft., up from 1,400 sq ft. in 1970, which was up from about 1,000 sq ft in the 20’s and 30’s. Do we really need that much space? Most people in the world would be happy to even have a fourth of that much space, and they are part of larger families than we have in the US. Keeping size in check is probably the largest contributor to a green structure. It will use less time, materials, and energy to construct. It will also operate with less energy and take less energy to maintain. After size, one should consider proper siting, construction details, and other technology. Is it possible to orient the building south and elongate it along the east west axis? Is the construction type suitable for the region? Are the materials readily available? Does the building assembly lend itself to modular components, or will there be lots of cutting and waste material? Are you designing with ideal glazing proportions? Overhangs? For technology based applications, will the initial higher costs pay for itself over time? These are but a few factors that we help your understand and incorporate into your new home.

Construction  Most people probably think this is where most of the “green” stuff happens, when in fact, it is only a moderate portion of sustainable building. While we try to source local materials and use local craftsman to cut down on embodied energy, there will be some items that we just can’t get locally. Sometimes, a material might be more green over the lifespan of the building if it satisfies other criteria even if it comes from 1,000 miles away, and sometimes a local material might not be green at all even if it does come from 10 miles away. The labor involved in building the house is what it is. We can reduce energy usage with careful planning, but only to an extent. As mentioned in the planning phase, we can also reduce waste with thoughtful design in regards to material use and size. We try to work with materials where the scraps can be recycled and not thrown into the landfill, but inevitably, there will be some waste. Assuming your home is modest in size and smartly designed, it won’t be much waste and calculated over the lifespan of the building, it will be negligible.

Operation It could be argued this is the second most important aspect of green building. Having a well built, well functioning building won’t mean a whole lot if you don’t operate it very efficiently. It’s like owning a nice bike but always opting to drive the SUV around. Why would you run the AC when it’s 75 degrees out? Or even if it was 85 degrees?. Why would you have the heat blasting at 85 degrees if it’s only 50 out? In both cases you could exercise a little give and take (i.e. turn on a ceiling fan and wear light clothes in the summer, or just put on a comfy sweater in the winter) and save a lot on your energy costs. You also have to consider other things like how far away you live from where you work or travel to frequently. No matter how green your house is, if you have to drive 20 miles to get to it from town, you are still very much dependent upon fossil fuels. Then there is our most precious resource, water. Do you have native xeriscaping that requires little or no irrigation, or tons of pretty flowers and trees that are water guzzlers? Do you have to take two showers a day or two a week? It’s little decisions like these that will have a large impact over time.

Maintenance Assuming you planned well and the construction was executed properly, you should have a building that needs little to no maintenance. We like building with materials like adobe, plaster, metal roofs, etc. because they are tough and stand the test of time. A well installed standing seam metal roof can easily last 100 years and never need any maintenance. This might be a good example of how a non local material could be greener than a locally sourced one because it never needs to be maintained or replaced. Lets say we installed a roof of locally sourced wood shakes. With lots of maintenance, we’d be lucky if it lasted 20 years-that’s if a wildfire didn’t blow in and destroy it first. This means over the span of 100 years it would have to replaced about 5 times. The energy and expense of these replacements would be far greater than the initial expense and energy of installing that non-local metal.

Renovate Hopefully you love you green home so much, you never want to renovate it, but let’s say you do want to make some updates. Are you going to have to tear half the house up to make a change, or will you be able to move some walls here, change some cabinets there, or change out some other materials easily to accommodate your desires?