Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sustainable Building Basics: An Introduction

Over the past 15 yrs we've seen a surge in the “green” building industry. This movement has had its fits and starts over the last 40 yrs, but this time it's going to stick around for awhile due to a higher level of environmental awareness, health concerns and rising energy prices.

In the 60's and 70's solar panels were solely for 'hippies', in the 80's they started to become widely used due to spiking oil prices, but soon died when prices fell again and homes were stuck with 'ugly' boxes on their roofs with major maintenance issues. In the 90's, the environmental movement gave rise to a new generation where 'green' anything was the responsible way to go to reduce carbon footprints and here in the 21st century, it just may be the only thing to do as natural resources continue to be consumed globally at an unsustainable rate. Furthermore, these days 'green' building has become widely accepted in the main stream as “cool” and now that green product prices are competitive with conventional products, it makes green building more accessible to everyone. But more than just a passing fad, the effects will be long lasting and far reaching, setting the bar higher for the future of the building industry.

The non-profit organization, US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program has become the #1 rating system in America and is setting high standards for sustainable design. In 2008 alone LEED had certified over 2000 buildings , both new and existing construction. The vast majority of these buildings were large scale commercial projects where the owner company wished to create a responsible 'green' image for their customers and employees and at the same time drastically reducing energy costs in the long term.......there are tangible economic benefits to building sustainably which increases the bottom line. Buildings are the #1 emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 72% of electricity use in the US. Transportation is second followed by industry. LEED gold and platinum certified buildings can reduce energy consumption by up to 50%. LEED is a voluntary program, although some local building departments are adopting a certain amount of LEED requirements as part of their codes.

Now there is LEED for Homes where new homes can achieve a silver, gold or platinum rating which proves to the owner and future owners that it was built according to certain sustainable principles. This rating program takes a whole house approach, looking at the site location in proximity to community resources and utilities, building orientation, glazing, efficient use of materials, water and fuel use, insulation, natural day lighting, moisture control, indoor environmental quality, appliances and landscaping to name several. A LEED rating adds value to the property, as people are growing more and more aware of the importance and benefits of the 'green' built environment. It's not just about reducing carbon footprints and energy costs, it's about creating healthful non-toxic, more comfortable environments to live in.

The term 'sustainable' is being used synonymously with 'green' for buildings and although it has a nice ring to it, we first need to put things into perspective according to what is truly sustainable in the world. The word sustainable is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain", "support", or "endure”. Wikipedia states, “A universally accepted definition of sustainability remains elusive because it is expected to achieve many things. On the one hand it needs to be factual and scientific, a clear statement of a specific “destination”. The simple modern definition; "sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems", though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits..........To add complication the word sustainability is applied not only to human sustainability on Earth, but to many situations and contexts over many scales of space and time, from small local ones to the global balance of production and consumption. For all these reasons sustainability is perceived, at one extreme, as nothing more than a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance but, at the other, as an important but unfocused concept.”

Although sustainability is a vast and complicated topic, we can use the term loosely in relation to agriculture, economics, energy and buildings, knowing that we are simply taking steps towards being more sustainable. After all, the prospect of society going back to living in teepees and adopting a native lifestyle as an integral part of the natural ecosystem is rather unlikely. We can, however, choose to consume less natural resources, use recycled non-toxic products, increase our homes energy performance, utilize solar technologies, maintain materials and equipment to increase their usable lifespan etc. Everything has a lifespan and will eventually need to be replaced and the longer buildings endure, the better. Homes that weren't built to quality standards in the past to protect from moisture have decayed within an 80 yr period to the point where it costs less to tear down and rebuild than to repair, which is enormously wasteful as the whole house ends up in a landfill.

In most cases the 'greenest' home is an older existing home in good structural condition for the obvious reasons that no more resources are needed to provide housing and it has likely off-gassed most or all toxicity from the building materials. Couple this with an energy efficiency upgrade, a solar thermal/ photovoltaic system and a permaculture landscape and you'll have a nice 'green' abode. The next step is to adopt a lifestyle that reflects efficient water, electric and fuel consumption, growing fruits and vegetables using organic methods and so on.

For those wishing to build a new home, there are a diverse number of options available for sustainable construction. The alternative materials and products on the market now are quite competitive with conventional options.....and in many cases the conventional has become 'green' due to consumer demand and because quality solid wood products are more difficult to come by these days. For instance, engineered framing lumber has largely replaced solid wood members. This is good in that less wood is needed to do the job and the wood used is comprised of faster growing, smaller trees. The only downside to these products is the use of chemical adhesives, including formaldehyde to bind the wood pieces together and add strength. Another conventional green material used these days is “Hardie Siding” made from compressed wood fiber and cement which has a much longer life than wood, holds paint like nothing else and doesn't have the maintenance issues of painted wood siding.

The more unconventional 'green' building materials include SIP's (structural insulated panels), ICF's (insulated concrete forms) ACC (autoclaved aerated concrete) and natural materials such as strawbale, cob, rammed earth, and cordwood. The specifics of these materials will be left for another article, but the general trend has been towards a tighter, sealed, well insulated building envelope. This makes it even more important to choose interior finishes and furnishings wisely, preferring products that have low or no toxicity, as they will be trapped in the house contaminating the air you breathe.

There is a current growing trend to build smaller and smarter which is the #1 step in building more sustainably. Instead of the 4000 sq.ft.+ high upscale mansions of 20 yrs ago which were resource intensive to build, heat and cool, homes are now commonly built less than 2500 sq.ft. and current codes are demanding more energy efficient measures than in the past. The way to true green living is to aim well beyond the code standards, approaching a zero energy home, meaning the home generates the same amount of energy that it uses on a yearly basis. It's easier said than done in certain climates, but as long as buildings head in that direction, one day it will be financially viable in any climate. Considering the cost per watt for solar panels 20 yrs ago was 7 times what it costs today, we're clearly headed down a path where home power will be able to pay for itself in the future. Technology is rapidly advancing to the point where entire roofs and windows will be able to generate electricity. So it's the combination of building smaller, tighter, thermally efficient homes with modern photovoltaic and solar thermal systems for heating and domestic hot water that make the whole idea of zero energy homes achievable.

Beyond individual homes, how we live is just as important as how we build in regards to sustainability. There are new choices in housing springing up all over the North America, which now number over 100. Intentional neighborhoods in the form of “co-housing” or “pocket neighborhoods”offer a welcome alternative to the standard subdivision. These projects are designed to encourage natural social interaction as well as maintain privacy for the residents. They are generally comprised of smaller scale, fully functional homes with generous front porches clustered around a larger common house which has a commercial grade kitchen, large dining area, recreation space, craft room, guest quarters, tool storage, laundry facilities etc. Often there are other shared features, such as a woodshop, greenhouses, gardens, tennis court, pool.....making these desired items affordable for all, which at the same time reduces the amount of resources needed per person. These rich environments are multi-generational with singles, couples and families in a spectrum of income levels. Everyone knows their neighbors and their neighbor’s needs and gifts/skills they can share. Meals are shared at least once a week at the common house and lives are enhanced because of this extended family environment. It's certainly not always easy, as we're in the process of learning to live with one another again. But the benefits far outweigh the downfalls.

This community concept is not just reserved for new intentional co-housing projects as there has also been a widespread movement to rekindle neighborhood communities with regular gatherings, meetings and potluck meals. Joint purchases of larger equipment between 3-4 people like snowblowers, rototillers, lawn mowers or log-splitters ease the burden on all. Carpooling, childcare and pet care becomes more commonplace too. The lonely elder woman down the road who has much knowledge and wisdom to share has children who visit often and benefit from learning practical skills from her. She in turn has her yard cared for and there was no money necessary in the exchange. There is something quite fundamental about connecting with one another, giving and receiving freely and it's truly at the heart of sustainable, natural living.

In further articles we'll take an in depth look at the different aspects of sustainable building design, including passive solar principles, natural materials, renewable energy, building science and integrative landscaping that can be applied to either new or existing homes.


Touson Saryon is the owner of Integral Design Studio, a small sustainable building and landscape design firm in Mount Shasta, CA. Over the past 14 yrs he has designed homes in 6 western states using sustainable principles. For more information on his practice, visit


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