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Published on October 14th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans

Green Building/Remodeling

It used to be that years ago home builders weren’t terribly concerned about building materials and their impact on the environment.  The goal, especially during the post-war housing boom in the United States during the 1940s and 50s, was to put up a lot of houses and put them up fast.

Keeping building costs down was also a concern of most builders, and inexpensive materials were used in favor of maintaining a healthy bottom line.

For this reason, the housing industry has indeed had a huge effect on the environment.  Many building products are far from eco-friendly, including such materials as asbestos insulation and other products containing similarly dangerous toxins.  And when those products wind up on the scrap heap during remodeling projects, they can cause even more hazards.

Fortunately, home builders of the new millennium have started standing up and taking notice of their industry’s huge impact on the world around us and have been providing new home owners, as well as those remodeling their old homes, with options that are more planet-friendly.  Today, one might say, building “green” involves more than just the color you’ve selected for your siding…

Why Green Construction?

While cars and factories have an impact on the environment that’s obvious to most individuals, it’s often difficult for people to understand just how a home or seemingly-innocuous office building can affect our planet.

Simply put, a well-built “green” building can easily trump a traditional building by reducing the amount of energy consumed and the amount of water used on a daily basis.  In addition, by using natural, sustainable building products, everyone’s health may be improved simply by improving the air quality inside a building.

In a recent study released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the organization reports that buildings account for 39% of total energy usage, 68% of total energy consumption, and 38% of carbon dioxide emissions in this country.  Those are high numbers but with some simple steps they can be reduced, say EPA officials and other green organizations.

Furthermore, a green building is more cost efficient for owners or landlords.  Remember, green buildings lessen energy usage, therefore saving the owner money in the long run, even if it costs a little more to include green building materials in the construction process.

Building Green

What exactly does it mean to employ the use of “green” construction techniques or materials?  Simply, green construction always keeps the environment in mind.  Eco-friendly construction materials are those that help to sustain the environment. These include such products as organic insulation, solar panels, or wood from sustainable forests.

In general, products used include high-efficiency lighting, heating, and cooling options that lessen the buildings impact on the Earth. In addition, green buildings are also designed to be more aesthetically pleasing and to blend with their environment. That might include the extensive use of plants or trees or other organic materials. Some studies show that the use of things like plants and water features in green office buildings serve to improve employee productivity, yet another perk of a healthy, green environment.

Green Remodeling

While it isn’t difficult to plan a green building from scratch, many individuals who are eco-conscious and have a desire to convert their traditional homes to something more eco-friendly may face a few more challenges.  Green remodeling is usually a bit tougher and while certainly commendable, there is much for the home remodeler to consider before making the necessary changes.

The main concern is dealing with the potentially toxic materials that are already inside the existing house.  If a homeowner is converting a home that was constructed prior to 1980, chances are that asbestos and other hazardous materials may be present.

Asbestos was widely used for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century and removing it properly is critical and usually involves the services of a licensed abatement professional.  Asbestos exposure can of course lead to the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma.  Currently, there are no mesothelioma treatments that constitute a cure.

Fortunately, once the asbestos insulation, flooring, ceiling tiles, or other products of concern are removed, there are much better options for their replacement.  Today, eco-friendly insulation products include:

  • Cotton Fiber—Recycled cotton fiber has become a very popular insulation material among green builders.  It consists of a batted material—often denim—that has been treated with the chemical borate to make it fire- and heat-retardant and to prevent it from developing mold.  The material does not off-gas and it is non-toxic, requiring no warning labels.  Manufacturers of cotton fiber insulation include Bonded Logic, which manufactures the popular UltraTouch brand.
  • Cellulose—Cellulose insulation is made from finely-shredded newsprint.  It contains 85 percent recycled content, similar to the numbers for cotton fiber insulation.  It is chemically treated to reduce mold and promote fire resistance and its use is said to reduce heating and air conditioning bills by up to 20 percent annually.  GreenFiber, a manufacturer of eco-friendly building products such as cellulose insulation, reports that cellulose is used in approximately 15 percent of new green building construction.
  • Fiberglass—Though fiberglass of old was not really toxic to the environment, today’s fiberglass insulation manufacturers are now making more and better use of recycled materials in their products.  In addition, well-known insulation companies—like Owens Corning and CertainTeed—are striving to have their products certified by the GreenGuard Environmental Institute for low emissions of formaldehyde and other pollutants.  Also, these companies both have green building departments that are concerned specifically with supplying eco-friendly products to those who desire them.
  • Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF)—Easy to install, this foam does not emit any harmful off-gasses.  In addition, this water-based spray (icynene) is said to produce a “tight” home that allows little space for mold or dust, making it very desirable for families with allergies.  Its only drawback is that icynene can only be installed by certified professionals, making it more costly than other forms of non-toxic insulation.  However, manufacturers claim it cuts energy costs by about 35 percent annually.
  • AirKrete foamsulation
  • BioBased Spray Foam Insulation

In general, eco-friendly insulation provides a lower risk of the release of pollutants in the home or office because it is manufactured from natural fibers.  That means you’ll be breathing cleaner air at all times.  Using these natural fibers provides yet another advantage—less waste makes its way to the landfills, further reducing the impact of buildings on the environment.

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