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Green building: new catchphrase, old concept

Anne Lundgren | Improvement Center Columnist | August 13, 2013

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Welcome the Green Building boom. Many types of sustainable building have existed for ages. They just had other names, like living within your means and using readily available resources.

Green building: ancient technology

Some of today's innovative green construction borrows from a technique called rammed earth, which archaeologists date back to over 10,000 years. Ancient civilizations relied on this construction method, as dirt was and still is a readily available building material. Modern-day rammed earth projects -- also known as earthships -- cost about as much to build as conventional homes; however, earthships are made to be self-sustaining. The design methods include drawing electricity and regulating interior temperatures using elements like earth, sun and wind. The abodes also incorporate internal greenhouses, so inhabitants can harvest crops year-round.

Earthships take rammed earth to another level, incorporating recycled materials like used tires, cans and bottles. While piling tires causes toxic gasses and fires, filling them with dirt and using them as bricks turn them into earthquake-resistant green material. The primary principle behind earthships is to use easily accessible materials and building techniques the average person can tackle with the right tools and time.

Traditional construction and green building

Traditionally, families used to live in smaller homes than in recent years. Not surprisingly, larger homes mean greater energy usage. One reason developers pushed larger homes stems from the lower cost per square foot to build them, ignoring the extra expense to regulate interior temperatures and the additional cost of upkeep and use of precious resources. Smaller homes might cost more per square foot to construct, but can be much more energy efficient and use fewer building materials.

Straw bale home construction is one type of green building making a reappearance. A technique practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, construction entails covering baled straw with stucco. Two basic types include "Nebraska" style, where the bales support the roof, and post-and-beam construction infilled with bales. The low cost of materials and unskilled labor, along with the super insulation efficiency of straw make this a plausible green option, though straw needs to be a readily available resource or you may pay dearly for delivery. You will need to keep straw dry during construction. Before getting started with a green building project, consider some principles that could save waste and materials.

Green with envy: new technology

Green building doesn't necessarily require straw bales and old tires, just be thoughtful about energy and resource usage. Developers and government decision makers have become more proactive with solutions to protect the planet as well as make life more convenient and healthy. Infill developments have surged and fewer isolated planned communities are being approved.

Generally, a few principles are practiced in today's green or sustainable building projects, including:

  • Energy efficiency. This includes larger scale projects like installing solar panels on your home or using OPTIMA blown fiberglass insulation, rather than traditional batt insulation. The increased efficiency keeps homes warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Smaller things also help, like using ENERGYSTAR rated appliances and fluorescent or LED lighting.
  • Resource efficiency. You can conserve resources by repurposing wood and other materials, and also using renewable resources like bamboo. Bamboo flooring can be particularly attractive, as can naturally weathered barn wood.
  • Water conservation. Changing shower faucets and toilets to low-flow models helps cut down water usage, as do water efficient appliances. In addition, the EPA sponsors a program called WaterSense, which has assisted in saving consumers $4.7 billion in water and energy bills and 287 billion gallons of water.
  • Indoor environmental quality. Older homes require testing for lead-based paint, an obvious deterrent to clean air. A licensed contractor can test paint for lead, replace aging air ducts and address mold concerns. With new projects, whether building a new home or remodeling your existing house, look for products with low volatile organic compounds, or low VOC, which refers to the amount of toxic gases emitted from solids or liquids used in construction.

Today, not only are we recycling, repurposing and reusing building materials and waste, we are also doing so with ancient and traditional ideas. By applying the above principles on a regular basis and using innovative techniques when possible, being green can become the norm, rather than a trendy catchphrase.

About the Author

Long before earning a bachelor's degree in Communication/English from Boise State University, Anne Lundgren fell in love with the English language. She has over 15 years of experience in the construction industry, and writes and edits novels and Internet content. When time allows, Anne does home improvement projects, hikes with her two dogs, and gets creative with art and food.