The notion of “building green” has become mainstream in recent decades, thanks to the efforts of a small number of builders on the fringe of the building industry.
But in the rush to jump on the green bandwagon, not much time gets spent considering what it means to create a more sustainable building. Some think a label declaring a material to be “green” is all that is required—but figuring out how to make a measurable difference in our environmental impact takes a bit more effort.
With almost everyone selling some version of green, it is up to each homeowner and builder to do the research to make better choices. That research must go beyond the product sales sheet to examine how the product is made. Here are some common-sense factors to apply to decisions.
Products made from petrochemicals have a large ecological footprint. Regardless of any “green” marketing, crude oil is responsible for vast amounts of ecological damage—and all petrochemical products bear a share of that harm. And most petrochemical products will persist in the environment long after their useful life as building materials.
Example: Foam insulation carries a dire environmental footprint in its manufacturing, and in its use and eventual disposal.
Products manufactured using high quantities of heat have large environmental impacts. They consume a lot of fuel and create a lot of pollution in the process. The greater the amount of heat required, the greater the impacts.
Example: Portland cement requires heating limestone to 1,100°F in the calcining process, and then to 2,640°F to sinter the material.
The more complex the manufacturing process, the more impacts the product is likely to have. Natural materials, such as straw bales, which require little or no modification prior to use, are likely to have fewer impacts.
Example: Cereal straw is cut in the field during the harvesting process and compressed in a simple mechanical baler.