Products that contain toxic ingredients are unhealthy. Many products that offgas toxins are commonly used in buildings. At best, any toxic ingredients in a product are deemed to be “stable” in their final form. But those toxic ingredients have effects and impacts in the manufacturing process and to construction workers that predate their “stable” form—and are likely to have effects after their useful life in the building.
Example: Even low-VOC paints and stains contain a wide range of chemicals that are toxic during manufacturing and in the home, including glycol ethers, formaldehyde, biocides, amines, monomers, acrylic polymer latex, titanium dioxide, ammonium hydroxide, benzisothiazoline, methyl-isothiazolin, benzene, and toluene.
Products that travel long distances have larger environmental impacts because of fossil fuels used in their transport. The heavier the material and the longer the travel distance, the greater the impacts—especially for materials that are moved by trucks.
Example: Lumber is often shipped across the continent, and can sometimes double its travel distance as it makes its way from mills to distribution centers to retailers, resulting in high amounts of fuel used.
“Maintenance-free” often means that something will last for a specific length of time and then need to be replaced. Materials that require some maintenance can often be refurbished repeatedly over decades or even centuries, but most materials that require no maintenance cannot be repaired, and end up as landfill.
Example: Vinyl siding is often touted as being maintenance-free, but cracks, splits, and warping cannot be repaired. Within a couple of decades, entire vinyl siding installations will need to be replaced.
Complexity in a product, assembly, or system often leads to malfunction, breakdown, and waste. When parts of a complex building fail, it can lead to cascading problems. Simpler systems that rely on time-tested principles tend to be more long-lived.
Example: Basement foundations in wet areas often rely on automated sump pumps, which have several components that can wear or fail and rely on a continuous electricity supply to function. When they do fail, flooring, walls, insulation, and mechanical devices in these spaces can be ruined. On-grade foundations keep all these elements well above the water line and don’t need any mechanical devices to stay dry.
Using human labor is more sustainable than machine-made or machine-installed. Both environmentally and economically, craftsperson work is the least impactful.
Example: Plasterers using local ingredients in a wet plaster system can have dramatically lower impacts than drywall, tape, and “mud” manufactured and shipped from a central factory.