Environmentally conscious construction no longer has to be viewed as a liability
By STEVE PALLRAND
Resources for green building design are vast and growing rapidly each year. However, for a field that has been burgeoning since the 1970s and has been pushed tirelessly by environmentalists and government programs, it remains that few people live in sustainable houses. Most of the country believes that the environment should be protected. However, as an industry, we offer little to the consumer beyond the government mandated basics.
Building an environmentally friendly house is fundamentally different than buying an environmentally friendly car. An electric or hybrid vehicle is a single system produced by a large multi-national vendor with extensive resources for communication so that a consumer can easily compare advantages or disadvantages between products. To the contrary, a residence has many systems, heating & air conditioning, plumbing, electric, doors and windows, installed by small independent vendors who typically do not coordinate.
To make matters more challenging, the environmentally motivated consumer must step into our world of construction, where profit margins are tight, and, too often, green building solutions are crushed by our industry’s inertia. Contractors must keep estimates lean to get the job and finish as quickly as possible to maintain a slim profit margin. To most in the industry, green building is not seen as an exciting solution to climate change. It is, understandably, seen as a liability. A new product with a learning curve and unknown factors includes the risk of losing time, effort, and money.
When environmentally conscious consumers are confronted with this inertia, more often than not, a consumer will heed to the reluctant designer or builder. This will result in the client abandoning all green considerations or retaining just a few that a contractor has deemed acceptable. Just like most contractors, most consumers are limited by time and resources. For consumers that are determined to overcome these hurdles and challenge the inertia of our industry, green building resources are riddled with scientific jargon, engineering plans, and product pushing by manufacturers, extinguishing the interests of many of the most ambitious clients. By the end of these projects, consumers are frustrated, and contractors are discouraged.
Over the past year, our firm has gone through a trial and error process, wasting our own time and money, in order to offer a list of four easily attainable environmental practices anyone can adopt to meet the demand of sustainable building:
1. Pre-Design: In residential construction, the key operational energy related subcontractors are only brought in during construction. They are told to make it work for the lowest price. This may mean installing the ducting in an unconditioned attic or even on the roof where the energy loss is most extreme. The only way to design an energy efficient structure is to collaborate with HVAC and other key subcontractors during the design phase, plan for mechanical equipment to be in conditioned spaces, and eliminate long duct runs, excessive elbows, and uninsulated pipes.
2. Windows and building orientation: A common misconception is that south facing windows contribute to the largest energy losses. However, east and west facing windows have three and five times the solar heat gain of north and south facing windows respectively. Where possible, the long side of the building, and most of the windows, should be oriented north and south, yielding great results.
3. Insulation & Air Sealing: The return on investment for insulation is high, whereas air sealing is commonly overlooked. Yet, when air sealing is done properly, it has a greater effect than improving existing adequate levels of insulation.
4. Embodied Energy: The carbon footprint of constructing a typical house makes up 15 percent of a household’s lifetime energy. As houses become more efficient, the embodied footprint share will rise and, as we begin to shift away from fossil fuels, consuming less energy today will reduce the carbon emitted into the atmosphere more than consuming the same amount of energy 10 years from now. The easiest way to reduce the carbon footprint of a structure is by reducing the amount of concrete used. Since reducing concrete is often not an option, adding waste materials to the concrete, such as fly ash or slag, greatly reduces a home’s footprint.
Because of the small business nature of our industry, adoption of new environmentally friendly approaches can be elusive. The limiting factor in this equation is us, as developers, designers, and contractors. There are value-oriented consumers out there who will often gladly pay more for green designs. There is no need to lose money on this bet.