Monday, February 16, 2009

Sustainable Solutions

As more research and study continues on the environmental front, the larger solution to many problems we face is sustainability. In basic terms, sustainable products are items that have a long life and do not require replacement on a schedule. The definition can also be expanded to items, once used for a time period, which can be easily converted to another product or use, as communicated in Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart.

Residential construction has been through periods of very sustainable and very disposable construction practices. As a college student, I worked for a remodeler in Pittsburgh, PA for a summer. One of our projects was a 100 year old renovation and addition. The craftsmanship of the original home was phenomenal. While modern conveniences of air conditioning, kitchen appliances and bath upgrades had been added, the original structure stood on it own. Very little had been replaced, as the home had the original windows, exterior cladding, floors and plumbing fixtures throughout the home.

Today, builders continue to work towards more sustainable structures. Treated wood is used to prevent termite and rot issues. Better water intrusion prevention systems are employed as a best practice for construction. Unfortunately, some areas of the home still need some work, especially on entry-level homes. Many consumers are guilty of contributing to the problem when they say, “Oh, I’ll just replace that when I find what I like” or “ It will last until I can find something better”.

Below, I have broken down a list of the most common “disposable” products still installed by builders on a regular basis. Most of these have a viable alternative, relatively low in cost, yet more sustainable.

  • Toilet Seats – The standard seat installed by a builder is a molded wood, high gloss finish toilet seat. At first glance, the seat is fine. But two years later, even with a clean freak (my wife hates a dirty toilet), the seat is stained, the finish on the bottom is deteriorating and the only solution is to replace the seat. Cost to upgrade to a Kohler plastic seat is about $7/seat retail. A small price to pay for longevity.
  • Dishwashers – Builders are known for the cheapest dishwashers on the market. A standard entry line is loud, inefficient and requires additional rinsing and rewashing of dishes. For a small upgrade of $40-50, these inefficient models can be replaced by a more efficient, quieter model. Options are often offered, however builders should be encouraged to eliminate non-performing models for better units.
  • Carpet – As a general rule, the actual carpet in any home will have to be replaced at some point. However, on the low end, ensuring the right carpet is installed will provide long life to that particular carpet. Nylon 6, a polyester fiber used in some carpets, has endless recycling capabilities. This fiber, compared to others, can be recycled again and again without degrading the original material. Even on the low end, this fiber is affordable and can provide consumers the convenience of changing carpet as the needs of your family changes, without contributing to landfills.
  • Lighting – Another area where builders are prone to find the least expensive items which homeowners can replace later; I was guilty of this early in my career. As a consumer, you will find little success changing this trend in the near future. However, if you are planning to change out fixture upon occupancy, ask you builder to cap the fixture location instead of installing a disposable fixture. If overhead lighting will not be used, ask for a switched outlet for lamp lighting control. Also, request ENERGY STAR lighting options to replace standard fixtures.
As a general rule, Homebuilders are slow to change to the latest practices and technologies. The consumer mentality of “I’ll fix it later” needs to be changed to a request for alternatives. To change the trend from disposable to sustainable construction requires feedback to the builder so they know how to improve products and meet consumer demands for quality.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Define Your Shade – Resource Efficiency

This is the last article in the series that defines Green Building for homes. In a previous article, we discussed the definition of efficiency: utilizing products better than before to reduce usage, rather than just eliminating the item (conservation). With respects to resources, efficiency reduces the amount of product needed to build a home without reducing the overall performance of the structure.

The most common methods of reducing material usage onsite is through pre-manufactured systems: Walls, Floors, Roof Trusses, etc. Building these products onsite creates more waste. In a manufacturing environment, wood is cut to length in one area and the fall-off, smaller end pieces typically less than 2 feet in length, is moved to another part of the facility for use in other products. Manufacturing also provides better avenues to recycle not only the waste material, but sawdust, in the case of wood construction, as well.

Resources also play a role in the design phase of the construction process. Knowing the dimensions of standard goods will reduce wasted material and wasted work. Carpet is typically purchased in 12’ roles; Stud spacing is 16” or 24” on center; Drywall is purchased in 8’,12’ & 16’ lengths. Designing room dimensions and overall dimensions to maximize the usage of material is preferable in the green building process.

Recycling can also play a role in resource management. While some materials are recycled into products not used in the construction industry, some recycled products can be used in the construction process. In Nashville, Tennessee Waste offers the most comprehensive construction waste recycling program available. Meeting both LEED and NAHB Green Building standards, Tennessee Waste recycles about 70% of waste collected and returns a portion of that material to jobsites through there aggregates program, saving the landfills while saving builders money.

An aspect of resource management often overlooked in the industry is scheduling. Installing products too early can result in rework due to damage or replacement due to theft. Some builders spend as much as 15% of total construction costs on rework, repair and theft. In some cases, builder could build a much greener home and pay for the upgrades through better scheduling and trade management.

In summary, Green Building is much more than just lighting and smaller homes. Homes of all sizes and uses can be built better and more green by understanding the various aspects of efficiency, air quality and site work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Define Your Shade – Site Layout

The way a house sits on the lot with landscaping and concrete work can greatly impact the way it utilizes resources, energy and water. Proper placement can decrease the HVAC load, reduce impact on the surrounding environment and change the usage of onsite resources.

Placement depends on your specific location, but some general rules will help. Ensuring window locations minimize exposure to the sun during summer months will greatly reduce the cooling loads in the home. In communities, this can be very difficult as lot location is based on the overall plat map. Beginning in the planning stages allows the development design to match green requirements as much as possible. Within some communities, it is nearly impossible to ensure all lots meet this criteria, however, most neighborhoods can be designed so that 80-90% of the homes minimize solar heat gain through window placement.

Vegetation, trees and landscaping can also affect the eco-friendly traits of the property. Trees can shade windows, giving the same affect as placing the house on the lot to minimize solar heat gain from the windows. Planting shrubs and bushes that require little watering and suited for your particular climate help reduce the amount of water, beyond rain, that is needed to maintain landscaping.

Other features that assist with site impact are rain collectors, permeable surfaces and low water turf. Rain collection can be difficult, however several products were featured at the International Builder Show in Las Vegas that will assist in collecting and utilizing run-off water onsite. Minimizing concrete and hard surfaces assists with rain absorption and reduces heat gain from the suns rays on concrete. Low water turf, indigenous to your region, keeps water needs low, matching regional climates.