By David Porter AIA – Consulting architect to the Garlinghouse Company since 1989

By now, you have probably heard loads about everything “green” – building green, living a more “green” lifestyle, and on and on.  “Green” is the new, overly used, buzzword thrown at you from twenty directions each day.  What is this new-fangled movement, what does it do for you, your family, your neighbors, your community, and anywhere else in the world as it relates to building a simple, little house for your family?

Green home constructionThe “green movement” is not actually that new.  It has been in the works for about the past 12 years.  However, it is just now beginning to catch on with government agencies and major corporations, so they all bring it to us as new news.  With global warming getting accepted as a grim reality, agencies, nations, and people are looking at ways to stop earth from overheating.  The design and construction of buildings play a big part in that solution.

The term “green” has become the generic term that essentially defines “sustainable” design, construction, and lifestyle choices as they relate to consuming and discarding almost everything we come across in life.  It is a quickly approaching reality that the Planet Earth has a limited quantity of resources and energy to sustain the human race.  Likewise, there is only so much space the planet has available to hold the waste products and heat that are the result of our consumption.  As occupants of this planet, we need to start choosing products with our “eyes open,” and ask ourselves, “How will the manufacturing and resultant waste of these products impact the long term survival of Mother Earth?”

“Green” design and construction is actually a very simple concept that just involves thinking before doing.  It involves thinking through everything that goes into the construction process and trying to minimize the depletion of natural resources, conserve energy use for the manufacturing and transportation of construction materials, and designing a house to minimize the operational energy consumption.

Any material that goes into the building of a house or other building has what is called “embodied energy.”  This term means that every product has a cost and an energy outlay associated with its mining, its transport to the manufacturer, the manufacturing process, its transport to the construction site, its incorporation into the building, the building’s demolition when it has reached the end of its useful life, and the rubble’s transport to a landfill or recycling center — where it can start on its second life.  Lumber, concrete, glass and steel are good examples of low embodied energy materials, because they can go through life after life continuing on as useful materials even after recycling and remanufacturing.  Plastic is an example of a high embodied energy material that may not have the lifespan of a more durable material.   It cannot necessarily be recycled at its first-life’s end, and it often ends up in a landfill, thus ending its cycle of usefulness.

To further illustrate this, let’s take a look at the use of lumber – one of the most obvious building materials to carefully consider in the design and construction of your new house.  Old-growth forests that used to have humongous trees that were as wide as a truck at the base, are rare or almost extinct.  New- growth forests are where most of the construction lumber now comes from.  One used to be able to get wide and long boards to build with from larger, old-growth trees.  With new-growth trees, board width and length is limited and/or expensive.  How does this impact your building a house?  Design with smaller and shorter boards of lumber to allow the enduring old-growth forests to remain as a natural resource.  Or, to reduce the depletion of even the new-growth forests by building with engineered lumber (I-joists, laminated veneer lumber, glulams, etc.).  Engineered lumber uses the scraps left over from the lumber milling process to make up new structural boards and beams.   It is essentially recycled wood.

You can also use lumber that has been cut from “certified” forests.  These are forests that are managed under a specific set of criteria so that they are not over-cut.  They are replenished, and they are not taken from sensitive rain forests.  The clear cutting of timber from South American rainforests has been attributed to some of the Planet’s global warming problem, in that, the logging process has removed a lot of vegetation from the Earth’s surface, and in turn, has contributed to its cooling.

Here are some other simple ways you can make your house a greener contribution to the Planet and that will have a long-term, positive affect on your wallet:

Limit the size of your house to what you need and not what you might want or can afford.  The larger the house, the more natural resources your house will consume in materials, waste disposal, and energy.  By now, you have probably heard of the “carbon footprint” and the bigger the house, usually, the bigger the carbon footprint.  The smaller the house, the less dollars spent by you on construction, energy, upkeep, and taxes.  And, less of a negative footprint on the globe.

  1. Use engineered lumber, shorter spans, and/or trusses to minimize use of virgin forests.  Engineered lumber was mentioned previously and trusses use shorter components of smaller lumber that can be taken from new growth, replenished, forests.
  2. Design to a modular dimension to use all of the lumber components purchased and to minimize waste and labor.  For instance, don’t design a joist span that is 10′-2″ where you need to buy a 12′ board to then cut off and discard 1′-10″ to the landfill.  Design the framing to work with minimizing cut-off waste and smaller board widths to use newer growth trees.
  3. Recycle as much construction debris as possible.  Most waste haulers now see the advantage and the value in recycling construction debris and don’t charge extra for that service.  A few years ago, that wasn’t the case and asking your waste hauler to do anything but picking up the trash container and hauling it to the dump was a silly question.  On many projects I am involved with, between 75% and 90% of the debris tossed out during construction can now be recycled.
  4. Use materials, where possible, that have some percentage of recycled content (also known as “post-consumer content”).  For instance, you could use recycled plastic lumber made of recycled milk jugs, for the white fascia trim along the edges of the roof.  It will cost about double that of real lumber but it will never rot nor need painting.  The “never needs painting” part wins me over every time.
  5. Use materials from sources located as near to the end product as possible.  The cost of transportation for construction materials makes up a significant percentage of the actual real cost of those materials.  That is increasingly relevant with the skyrocketing cost of fuel.  Not only is the savings a real dollar cost but the “green” aspect of buying local puts that much less carbon emissions into the world’s environment.  For instance, use a nice looking locally available tile for the floors and forego having that expensive Italian marble cut and hauled across the ocean from a mountain in Italy to your new house.
  6. Use crushed recycled concrete, if available in your area, as the base rock for all flat concrete work and compacted fill.  This uses up a material that would normally be consuming landfill space and doesn’t use up native gravel dug from a pit where the trees have been cleared to create another hole in the earth.  This means both the gravel pit and the landfill won’t have to expand and mow down more natural areas.
  7. Use fly ash as a concrete additive.  Fly ash is a byproduct of burning coal.  Fly ash waste from coal burning electrical and other manufacturing plants has no other use so it is hauled to landfills.  Adding a certain amount of fly ash to concrete allows the concrete to be made with less water (a benefit to reduce depletion of water resources) and it improves the workability and durability of the concrete.
  8. Only cut down the trees on a site that are necessary to fit the house, driveway, walks, etc., on the property.  A wooded lot not only provides actual real value to a property, but in leaving as many trees as possible, it helps to diminish the heat island effect that warms a neighborhood as well as the earth.  It also allows an existing ecosystem of animals and insects to remain living where they were before your house encroached on their land.  The trees will shade the house, which reduces heat gain.  In turn, that will make the house more comfortable and it will use less energy.  The greenery will allow photosynthesis to thrive, cleansing the air surrounding the house.
  9. Use the sun and other renewable energy sources.  Install solar panels for heating water.  That is a viable economic option and has a fairly short payback period.  A large percentage of a home’s utility bill goes toward heating water.  Everything you can do to reduce your utility bill means that the power plant will burn less coal or other air polluting fuel and the environment and planet will be helped with less pollution and less heat output.   This goes back to that whole global warming discussion.
  10. Design as energy-efficient a house as is possible, practical, and affordable.  A slightly higher first cost for this item will pay itself back year after year.  This starts with setting the proper orientation of the house to the sun and the prevailing breezes.  The age-old standard of laying out a rectangular grid of lots with houses all facing the same (wrong) direction that has no relationship to the sun and prevailing breezes, is over with – or should be.  Orientation of a house to these two critical environmental elements can make a big difference in the home’s energy consumption.  Design for regionally appropriate amounts of insulation, low-e insulated glass, high efficiency heating and cooling equipment, and other energy conservation measures (vapor barriers, pipe insulation, caulking, weather stripping, etc.) to have the house lose and/or gain the least amount of energy.  A cheaper utility bill means less greenhouse gases are pumped into the air, whether at your house or at the power plant.  All of this translates into a healthier local and global environment with less waste heat produced, which we are finding the planet cannot tolerate.

‘Til next month, hoping your building experiences are happy ones.

Any questions, please contact Dave at

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