By Dennis Ellman
Once upon a time green was a color. Mix yellow and blue and there it was. Trees were green, grass was green, limes were green. Today, though, green has evolved beyond an adjective into a concept, a noun, an important strategy in how humans consider the environment as a whole, from the food we eat and the way we live to how we treat the world around us.
In the construction industry, the concept of green encompasses every piece of development, from the material inside and outside a structure to its surroundings. A contractor today must take resource conservation and energy efficiency into consideration, and this includes indoor air quality, structural frames, plumbing, electrical, roofing, insulation, windows and grounds maintenance.
"In all areas of our design and construction," said Pancho Dewhurst, owner of GDC Construction in La Jolla, "we've taken on the concept of green to achieve the standards necessary for a cleaner, healthier, safer and more cost efficient home or building."
Customers today, for example, want energy efficiency from their new homes and often it's their primary concern when redesigning their existing residence.
"The choices," Dewhurst said, "are both cost effective and environmentally friendly."
Using energy wisely can also increase the amount of income available to homeowners. "Upgrading appliances like refrigerators and hot water heaters can reduce monthly utility costs significantly," he noted.
Construction in general is rapidly consuming our natural resources. Trees and water are two natural resources under great strain due to past conventional construction practices. Because of our high use of solid sawn lumber materials, we have depleted 95 percent of old growth forests. Sustainable building approaches seek to reduce this impact by using resources more efficiently.
"At GDC Construction, we support the development of innovative, engineered products that utilize fast-growing farm trees as an alternative to old growth forests," said Dewhurst. Products from these farms produce stronger, straighter and lighter materials, some using only 50 percent of the wood fiber to perform the same structural function as solid sawn lumber, he explained.
Many re-manufactured materials are of higher quality and durability than conventional materials, he said. For example, recycled-content decking material, made out of plastic bottles that are melted down and mixed with wood chips, last 10 times longer than wood decks and never have to be treated or painted.
Safety and health factors in the home also must be considered, whether building from scratch or customizing an existing home.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that air in new homes can be 10 times more polluted than outdoor air," Dewhurst said. As a result, about 15 percent of Americans may be allergic to their own homes.
Many products typically used in home construction may have had negative health impact on occupants. Products such as cabinets, counter tops, shelving and furniture are made from particleboard that is glued together with formaldehyde-based adhesives, which release fumes into the air for years after installation. Paints and floor finishes also contain chemical that are not healthy to breathe.
"Our industry has responded to these indoor air problems with the development of alternative products that alleviate conventional indoor toxicity problems," Dewhurst said. For example, he said, solvent-free adhesives, used through the house in flooring and counter tops, eliminate many of the suspected and known harmful fumes. "These new products also adhere better," he said.
Paints and cleaners that have reduced or contain no volatile organic compounds are now commonly available, as are finishes and cleaners. "These products are comparable in cost with conventional products and help create a healthier home environment," he said.
Dewhurst offered the following tips to help assure a greener home environment:
- Water-wise landscapes exhibit color and variety throughout the year, with greatly reduced water and maintenance requirements. Group plants by water needs, loosen the soil and use low-volume irrigation systems.
- Cardboard and wood make up more than 50 percent of construction waster and are generally easily separated and recycled. All metals are easily recycled. Construction debris recycling represents a significant reduction in landfill disposal of these recyclable materials.
- Engineered lumber is made from fast growing farm trees and users a higher percentage of potential wood fiber.
- Steel studs provide flexibility for some interior applications. They should not be used for exterior wall framing.
- Tankless water heaters heat water as it goes through a heat exchanger to the demand source. No hot water is stored in tanks. Heating is done on demand and is limited only by the supply of water and energy.
- Compact fluorescent bulbs consume approximately one-third the electricity of incandescent bulbs.
- Spray cellulose can be used in both wall and ceilings and is a highly effective insulation made out of recycled newspaper and a binder.
- Replace single- with double-glazed windows and replace metal windows with wood windows.
- Consider whole-house fans to reduce air conditioning expenses. Eliminate electric heaters and wall-mounted gas heaters. Make sure stovetop range hoods expel gases, smoke and other combustion byproducts to the outside.