Ask the Green Architect: Top Ten Green Building Questions

Ask the Green Architect: Top Ten Green Building Questions

Introducing green-building guru Eric Corey Freed, whose "Ask the Green Architect" column will appear in this space each month. We're kicking things off by covering the basics -- Freed's top ten frequently asked questions. Next we'll need to hear from you. Email your building-performance puzzles, air-quality queries, and construction conundrums to [email protected].

Typically, I am suspicious of lists with an even number of ten items on it. It makes me think only eight or nine could be found and they made up a couple. Today, I am breaking my own rule and bringing you the ten most often asked questions I receive about green building.
After nearly 15 years in green building, I have observed widespread misunderstanding of some basic principals of sustainability. In the future, all buildings will be green. It is inevitable in order for our species to survive. The sooner everyone comes to a basis of understanding how to be environmentally responsible, the better off we all will be.

These are the most common questions I receive in regards to building green:

  1. Why do green buildings cost more than traditional buildings?
  2. What is a "LEED" building?
  3. What do you mean by a "green" building?
  4. What is indoor air quality?
  5. Which is better: a recycled material or a natural material?
  6. How can I determine if a material is green or not?
  7. Where can I purchase green building materials and products?
  8. Are there any building code restrictions on the use of green materials?
  9. Why should I care about green building?
  10. Why aren't ALL buildings built to be green?

1. Why do green buildings cost more than traditional buildings?

This is not true and a common misconception promoted by ignorant architects and contractors afraid of building in a different way. A good architect knows how to save their clients money. The client sets the budget, and a project should come in below that budget. With a clear direction of budget, there is no reason you cannot build a green building for the same price or less than a traditional building.

The issue arises when you try to compare "apples and oranges." For instance, if you are comparing a building with solar panels to a traditional building without solar panels, of course it appears the traditional building costs less. This is focusing solely on the up-front cost of building. This model fails to take into account how the building with solar panels will immediately begin producing energy and lowering your monthly electricity bill. The lifecycle cost of the solar building will be much less. This monthly benefit, called a return on your investment, quickly pays for any additional up-front cost for purchasing the solar panels.

Numerous studies have shown investments into green products and systems will pay for themselves at least ten times over the life of the building. Luckily, the benefits and opportunities to save money on the operational costs are enormous. The combination of energy savings, water reduction and maintenance costs will catch the attention of building owners and translate to bottom line benefits.

The first step is energy efficiency. If every home in the U.S. used an Energy Star refrigerator, we could close ten aging power plants.

The next step is energy reduction. Replacing your burnt out light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road. Natural light easily replaces the need for lights in the first place.

The energy savings alone in a green building could pay for green improvements several times over with a return on investment within 1-7 years.

In the case where you are comparing similar materials, the costs end up being the same. For instance, a bamboo floor installs the exact same way as a traditional wood floor. The material costs are now the same, and use of the bamboo does not result in the clear cutting of a forest.

Finally, green buildings offer social benefits not easily seen. Student test scores are 15% higher in spaces lit with natural daylight. WalMart has discovered their retail sales increase in stores with natural light. Office workers report greatly reduced absenteeism in an environment with natural, non-toxic materials.

Although there are green materials that cost more than their traditional counterparts, there are also many more whose cost is far below the standard. Advances in recycling, new materials and better designs have allowed for a new generation of environmentally-friendly products that are less costly to produce. Of course, green materials also have a very important long term benefit of not destroying our planet's resources.

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2. What is a "LEED" building?

Since it's founding in 1991, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has emerged as a recognized and respected leader among green professionals.

To help the construction industry define green building, the USGBC discovered a need for a method of scoring buildings to evaluate their "green-ness." LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is their green building rating system, which defines a voluntary guideline for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.

LEED has quickly become the industry standard for green building in the United States. Today, LEED buildings can be found in 12 countries and all 50 states. There are currently over 20,000 LEED Accredited Professionals trained in this rating system and nearly 2,000 buildings on their way to certification. This represents about 8 percent of the U.S. new construction market, and this number is growing quickly.

Still in it's early stages, some have found LEED to be confusing and difficult to implement. While LEED lists prescriptive requirements, there are no practical applications listed. A member of the construction team is left to guess how to meet the qualifications of each LEED point.

The USGBC had enough foresight to understand this, and the LEED system is structured to be open ended and consensus-based. The systems is continually being refined and draft versions are left open for comment and debate. In the near future, LEED will simply get better and better.

The LEED system works by dividing the building into five categories:

  1. Sustainable Sites
  2. Water Conservation
  3. Energy & Atmosphere
  4. Materials & Resources
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality

LEED lists opportunities for a building to earn points in each. The final number of points determines the green level of the building, rated as Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

To date, LEED has been adopted by 8 federal agencies, 20 states and 41 U.S. city and county governments as the green standard in the construction of all municipal facilities.

This widespread acceptance of LEED will ensure future versions will overcome any criticism.

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3. What do you mean by a "green" building?

Buildings of the world consume:

  • 40% of the world's energy & materials
  • 25% of the wood harvested
  • 17% of our water

The average American house uses:

  • 13,127 board feet of lumber
  • 6,212 square feet of sheathing
  • 2,000 square feet of flooring

In the U.S., buildings account for:

  • 36% of total electricity consumption
  • 62% of electricity use
  • 30% of greenhouse gas emissions
  • 37% of ozone depletion potential

And, ironically enough, most of us spend 90% of our time indoors.

Our way of life is killing us. Our buildings consume over 40% of our energy and resources and their use represents 70% of our total consumption. The environmental damage caused in the last hundred years is a direct result from how our buildings are built. Architects, designers, and all building professionals are in a position to affect great change on our environment, moreso than any other group, since our buildings are responsible for most of the damage.

"Green building" (also known as "sustainable," "ecological," and "eco-designed") is a way of looking at buildings in terms of reducing energy use, conserving water, improving indoor air quality, and reducing dependence on our natural resources. Although the basic concepts for green building have been around for decades, it has only been in the last few years that we have seen this explosive growth in the greening of the construction industry.

Once only of interest to hard-core environmentalists, the rise in energy prices, our dependence on fossil fuel and growing concerns over the damage done to our planet has boosted green building into the spotlight of mainstream interest.

Today, those in the business of designing and constructing buildings are faced with the new challenge of environmental responsibility. The rise in energy costs, shortage of building materials and growing consumer demands are driving this market to seek out better and more efficient ways to build our buildings. In addition, new legislation, stricter building codes, and rising health costs are forcing builders to build green whether they want to or not.

Research has shown that although an overwhelming majority of designers feel a responsibility to offer green building solutions, only a fraction of them do so. They blame this discrepancy on a "lack of information."

More important than any statistic however, is the good feeling you have when you know you've done what's right for both your family and your community. Promoting continued health, financial savings, and social responsibility, Green building is the construction standard for the future, and the smart solution for today.

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4. What is indoor air quality?

Asthma, once rated seventh, is now the leading chronic illness in children. One of the primary causes of asthma is indoor air quality. The toxic chemicals found in most common building materials have been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems. The importance and need for green building is increasing exponentially as our health is affected.

Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary cause of indoor air quality problems in homes. Inadequate ventilation can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the home. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase concentrations of some pollutants.

There are many sources of indoor air pollution in any home. These include combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices; and outdoor sources such as radon, pesticides, and outdoor air pollution.

Apart from controlling the materials inside a building, the best way to control indoor air quality, especially in existing buildings, is through an increase in natural ventilation. With a lack of fresh air, pollutants will accumulate to levels that can pose serious health and comfort problems.

Asthma afflicts about 20 million Americans, including 6.3 million children. Since 1980, the biggest growth in asthma cases has been in children under five. In 2000 there were nearly 2 million emergency room visits and nearly half a million hospitalizations due to asthma, at a cost of almost $2 billion, and causing 14 million school days missed each year.

The consequences of poor indoor air quality go beyond mere comfort issues and extend into that of our future health.

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5. Which is better: a recycled material or a natural material?

Recycled or natural? This question harkens back to the old "paper or plastic?" debate. In reality, most architects and contractors do not want to get into a philosophical (and perhaps even semantic) argument about the pros and cons between these two types of materials.

There is no perfect material. All materials have some negative impact on our environment. The key is in setting priorities for the project.

For instance, for a residential kitchen countertop preference might be given to non-toxic and non-off-gassing materials. The indoor air quality and the health of the inhabitants (I believe) are more important than anything else. In the walls, perhaps using recycled plastic vapor barriers makes more sense.

Our society is undergoing a difficult transition as we move out of the Industrial Age and into the "Ecotopian" age. I have many friends who would eschew any and all plastics, even if they were 100 percent recycled. I tend to be a little more practical. While we have this over-abundance of plastic heading for a landfill, perhaps it is wise to use this up in the form of recycled plastic products. I have set the next 5-7 years as a grace period for the use of recycled plastics in my own practice. After such time, and the supply of virgin plastics have been reused, the need for any oil based plastics will have been replaced with naturally based alternatives.

There are natural materials that off-gas (such as the natural occurrence of formaldehyde in wood). Simply being a natural material does not guarantee the health of that material.

As the designer, you will have to determine the appropriate material for the given installation. By setting your priorities for the health, energy use, durability and other factors will help you decide.

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6. How can I determine if a material is green or not?

The biggest obstacle in the adoption of green materials is a lack of understanding of how to look at materials. Our old method of "price first, features second, appearance last" is short sighted and explains how we put ourselves in this environmental catastrophe.

The primary thing one must understand about green materials is to realize it is not black and white issue. There is no one perfect green material. All materials have both positive and negative environmental attributes. The key is in understanding which of these will benefit your specific project.

For example, many people will ask me if concrete is a "green" material. They want a simple "yes" or "no" answer. But the real answer is not so black and white.

If we look at the good things about concrete:

  • durable, (technically) recyclable, natural, non-offgassing, made from natural sand, stone, and water, and
  • we can see it casually appears to be a green material.

But on the other hand, the bad thing about concrete is it's chief ingredient, Portland Cement. Portland Cement is mined out of the Earth, heated to intense temperatures and as a by-product this releases tons of greenhouse gas. Suddenly, the green concrete you hoped for is a potentially bad source of pollution.

So how do we resolve this? How do you take a complex issue of concrete and look at it in a black-and-white way?

Perhaps you remember a few years ago, when dolphins were getting caught in the tuna fishing nets. There was a large outcry among consumers, "Don't buy tuna! It is killing the dolphins!" After all, dolphins are cute and deserve to be protected. (The tuna, I guess, were not cute enough for saving.)

With the news of Flipper dying in a tuna net, the public responded and tuna sales plummeted. The industry changed seemingly overnight. What would otherwise be a complicated issue of marine fisheries, agriculture and industry was reduced to the beautifully black and white dictum of "Don't buy tuna!"

So getting back to our example of concrete. How do we make concrete appear to be a black and white issue?

If the main problem with concrete is its content of Portland Cement, we can replace up to 50% of that Portland Cement with a material called fly ash. Fly ash is a by-product of the coal industry. It is typically buried in a land fill where it seeps mercury into our water table. By putting it into our concrete mix, it turns out the fly ash makes the concrete stronger and more workable.

Is concrete a green material? Fly ash concrete is a green material.

This is how you make something into a black and white issue. This is the process you must go through with every material in your building.

Is wood a green material? FSC-certified Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council is a green material.
Is steel a green material? High recycled content steel is a green material.

Ask yourself these six questions when looking at any material:

  1. Where did this material come from?
  2. What are the by-products of its' manufacturer?
  3. How is the material delivered and installed?
  4. How is the material maintained and operated?
  5. How healthy are the materials?
  6. What do we do with them once we are done with these materials?

This is a shorthand approach looking at the entire lifecycle of a material.

(For more information on green-materials certification programs, visit Web sites for the Forest Stewardship Council, Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems.)

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7. Where can I purchase green building materials and products?

The primary complaint people make in regard to green materials is their inability to find them. Given the ubiquity of such systems as LEED and Energy Star, finding green materials has never been easier.

Several clear sources come to mind:

  • Internet Searches: A recent search for "green materials" on the Internet yielded thousands of results. The way to filter these into a usable form is to look to the experts.

    1. BuildingGreen: The publishers of the Environmental Building News and GreenSpec have put all of their unbiased and perfectly presented information together in a wonderfully straightforward site. Their reasonable fee (one week subscriptions start at $12.95) will provide access to their wealth of research reports and product findings. Organized by CSI categories and Homeowner Categories, BuildingGreen has emerged as the Consumer Reports of green building.
    2. GreenHomeGuide: Although targeted at homeowners, GreenHomeGuide provides reviews and descriptions of green products by the real professionals using them. Their Know-How sections provide all of the information you would need for greening a kitchen or a bathroom.
  • Sales Reps: If you already have relationships with the sales representatives coming to your office, communicate to them your desire for more green products. Start the conversation and you will be surprised by the suggestions they provide.
  • American Institute of Architects: For years, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) has been a place where architects could discuss how to green their buildings. Although the resources and influence of the COTE varies by AIA Chapter, you may find a whole world waiting for you full of knowledgeable architects ready to help you.
  • U.S. Green Building Council: A valuable source for data in regard to green building, great for making the argument to skeptical developers and city officials. One of the reasons for the creation of the USGBC was to provide a credible authority on green building, so use them as such. You can point to their combined experience and knowledge to find hundreds of reports and case studies.
  • Local Showrooms: Each month new showrooms are opening up around the country offering green materials. While these initially opened up around the green buildings hubs (San Francisco, Austin, Portland) new stores are open in Santa Monica, Chicago, and even Fairfield, Iowa.
  • City Offices: Dozens of cities have a Department of the Environment or equivalent concerning themselves with green building, environmental justice and toxics disposal. If you cannot locate one in your city, look at the county and state level. Your local recycling collection company can also point you to a waste management authority or commission. Such departments are invaluable resources and will be able to provide you with information you never knew existed.

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8. Are there any building code restrictions on the use of green materials?

One would assume a building code would favor green materials, given their tendency toward less toxic materials.

In reality, building codes have little input in regards to the finishes or fixtures in a building. Generally, codes exist to protect the health, safety and welfare of the inhabitants. You should be able to use green finish materials as freely as traditional building materials.

The structural members in a building (walls, floors or beams), do impact the occupant health, safety and welfare, and, therefore, fall into the purview of the local building code.

Alternative materials such as straw bale or adobe, despite it's time tested history, are still not accepted by many building departments. Cost-saving measures such as the use of finger jointed wood studs are also frowned upon by the local building inspectors. You will have to check with your local building department before planning any construction project with these non-traditional methods.

Any wood intended for structural use must be inspected and grade stamped prior to use, or it will not comply with the building code. Ask the supplier for grade stamps, some provide this service in house for a reasonable fee. This does not apply to finish and non-structural wood.

That said, it is always best to check with your local jurisdiction before using any materials.

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9. Why should I care about green building?

With most of us spending more than 90% of our time indoors, green building is the healthy, common sense choice for a better life. In traditional construction, the quality of our indoor environment is often far more polluted than outdoor one due to the building materials, inadequate lighting, and a variety of other variables.

Green Buildings are sited, designed, constructed and operated to enhance the well-being of occupants, and to minimize negative impacts on the community and natural environment. Our buildings consume 40% of the world's total energy, 25% of its wood harvest and 16% of its water. Compared to traditional construction, a green built home takes some of this pressure off the environment.

Logically, our society can no longer build this way. It is simply a matter of time before we run out of the resources needed. The sooner we change our habits and how we build our buildings, the better position we will be in to minimize the devastation.

In the future, all buildings will be green. This is inevitable. Soon, we will have no choice.

But perhaps the best justification of Green Building is how you cannot afford to not employ green principles. The occupants and owners of a building are losing money on every green feature they discarded. Architects are in a position to save their clients a great deal of money in the operational costs of a building. After all, a great deal more will be spent on the operations, maintenance and employees in a building than ever was spent upon initial construction costs.

In short, a green building has the potential to:

  • Provide a healthier and more comfortable environment
  • Improve long-term economic performance
  • Incorporate energy and water efficient technologies
  • Reduce construction and demolition waste
  • Bring higher resale value
  • Include renewable energy technologies
  • Improve indoor air quality and occupant satisfaction
  • Are easier to maintain and built to last

All of these will save your clients money. Do you think that will get a building owner's attention?!

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10. This all seems to make logical sense to me. Why aren't ALL buildings built to be green?

Research has shown that 83% of designers feel they have a responsibility to offer green solutions to their clients, but only 17% do so. They blame this difference on "not enough information."

In truth, the construction industry represents 20% of the U.S. economy, comprising $1.27 trillion of our gross domestic product. With such large amounts of money and influence, the construction industry is inherently risk adverse. We have been building our buildings in relatively the same fashion for the last hundred years. What is the incentive for an architect, contractor or developer to add risk?

Luckily, the numerous benefits within green building are causing the industry to take notice. The initial acceptance was towards green finishes, where the risk is low. After all, it is the same exact process to install a bamboo floor as an old growth wood floor.

The next wave of adoption was in systems to add to the building. Solar panels can be placed on the roof without much risk. They are simply added to the project much in the way one would add a heating system.

The final surge in acceptance is now being seen in structural systems of the building. This final obstacle is slowly being overcome as developers realize a stuck frame building in Minnesota is different from a stick frame building in Arizona.

Platform and balloon frame construction have been around since the 1830's. Invented as a direct result of the mass production of nails and dimensional lumber, balloon framing allowed low skill workers to put together a building. At the time, this system was ideal for the rapidly growing population and their expansion westward. The art of joinery was almost completely lost and millions of new homes were able to be built in areas previously thought impossible.

Now we see the limitations and problems with such a system. Once you build out of sticks, the structure has to be insulated, sheathed, wrapped and waterproofed. All of these weaknesses are opportunities for you as the designer to minimize the ecological impact.

The trick to widespread adoption lies in showing the industry the benefits far outweigh any perceived risk. In order to build out of an alternative construction method, you will have to sell client and contractor on the idea in order to succeed. You can do this in three simple ways:

  1. Experiment with a productized construction system: rather than start with building out of Adobe, perhaps an easier sell to your client would be an alternative construction system sold as a product. Green construction methods such as Structural Insulated Panels (SIP's) and Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF's) have emerged as a viable alternative to the 175 year old method of frame building.
  2. Visit other construction sites using this technology; see firsthand how other builders are using these materials. Talk to them about the process.
  3. Ask your sales representative for help: when reviewing any product, the sales reps are there to support your decision making. Ask them to present to your client or contractor in order to convince them of the viability of this material.

By more architects and contractors opening up themselves to new ideas, we will see more buildings built in an environmentally responsible manner.

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Got A Question?
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Eric Corey Freed teaches the Sustainable Design curriculum at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Calif. He is currently on the board of directors of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility and a committee member of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE). This article has been excerpted from his upcoming book, The Inevitable Architect: A Phase by Phase Guide to Green Building.