Ask the Green Architect: That ‘70s Floor; Help for Zero-Energy Homes; Green Certification for Companies

Ask the Green Architect: That ‘70s Floor; Help for Zero-Energy Homes; Green Certification for Companies

Green architect Eric Corey Freed answers your questions on sustainable building performance, materials, and design.

  • That '70s Floor
  • Help for Zero-Energy Homes
  • Green Certification for Companies

    We have some old 70's style sheet vinyl flooring in our kitchen. Is it recyclable?

    When most people think of vinyl, they probably think fondly of their old vinyl LP records. But the truth about vinyl, often referred to as the "poison plastic", is less romantic.

    Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as "PVC" or "vinyl," is one of the most common synthetic materials. PVC is a versatile resin and appears in thousands of different formulations and configurations. Approximately 75% of all PVC manufactured is used in construction materials. It creeps into all sorts of unlikely building products.

    PVC is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, posing great environmental and health hazards in its manufacture, product life and disposal.

    The Vinyl Institute has spent millions hoping to persuade you otherwise. Regardless of the dissenting opinions, one has to wonder why any material would need such a large lobby to sell people on the idea. If vinyl really was as green as the Vinyl Institute wants us to believe, it would not require such a campaign.

    They even have a propaganda Web site extolling the virtues of vinyl. It took some digging to find this pro-environment site is actually produced and maintained by the Vinyl Institute.

    Groups like the Vinyl Institute are threatening to tie the U.S. Green Building Council in a stranglehold of litigation. They are even going so far as to form their own green building association, one whose rating system is more favorable to their products.

    For more information, I recommend the insightful and often funny look at vinyl in the award-winning documentary Blue Vinyl. You can even rent it on Netflix.

    The future will hopefully reveal vinyl to be the asbestos of the 21st Century.

    As for your question:

    The resilient sheet flooring in your home might not even be vinyl. Given your estimate of its' age, the floor could be VAT, or vinyl asbestos tile.

    There are some asbestos-containing products that do not pose a significant health threat as the asbestos fibers are not released to the air. If handled properly during removal, that is to not break up or sand the material, the VAT should be fine. NOTE: Exposure to Asbestos dust is dangerous! That being said, please check with your local building department for more information on asbestos abatement. You might need a licensed abatement contractor.

    Asbestos cannot be recycled.

    It is also likely that your old sheet flooring is VCT, or vinyl composition tile. If so, it is technically recyclable. I was unable to get any of the recyclers on the Vinyl Institute's approved list to agree to take your tiles as of press time, but it is worth investigating. Your local building department will be a helpful resource in finding recyclers as well.

    To remove the adhesive, avoid toxic chemicals. Healthier and natural adhesive removers, such as Soy-Gel are a great alternative.

    For your new floor, linoleum is a natural and durable replacement. DuPont has a chlorine free resilient floor called Stratica you might enjoy. Cork is an attractive, though slightly more expensive option. Finally, natural rubber floors could bring color and texture to your floors.

    More Information:

    My House is Your House

    Grassroots Recycling Network PVC Page

    Endometriosis Association PVC page

    Be Safe Campaign

    Alliance for Safe Alternatives

    Health Care Without Harm

    Healthy Building Network PVC Fact Sheet

    Asbestos Blog

    EPA Asbestos Page

    Further Reading:

    Health Considerations When Choosing School Flooring

    New Study Finds Vinyl Plasticizers a Major Contaminant in Household Dust

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I would like to build a "Zero Energy Home." What, if any, assistance programs exist to help me?

Zero Energy Homes (ZEH) are homes designed to produce as much energy as they use. The concept is simple — by combining a highly energy efficient building with renewable energy resources, you maximize the effect of both.

Imagine an electric meter that sometimes runs backwards!

Although having no utility bills is a great benefit, the potential reduction of pollution from lowering the amount of electricity to be generated will benefit everyone.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has created the Building America program to find energy-efficient solutions for new and existing housing that can be implemented on a production basis.

Their Web site offers best practices for any climate, as well as links and resources.

In ZEHs, the solar panels don't just power the home it serves. Any surplus power is channeled back into the utility's power grid. This surplus is billed in reverse, crediting you for any power you use (say at night or on a rainy day). Your net bill is zero. Although you might think the local utility company would be against this arrangement, it benefits them as well. Since most of the surplus is generated on the sunniest, and therefore the hottest days, those are also the days with the highest peak demand. The solar surplus reduces the strain on the utility's infrastructure.

Although a ZEH is much more than simply adding solar power to your roof, a comprehensive list of state, local and federal incentives is available from the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE).. This list includes both renewable energy and energy efficiency incentives.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) also offers financial assistance to business and industry seeking to increase the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

The Energy Policy Act was introduced by President Bush in 2005. The Act attempts to provide tax incentives and loan guarantees for energy production of various types. It should be mentioned, however, that Texas companies in particular benefit from this bill. The Washington Post contended the spending bill is really a broad collection of subsidies for U.S. energy companies; in particular, the nuclear and oil industries.

More Information:

Zero Energy Homes

Zero Energy Homes Dallas

No More Electric Bills

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

Center for Resourceful Building Technology (CRBT)

Energy & Environmental Building Association (EEBA)

Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET)

Rocky Mountain Institute

Southface Energy Institute

U.S. DOE Office of Building Technologies

Weatherization Managers Association

Further Reading:

Owner Received Keys to Net Zero Energy House

Canada Funds $1 Million to Develop Net-Zero Homes

Little Solar Houses for You and Me

Near-Zero-Energy Buildings Blessing to Owners, Environment

High-Performance House Showcased At Builders Show

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How can my company become "green certified"?

First, you should be aware that countless local Green Business programs are emerging every day. The nascent notion of a "Green Business" is quickly increasing in popularity among consumers.

Just as green materials and products can become certified, (see my previous column) and green builders can become certified, (see another previous column), so too can green businesses.

Here in Northern California, for example, The Association of Bay Area Governments coordinates their Certified Green Business Program. As of today, there are over 700 businesses across the seven Bay Area counties who have passed the requirements needed to be a green business.

Generally, a green business certification will examine the products and byproducts of your business. From the paper in your printer, to the types of light bulbs you use, to the disposal of any industry specific wastes, the resources your business uses will be the focus of any certification program.

Participation in these programs is voluntary and free:
  • EnviroStars is similar to the California program and handles the Puget Sound region in Washington.

  • Green Advantage is a green certification program for builders and is a national organization. An exam fee of $125 is required.
Several NON-certified directories of green businesses exist and are worth mentioning:
Listing in these is free or available to anyone for a nominal fee, so be sure to confirm for yourself the green-ness of these companies.

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Got A Question?
Send your questions about environmental management issues to [email protected]
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Eric Corey Freed is principal of organicARCHITECT and teaches sustainable design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and University of California Berkeley. He is on the boards of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), Green Home Guide, and West Coast Green.