Ask the Green Architect: Tips for Greening Your Office; Alternative Foundation Materials; Specifying Green Products

Ask the Green Architect: Tips for Greening Your Office; Alternative Foundation Materials; Specifying Green Products

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

  • Tips for Greening Your Office
  • Alternative Foundation Materials
  • Specifying Green Products

    What can we do to make our office more green? Will any of these things help in obtaining LEED Certification?

    The very first place to look would be this wonderful overview titled "Greening Your Business."

    There are some notable additions to this list I have included below, as well as some insight on how to really look at your office and analyze the greenness of your own office.

    When thinking about your office, look at it like any system. What are the inputs (items coming in) and the outputs (items being produced).

    Your office may vary, but generally will look like this:

    How can you reduce both of these categories of items?

    All offices use paper, so how about:
  • Paper with high recycled content from sites such as this or this.

  • Make a bin to hold used paper to print on both sides.

  • Send documents electronically in PDF format.

  • Use a digital eFax service.

  • Avoid using cover sheets by using sticky notes.

  • Fax directly from your computer to avoid printing.

  • Print office cards and brochures on tree-free paper using soy-based inks.

Encourage mass transit use by employees by:
  • locating the office near bus or transit routes;

  • providing transit vouchers;

  • making your next company car a hybrid;

  • setting up a corporate account at a car-sharing service such as Zipcar or Flexcar; or

  • allowing employee telecommuting or allow for flex time hours to reduce demand loads and traffic jams.

Purchase your office supplies from a local store to support the local economy. Consider a service like Give Something Back, which sells business products for a good price and donate their profits back to the community.

Use non-toxic office cleaners. For more on this broad topic, try the GreenBiz Essential on Cleaning Products or the U.S. EPA's Cleaning Products Wizard.

Other quick tips for greening your office include the following:
  • Donate your old computers to a local school.

  • Refill printer ink-jet cartridges, or at least recycle them.

  • Turn on the Energy Star settings on your computer monitor.

  • Donate old cell phones.

  • Purchase healthier, fair trade, or organic office snacks: coffee, popcorn, etc.

  • Use a reusable filter system like Brita, rather than bottled water.

  • Make recycling areas: paper, food compost, plastic/glass.

  • Purchase green power from your utility company. For more information, visit the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. EPA Web sites on the subject.

Recycling E-Waste

In our modern, tech-savvy society, the issue of what to do with these discarded computers, cell phones and other electronics is becoming increasingly important. How big an issue is electronic waste, or e-waste? Gartner research predicts we will replace over 153 million computers in 2006. The average cell phone in the U.S. is replaced after just 18 months, most of these are simply thrown in the trash.

The typical computer monitor contains toxic amounts of lead. When thrown into a landfill, the monitor breaks, leeching these chemicals into our air and water. Lead exposure has been linked with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, coma and even death. In addition, the plastic housing often contains brominated flame-retardants.

Internet retailer eBay has joined the fight against e-waste with their Rethink Initiative.

LEED and the Green Office

Some of these measures will even help with the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Program. As you (should) know, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary national standard in which construction and renovation projects earn credits toward certification as sustainable buildings. If you look at the point system, the green office measures could earn you up to 14 valuable points out of 69 total. (This is assuming the building is already designed or built.)

Greening Your Design Office

If you are an architect or designer, here are specific steps you should take to finally become the green firm you have talked about for years.
  • Include green discussion into your existing office peer review. If it gets measured, it gets managed.

  • Fill your office materials library with green finishes and information. If you see it, you will use it.

  • Stop asking the client for permission to do the right thing. There are so many firms talking about green building, but not doing anything with it. What are they waiting for? Do they really believe a client is going to walk in and say, "Design me a green building?" Hardly. Your clients expect you to design in a professional manner. They expect the building will meet codes, meet the budget and be beautiful. Well they also expect the building will not kill they or waste energy. Stop waiting to do the right thing.

  • Bring green design options to the attention of your current clients. Explain to your clients how important this is. You cannot expect clients to know about such things, so they will never bring it up on their own.

  • Offer green design as part of your basic services. Mention it in your proposals; talk about it in meetings. Do not do this because it is hip or trendy; do this because you care about your clients.

  • Only show the client green materials. Clients have a wonderful talent of only choosing from what you offer them. If you only offer green materials, you will be delighted by the result. You will never want to offer toxic materials ever again.

  • Create green standards for all projects. Other departments can learn from mistakes and successes and repeat what you have accomplished. There is no benefit to keep things secret and have them reinvent the wheel.

  • Explain these environmental goals to the entire project team. You will be amazed at the support and ideas you get. You are not alone in understanding the importance in these ideas. A contractor can be a valuable source of information for materials; a mechanical engineer is an expert in energy use. Use their experience.

Finally, be sure to also read my previous column about becoming a Certified Green Business. Lead by example and tell the world about your efforts.

More Information:

How to Inventory Your Wastes for Environmental Compliance

Eco-efficiency: A Guide to Reporting Company Performance

Ten Keys for Educating and Engaging Employees

Commercial/Office Recycling Factsheet

Electronics Recycling Consumer Education Initiative

Business Recycling Cost Model

Energy Star Small Business Program

Flex Your Power

U.S. Green Building Council LEED Program

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Do you know of any innovative, alternative foundation materials?

Concrete, the old mainstay of building foundations, has a great deal of positive features. It is locally mixed, often formed on site, durable and non-toxic when complete. Unfortunately, the primary ingredient of concrete, Portland Cement, has a high-embodied energy and toll on the environment. If you wish to avoid the use of Portland Cement, some interesting alternative exist.
  • Flyash Concrete. Fly ash is the fine residue powder byproduct from coal-fired electric generating plants. Depending upon the use of the concrete, fly ash can be substituted for 20% to 50% of the Portland Cement in the concrete mix. There have been reports of some people using as high as 70% fly ash substitution.

    See my previous column on fly ash.

  • Precast Concrete. Depending upon the location and depth of the excavation, precast concrete panels might be a good solution. Although they would require a crane to put into place, they could speed the site construction and would be especially attractive if the wall is left exposed. Several precast manufacturers offer a foundation product, and it is usually insulated to create a warm, dry basement area.

  • Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs). For new construction, pre-insulated foundation panels called insulating concrete forms (ICFs) can simplify the task while achieving superior performance. Sometimes referred to a "permanent forms," ICFs are hollow foam blocks that snap together to create formwork that doubles as insulation. The hollow core is filled with concrete to make a strong, well-insulated wall. There are now dozens of manufacturers.

  • Wood. Wood foundations consist of load-bearing walls framed with two-inch nominal lumber and sheathed with treated plywood. The walls are designed to withstand backfill and vertical loading. They are supported laterally at the top by the floor system, and at the base by backfill and foundation footing of crushed stone or gravel. The footing distributes the vertical load from the structure to the soil. If detailed and waterproofed correctly, a wooden foundation will break with your logic and actually hold back the earth and water.

  • Gabions. Hundreds of years ago, Gabions were protective round cages made from wicker and filled with earth for use as military fortifications. The modern gabion is a large, wire mesh cage block filled with stones. Mostly used as a riprap for erosion control, gabions can also be used for foundations.

    Often used with other natural building systems, like straw bale, gabion foundations are essentially perimeter footing foundations made of crushed stone instead of concrete. Place a layer of 6"-12" of loose drain rock into in two foot deep trenches. The empty wire-mesh gabion baskets (18" deep, 36" wide) are placed on top of this drain rock.

    Steel reinforcing (rebar) are placed into the cages to provide for a connection between the gabion and the wall that will be built over it. The baskets are filled and the earth is backfilled into place.

    Of course, check with your structural engineer before working with this system.

    Swiss architects Herzog and deMueron used gabions to build the load bearing walls of the Dominus Winery. The result is a beautiful wall with a thermal mass perfect for the hot climate of Napa.

    Given their structural arrangement, gabion foundations would not be suitable for basements or large retaining walls. The pressure of the earth behind the walls is not adequately supported.
    A case study can be found here and another one here.

  • Pin Foundations. Initially designed as a way to avoid disturbing the groundwater, pin foundations are a clever and oft-overlooked method of connecting a building to the ground. Steel piers are screwed into the ground using portable rotary augering equipment, eliminating the need for any excavation or concrete. These caps act as the loading points, creating a crawl space below the building.

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What are some good sources to identify the best products to place into specifications for green buildings?

Time and again, the biggest complaint people will make in regard to green building is not knowing where to find this information, especially products. Be sure to read my previous column on finding green products.

Your question also raises a more important issue: Green Specifications. Green Specs do exist, and more are being developed.

Without a doubt, the best site for Green Specifications and Products is the GreenSpec product from BuildingGreen. Over 2000 environmentally preferable products are listed, and the online version cross links these to articles, case studies and other products. It is an invaluable tool we use on a daily basis. You can search by the typical CSI division, by specific LEED credit or even through a list of Homebuilder categories.

As you are preparing your specs, be sure to include Section 01350: Special Environmental Requirements Specification. Although prepared by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, Section 01350 contains language on environmental and public health considerations for any building project. It covers guidelines for energy, materials, and water efficiency, indoor air quality (IAQ), nontoxic performance standards for cleaning and maintenance products, and sustainable site planning and landscaping considerations, among other measures.

MasterSpec (the specification writing tool from the American Institute of Architects) has a new spec section on LEED. This does not get into specific products, but if you already work with MasterSpec, this might be an interesting addition.

Some manufacturers will even provide you with their own green spec. For example, Antron has one for its green carpets.

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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.