Sustainable Building: Green Materials Guide

The terms “green” and “sustainable” are often thrown around with reckless abandon, but what does it really mean? For designers, builders and policy makers the shift has been to embrace green building principles and practices not only as an ethical and social responsibility but also for its long-term economic potential. 

The way we construct our homes and build our cities have enormous ramifications to our planet, but there are numerous materials and methods that can help reduce the pressures we have on natural resources and energy consumption. It is important to understand both the big picture and how we, the common consumers, fit in to the larger equation and make more substantial steps to improving our collective health without compromising future generations – that is, in essence, sustainability. 

Waste Equals Food
The construction sector alone accounts for 40 percent of all extracted materials, and 30 percent of all energy consumption. Additionally, construction and demolition waste makes up a third of what goes in the landfill. The never-ending thirst for raw building materials puts a gigantic strain on our natural environment. At times, designers, builders and developers have failed to build durable, long-lasting structures, but they aren’t the only ones to blame. 

Humans also have an insatiable appetite for having shiny new things, and just like our everyday consumption of products – most things we create have a single-life trajectory. Case in point, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta was demolished after only 25 years of use. For city officials, there was considerable economic justification to leverage building a new structure, but the question also should be asked, why can’t we build structures that can be reused, retrofitted or designed for disassembly? After all, we helped pay for that.

Despite the advent of modern recycling our waste is still largely seen as a liability to our progress and humans have struggled with what to do with it. The emerging science of industrial ecology (IE) – the study of material and energy flows within the industrial sector – has shifted the focus to developing closed loop systems where the “waste” of one product can be utilized as a resource to another. Oregon companies like Nike have invested quite a bit of research dollars into this sustainable science.  

In their seminal work Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, chemist Michael Braungart and architect, William McDonough point out that, “nature operates according to a system of nutrients and metabolisms in which there is no such thing as waste,” and thus “waste equals food.” Another common analogy is the process of decomposition in the forest. When a tree dies, it falls to the forest floor, and it becomes food to microorganisms, which are food to larger creatures and so the cycle goes. 

Greening at Home
For regular citizens, embracing the green movement is a personal choice, but at times it can feel a bit out of reach, in terms of impact and affordability. However, there are ways that we can build with an environmental frame of mind at home, at work or in our own backyard, following some basic fundamentals of sustainability.

Often times, it starts at the point of conception for a project. Planning ahead for that cabin you’ve wanted to build or that playhouse for the kids – how to site it and use the surrounding resources to your advantage without leaving a huge environmental footprint. 

But it could be as small as choosing what material to use for a shelf you are building in the bathroom. Should I use a native or exotic wood? Or should I use melamine or particle board products that probably contain formaldehyde and other toxic substances? Will the product biodegrade or is it easy to recycle? It’s important to consider the origin and fate of the materials you use and ponder what exactly is their life cycle as a product.

There are contradictions everywhere as well. According to USDA Organic certifications it is not acceptable to use pressure treated wood, but PVC pipe is okay to bury in the ground despite evidence from the CDC that it can leach phthalates into the water it is transporting. Even with new standards pertaining to products like PVC, there are still questions of its disposal that have to be considered. 

Planning the backyard vegetable garden should be fun. You might be asking, do we really have to agonize over the fate of the planet in what type of raised bed material we are using? Just like anything, it is better to keep an even keel, do the research and try to follow best management practices that are attainable to you and your budget. 

Evaluating the Site by Design
The first step of any project is to inventory the existing site or space and informing your design through careful observation of your resources. What parts of the site can be retained and what needs to be removed? Minimizing the amount of structures, natural features and other components of the site that need to be disturbed through careful planning can go a long way. To the ecologically minded, the way you site a structure in relation to sun, shade, topography, hydrology and other factors is paramount. Understanding how these site systems correspond with each other is a crucial step in planning.

Have you ever noticed the scorched earth techniques of modern subdivision construction? The property is clear-cut, heavily graded, infrastructure is added, stick frames pop up from the ground, and tiny saplings and shrubberies are planted after the fact. Some would say that is the cheapest way to site buildings for a development, but there are ramifications for the loss of trees, altering of the topography and ultimately the hydrology of a site. 

It is no wonder that year after year homes get swallowed up by sinkholes, or suffer damage from other natural hazards like flooding or wind storms. If you build in a flood zone or on a steep slope, you are taking a risk. Reading the landscape and understanding where to build can make a huge difference in the success of your space. 

Also understanding the challenges within a space is important. What is working and what is a problem that needs some corrective action? Like that spot in the yard underneath the oak tree where grass mysteriously never grows. Instead of pumping the ground with fertilizer to no avail, mulching and aerating up to the drip line of the tree will improve not only the aesthetics but also the health of the tree. Whatever the ailment, there are numerous resources locally from weekly workshops, continuing education courses, endless stacks at the OSU library to your downtown ACE hardware staff. Informing yourself is the best way to be able to plan for it.

Using What You Got
For those not sold on environmentalism, green building is very much rooted in being conservative, independent, ingenuitive and thrifty if you examine closer. Like our ancestors that scrounged every resource on the farm, we could learn a lot by going back to the basics – being more self-sufficient and less reliant on material things we don’t really need. Green building is just as much about righting the wrongs of our wasteful past, improving how we build, and increasing the longevity of our products. 

Evaluating what resources are available is part of step one. Using existing or “found” materials on a site is one way to decorate the space while doing your part to protect the environment. Found materials, like brick, concrete, bottles, ceramic tiles, rocks, lumber, fallen trees, pieces of metal, car parts are all things that are commonly found on typical properties. Instead of removing these items from the site, it is possible to simply reorganize them in the project to where they have a new life. 

In some cases, the inventory and planning phases can help to plan how to incorporate these hidden gems. Cutting up concrete slabs from an old sidewalk to build retaining walls or reusing brick from a defunct chimney to build a patio can turn a landfill trip to a site amenity. 

Reclaimed Materials
Whether you are upcycling some trashy treasures found around the site, diving in your neighbors dumpster or deconstructing a structure for reuse somewhere else on the project, reclaimed materials is a no-brainer to save money, but can also enhance a space aesthetically. Old 2×4 framing removed from an interior wall may not be suitable for reuse within the structure, but could be used to support other non-structural components of a project like fire blocking, building form work, framing non load-bearing structures and so forth.

If reclaimed materials cannot be harvested from the site you are working with, there are places that specialize in selling salvaged materials, although prices sometimes are premium and quantity can be limited. The trick of using reclaimed materials is making sure you have enough of a quantity to finish the job, because once you run out you might not be able to find a comparable material. 

Deconstruction is a technique of systematically dismantling a structure for the purpose of future reuse. In an ideal world, we would save buildings, but the next best thing is to try and harvest building materials that are salvageable. In some cases, cities have instituted deconstruction ordinances that require certain percentages of buildings to be salvaged and donated to local non-profits, but in most places it is voluntary. Often times the pace of building new puts salvaging at the back burner, but if you have a structure on your own property that can be deconstructed, there is no reason why you can’t contemplate saving the precious building materials you could save for a later date instead of pay to throw away.

Because of lead based paint and asbestos regulations, some deconstruction and salvage can be out of the question. In some cases it is cost prohibitive, but if planned for appropriately, it can add a bit of history to the project, especially if harvested from on site or a nearby site. 

Sourcing Native Materials
Finding sustainable building materials at the big box home improvement stores can be challenging, but it also is much more commonplace than it was a decade ago, as retailers have responded to customer’s environmental proclivities. Products like zip wall, spray foam and engineered flooring are available on shelves or special order. However, finding locally sourced or native materials requires a little more creativity. 

Sourcing materials responsibly is no different than the philosophical approach to buying local or seasonal produce at the market. If a consumer chooses to order exotic hardwoods from Brazil, Indonesia or other distant lands there are several things that conflict with the environmental conscience. One issue is the reliance of transport from long distances. Two, is although wood might be stamped as “FSC certified,” there is a considerable chance that your Brazilian hardwood comes from an illegal stream, because of rampant corruption and unverified chains of custody. Thirdly, is there are always native, or recycled content alternatives comparable in price that are available. The dire ecological implications of using exotic materials sourced from pristine rainforests are often outweighed by the durability benefits. Oregon is home to many sustainable wood products from mass timber to salvaged tree slabs.

Weighing the Cost of Common Materials
Whether it is wood, concrete, stone, plastic, metal or some kind other composite, knowing the challenges and benefits of each material is key to reducing your ecological footprint. Durability, biodegradability, renewability, affordability and embodied energy are some of the key factors to look into when evaluating materials. The location of the materials, either interior or exterior, also weighs into how or where they are best used.

Wood is a renewable resource. It is easy to work with, affordable, but it has durability concerns especially when it comes into contact with UV radiation and moisture. Concrete lasts a long time, if not forever, but it consumes a lot of water and energy in its production, plus it requires mining for material extraction. Metal and plastics are recyclable and super durable, but also consume a lot of resources in their production and also require hazardous materials in their production.

Engineered products like flooring and decking made from composites of recycled plastics is relatively new and is as tough as any comparable wood product. It is also super pricy and qualities can vary greatly. Cross-laminated timber or CLT is an Oregon product that has gained traction in recent years, although the technology has been around for quite some time. Which product to use, for most, comes down to price and how easy it is to install.

Design for Disassembly
Another key component of green building is designing for adaptability. One of the key failures of design and construction industry has been in the limited life span of structures and spaces. But it is not necessarily the shortness of the life span that is the main problem – it is the limited life span coupled with disposability. 

But what if we designed and pre-fabricated buildings, streets or parks to be more adaptable to change? For example, collapsible ‘kit of parts’ buildings have recently gained traction for use in everything from housing the homeless to serving areas impacted by natural disasters. The question is can we design structures that can be built as one thing, but be adapted to something else further down the road, like something from Transformers.

Ultimately, looking at materials, products and structures from a life cycle perspective – from cradle to cradle – is where some visionaries have been headed, but like everything it sort of gets lost in the haze of day-to-day life.

By Chris McDowell