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Whether it's recaulking a bathtub, replacing flooring, remodeling a room, putting on an addition or building a new house, you can do it with less impact on the environment, your health and your pocketbook. How? By following "green building" or sustainable building practices.
Building green uses energy and resources more wisely during construction and occupancy. That's important, because buildings have a huge impact on our environment: Nationwide, they account for 35 percent of our total energy use, one quarter of the wood harvest, three billion tons of raw materials, one quarter of materials landfilled, and half the output of greenhouse gases. As with recycling, when each person does his or her part and builds green, it prevents a lot of resources from being wasted.
To build green, builders and owners take a long, broad view: How can the building suit the site and the surrounding community? Will trees, building orientation and design provide natural shading, cooling and wind protection? Can we minimize energy and water use during construction and occupancy? Are the construction materials nontoxic? What recycled materials can be used? Is the building designed to enhance indoor air quality and provide ample natural light? Is the landscaping based on native plants that require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides?
Ask these important questions at the beginning of any building project, address them with your designer and builder to meet your needs and budget, and you'll be well on the way to a healthier home and environment.
Rather than build new, Brian and Laurie Joiner of Madison chose to remodel an existing home in a city neighborhood with stores and work within walking distance, and with good access to buses and bike trails – all green choices.
"We wanted to make the house as green as we could within our budget and timeframe," said Laurie. "Our main goals in remodeling were energy efficiency, comfort, natural lighting, indoor health and reworking the space to reflect our lifestyles. We tried to reuse as much of what already existed in the house to reduce waste. We were especially careful with the existing trees. We designed the house so we can live wholly on the first floor in our old age. We plan to live here the rest of our lives."
The couple worked closely with the builders from the very start to make sure their goals were understood. "Some practices and materials were unfamiliar to the subcontractors," said Brian. "It was a challenge to get them to work with a different routine. But they really appreciated working with more healthy materials, like shiplap siding rather than particle board with toxic adhesives. It took more effort from us to stay on top of what was going on, do research to find green building materials, and make time to consider the costs of buying and using more durable materials."
When possible, the Joiners purchased materials that had some recycled content, were nontoxic and were available locally. They reused most of the existing structure, trim, doors, flooring and topsoil. Old materials they couldn't use, like bricks and aluminum siding, were given away or recycled.
Despite their good intentions to build green, the Joiners had to deal with some tradeoffs. For example, to get a high R-value without losing ceiling height in an attic bedroom, they settled for a thin layer of liquid foam insulation, which released toxic vapors during installation. Late in the planning stages, they realized there wouldn't be enough of the original aluminum siding to cover the exterior. With little time to order new siding, find reused siding, or consider alternatives like Hardiplank, a wood fiber/concrete combination made from recycled materials, the couple ended up purchasing cedar. The recycled rubber slate roof shingles they wanted to use were considerably more expensive than conventional fiberglass, but would have lasted 50 years.
Overall, they met their goals. The Joiners feel building green will become easier as it becomes the standard way to build in Wisconsin.
Bernie Schmelzer and Denise Sullivan, both firefighters, took another approach. They built a new timber-frame house in rural Mt. Horeb, but reused 100-year-old Douglas fir beams recycled from the National Filter Building in Chicago, wood from a dairy warehouse in Sheboygan, and materials from a military installation in Joliet, Ill.
"Our priorities were energy efficiency, using nontoxic building materials and finishes, incorporating recycled, reused and sustainable materials, and minimizing waste," said Denise. "Our house is passive solar, has in-floor hot water radiant heating with a 95 percent energy- efficient stainless steel boiler, and uses trees to help with shading and cooling. Our highest combined monthly heating and electric bill is $100 in the winter for a 2,500-square foot home."
To maintain good indoor air quality – few indoor pollutants, freshair flow and comfortable humidity and temperatures – the couple used materials that don't emit unhealthy gases. They chose ceramic tile with nontoxic grout rather than carpet and low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and urethanes. The insulated particle board wall panels were made from wood from sustainable forests, with nontoxic glues and an inner core of polystyrene foam expanded and bonded with air. An air-to-air heat exchanger circulates fresh air into the tightly sealed house. "This is the most comfortable house we've ever lived in," said Schmelzer and Sullivan. "It's built to last 100 years."
The green approach is gaining ground around the country for residential, commercial and institutional building. Wisconsin homeowners can tap expertise from the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance and the Green Built Home Program sponsored by the Madison Area Builders Association, the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative and other partners. The program offers a detailed checklist of options that any builder can use to design and build a more resource- and energy-efficient home. Builders associations in Dane County, the Milwaukee metro area, the Fox Valley and Brown County are beginning to use it. You can give the checklist to the architects and builders you are interviewing and find out whether they have or are willing to build green.
The Wisconsin Energy Star Program offers homeowners rebates and consultation to save energy and improve air quality. Energy Star certification that can add to your comfort and increase home resale value.
Some Wisconsinites are getting "off the grid" and building homes that provide their own heat, electricity and water. Mark Harrell, a commander with the Armed Forces Eagle Detachment built a straw bale house in the La Crosse area. The home design employs active and passive solar features, a solar greenhouse with a wastewater garden system and plaster-coated straw bales for structure and insulation. Harrell got help learning about straw bale construction from members of the Natural Building Support and Learning Group. The house cost less than $30,000 to build.
Wisconsin businesses are building green as well. S.C. Johnson's corporate headquarters in Racine, the Williamson Street Coop in Madison, Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, and Erickson's Diversified corporate office in Hudson are a few examples.
Dan Davis of C.G. Schmidt, a Milwaukee building firm, said the company thought it was important to set an example for clients and the profession by building green and doing so within a normal budget and timeframe. "We did something to address each category of green building," he said. "We focused on water and energy conservation, using natural, recycled and nontoxic building materials and maximizing indoor environmental quality. We put in native plantings that require less water and maintenance, and eliminated storm sewer settling basins in the parking lot. We incorporated natural lighting energy-efficient windows, and installed quality ventilation systems."
John and Cathy Imes integrated green building methods into the design, construction, maintenance and operation of the Arbor House Inn, a Madison bed-and-breakfast. The remodel and addition, built with nontoxic products, salvaged and recycled building materials, and sustainably harvested wood, has passive solar features, energy- and water-efficient appliances, natural lighting and solar hot water heating. The Imes' use organic cotton linens in the guest rooms, and nontoxic, biodegradable cleaners. The inn was designed around existing trees, has native landscaping, and is situated on a bus route and near bike paths.
Schools are also beginning to build green. Northland College built a green residence hall with offices. UW-Green Bay is building a green academic building with natural light and solar energy to reduce electric lighting, heating and cooling loads, and equipment; operating costs will be one-third lower than a standard building. Research in elementary schools found that children in classrooms with the most daylight had a 20-26 percent faster learning rate than those in rooms with artificial light or small windows. Sales in retail stores were found to be 40 percent higher in skylit stores. Fond du Lac High School is designing its new building with natural light and geothermal energy.
There is evidence that people in spaces lit by natural light are more productive, miss work less, and are more creative. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, so the quality of light is well worth our attention.
Some developers are applying sustainable design to entire subdivisions. Middleton Hills, developed by Marshall Erdman & Associates in Dane County, is one. It is a planned mixed-use neighborhood of homes and businesses, offering densely clustered single family homes, duplexes, live/work units (to eliminate commuting) and condominiums for the elderly. A small retail area, including a grocery and café, is within walking distance for residents. The community protects its watershed and hardwoods, and preserves its open space. Middleton Hills is on a bus route and encourages pedestrian and bike transit. Although most of the houses weren't built green, the layout of the subdivision balances social, economic and environmental needs. The attention to community needs helps curb sprawl, and stem the loss of farmland, water and natural resources while reducing traffic and taxes.
Green building creates jobs. In Milwaukee, a new community-based for-profit deconstruction business, REEHouse Development Company, trains young people to dismantle buildings and salvage the frame lumber, roof sheathing, rafters and joists, copper downspouts and other metals. Deconstruction keeps valuable resources, some of which are no longer available, from being buried in landfills while promoting community economic development.
With green building options available for all budgets and needs, energy efficient, affordable and healthy housing is within your grasp. Hundreds of green building materials and supplies are now available in stores and lumberyards. And there are many organizations and resources available to help you make smart choices. The time to start building for the future is now.
Sherrie Gruder is a resource conservation and recycling specialist for UW-Extension and Distinguished Lecturer based in Madison.