Anyone building or renovating a home today will almost certainly be keeping energy efficiency in mind. According to the research that’s been done, approximately 40% of all raw materials used each year are used in building and construction. This amounts of over 3 billion tons of resources each year, and many builders and home owners are trying to do their best to reduce those numbers. When evaluating building materials, there are a lot of factors to consider, and this article should serve as an effective guide to understanding the different elements surrounding green building materials.
Think green from the start
Because of the importance of sustainability in building, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory has created a free, downloadable software called BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability). This tool will evaluate not only the initial cost of any efficient material in comparison with traditional options, but it will also take into account the savings the efficiency will generate over the lifespan of the building, which is often overlooked by those who are resistant to the green movement.
It is important to start thinking about efficiency as early in the process as possible, as even site selection can impact consumption. Choosing a location that is near public transit routes and easily accessible for work crews will reduce waste, and building in an area without strict Home Owners’ Association rules about landscaping will offer the freedom to be as efficient as possible.
When designing the layout of a building, bear in mind that materials such as drywall and plywood are sold in 4 foot wide sheets. Sizing rooms in multiples of 4 feet will reduce waste, making it possible to use whole sheets rather than cutting and discarding trimmings.
Design buildings with the sun in mind to further lessen long term energy consumption. Whether or not the building is intended to house solar panels at this stage, remember that this is only the beginning of the green movement, and future innovations will likely lead to future renovations. Keep the possibilities in mind. Try to ensure that each room will get a lot of natural light throughout the day to keep lighting costs down once the building is occupied.
Invest in efficient appliances and fixtures
Low flow toilets and faucets will reduce water consumption drastically over the lifespan of the building, and save both costs and one of the most precious resources. Research a grey water system that reuses non-sewage water for irrigation to further improve efficiency.
On-demand water heating will be one of the ways that newer homes and businesses most significantly lower their energy use. Although still fairly expensive, tankless or on-demand water heaters do not burn energy all day and night to keep several gallons of water hot at all times, but rather heat the water that is required only when a faucet is used, thus eliminating a massive amount of waste.
In regards to climate control options, programmable thermostats and zone control systems allow residents to adjust the amount of energy being used by their air conditioners and heaters. Zone controls heat or cool only the rooms that are in use, and programmable thermostats shut the systems off or reduce their output during long stretches of time when no one is home or residents are sleeping. With these modern advances, it is no longer necessary to run the temperature control system throughout all rooms and even stories of the house when only one room is in use.
Choose the right materials
There are several criteria by which building materials are evaluated to determine their efficiency. First and foremost, the product itself must come from a renewable resource or process. For example, recycled materials from demolished buildings, bamboo or straw, which are plentiful and rapidly renewable, or linoleum, which is inexpensive to manufacture.
In order to be considered green, building materials must also have a low toxicity and chemical emissions rate and be easy to maintain without the use of harsh chemicals. The reason for this is that efficiency ratings also take into account indoor air quality, and items that meet these requirements will either improve or not impact this. High and ultra-high performance concrete, adobe, and wood fiber plates are other examples of excellent materials.
Other factors that are considered when rating efficiency are indoor air quality, water conservation, and energy efficiency. Finding a balance between all of these elements can be difficult, but a broader understanding of them can guide decision making. For example, the process of making glass is not an environmentally friendly one, but adding multiple panes to windows and treating and installing them properly will improve the thermal envelope of a building, thus drastically reducing energy consumption over the long term.
Frank Newhouse is a freelance writer with experience in property management and a passion for sustainable living. He currently writes for Air Conditioning Florida, which helps connect people with air conditioning services for their homes. Photo by David Feltkamp