Making Your New Construction or Old Home More Green

September 6, 2011

The idea of building a green house is no longer just for the pure environmentalists or the wealthy amongst us. Everyone wants a green home now, including me! Designing and creating a home with green building materials in order to make it eco-friendly benefits the builders, the residents, the neighbors, and the earth alike. Green building takes the environment into account when considering a home’s life-cycle of sustainability, maintenance needs, energy use, and healthy attributes. (See my post What Does LEED Stand For for a little more information on standards.) By efficiently using green construction materials to build a house, we can ensure a safe place for us to live while also helping to keep the environment free of toxins and pollutants over the life our home. Back when I stayed in an earthship I couldn’t believe just how “normal” an off-grid, energy-efficient home made from tires and mud could be! When we incorporate such building materials into making more eco-friendly homes for everyone, we all benefit. So let’s take a look at some essential green construction materials you can use either for new buildings or use to retrofit your existing home to make it more green.

Green Building Materials List

The list of materials you can use for building in an eco-friendly way goes on and on, but there are some requisite ones that everyone should keep in mind when considering “going green” at home. They include:

  • Adobe Mud – Adobe is a mixture of sand, clay, and water which is poured into a brick-like mold and left in the sun to dry for days, weeks, or months. (They gain structural strength the longer they can dry) The soils are usually harvested locally so there are minimal transportation needs, and each adobe brick sized 4x10x14 (the traditional New Mexico size) can weigh as much as 30 pounds when ready to build with. Such thick and heavy bricks, when used to build a home with, result in a high-mass wall which retains heat in winter and keeps cool in summer. I lived in an adobe house for a while and it was incredibly comfortable in both seasons while it also kept out noises from the outside.
  • Rammed Earth – Rammed earth construction is very much like adobe construction in that it is natural materials rammed into molds to create bricks. The finished bricks include dirt, sticks, and stone — the very makeup of earth materials. Rammed earth walls and buildings are virtually indestructible if maintained, energy-efficient, and can be made sustainably in varying locales.
  • Straw Bales – Homes made from baled straw are much more efficient than standard stick-built homes and contrary to popular myth are rather impervious to fire. The straw bales are stacked to create walls and are then sealed and covered with earthen stucco to create a thick, energy-efficient building envelope.
  • Papercrete – Thinking that a house made of shredded paper and sand wouldn’t be a good idea? Think again! Papercrete combines those two ingredients with standard concrete to create building blocks made mostly of recycled and renewable materials. It’s lightweight, inexpensive, and makes for a sustainably built energy-efficient house.
  • Earthbag – An earthbag is exactly what you think it would be; a bag filled with earth to make walls with. Same concept as any other “earthen” building concept, earthbags use locally-found dirt to build thick, solid walls of a home.
  • Low or No VOC Paint - When choosing what paint to use inside and outside your home, in order to be green and nontoxic you need to use a low or preferably no-VOC paint product. Volatile Organic Compounds are what makes paint have such a toxic, chemical smell. But by using low or no VOC paint, you can reduce your exposure to harmful toxins while also helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. See my previous post on how to choose low VOC paint for more.
  • Flooring Materials – Choosing to use bamboo, cork, or reclaimed wood as the flooring in your home goes a long way to reducing your impact on the environment for building materials while also keeping the air inside cleaner and healthier. Bamboo grows like crazy and is renewable. Cork is harvested only every 9 to 11 years from sustainably harvested tree bark. And reclaimed wood is, well, reusing something that otherwise may have gone to the landfill or incinerator! There are also some choices in linoleum which are made from linseed oil, recycled wood flour, and cork dust, and there are eco-friendly carpet choices over at Flor.com. If you are going to choose new hardwoods (which I highly suggest you do not), at least go with a sustainably harvested, FSC-certified product.
  • Roofing Materials – From recycled-material shingles made from plastics, metal corrugated panels, salvaged slate, clay tiles, and even solar panel tiles, there is a plethora of eco-friendly roofing materials to choose from. The least “green”, the lowly asphalt shingle that most of us have on our homes, is on its way out of fashion and is being replaced with more sustainable, longer-lasting materials. You can even plant a true green roof, using plantings and vegetation to make thermal mass which can keep your house cool and warm in corresponding seasons. Check out what they did in Chicago!

Efficiency

  • Lighting – By choosing CFL or LED light bulbs, you are choosing to reduce your energy bills, reduce the amount of energy you consume, and reduce power plant emissions, all while having to go buy light bulbs so often. Ignore the fear-mongering over CFL bulbs and change out those old incandescents for good.
  • Insulation – You know those rolls of pink insulation you probably had (or still have) in your attic or crawlspace? That’s fiberglass and it isn’t eco-friendly, healthy, or even that insulating compared to what is available now. From insulation made from recycled cotton blue jeans to blown-in cellulose made from shredded newspapers, the choices in green insulation today can help lower your utility bills while also being healthier for you and your family.
  • High-Efficiency Windows – Today’s energy efficient windows are made for the different orientations in your home, as some keep heat out and some let it in. There are many variables including U-factor rating, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient, and Visible Transmittance. For details on what you should be looking for, check out A Guide To Buying Energy Efficient Windows.
  • Tankless Water Heater – That old water heater in your basement is a dinosaur that is wasting money and energy. The giant tanks work day and night to keep all that water hot and ready for use, even when 99% of the time you don’t need it. Why not switch to something more efficient that only heats up water when you need it? If you are building new or replacing an old unit, please be sure to consider installing a tankless water heater to save a ton of energy.
  • Rainwater Collection – There is absolutely no reason why everyone who can collect rainwater isn’t doing so. (FYI – some cities/counties have outlawed the practice, which is crazy.) It falls from the sky free of charge, it can reduce your monthly water meter bill, and it can allow you to grow or cultivate more plants and gardens that you otherwise may have been able to. Since a single inch of rain falling on a 2,000-square-foot roof produces some 1,200 gallons of runoff, well, you get the picture. By installing rain barrels, rain chains, or below ground cisterns, you can collect thousands of gallons of water for later use each time it rains. Check out how to harvest rainwater for more information.

Sources of Energy

  • Passive or Active Solar - Active solar means to set up and collect solar energy using solar panels, inverters, and batteries. Everyone knows about active solar at this point, but few know about passive solar. Passive solar means orienting your building space in order to absorb and use the sun’s energy in the winter to heat your home while also rejecting it come summer in order to keep your home cool. The house I rented in Taos, NM was a passive solar house and it was warm in the winter due to the sun streaming in the big windows and heating up the concrete floors, while in the summer the sun was higher in the sky and didn’t come in the same windows. It was an amazingly simple idea that should be implemented more often. Active solar is easier to install on existing buildings, for obvious reasons, so if you are interested in pursuing solar for your home check out the advantages of solar power and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
  • Wind Turbines – While some people think that wind turbines ruin the view, I think otherwise — I think they are stunning. And besides, there are now smaller vertical-axis wind turbines for your home which can be mounted on a roof or on a small concrete slab, providing you with clean, renewable energy.
  • Hydro Power – If you live near or on a stream or river, chances are you may be able to harvest some of that kinetic energy to provide clean power for yourself. People have been using hydro power for centuries and there is no reason you can’t join the club! This little device called the PowerSpout can help you make that happen.
  • Green Credits – Last but not least, if you cannot go solar, wind, or hydro power, you should definitely check into buying “green” energy from your local power company. Here in my state you can buy credits with your utility bill which goes towards energy company investments in wind power. For a few extra bucks a month, it’s worth it to know you are helping your energy source go green. Check out the US Department of Energy to find out what green power buying options area available where you live.

While far from an exhaustive list of green building materials and options, this information should you get you started towards building and retrofitting your home to be more energy efficient and sustainable. By using green home construction materials, you are helping to secure a cleaner, safer, healthier future for everyone on the planet while also preserving our natural resources. So do your part and build green; the planet and its residents will surely thank you for all your hard work!

Adobe photo courtesy of EDV Media Director, CFl photo Paul Keller, solar photo hsivonen

Green PolkaDot Box

About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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