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What’s Green?

It seems like everything these days is striving to be “green.” It’s hard to avoid advertisements and TV commercials publicizing green product features. Some of these claims are genuine and based on third party verification, but many are questionable at best and fraudulent at worst. Is a disposable coffee cup green because it contains 10% post-consumer content? Should we believe an insulation’s claim to be “green” without any proof?

The growth of questionable environmental claims has led to a new dictionary entry, “greenwashing.”

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Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. From: http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/

The concept of greenwashing also applies to building construction. When Carl Seville and I wrote Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction, we defined green building as a set of design, construction, and maintenance practices that minimize a building’s total environmental impact. The decisions made while planning, building, renovating, and maintaining homes have long-term effects on our environment, including air quality, health, natural resources, land use, water quality, and energy efficiency. Materials used to construct, remodel, and maintain a house, the energy used to heat, cool, light, and run equipment, and the amount of water used during its lifetime all have an impact on the environment (Figure 1). Neighborhood design affects how much land is consumed, how far people drive, and the amount of water pollution caused by runoff from roofs, lawns, and roads. Green building strives to reduce these negative impacts.

Figure 1. Green building takes into account the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a home. Source: Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction (Cengage, 2013).

Figure 1. Green building takes into account the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a home. From: Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction (Cengage, 2013).

The Green on Gift home demonstrates methods of improving energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor air quality, and durability while avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing by using products and materials with truly limited environmental footprints. Since remodeling involves reusing existing structures, it often has a smaller environmental footprint than new construction. Many new (and often oversized) homes are certified as green buildings. While they may well be more efficient than another similar home, it still has a large environmental footprint, requiring significant quantities of materials and energy to build and operate. And if it replaced an existing home, all the embodied energy in materials from the demolished home was lost forever in the process.

In many cases, the greenest homes are the ones already built. Green building is more than just an energy efficient home or a solar PV system. Green is a holistic approach that accounts for all facets of home design, construction, operation, maintenance, and ultimately decommissioned. The longer we can make use of a structure, repairing and upgrading over time, the fewer new materials required, resulting in a lower overall environmental impact.

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