A friend of mine was kind enough to read my latest article about building or renovating a Green home. He mentioned that if he knew exactly what the term “Green Home” meant and was actively seeking to build one, then my article would have been a fantastic source of information. But for folks who had no idea what a “Green Home” was and weren’t convinced that conventional housing was such a bad thing my article might get a bit confusing. He was right – I’d gotten a bit ahead of myself. So, I’d like to back track and explain what I mean by the term “Green Home” and make a case for building one.
A Green home should be energy efficient, healthy and use sustainable resources. Green homes take advantage of nature’s processes in order to use less energy, consume less water and produce less waste. Insulations, orientation towards light, air circulation, energy efficient appliances and lighting are all considered.
Green homes are built from recycled materials or lumber harvested with sustainable logging practices. They can also be built using such creative materials as old tires, mud, hemp and just plain dirt. In all cases, these materials needn’t make the home look as if you are caveperson living in a lump of earth, nor are they unlivable or so “unique” that they frighten guests. In fact, most Green homes do not look very different from your average home – unless, of course, you want it to. See the previous Green Homes article for great websites about Green homes.
Building a Green home, as mentioned in my last article, is probably the least expensive way for the average consumer to go. But for those who have the cash to spend, renovating an old building to be Green will probably have the least environmental impact. But anything is better than the giant, toxic, cookie-cutter suburbs metastasizing across North America.
What’s so bad about those cookie-cutter homes? Let’s start with the size and frame. The average home of the 1950’s housed a family of 4-5 and was the size of today’s average 3-car garage – anywhere from 900 to 1000 square feet. Today’s standard home houses a smaller family of 3-4 and is about 3500 square feet. For some reason we feel we need more stuff and more space to stash the stuff. But all that space adds up and takes a major toll on the environment. For one thing, you are now heating and cooling twice as much home and most of us don’t just heat the rooms we are in – we heat the whole darned house.
Most homes today are built with boards nailed together to make a frame. This is called stick framing. Stick framing is meant to last 30 years if it is built properly and these days that is a big IF. Stick frame homes are very difficult to insulate, have more mold, mildew and other moisture related problems and will go up like a tinderbox in a fire. Whether stick or semi-prefab, this wood is usually manufactured with formaldehyde-based glues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen (causes cancer). Another fabulous feature of formaldehyde is that it can offgas (emit vapors), polluting your home’s air for years. The more hot and humid your weather the more intense the offgassing will be. Long-term inhalation of formaldehyde vapors can cause fatigue, respiratory irritation, impaired lung function, and allergic skin reactions.
It isn’t just the framing that contains formaldehyde either. Conventional plywood is created by bonding thin veneers of wood together with formaldehyde. Most hardwood plywood, which is used for cabinets and paneling is made with a center of lower quality wood and outer layers of high quality wood these layers are bonded using UF glue. The “u” stands for urea and the “f” for formaldehyde. Yuck.
But it doesn’t end there – we still have the softwood plywood that is used for walls, floors and roofs. It is glued together with phenol and formaldehyde resin. Next we have the ever-popular particleboard used to make cheap furniture and cabinets and this is made from woodchips and plant fiber all gobbed together with formaldehyde resins.
Now let’s look at insulation.
The better your insulation and heating, the less heat and cooling you’ll need the less energy you’ll use, the more money you’ll save. So better insulation is the key all around. But you also have to ask yourself what your insulation is made of and is it really safe for you to breathe?
Fiberglass insulation has been used since the1930s and according to the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA), approximately 90 percent of all residential insulation sold and installed in the U.S. is fiberglass. Of three types of insulation used today, “the most substantial and well documented public health threats are associated with fiberglass,” writes Anjanette DeCarlo, Keeping Warm and Staying Healthy: A Comparative Look at Fiberglass, Cellulose, and Cotton Insulation,in a 1996 Natural Resources Defense Council report.
Fiberglass is eventually released from the insulation, filling the air with microscopic glass shards. If inhaled, these shards can damage your lungs. Then theirs is the fact that fiberglass is considered to be a probable carcinogen by National Institutes of Health. Children are at greater risk than adults when exposed, because they breathe more air – and whatever it contains. I n their report, NRDC recommends the use of cellulose insulation as a safer alternative. according to Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News, cellulose reduces air seepage, creating an almost airtight barrier, and that fires tend to self-extinguish in houses tightly sealed in cellulose. The process of creating cellulose insulation consumes 10 times less energy than that of fiberglass insulation and cellulose contains 75 percent post-consumer recycled newspaper, whereas fiberglass is made with only 20 to 25 percent post-industrial or Plywood & Particleboard – and we already know what those contain.
What’s in the paint and carpet? Just because you don’t have lead paint doesn’t mean the paint won’t hurt you. That lovely smell of new paint comes from solvents known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs like benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene and formaldehyde. These are associated with frequent headaches, fatigue, difficulty breathing, eye and skin irritation and some of them are known carcinogens (cause cancer) and neurotoxins (cause brain and nerve damage).
Wood finishes, such as stains, varnishes, lacquers and polyurethane, may also contain VOC solvents. Oil-based products are the worst fume emitters. Painting over old paint with latex paint will NOT seal in the fumes. Some old paint also contains phenylmercury, which is a neurotoxin.
Carpet is basically a petrochemical cocktail that contains polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) a.k.a flame retardant, formaldehyde, styrene, trichloroetheylene and xylene. If that doesn’t make you feel icky, carpet is the bane of allergy sufferers because it holds dander, mold, mildew, dust and the always evil dust mite.
Vinyl floors aren’t much better as they are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and the glues that stick the flooring down contain solvents like toluene and benzene. PVC, widely used in flooring, wallcoverings, countertops, miniblinds, water pipes and windowframes, is a toxic substance throughout its life cycle. Greenpeace has a site to help you locate PVC in your home as well as a database for non-PVC building materials. Hardwood flooring can seem like the answer but it has likely been treated with pesticides and chemical finishes that contain VOC’s. Not to mention that unsustainable forest management is causing major economic and environmental damage worldwide – for worst-case scenario, see Haiti in hurricane season.
While this may seem completely and painfully depressing, have no fear. There are many options. See last months article for suggestions on resources and cautions about building a new Green home and next month I’ll offer some options for the problems I highlighted in this article.