Ten Practical, Old-school Steps to Going Green

Your clients traditionally look to you for expert advice about building materials and design alternatives. Now they want that expertise for all things green, too. A client who says he or she wants a green kitchen may not have the foggiest notion of what that means in relation to product/material choices and design decisions. This can be a daunting task for you as you stroll store aisles or browse building-product directories.

When delving into a green-building project, consider how The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain trains new staff. New employees aren’t inundated with long lists of specific actions. Instead they are taught a principle: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Any action in accordance with that principle is the right path for The Ritz-Carlton.

How does this apply to green building? Keeping a few green principles in mind and adhering to those principles when designing and specifying products means you’re probably on the right green path.

For example, the green principles I follow are universal:

  • Use less energy and water.
  • Don’t poison the air.
  • Avoid buying things that poison the world when they are made or shipped.
  • Buy from responsible manufacturers.

Once your principles are set, it’s important to have some baseline knowledge of third-party certification labels for products. There are labels available that identify recycled content and offgassing potential, as well as highlight a product’s life-cycle impact. Visit GreenWizard.com for guidance.

The following 10-point primer also will help you select green-building products:

  1. Use no- or low-VOC paints, finishes, sealants, caulks and adhesives. Lowcost, durable products are widely available. NAHB’s National Green Building Standard (NAHBGreen.org) and the LEED certification system (USGBC.org) offer information about VOCcompliant products because the organizations require these types of products to attain credits within their certifications.
  2. Use lumber products that are formaldehyde-free or contain no added formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It’s common to find hardwood plywood and OSB that do not contain formaldehyde.
  3. You can increase efficiency of forcedair-heated homes by up to 15 percent by sealing duct seams. Use widely available low-VOC duct sealants.
  4. Use spray polyurethane foams that are isocyanate- and formaldehydefree. These also should be low- or no-VOC. For whole-house applications, don’t guess which foam to use (closed cell vs. open cell). They perform differently in relation to moisture resistance and R-value per inch. Your insulation contractor should have an expert on staff who can talk knowledgeably about different foams. If not, find one who does.
  5. Light-colored roofs drive down cooling costs. Today’s granule technology allows even gray shingles to be Energy Star-rated and reflect 20 percent of the solar energy hitting a house. You can increase the energy efficiency of a roof system even more by installing radiant barriers that block heat.
  6. Use certified lumber. It’s frankly difficult to buy lumber that isn’t certified by programs, like the American Tree Farm, Community Supported Agriculture, Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Avoid
    using non-plantation-grown tropical woods because there is no guarantee they were harvested in a sustainable manner.
  7. New carpets do not have to offgas toxins. Look for Green Label and Green Label Plus certifications from the Carpet and Rug Institute. These labels ensure homeowners aren’t breathing in formaldehyde, 4-henylcyclohexene and other VOCs.
  8. Plastic decking and trim should have recycled attributes. Look for products that are recyclable, certified for recycled content and are made by companies committed to recycling programs.
  9. Don’t scrimp on the thermal envelope. The greenest thing you can do is ensure a building consumes as little fuel as possible during its lifetime. The house will be around for decades, even centuries, burning fuel each year of its life, even after all the VOCs have flashed off and the forests have grown back.
  10. Focus on sound building practices. Green building is about using greener versions of traditional building products. Don’t be lured away by crazy inventions that claim to be green.