Only Green Basics Can ‘Move the Needle’

As the singer Tom Waits says in one of his lyrics: “Let me pull on your coat about something.” As a green building consultant, I receive dozens of green building e-newsletters, environmental alerts, and green product announcements. A common trend I see in the new product announcements is a rising number of exotic green products.

What do I mean by exotic?

I could pick from a number of examples, from insulation made from blue jeans to pipe systems that recover the heat from bath shower wastewater, or even faucets with in-line micro-hydro generating plants (a very high-fidelity product, indeed). I recognize that new product developers have to dazzle to get our attention, but some exotic products only distract us from green building basics. Moreover, their benefits don’t always “move the needle” in terms of what green building must accomplish, specifically, reducing energy consumption and lowering overall environmental toxicity. Worse, some products even try to give the impression we can consume our way out into a green future — which, of course, we can’t. (This is especially true of the wastefully oversized and extravagant “green show homes” built to showcase environmental products.)

I am in favor of innovation as much as anyone, more so than most, probably. But I can’t help but think that many new products (or even traditional products that are now being retroactively marketed as green) actually are holding back the green building movement.

Here’s why ...

Besides writing this magazine column, I also speak internationally at trade events about green building. Believe me, the level of doubt out there about the green building movement is still remarkably strong. Many mainstream remodelers still believe that the green building movement has been dreamed up by graduate students who have no calluses on their hands and who think Carhartts is a kind of Danish sports car. And that these elite deep greenies are eager to promote expensive contraptions, and a rising tide of codes and regulations, which only make remodeling jobs harder to complete and more expensive — all with no measurable benefit or return-on-investment for remodelers and their clients. As evidence of this impression, someone in the audience will point out some wild product or refer to a hokey marketing campaign as evidence that the entire green building movement is suspect. Which it is not, of course. But exotic products aren’t focused on what truly matters in terms of green building.

What is that exactly?

Well, I am often asked, “What’s the greenest thing I can do to a structure?” And I invariably point to three guiding principles: a.) Condition your structure so it burns 30 percent to 60 percent less fuel to heat and cool itself over its lifetime than it does now (e.g., tighten up and properly vent the thermal envelope); b.) Use third-party-certified non-toxic/low-emitting products that protect the environment and air quality at every stop in the value chain, from manufacture to installation and use; and c.) Don’t buy products whose source materials have been harvested or extracted at rates that are unsustainable or nonregenerative.

Sound too basic? Unsexy? Well, all the recovered wastewater heat in North America isn’t going to move the needle in terms of saving meaningful amounts of energy when you realize how much is being lost through low-tech, low-fidelity problems. For instance, a study of commercial buildings stated that more than 45 percent of the rooftop HVAC units (RTUs) have an improper refrigerant charge, 39 percent have low airflow, and a remarkable 63 percent have broken economizers. I am sure there is a similar state of inefficiency in residential applications. As unglamorous as it is to get out there and monitor the HVAC system while a Swedish model is displaying high-end recovered countertops in a glossy magazine, that’s the level of baseline building operations that should draw our attention. When we have that cleared up, we’ll have the luxury of reviewing more exotic products.

Want another example? They are easy to find. The Harvard University School of Public Health estimates that there are 46 million under-insulated houses in the United States alone — 46 million. (Just imagine, in aggregate form, how much Gulf of Mexico oil those under-insulated homes burn every year.) Putting programs and products in place to address the unsexy stuff like tighter buildings, moisture control and balanced efficient HVAC systems is what green building must be about before we can in good conscience bring in the high-end glamour.

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