By: Clarke Snell
This is the first in a series of columns written for New Life Journal on the quickly propagating though illusive animal known as “green building”. These days it seems like there is such a frenzy to do “green building”, that few of us slow down long enough to really say what it is. I’ll remedy that problem right off. For me “green building” grows out of the broader concept of “sustainability”: the simple idea that the way of life we choose must not lead to circumstances that prevent that way of life from continuing. Bees have got it down, rabbits can do it in their sleep, but we humans just can’t seem to wrap our big brains around it. In order to even start moving in the direction of sustainability, I feel that we need to create buildings that balance five often conflicting traits:
Five Elements of Green Building
(1) Low Construction Impact. Building is almost always an initially destructive act. Land usually has to be at least minimally cut and reshaped, holes need to be dug, and materials refashioned to serve the building. A green building minimizes its construction impact on the local ecosystem through careful design that considers the building site as a partner rather than an inconvenience. It minimizes its impact on the ecosystem of the planet by utilizing replenishable materials that cause the least amount of environmental destruction in their use.
(2) Resource Efficiency Through the Life of the Building. After a building is built, people move in and use it. This hopefully long relationship usually constitutes the main period of impact that the building will have on the planet. Heating, cooling, lighting, bathing, and watching re-runs of “Survivor” all require resources that are often non-renewable and polluting. A green building creates the daily indoor environment for its human inhabitants in the most efficient, non-polluting, and renewable manner possible.
(3) Longevity. Creating a building requires natural resources such as construction materials and fuels as well as human labor and ingenuity. The longer a building lasts, the longer the time span before the natural environment will be asked to ante up resources to repeat the process. A green building, then, is designed to have a long fruitful life.
(4) Nontoxic. It’s a true testament to our dire straits that this one even makes the list. As bizarre as it may sound, we have to be very vigilant if we want to create a modern building that is nontoxic to its inhabitants or the environment at large. Okay, y’all, it’s pretty simple: a green building does not poison its inhabitants or the environment.
(5) Beauty. To be simplistic (give me a break, it’s just a short column), a sustainable system is one where component elements work together to create a self-regulating, self-maintaining cycle. The complex tangle of relationships that tend to create such systems in nature develop slowly over eons. Everything on the planet earth developed, changed, and adapted as part of a sustainable system.
Flash forward to today. We modern humans find ourselves out of the sustainability loop. What happened? Simply put, we left home. Once we cut ourselves off from a deep, cultural connection to a specific place, an exact climate, a complex matrix of relationships that slowly developed over time, we left the basic source of our sustenance, our sustainability. Now we are left with the daunting task of trying to rebuild that delicate connection to the web of life.
Hey, don’t look at me. I can’t begin to imagine the delicate negotiations we’re going to have make to get back in the club. It does seem to me, though, that to create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical, and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes a long time to build healthy soil to grow good food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of a house’s cooling strategy. These things simply won’t happen if we aren’t sufficiently seduced by our buildings to stay with them for the many years it will take to turn them into integrated places that nurture both their inhabitants and the environment. A green building, then, needs to be deeply and personally beautiful to its inhabitants, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child.
From Theory to Practice
Okay, we’ve defined the task, let’s build some stuff! Unfortunately, we live in a place called the real world where things are never that simple. The fact is that the five elements I’ve outlined are often in conflict with one another. For example, to save energy using passive solar design on a forested site, you need to create a larger construction impact by cutting more trees to access the sun. On the other hand, cob, a mixture of clay soil, sand, and straw, can have an incredibly low construction impact, but isn’t the best insulator. Cob buildings, then, will often use more energy to heat, than comparably sized buildings using other wall systems. Even the seemingly no-brainer concept of building without toxins is harder than it sounds. When it comes to drain pipe, for example, you’re probably going to use PVC. It’s a non-renewable petrochemical product and highly toxic dioxins are released in its manufacture, but I have yet to find a truly practical alternative.
In the end, “building green” is a deeply personal process in which you make judgments as to how a building will best merge with your own personal mode of survival, be it computer programming or subsistence farming, to create the most beneficial impact on your environment, both local and global. An ideally “green” building, then, must be a very specific thing, matching your idiosyncratic personal needs with the fabric of your exact local environment. It’s a daunting challenge, yes, but what more important goal have you got on your to do list? In the coming months, I’ll be throwing in my two cents worth as to how you might go about creating that strange, beautiful animal known as the “green building”.