What makes a building material “green?”

This week on the radio I’m talking about what makes a particular building material environmentally friendly, or “green.”

Consumers have little to go off of apart from a manufacturer’s claim when it comes to really knowing the true ecological impact of some items. To illustrate, consider bamboo vs. wood. Which is a more ecologically sound choice for flooring?

There’s been lots of press about the quick regrowth rate of bamboo. It appears highly sustainable. But now we’re starting to hear about chemicals used during manufacturing to bind the shoots. And what about the standards for the workers producing the flooring in China? And what about the petroleum used to ship it to a house in the U.S.? How does the product then compare to oak harvested from a sustainable forest in the U.S.?

I am not making the claim that either one is better than the other, just that it’s not a black and white issue. It seems there is no perfect material and there are always tradeoffs.

That leads to the question, what makes a material “green?” This list posted on the green building website for the State of California has what I think looks to be a pretty thorough list of considerations:

Factors for evaluating a green building material

Resource Efficiency (embodied energy):

  • Recycled Content
  • Natural, plentiful or renewable
  • Resource efficient manufacturing process
  • Locally available
  • Salvaged, refurbished, or remanufactured
  • Reusable or recyclable
  • Recycled or recyclable product packaging
  • Durable

Indoor Air Quality:

  • Low or non-toxic
  • Minimal chemical emissions
  • Low-VOC assembly
  • Moisture-resistant
  • Healthfully maintained
  • Systems or equipment for identifying pollutants

Energy Efficiency

  • Materials, components, and systems that help reduce energy consumption

Water Conservation

  • Products and systems that help reduce water consumption

2 responses to “What makes a building material “green?”

  1. You’re just running into some of the “no good answers” issues affecting a lot of what would seem to be good environmental issues. For instance, we can all agree that bicycling is a good effective method of transportation, but nobody makes decent bicycles in the States or Canada any more. If you want a new bike, high-end or Wal-Mart cheapo, it’s coming from China or Singapore, with all the attendant issues with shipping and ethical workplaces. You could make your own from existing parts (I highly recommend the loons at Atomic Zombie Bicycles – http://www.atomiczombie.com – for intriguing and very efficient nonconventional designs), but then you have to consider the amount of energy necessary to run an arc or torch welder, as well as harmful byproducts from the processing of those parts. For instance, does the paint get ground off and contaminate soil, or do you burn it off and let it go into the air? The answers aren’t easy, but it’s a matter of causing the least impact.

    (And speaking about bicycles, Erin, I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with Half Price Books’s efforts to encourage Dallasites to take the bus and train. Until July, anyone coming in with a valid bus pass gets an additional 11 percent off all purchases. For me, considering my tastes in horticultural and science reading, this is dangerous: giving me a discount at a Half Price Books is like giving William S. Burroughs the security key to a smack factory.)

  2. Pingback: Material “green”-ness debate « erin covert * hands on

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