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Extension > Environment > Housing Technology > Energy efficiency > Building green - let's make sure it means something good

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Building green - let's make sure it means something good

By Richard Stone, Extension Educator in Housing Technology
Reviewed 2010

When I started in residential construction as a laborer in northern Minnesota back in 1971, "building green" meant that you picked up your framing materials from a small sawmill out in the woods. Since then, my career in residential building has provided opportunities in some very different parts of the industry and I have had the chance to witness significant changes. Those changes have been in both process and materials as well as how builders define their product and position themselves in the market.


Photo by Tom Schirber, University of Minnesota

When someone mentions "building green" today, it means something quite different than it meant back in the '70's. Thirty six years ago, where I was working, it meant that you couldn't afford or didn't have easy access to higher quality, seasoned lumber. You didn't go around telling people that you were "building green" because they might consider your work to be of lesser quality. Today, the term "green building" is used to define both high quality building materials and high-tech home building processes that reduce impacts on the environment both now and into the future. When we hear the term, we think of sustainable building practices that will provide safe, comfortable, durable, and affordable housing that lasts for generations.

During the past three decades, a number of factors have guided the home building industry down an ever changing path. The "energy crisis" of the seventies increased the cost of heating northern homes, leading many builders to install more insulation in homes than before. As forest products industries increased their output, new products were also introduced to homebuilding. Composites and engineered wood products could be produced at lower cost by using second growth timber and were used in place of the larger dimension framing lumber. As we became concerned about the volume of our society's waste stream, recycled products came into the market and helped to reduce demands on natural resources. Industries became more technically complex and specialized, including the building industry. Energy codes were introduced to implement controls over the nation's changing energy use. Gas and electric utilities offered training for builders who wanted to build homes that were more energy efficient. As building products and processes evolved, some noticed changes in the way that buildings worked and the field of building science developed to understand and respond to increasing concerns about moisture and indoor air quality as well as other issues in new homes. The combined effect of these many factors brought increased attention to measured building performance and a "whole house approach" to understanding how homes function.

As energy efficiency programs evolved, they also considered other related issues such as combustion safety, durability, and resource efficiency. Programs like Energy Star HomesĀ® have set performance standards. New homes are tested against the standards to achieve certification. Building America works with builders who want to go to the next steps of building performance. They work together to develop prototype homes that promote a systems engineering approach and reduce the amount of unnecessary building materials used in new homes. Green building starts with research based and performance tested practices and integrates them with environmental sustainability and quality of life issues like transportation, shopping, schools, and green space. "Building Green", as a concept, seeks to integrate these important elements of shelter and lifestyle. Green building programs serve to guide consumers, designers, and builders through the process of building new homes that are healthy and durable in settings that provide a high quality of life while minimizing environmental impacts.

Consumers are aware of the green "buzz" and want to know what green means for them. As the green building movement gains momentum, we should always remember that it must be rooted in building performance and cultivated by the whole house approach which maintains a balanced focus on all aspects of the home and the family who lives in it. Today's homebuyers have more awareness of the natural environment. They are well informed about current climate change concerns and understand that we must manage our resources more sustainably to provide for a better future.

Many green building programs are already certifying homes while others are in the pilot stage or under development. Take some time today to think about what building green means to you. Think about what kind of footprint you will be leaving on this planet. Then make an effort to learn how you might become involved locally in the green building movement, adopting sustainable building practices as part of your business plan and building for a better future.

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