New Book on Green Building

Build Green and SaveMatt Belcher is an experienced and succesful Green builder and developer in St. Louis. In his new book he has compiled many years of experience in Green Building. He is also an advocate of the use of  SIPs in his construction practice. The book contains a lot of practical information for the builder looking for practical information on incorporating Green Building practices in a cost effective manner.

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Life Cycle Analysis

Green is a dangerous word.

Green may be the most misused word in the english language as companies and organizations scramble to jump on the band wagon and avoid being seen as environmental outcasts and become green pariahs. The misuse of Green has been so pervasive that it has led to pending legislation to regulate green claims. This is extremely unfortunate as it has led people to make bad decisons and undermined their faith in any claim of  merit if it includes the term Green. We must do better, there is too much at stake.

There are very few methods to sort out all the claims of environmental friendly products, sustainable practices or Green. In the world of building where serious progress has been made to extablish legitimate standards for Green building, there are still serious problems for builders and home buyers in sorting out the most sustainable products, systems and practices. 

An example I have used repeatedly is bamboo flooring. Bamboo is generally perceived to be a very Green material due to its rapid growth with minimum energy and chemical input. It is also percieved to be Green because of apparent durability. I say apparent here because this product has only been on the market for a decade or two. There are many acres of bamboo flooring covering floors in the the Northeast US and Eastern Canada, much of it installed because of the perception of it being the Green thing to do.

But is it really? 

I have never seen a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment performed on flooring choices. Are these Green claims for Bamboo based on science or perception. I would suggest that there is a distinct possibility  it is not the best choice in the Northeast or Eastern Canada where we a blessed with a hardwood resource that has been growing faster than harvest rates since around 1900. Hardwood floors have a long history of durability and the infrastructure is in place to produce huge quatities of flooring without depleting our Eastern forests or even more at risk old growth forests and rain forests. Hardwood floors also do not require the use of adhesives to glue together small pieces of bamboo to make useable sizes of flooring. Bamboo may well be a fine sustainable choice in bamboo growing regions, but I have a hard time seeing how it is superior to hardwood growing, literally, in the backyard.

There are tools for making evaluations of relative Green. In the end all Green is relative. Most all products have some Green attribute, but some have many more than others. In some cases certain attributes outweigh others when for instance durability is of more importance than the amount of embodied energy in a material. If you must replace a material or a building in a relatively short period of time because the materials or systems selected were not durable then picking a material with more embodied energy such as concrete might be the better choice.

So if you are following this line of reasoning you may be quickly overwhelmed by all the tradeoffs. But there is a tool that helps us considerably in this evaluation process, the Life Cycle Analysis or LCA. If you have followed Michael McDonough and his book Cradle to Grave, you are familiar with the concept that we must consider all material and energy inputs from first creation of a product to its ultimate disposal or preferably reuse http://www.mcdonough.com/full.htm. This is the essence of Life Cycle Analysis, to comprehensively evaluate all inputs and outcomes of  product (system or service) choices.

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BASF in conjunctin with Insulspan have performed Life Cycle Analyses of most of the most common residential building systems to determine if we were on the right track with Stuctural Insulating Panel Systems and Insulating Concrete Form Systems. The energy saving attributes of SIPs and ICFs were well understood to be outstanding. We also believed that the material resources and energy inputs to SIPs and ICFs were less than other systems but we needed a way to evaluate our hunches. It was also important to understand the many other impacts of material and system selections such as health effects to both building occupants and workers processing and handling the materials, environment impact from resource extraction, etc.  No matter how energy efficient a material, if other impacts are unacceptable then there may be better choices.

Ok, so how Green are SIPs and ICFs? The simple answer would be, ‘very‘. But it is never as simple as we might like. The more appropriate but elusive answer is ‘it depends’.  As you will see, it depends on factors like where the building is located and many other factors.

Thus I would like to explore the BASF/Insulspan Eco-Efficiency analysis in Frank’s Green Speak and solicit your questions, comments and input along the way. There is a link to one of the first studies here and we will be introducing others later. In future postings I will explore the many facets of the LCA and how things vary with different inputs. Hope you find this interesting and stimulating. I look forward to your comments.

View the Insulspan /BASF Life Cycle Analysis here: insulspan_LCA