Lakeside Green Cottage

Last June our 100 year old seasonal cottage in Lakeside, Ohio took a direct hit from a 100 year old maple tree during a storm that came across Lake Erie. We loved the funky old cottage but we knew from the outset that repair versus replacement would be the major decision in front of us. After months of debate, evaluation, structural analysis, historical study and consultation with experts and some not so experts, we finally decided that the Greenest thing we could do was salvage what we could from the old cottage and build a new, state of the art Green Cottage. Tearing down the funky but appealing old structure and the history that would go with it was a tough decision. We also knew that we may have difficulty getting the Lakeside community to accept the idea of tearing down one of its treasured architectural structures. The entire Lakeside Community is on the National Historic register.
 It initially seemed that the Greenest thing to do was to repair the old cottage. We had already been planning to repair it and spruce it up, but the tree forced us into action. But how do you economically and esthetically repair something that had no real foundation, no level or square floors or walls, would not meet any current building code, had antiquated cobbled wiring and plumbing, a compromised fireplace and chimney (the only heat source), no insulation or subfloors, inoperable and deteriorating old windows, multiple broken structural members, hidden areas of rot, and a roof way past it’s prime. As we considered all the options, repairing the cottage was looking more like the classic money pit.
So we decided to rebuild. Once that decision was made, we were excited at the opportunity to build what would be a much better cottage and would also be a state of the art Green Cottage. For 30 years we have been advising and supplying sustainable design and materials to clients. Now we had an opportunity to incorporate all we have learned into our cottage. With all the experience and the resources available, that should be easy, right? If only that were the case.
I’ve heard it estimated that there are over 30,000 decisions to be made in the construction of the average home. Add in the considerations to make that home truly green, the complexity grows immensely even for folks like us who have had experience with Green and sustainability thinking.
In an effort to assist those hoping to build their own Sustainable Green Home, we will chronicle the path of how we have made our Green choices, developed Green specifications and rationalized decisions where Green was more like Gray. We’ll be keeping a log here on Greenspeak as the project progresses. Follow this link for a general overview of the project and follow Frank’s Green Speak for updates on the process.

Wrong Turn Taken: Embodied Energy & LCA

Have you seen the claims of cellulose insulating materials to be the “Greenest of the Green”? Embodied Energy is used as a basis for the claim. Cellulose has many noteworthey Green attributes, but if you look to the footnotes on the embodied energy tables for insulating materials you will see that the numbers include the “caloric BTU value of the EPS”. That is to say that the BTU value of the EPS was included as if the EPS feedstock were going to be burned for fuel. Cellulose insulation on the other hand does not include the BTU value of the wood it is made from if the wood were burned thus severely distorting the comparison of cellulose to EPS insulation. Petroleum and Natural Gas which are the primary feedstocks in EPS should be viewed as  minerals, of which there is a finite supply.  The choice seems to be; should we burn gas and oil and dump more CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere or make it into a durable good that can be recycled indefinitely and save huge amounts of energy with that durable good.

Embodied energy is a factor used in Life Cycle Analysis LCA to compare the merits of materials, processes, etc. When embodied energy includes all the important energy inputs into the extraction, transport, processing and disposing or recycling of a material it can be very useful. However if a short term view is adopted which puts more  emphasis on supply side dynamics than on preservation of resources then we have a distorted result which can lead us down the wrong path of material selection. Most of the best known LCA tools, like the Athena model, treat EPS in this fashion.  I would strongly argue that including the energy value of burning a raw material in embodied energy calculations is just this type of inappropriate emphasis on short versus long term environmental vision. We should be preserving petroleum products for long term durable goods manufacture, which in the case of EPS insulation, saves about 100 times more energy over the life of a building than the energy used to produce it. And the bonus is that we still have the polystyrene molecule to reuse over and over again and the carbon in the petroleum is sequestered keeping it out of the atmosphere. Since plastics account for less than 3% of all petroleum and natural gas consumption and in most cases is very recyclable, its makes much more sense to preserve oil and gas for these types of use and replace them with renewable energy sources. This would be a Win, Win, Win for us all.

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 This is the essence of Life Cycle Analysis, to comprehensively evaluate all inputs and outcomes of  product (system or service) choices.


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