Which is cheaper to build a house with, a spruce timber 2 by 4 or a steel stud? It might cost less to build a house using lumber, but is it cheaper in the long run? Especially when one considers the cost of greenhouse emissions and how they are affected by loss of trees. But steel must be refined and molded using plenty of energy.
Which of these uses more power and consequently causes a larger carbon footprint? It is difficult to say, but choice of build materials is a definite part of how we can change the way we build homes and other buildings so as to save money and energy. Choice of building materials is just one part of what is known as green building.
Green building can best be described as the birth to grave process of building. From choosing a site through architectural design, choice of materials, construction, occupancy and eventual demolish, every aspect of a building’s effect on the environment is considered. Paramount among these is energy efficiency as part of the dwelling use.
Energy efficiency can be taken much further of course. Taking a quick look at energy use in the home leads us to the conclusion that the majority of our power costs are placed in heating and air conditioning, hot water, lighting and cooking.
Green building techniques for inside climate control include air pipe ventilation, rooftop solar panels and geothermal heat exchangers. These can cool your home, make hot water and power your lights. Most importantly they drastically reduce your dependency on electricity as furnished by your power company and in this way they save you a great deal of money over the lifespan of your home.
Water conservation is a major aspect of green building. Simply by diverting gray water from your sewer to your lawn you achieve two goals. You protect diminishment of fresh water supplies while watering your lawn. Point of use water treatment saves money right from its inclusion in construction.
Of course, what you choose to build your house out of is as large a factor today as it was 1000 years ago when native peoples were digging caves into cliff walls. Obviously this was a wonderful example of materials efficiency. But one doesn’t need to live in a cave to be materials energy efficient. Building materials made from compacted earth and natural stone accomplish much the same effect. Using recycled materials such as our steel 2 by 4 reduce our home cost in terms of carbon, as do polyurethane blocks, planks and siding made from recycled plastic and demolition debris. There is no reason that any home has to be built at the cost of a hundred acres of trees.
Simple systems such as passive lighting (skylights) and air pipe ventilation can drastically improve the quality of life for occupants. Use of natural building materials almost guarantees fewer volatile particles and a higher indoor air quality. Most man-made materials release minute amounts of health damaging toxic gases. There is a reason why we call it “Fresh Air”.
Green building costs on average just 5% more than current standardized construction practices. That number would drop to the point of a direct savings if green building were to become the standard. As with almost every energy-saving vehicle, we can drastically reduce costs if we increase volume. Green building returns a savings of 50 to 70 percent on energy costs over the life time of a building. Yes, addition of items like solar panels and geothermal underground pipes is a supplemental cost. But the initial cost of these electricity bill lowering features has been proven to quickly pay for itself.
One doesn’t have to build a two hundred foot tall wind turbine in their front yard to save on energy costs. Simple procedures like proper site planning and choice of construction materials can cut a new home’s energy bill by 25% instantly. And while monetary savings are important, the true savings from green building is not measured in dollars. Rather it should be counted in overall improved quality of life in the home and office and overall improved health of the world we live in.