Changing the World One Building at a Time

Photographs by Kyle Chesser

As we strive to live an eco-friendly life, we carefully consider the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the cars we drive. But what about our homes and our office buildings? What kind of imprint do they leave on our health and on the earth?

Green building, also known as sustainable building, is a relatively new field, but it is quickly gaining momentum, especially since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. The core concept of green building is to use sustainable materials and more efficient resources in the areas of construction, operation, maintenance, and demolition.

The need for greener construction practices is obvious. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Center for Sustainable Development, buildings consume 40% of the world's total energy, 25% of its wood harvest, and 16% of its water. Sustainable building practices should produce several key benefits. They should lower electric and water utility costs while increasing energy efficiency, promote water and other resource conservation, create healthy indoor air quality, and produce better neighborhoods and livable communities, with greater reduction of pollution in all areas.

What does green building mean for individual contractors, or for someone trying to remodel their own home?

Peter Lyon, a Campbell-based general contractor, has spent 32 years in the construction business, the last five specializing in green building. Lyon and his staff help their clients navigate through the green building process, and that often includes dispelling the belief that green building is too expensive.

“It’s a mistake for people to think that they can’t afford green. It’s just not the case. There are things that can be done that don’t cost a thing,” Lyon says. “When there are greater up-front costs, they are often offset by lower maintenance and service expenses over the years ahead.”

Start Small When You Think Green
One misconception is that green building has to start from the ground up, or that you have to completely remodel your home in order to make it greener. In construction, there are many different levels of

going green. The greenest buildings are “zero green,” which means the building creates its own heat and air-conditioning and powers its own food sources and water. But small changes can make a big difference, too, such as replacing old windows with double-paned, energy-efficient models, or installing a whole-house fan or solar attic fan. Other low-cost green modifications include installing high R-value wall and ceiling insulation, or adding lighting controls such as motion sensors and dimmer switches.

Sustainable plumbing fixes are also relatively inexpensive. Homeowners can minimize wastewater by using ultra-low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads. Tankless or point-of-use water heaters may seem costly to install, but soon pay for themselves in terms of energy savings. A gray water system can recover rainwater or other non-potable water for landscape irrigation.

“Building green isn’t an all or nothing proposition,” Lyon says. “It’s a matter of making choices, and deciding what makes sense for your home and lifestyle.”

With the growing popularity of the green movement, an industry has boomed. More products and greater choices can leave consumers confused about what’s out there. (See our "Decoding Green Building" to help navigate the choices).

“We evaluate the good and bad, because not every product that’s ‘green’ is good. Many companies are trying to ride the coattails of the green movement. Some products are expensive to put in and more expensive to take out, so we try to steer our clients away from them,” says Lyon. His company’s standard policy is to install only products that have had at least five years of testing in the field.

Out with the Old, In with the Old
In sustainable building, the re-use of old materials is as important as incorporating new, eco-friendly technologies. One of Lyon’s recent projects was the transformation of a 60-year-old Palo Alto house by gutting, reframing, and rewiring it. One of the greenest aspects of the job was removing the house’s exterior redwood siding, then sandblasting, cleaning, and reinstalling it in the interior hallways as paneling.

“We didn’t have to throw away all that redwood. We recycled and reused it, and it’s the focal point, the center of the house,” says Lyon. “It’s gorgeous and highly green.”

Greening the Great Indoors
For a building to be green, it must be healthy for the environment and healthy for its occupants, too. Lyon states that this is in direct opposition to “sick-building syndrome, which is all about concrete, steel, bad air, and fluorescent lighting.” On average, Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, and yet the air inside new or remodeled homes and office buildings is often much more polluted than outdoor air. This is largely due to the toxic chemicals found in some building materials, such as kitchen cabinets and shelving made from particleboard or medium-density fiberboard. This type of “wood” is held together with adhesives that release urea formaldehyde for years after installation.

Again, making the green building choice to improve indoor air quality is not necessarily costly or difficult. Most homeowners repaint at least one room in their house once a year. It is easy and healthful to switch to no- or low-VOC paint, since volatile organic compounds have been found to have adverse health effects. Homes with wood-burning fireplaces can be retrofitted with low-emissions wood stoves or inserts that are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Flooring choices like carpeting and hardwood floor finishes can be made from either toxic or non-toxic materials, so home remodelers can simply select the healthier version.

To learn more about green building practices, or to find local suppliers of green building products, visit Build it Green is a non-profit organization based in Berkeley whose mission is to promote healthy, energy- and resource-efficient homes in California.

Demolish it Green
Anybody who has ever remodeled a house knows that at some point in the process you wind up with a dumpster full of old materials that must be carted off to the landfill. And if you are trying to make your house greener, it doesn’t feel good to fill up your local dump site. Enter the Deconstruction and ReUse Network in Alameda (). This nonprofit organization will come to your home, inventory its reusable materials, and then carefully remove them. The old materials will be distributed to non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, then re-used in constructing homes throughout the world. You receive an itemized report of donated materials and an appraisal that can help you get a tax deduction.

Also read: Decoding Green Building and see Michaela's Video Blog: Learning about the power of Phi, green building and thoughts on 33 years in business