Sustainable buildings: Choosing the right materials
By carefully selecting building supplies and appliances, you can make your home or building a truly sustainable structure.
Wed, Nov 09 2011 at 3:38 PM
READY FOR REUSE: Stacks of reclaimed and surplus rigid insulation in Massachusetts looking for a new home. (Photo: Planet Reuse)
You’re the kind of person who’s always looking to minimize your environmental footprint. You bought that fuel-efficient vehicle and spearheaded the charge to implement your office’s recycling program. Now you’re ready to build a new home—your dream home—and you want to do so in the most environmentally-responsible way possible. You’re in luck: by using reclaimed building materials and materials with recycled content as well as by purchasing energy-efficient appliances, you can make your home a truly sustainable building.
Reclaim and Recycle
“Building construction and operation have extensive direct and indirect impacts on the environment,” says the National Institute of Building Sciences. Indeed, statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency illustrate the staggering toll that construction takes on our natural resources. According to the agency, the construction of homes and commercial buildings consumes 60 percent of the raw materials—besides food and fuel—used each year in the United States.
However, the environmental impact of construction can be reduced through the use of building materials that are reclaimed from the waste stream and those that have recycled content, EPA notes. “Salvaging building materials and reusing them saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing the need to extract and process raw materials and ship new material long distances,” the agency says. “It also reduces the economic and environmental impact from waste disposal.”
Salvaged materials could include bricks, lumber, flooring, windows—to name just a few—as well as fancier items as antique fixtures and marble mantles. To find stores that sell salvaged building materials, you can visit the websites of Building Materials Reuse Association and Habitat for Humanity. PlanetReuse.com and AmericanBuilderSurplus.com are online suppliers of such materials.
Homebuilders also can use materials containing recycled content. Using these products “helps ensure that the materials collected in recycling programs will be used again in the manufacture of new products,” EPA says. Building products available with recycled content include carpet, insulation, drywall and kitchen countertops. The agency provides detailed information on recycled-content materials on this page of its website.
The Air We Breathe
Healthy indoor air is a vital component of a sustainable home or building, says the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (known to the public as CalRecycle). To ensure a high-quality indoor environment, the department urges homebuilders to use paints, varnishes, waxes and household cleaners that produce “minimal emissions” of volatile organic compounds. These compounds “may have short- and long-term adverse health effects” according to EPA. For more information on VOCs, visit EPA’s website.
When it comes time to stock your house with appliances and electronic devices, you once again have a chance to make a positive environmental impact. Devices such as refrigerators, dishwashers and televisions that feature the “Energy Star” label have met energy-conservation standards set by EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Similarly, if a toilet or showerhead carries a “WaterSense” label, it meets water-efficiency standards set by the federal government.
There’s an old saying in journalism circles: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The message? Be skeptical. In a day and age when manufacturers are increasingly eager to portray their products as environmentally-friendly, the EPA is urging homebuilders to investigate the claims made by companies. “When companies make unsubstantiated claims about the environmental attributes of a product, it’s called ‘greenwashing,’ and consumers need to be on the lookout for it,” the EPA says. Learn to read labels carefully, the agency urges. For detailed information on what to look for in labels, visit the “Avoid Greenwashing” section of this page.
By taking the steps outlined in this article, you can create a new home or building that has an admirably small environmental footprint.
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