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When building green harms the environment

Just because a construction material claims to be green doesn't mean it is. And sometimes the greenest thing you can do to a home is leave well enough alone.
/ Source: Forbes

Gay Browne and her husband Tony have set out to build the greenest house in Montecito, Calif., in a small gated community near the ocean. They'll find the task much simpler than when they pursued the same green goal, in 1994, in Pacific Palisades, outside of Los Angeles.

Back then, builders had no idea about which materials were truly sustainable or were start-to-finish green, as opposed to being "greenwashed" — materials and appliances that might purport environmental friendliness through advertising or a fancy seal, but are environmentally detrimental. When Gay needed countertops, she took a Geiger counter to a rock quarry to find the stones with the lowest radiation levels; she even found the one insulation maker in the country that used cotton batting instead of environmentally harmful fiberglass. In other words, she had to do everything herself.

Today, Browne, as the founder of, a site that helps consumers distinguish between those products that are highly efficient and have a low footprint from those that are masquerading as environmentally conscious (likely to take advantage of the growing green-materials market), has a much better idea as to what home-building materials and procedures are the greenest. The site is now a go-to resource for truly green construction, as buying greenwashed materials isn't just the slightly less environmentally friendly alternative; these products can increase your carbon footprint significantly.

Enthusiasm despite the downturn
The remodeling market has slid with the housing market. Starting at the end of 2005, activity in remodeling has been decreasing steadily, according to the National Association of Homebuilders' Remodeling Market Index. David Seiders, the NAHB's chief economist, estimates that the market will further weaken through 2008. However, research from the NAHB and the American Institute of Architects indicate that green building is a growing component of the overall sector, and that green contractors have longer backlogs.

As a result, an increasing number of products are being positioned as green to take advantage of one of the few growing segments of housing. The most common false claim involves hidden trade-offs, according to research from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, an Ottawa-based firm that, in November 2007, tested 1,000 household products making green claims. A good example of a hidden trade-off is concrete, which seems green once you own it, but is environmentally harmful to produce.

"Concrete is very durable, all natural and technically recyclable," says Eric Corey Freed, the principal of organicARCHITECT, a green architecture firm in San Francisco. "But its chief ingredient is Portland cement, which is heated to 5,000 degrees during manufacturing and lets off high carbon emissions."

How a product uses energy over its life makes a big difference as well. Carpets, for instance, might be made from sustainable fibers or recycled soda bottles. Assuming it's not backed with vinyl, which some are, think about the idea of the carpet itself. It requires cleaning, vacuuming and collects dust and pollen more than hardwood does. You need to amortize every extra watt it will require — and sneeze it will cause — over its life.

Supply-chain uncertainties
Another problem stems from how global supply chains work. Very few green operations are completely vertically integrated, meaning that it's rare for a company to own and operate every phase of the manufacturing process. From the time a piece of bamboo is harvested in China to the time it's installed as flooring in an Omaha living room, it's often gone through the hands of multiple companies — some green, some not so much.

While the flooring company in Omaha can truthfully say that it's using sustainably harvested wood (though bamboo is technically a grass), the shipping and trucking companies used to get the materials from China might not be green-oriented, and the factory where the bamboo is pressed might bond it with formaldehyde, or use a toxic finishing product.

"Consumers are looking for easy answers, and when I shop I prefer to see a logo on something and just buy it," says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice. "But the biggest piece of advice I have is don't buy a product because it has some green dot on it unless you understand exactly what that green dot means."

If a company doesn't chart all the materials used, makes claims on only one component of its sustainability, or makes no mention of manufacturing techniques, it's important for consumers to call companies and demand a material safety data sheet, which details every material used in the product, its disposal instructions, what sorts of gasses it emits, its level of toxicity and disposal instructions.

But another important tactic is conservation. For example, PaperStone and Richlite make high-end, recycled countertops that will more than likely outlive you, but so will your current granite countertops. Another good example is linoleum floors, which don't off-gas anything harmful, are easy to clean, aren't toxic and will last 25 to 50 years. Neither granite nor linoleum is as green as post-consumer compressed paper countertops or bamboo floors, but if you throw away the old floor and countertop in a landfill just for the sake of switching to a greener material, you're not doing a lot to reduce your footprint.

When a remodel is absolutely necessary, however, take the phone book out from under the short leg of the table, and look up salvage yards. In many cases, older is greener.

"Salvage companies are inherently green," says Freed. "We have clients who buy a new house and want to remodel it, and will throw away a perfectly good toilet and bathtub because it's the wrong color. If we can't change their mind, we try to salvage it."

Though if you've got a flair for design and carpentry, you might want to refashion what wood or metals you're throwing away. As anyone who's ever been to an artisanal furniture store can attest, old barn doors and rafters are converted into high-cost furniture.

"I really like the antique look of reclaimed stuff," says Browne. "But they really do mark it up."