What is Green Building?

Kelly Hart is your host here at greenhomebuilding.com, and has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. Kelly spent many years as a professional remodeler, during which time he became acquainted with many of the pitfalls of conventional construction. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation (he has a patent for a process for making animated films), video production and now website development. One of the more recent video programs that he produced is A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, which explores a whole range of building concepts that are earth friendly. Kelly is knowledgeable about both simple design concepts and more complex technological aspects of home building that enhance sustainable living. He has even designed and built a solar-electric car that he drives around his neighborhood. Kelly, and his wife Rosana, live in the earthbag/papercrete home that is profiled on the earthbag page. He is available, at a modest fee, for consulting about sustainable building design, either for remodeling existing structures to more fully embrace these concepts, or for new architectural designs.

Questions and Answers

Q: What does the term "green architecture" mean?

A: Green architecture might mean different things to different people. I use the term to include all aspects of architectural design and construction that enhance sustainable, healthy living. This might simply relate to choosing materials that do not offgas toxic chemicals, or it might relate to significant building designs that naturally capture and reuse all of the water and energy that is required for comfortable living within.

Q: I want to do my masters in architecture, and before starting I just want to know what sustainability means to architecture? I mean is it contributing or enhancing the design method? If yes, what areas does it include and how?

A: Yes, sustainable architecture means designing buildings that enhance our environment over a long period of time rather than detract through energy consumption or resource depletion. It includes the creation of structures that are non-toxic, that contribute to a healthy life-style, and that perform their functions well.

Q: I'm trying to trace the evolution of green building from the 1970s. How difficult was it to procure green building materials in the '70s? And were green building projects normally limited to such things as solar collectors and water recycling systems?

A: The main thing that has changed since the 1970s is a focus on, or awareness of, sustainable issues. Green buildings were certainly being built, but people weren't thinking of them as "green;" they were just traditional adobe or stone buildings. So most of the natural building blocks were available then, but perhaps some of the modern "green" industrial products were not. The concepts of passive solar design have evolved over a very long time; one of the first books to codify these concepts was Edward Mazria's "The Passive Solar Energy Book", published in 1979; it is still one of the best on the subject. 

C: There should be come cautions about the word, "sustainable," and its variants. In a finite system, sustainability is impossible. As the number of consumers increases, so does total consumption until a point is reached where all critical resources are consumed. In this respect, humans are physiologically driven, much like a plague of locusts or rabbits or mice.

The term, "green," is a reasonable compromise, since it implies doing things in ways that reduce per capita consumption, but even then, there will come a point where there is complete critical resource consumption. The only alternative in a finite system is to reduce the number of consumers.

I applaud your efforts and goodwill in this area, but believe ultimately they will fail, because, other than through war and long-term pollution, humans cannot exhibit deliberate behavior that will significantly limit their numbers. Coupled with the innate, hard-wired human proclivity for abandoning reason in favor of mysticism, spirituality and distrust of others, as dictated physiologically by the amygdala and mediated by the corpus callosum, it would be asking too much to expect human behavior to change in time to avert a global environmental catastrophe. This is not intended to be a critical note, just one to encourage you to reconsider the term, "sustainable."

R: The concept of substitutability is a goal or a vector toward which I think we are obliged to point our actions; whether we succeed or not, only time will tell. I suspect that you are right that we humans are pretty much incapable of consciously limiting our resource consumption, so ultimately some form of natural "correction" will take place as an inevitable result of this. Still the goal of sustainability, which includes limiting our numbers, is the only one that makes sense. The subtitle of one of my video programs is "Approaching Sustainable Architecture"...and I feel that that is all we can expect, really, is to approach this goal, but we will never likely achieve it. Even back in the good old days of hunter/gatherer societies, this way of life was not sustainable, since look what it has evolved into!

C: Certainly my remarks must seem either cynical or pessimistic, but both of those views require us to look at the world from a solely anthropocentric orientation. It seems to me that a step farther back might be worthwhile.

At present levels of technology, best estimates are that the "sustainable" planetary carrying capacity is 600 million human beings, assuming a lifestyle significantly lower than that currently enjoyed in "developed" economies today. And yet, we are headed toward a global population of 8 billion within twenty years. The numbers as they now stand just don't work. In the face of these numbers, "sustainability" is at best a dream and realistically is a myth.

Having spent many years trying to "fix" the problem from the other end, i.e., providing low-cost, "green" housing, finding ways to increase food supplies or to consume carbon by fixing it into useful and economically sound products, etc. - and, by the way, making a good living at it - it finally occurred to me to consider the probability of "sustainable" improvement beyond the status quo. The end result of that research was disappointing at best. You are fortunate to have a positive outlook, still, and, I assume, to have hope.

Much of my last decade has included attending technical conferences of the likes of ChemRAWNs, Green Chemistry Conferences, International Symposia on Nanotechnologies and the like, my attendance sponsored, oddly enough, by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, various Federal laboratories and agencies and by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Through these I've come to synthesize that we have probably done terminal damage to our planetary life support system, not from any single factor, but from a nexus of pollution contributions, particularly greenhouse gases and halogenated hydrocarbon compounds that tend to be bio-accumulative, that are environmentally persistent (having half-lives of ten to fifty thousand years), and, sadly, lipophilic, resulting in their rapid travel up the food chain. Of the few among the thousands of manmade compounds (compounds that cannot exist naturally) that are out there, that are in our body burdens and that we have even been able to identify (because they are altered by metabolisis), the vast majority are toxins, neurotoxins, mutagens or carcinogens - and that is when these are studied individually, not in concert with the others in this chemical cocktail.  When one combines all these pollution-based factors it is unlikely that there is a significant window of opportunity to make a correction. Coupled with humanity's physiological incapability to recognize and deal with non-immediate threats, it is unlikely we can begin developing or executing coping strategies in time to make a difference.

These realities are unpleasant to comprehend and even more difficult to correct. They are nonetheless correctable, but the time to do so is very, very limited before the damage compounds itself through mass extinctions. If extinction continues (at present annual rates of increase), all large life-forms will disappear from this planet in less than one century. Sadly, few seem to either comprehend the consequences or, if they do, to care. Further, those in power or with financial means to do anything about it are in denial or worse. Isn't that fascinating? Humanity appears to be fiddling while the planet burns.

The more I learn about brain physiology the more I realize that you can't fault human beings for sincere, but emotional, as opposed to rational responses. It is all in the way we are physiologically "wired", pushing us to act on the knee-jerk response triggered by the amygdala rather than the carefully reasoned, rational response that would perhaps be more helpful in cases where immediate and yet lasting societal changes might be able to save the day.

It is valuable, however, to understand that although there will always be multiple views of reality, when the survival of large life forms on the planet may hang in the balance, it would probably be best to debate later and to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and take action now. If the human species were to look upon itself as the planetary steward, things could change. Again, though, we are probably not wired that way. Our children and grandchildren will have to cope with the results of our decisions.

C: This is a very important conversation. A good deal of the "sustainable"/green culture in the US amounts to finding ways to continue to consume at the levels to which we have become accustomed. People, even greenies, don't want to confront the thoughts that 1) technology won't save us, 2) real sacrifices are coming whether we like it or not, and 3) our population is going to drop precipitously one way or another. To look these things in the eye and still have hope will be one of the most important miracles of the coming age.

Q:What is the most important thing to know about making your home green?

A: Keep it small...only as big as necessary for the functions intended; large houses use lots of energy and materials to build and to keep comfortable.

Q: I have an interesting story idea for you on how the luxury home market is coping with the demand to "be green" in wake of all the bad publicity against over-the-top homes and the energy they waste. With Al Gore only recently renovating his mansion to become more "green" and numerous celebrities - from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to Leonard DiCaprio - trying to find ways to green their homes and lives - this story could be a very timely one - can "green luxury" truly co-exist? Or is it an oxymoron?

My resource for this story is Frank Dalene, the head of Hamptons Luxury Homes/Telemark - which is very well known luxury home industry, particularly in the Hamptons. Frank himself is very much into conservation and goes to great lengths - even going to Africa himself to see if the wood his builders use isn't from endangered tree species. He has been employing numerous alternative solutions and vendors to be the cutting-edge green builder in the luxury sector. Dalene has also just formed the Hamptons Green Alliance, that is bringing together leading businesses located on the East End of Long Island committed to sustainable and green building practices, with the goal to work toward providing the information required to build zero energy homes and carbon neutral homes.

Here are a couple of brief examples of Hampton Luxury Homes' current work : (1) a new construction, (9,600 sq.ft. in Sagaponack), Dalene is heating the pool with a heat pump, the electricity for the heat pump is produced by photovoltaic panels on the pool house. Additional electricity that is produced supplements the house and is sold back to the grid with net metering. Pool heat is off in the winter but electricity is still produced to be used in the main house and sold back to the grid. This system eliminates fossil fuel pool heaters; (2) In Southampton on Gin Lane, he is working on a luxury home under renovation (11 acres on the ocean). It is a partial renovation and addition to a 19,000 sq. ft. estate home. Frank is using alternative insulation techniques and geothermal.

A: Well, it is all a matter of degrees; every little bit helps. It is now hip to have a green conscience, and this is great, because it is only through a universal change of consciousness that we'll see some real change. I'm sure that some media outlets will follow your story and help with the publicity. I am afraid that I am too cynical to appreciate the nuances, when a 10,000 sf home and pool embraces the embodied energy of 10 modest homes and importing wood from another continent can hardly be considered sustainable.

Q: Is it worth building a sustainable house from the beginning or by adding to the currently existing house?

A: One principle of sustainable architecture is to recycle things when you can, so if it is possible to remodel something rather than build something new, that is better.

Q: I have been looking into building a Deltec home. I have two questions: 1) If you have any feedback on their concept, and 2) I am feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information on Green Home Building. Is there someone who I can trust, who has the knowledge and experience to actually evaluate and RATE the BEST option? I know there is not one for all, but if there would even be a top 3 it would narrow my field. I am interesting in building a sustainable structure off grid and live in Wisconsin.

A: I list several criteria for evaluating the "greenness" of building methods and materials on the Sustainable Architecture page. Some of the most important ones are really design considerations, such as size, use of solar energy and earth energy. Those that may be particularly pertinent to you are: the use of local, natural materials, or recycled materials. So it depends on the design that would suit your needs, and the availability of appropriate materials locally, that should govern your choices.

I have seen a Deltec home being assembled, and I was impressed with how solidly built it was...so this addresses another mandate: build to last! On the other hand, this home used a tremendous amount of wood, which may or may not have been locally sourced or sustainably harvested, so that would be my concern.

I usually advise people to first assess the best design to suit their needs, and then determine what materials should be used to accomplish this, which often results in a hybrid home.  In fact I wrote an article about this that you can read.

Q: Which style do you prefer, the stacked log ends and cob or earthbag and why?

A: It partly depends on what materials are available in your area as to which might be preferable. I like cordwood because it produces a finished wall in one simple operation, that is aesthetically pleasing and well insulated. I like earthbags because they can be used nearly anywhere in the world, and can be either insulating or not, depending on what you fill the bags with...but they need a separate application of plaster to be permanent.

Q: I am helping to build a "green home" for a 7th grade science fair. I have the solar panels, lighting etc. But would like to make this as "realistic" as possible. What type of "siding" would be appropriate? (I already have already purchased the recycled insulation.)

A: Since you already have the insulation, then you probably want to use other materials that would go well with  this. Actually anything that is recycled would be considered "green," so you might look for some used wood that you can use. Many of the natural materials that one might use to build a wall (such as strawbales, cordwood, adobes) do not require separate insulation. This sounds like a fun project.

Q: If you can name the top three green components that everyone looking to either convert an existing home or build a new home needs to do to begin down the road to green living, what would they be and why?

A: 1. Good insulation; a well-insulated house will be more comfortable and energy-efficient in any climate.

2. Take advantage of solar heating opportunities; this can save a bundle on energy cost.

3. Keep it small; design and build only what you really need.

Q: I am a senior in high school and have been asked to do one final project for my english class. I have decided to do mine on sustainable architecture. My plan is to research it and focus on how one could make my school more "green". I was wondering if you had any ideas about how I go about doing this?

A: There are many aspects to look at when considering something like this, especially for a school. You could make the school more energy efficient through adding solar water heating panels or solar electric panels to the roof. It might be possible to enhance the solar heating of the classrooms, either passively or actively with window placement, additional thermal mass, etc. Daylighting measures might include changing windows or adding light tubes on the roof. Simple weatherization can enhance effciency considerably. I suggest that you ask a local professional who can look over the school and advise you.

Q: How common are these green homes becoming?

A: Green homes are becoming more popular all of the time, as people's consciousness about the need for careful choices about living a more green life style increases. Still, the vast majority of houses are not particularly green. That doesn't mean that people should go out and build lots of better houses, because it is often more sustainable to make smaller changes to existing houses to make them more green.

Q: Do you or could you make a totally handicapped-accessible green home?

A: There is no reason why this couldn't be done. Most of the factors that make a home "green" would have no effect on handicapped use, since this is primarily a matter of having appropriate entrances interior design.

Q: How can people and buildings be a sustainable part of the environment’s ecosystem. Can you explain one way how each of the following – materials, water, air, energy and bio-matter – would make a building part of an ever renewing cycle.

A: What you describe is certainly the ultimate goal of sustainable architecture, and at this point I think that the best examples only approach this goal. For instance the traditional Earthship is heated passively by the sun, derives it water from rainwater catchment, composts the human waste and recycles the gray water to irrigate plants. If solar electric panels are placed on the roof, it can also generate its own electricity...so it comes close to relying solely on renewable resources.

C: I have a personal problem with "green" anything. I know - it's my hang-up but this has become a standard phrase of the "hip, cool and groovy" folks who love to ride bandwagons. Rarely do I find that "green" anything really addresses the issues which you have so nicely detailed on your site. For example, note how the "one design fits all" approach is applied to photovoltaic systems. Rarely are solar thermal systems even mentioned. (I understand that you're not going to change your theme because I cringe...I merely needed to vent.)

A: The "green" moniker is way overused these days, and was even back when I started the site. I struggled over this issue for some time before registering www.greenhomebuilding.com . The main reason I finally decided to go for it is that, despite its lack of relevance, it is often the first thing that comes to the mind of the general public when thinking about sustainability. Its very popularity is the reason that I used it, because I wanted to attract as many viewers as possible to read my message. I think that this strategy has worked, in that this website is now connecting with over 5,000 people each day, from all over the world. What can I say?

Q: What's different about the houses you build?

A: Sustainable architecture is all about paying attention to how your choices will affect the environment and human populations over time. This means choosing designs that will be energy efficient and not pollute the atmosphere. Using natural, local materials with low embodied energy is always a good idea. Recycling building materials is also beneficial.

Q: What's the best kept secret about building green homes?

Oddly enough, there is a strong belief out there that building green is more expensive. This is often not true, since many of the better choices include less expensive alternatives, such as with the materials used. Also a truly green home will generally be rather modest in size, no larger than necessary for the needed functions...and this saves money. And then over the life of the home a considerable amount of money will be saved in lower utility and maintenance costs.


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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.