Products for a Greener Home

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: My company, Armstrong,  manufactures ceiling, wall and floor ocverings, and we would like to develop a new product line.   As such, we are trying to seek out innovative thinkers like yourself to get their advise.  If Armstrong could manufacture any product that would be better for the environment (i.e. improve building energy efficiency) what would that product be?  Any thought you could share with be would be greatly appreciated.  Ceiling tiles are our main product.  These tiles are made from recycled newspaper, perlite, corn starch, mineral wool and clay.  We have a take back program where we will take back all old ceiling tiles which we re-pulp and make new tiles.

A: I applaud you and your company for seeking green solutions to product development. Your example of the ceiling tiles that you make is a perfect example of doing just that, using natural or recycled materials in a way that can ultimately be recycled again.

Much about "going green" has to do with the utilization and conservation of energy, so focusing on products that don't use much energy in securing the components or in the actual manufacture is wise; this includes the transportation of these components. Then, as a secondary focus, if the product itself contributes to the conservation of energy once it is installed, so much the better.

One area of research that you might pursue would be the use of ceramic coatings on either your tiles or possibly other products such as siding or window curtains. I am referring to the highly insulating ceramic beads that are now being mixed with paints to provide insulation, such as advertised at http://www.insuladd.com/

Q: What are your favorite new green products? (When I say new, I mean products that have been released in the last year or so.)

A: There are some new roof tiles that are actually little solar panels that snap together for roofing that also can provide electricity for the home. Another product is an additive to paint (little ceramic spheres) that greatly enhances the insulation properties of the paint.

Q: I need some advice in building a home from ICF, CFI, SIP and the list goes on. The more I read the more confused I get. I want a build home in Wyoming where the climate is dry yet cold and hot, I want great insulation since I am going all solar and wind. I like ICF, it seems simple. I guess I am looking for the path of least cost, better quality. The outside would be stucco yet the inside would be dry wall and wood. What should I really look at? My dream home is a 4000 sq ft ranch-style home with 4 bedrooms, three baths, a office area, large living room all open. The operative word is open space. What can I do that makes more sense, that is simple, since I plan to do it myself with the help of contractor. All the sales reps say they have the best product.

A: You probably read some of the pages about what I and others have to say about the products that you mention. These manufactured products have pro and cons, as does most every way of building. Using such manufactured products is usually not the "greenest" possible way of building, but that doesn't mean that it isn't appropriate for you. It might boil down to what you are comfortable doing, since you plan to do some of the work yourself. As for plan ideas for a house that large (also not particularly green) you might see dreamgreenhomes.com.

Q: I am currently setting up a company that will supply sustainable building products to the second world - specifically Mexico, Brazil, China and possibly India. As you know there is a huge amount of construction planned for the next decade all with large embodied energy and CO2 emissions. Our intent is to supply products that alleviate this burden and for that reason I am writing to you for your input on suitable products - specifically if you have or know of a list of materials with their relevant environmental costs.

A: My focus at GHB.com is on promoting ways of building that employ as little embodied energy as possible, while recognizing that there is a long gradation of degrees for this quality. The very best material to use is that which is local and natural, so that there is little need for processing and transportation, so I naturally try to promote this the most. What people mostly need to employ these materials and techniques is knowledge, so that is what I try to provide.

Your search for building products that are low in embodied energy that can be sold in a variety of countries is definitely worthwhile, but it is on a tier above what I just described in terms of sustainability. This is true because these products need to be manufactured and then transported, both of which are energy intensive usually.

I live in Mexico and am pretty familiar with common building practices here. Almost everything is made with masonry products (bricks, concrete blocks, tiles, etc.) A lot of steel is used for reinforcement and for the structural components of roofs. These buildings are durable, but embody a lot of energy and are not thermally efficient. The old adobes were much better in both regards, but they are now considered too old-fashioned. The sort of product that you might consider promoting in Mexico, and some other countries might be building blocks that resemble the masonry products that are common, but that are thermally superior and perhaps use less material or energy to manufacture, or are lighter to transport. Several such products come to mind: AAC, ICF's, liteblock, Ziegel Blocks which are quite common in Europe these days. I am not aware of a chart of products that rates their embodied energy.

Q: What do you think is the most important system of any building? Your web site has huge amounts of information on obscure wall systems, but almost nothing about roofing systems. As a builder I do not think the sustainable-building movement can afford to ignore the important lessons of thousands of years of architecture. This web site is great. But what is this omission telling us about sustainable construction? What is this omission telling us about ourselves?

A: I agree with you about the importance of roofs, and can see your point about making a separate study of the sustainability of various roof systems. When I chose how to build my last house, I decided to make it with earthbag domes, which completely eliminated the need for conventional roof materials. I would not consider most normal roofing materials particularly ecological, except that some are more durable than others. I often suggest metal roofs because much of the metal used these days is recycled, but there is still a lot of embodied energy there. Those pictures you sent of standing seam roofs are beautiful (see this article), but beyond durability, can you justify these as ecological choices?

It has often confounded me how to get around the need for large amounts of wood, steel, or other industrial materials in fabricating adequate roofs. One possibility that has recently been brought to my attention is yet another industrial material, magnesium cement, but it has the potential for making durable roofs with very little support structure. See this article.


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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.