What it means to be green

When it comes to home design, every decade has its catchphrases and its own particular zeitgeist, a mix of popular trends that tend to dominate the building and remodelling landscape. The roaring 1990s gave us high-end fever, with exotic products and ambitious plans ushering in an age of bigger, better, bolder. Nowadays the reshuffled economy has reeled in many of those excesses, and the environmental impact of one’s daily choices and routine has moved closer to centre stage.

McMansions, we’ve decided, aren’t just a visual blight on the traditional architectural landscape; they are decidedly unfriendly to the planet. Their oversize footprints consume resources and energy in quantities far too large to be sustained by large populations over a long period of time. And there’s our new idea — sustainability.

Like any substantive cultural change, the transition to eco-friendly home design suffers from two unfortunate side-effects. First, there is no shortage of marketing folks who want to capitalize on this trend, and the “green” they see is more about the money to be made rather than the environmental virtues of their products or services. Too often the result is overhyped claims that make it tough to discern which products really offer legitimate and meaningful benefits.

Second, the equations that determine true sustainability are sometimes complex, so even when you have your facts straight they can overlap in confusing ways.

Take bamboo flooring, for example. Proponents tout it as a natural and durable substitute for hardwood and thus an antidote to the environmental problems of deforestation. There is some truth in that view, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass that regenerates much faster than trees do, but producing flooring from it requires extensive processing and the use of petroleum-based adhesive resins. More problematic, it is sourced from mostly Asian locations where forests are being cleared to grow it or where pesticide use is often unregulated, and it must be transported long distances to make it into most homes.

On the other hand, oak, ash, walnut, and other domestic hardwoods yield durable plank flooring that requires no adhesives and less energy to process and transport, and these days it’s likely that the trees are cut from sustainable-yield forests that are managed to allow for replacement growth of new trees.

This example involves just one of the hundreds of product choices involved in building or renovating a home that qualifies as “green.” Navigating all of these decisions can be difficult and time-consuming, but environment editor and author Cathy Strongman has written a comprehensive guide that penetrates the often superficial treatment this topic gets in ordinary media coverage. The Sustainable Home: The Essential Guide to Eco Building, Renovation, and Decoration helps set the record straight with a clear and concise portrait of what makes a home sustainable, and it offers a detailed look at dozens of product categories where “green” claims need clarifying.

Strongman reverts to simplicity only in framing the larger issue of sustainability, which she defines as actions and choices that meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations. She also elaborates on two key principles that often get ignored in discussions of eco-friendly home design.

The first is the product’s embodied energy. This term refers to the energy required to extract and process the resources used in its manufacture. Concrete, brick, and virgin metals have high embodied energy, while lumber and recycled metals have relatively low levels. The second principle is thermal mass, a material’s ability to store energy as heat or cold and then gradually release it. Here, wood rates poorly along with glass and plastics, while concrete, stone, and brick rate high.

The book’s introductory section profiles nearly a dozen categories of building materials and energy systems, an assortment that includes hundreds of individual products and various options for home energy production, including geothermal, solar, wind-powered and bio-mass fuels.

It’s this kind of detail that fleshes out the smart choices for home design, and this book succeeds where a lot of other eco-building guides fall short. You’ll find a comparative review of flooring options — wood, carpet, concrete, tile, rubber, stone, cork and other materials –that spells out the environmental vices and virtues of each.

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