Is Green Building an Oxymoron?

May 23, 2007

Image credit: San Francisco ChronicleAn opinion article by Jane Powell in the San Francisco Chronicle titled 'Green Envy' begins by saying, "'Green building' is the feel-good trend of the moment. Cities stipulate it, builders market it and home buyers supposedly demand it. Who could be against it? It's the panacea that will combat global warming, prevent sprawl, revitalize our downtowns, contribute to the region's economic growth and keep California on the leading edge," and goes on to declare, "'Green building' is an oxymoron."

I have a different opinion about green building. I spent all day yesterday attending a USGBC Technical Training Seminar, in order to become a LEED-accredited professional. To dismiss all green building as an oxymoron overlooks much of the good that is involved. Green building is not an oxymoron. Green building is taking steps for real change, improving the performance of buildings, and establishing methods for construction of buildings that will improve the spaces where we spend as much as 90% of our lives.

Powell goes on to write, "Building or remodeling uses up resources, even if those resources are recycled or salvaged." This seems to suggest that all building is equally bad, and that a complete moratorium on all construction activity is the only acceptable solution.

Some use of resources is a part of life. We consume. We eat, we drink, we breathe. Even the greenest living among us (and I make no claim whatsoever to that title, myself) do these things. We have basic needs for food and clothing and shelter, and to condemn any use of resources is painting with an overly broad brush. Furthermore, a growing population expands the demand of those needs. Even if our population was at a point of zero growth, some buildings would need to be replaced because of age or due to damage from accident or catastrophe. Building is a necessary activity. Green building seeks intelligent, sustainable methods for building that recognize the limitations and constraints we must work with. We cannot stop using resources. But we can use those resources that we do use carefully.

Picking a few stray examples, and then throwing up your hands as though nothing can be done seems counterproductive, as well. "Vinyl is also ubiquitous, therefore difficult to avoid — your shower curtain, your electrical wiring, the dashboard of your hybrid car — all vinyl." Vinyl is certainly ubiquitous, but we can educate ourselves and make better choices. Green building is about building smarter. Alternatives to the vinyl shower curtain can be easily found. Dashboards can be made with wood or other products, though consumer demand needs to increase in order to see this implemented. Vinyl has properties that make it the most suitable product for many applications, and in those cases, it may be reasonable to use it. But that doesn't mean that we should use it for everything, particularly once we are aware of the consequences of its production.

I don't care for the ubiquitousness of vinyl, and I try to minimize using it as much as I can. But I'm willing to use it in some limited cases. I wouldn't choose to use vinyl siding on a building, because that is not a sustainable use. However, when I worked on a project with a green roof a few years ago, we used vinyl membranes as the layer between the structure of the library building and the vegetated roof on top of it because that is the product that has the necessary strength to prevent leaks and keep roots from burrowing through, and it has a lifespan to last for 50 years or longer. A little bit of a non-green product is sometimes necessary to make a green building.

Most Green Options readers already recognize that green building means more than just picking a few green products. Screwing in a couple of compact fluorescents does not make your building green all by itself. But to dismiss all green building because of some bad examples is an overreaction. We should certainly criticize the tear-down, where a 1500 square-foot house is demolished and replaced with a 3500 square-foot house for the same number of occupants; and a couple CFLs and a coat of low VOC paint do not make the replacement suddenly green. But green building recognizes that new building and renovation can be done in a way that works to reduce the impacts of that building. There is much more to it than just a few materials choices.

via: Archinect