Green Building Elements: Alternative Countertops

Huainan, ChinaThere are a number of options available when it comes to selecting material for counters and tops. There are options from the all-natural to the all-synthetic, and ranges in between. Some countertop materials are more impervious to stains or heat than others are. Colors range throughout the pallette, and if one manufacturer’s product doesn’t offer a particular color, another option likely may.

The most common materials are plastic laminate and solid surface materials. Plastic laminate is a thin sheet of colored plastic glued to a backing which is most often composition wood board – a combination of wood bits and glue – which offgasses formaldehyde from the urea formaldehyde glue used to make it. Solid surface countertops (including such brands as Corian) are made from plastics and epoxy resins. Some solid surface materials have some mineral content (like Zodiaq, a sister line to Corian that incorporates quartz chips into the material), which lessens the use of petrochemicals and other synthetics.

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Green Building Elements: Decking

It's full-blown summer now, and people are spending more time outdoors on their patios and decks. So let me offer a summertime question for discussion. Which is better to use for an outdoor deck: wood, or a manufactured product (like Trex, Timber Tech, etc.)?

This is no more a black and white issue than most other green building questions. This can depend on the particular situation and the specific needs of a particular project. I'm not going to give you a definitive answer, because I don't think that there is one, any more than I do for most green building topics (other than greener is better).

First, there is the issue of material content. On the one hand, the manufactured products often use some combination of wood fiber (which is often sawdust and other scrap that would otherwise go to waste) and plastic (sometimes incorporating post consumer recycled material). On the other hand, wood is a natural material. It is sustainable, in that wood can be grown and harvested. There are some deck materials that have natural rot-resistant properties, but these tend to be more expensive. There is also the question of whether or not they are sustainably harvested, as well as the issue of shipping these materials.

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Concealed Solar Hot Water

Dawn SolarImage Credit: Dawn Solar

Solar hot water systems should be in use everywhere in the country. They are not terribly expensive to install, and the payback period on them is much shorter than it is for solar photovoltaic. Even in cold climates, it is possible to have a system with a heat exchanger and an antifreeze filled loop, so that the system can be run, even when nighttime temperatures are below freezing.

But the appearance of rooftop mounted panels is a drawback. Lots of people find solar panels, whether they are hot water or photovoltaic, to be unattractive. While it looses some efficiency by being out of direct sunlight, Dawn Solar offers a concealed solar hot water system. "The Dawn Solar System uses heat generated by the sun shining directly onto a roof. Solar energy is absorbed and transferred into a concealed, patent-pending collection system that is hidden just below the roof tiles. There is no ugly collector that is visible from the street."

The website offers few details about the configuration of the system, but presumably it uses some kind of pipe or tubing running just under the roof to collect heat from the attic space in the water for use in the building. The case study they offer is a distillery in New Hampshire (pictured) with the tubing running under the metal roof of the building. This is tied in with their other building systems and contributes to the radiant floor heating and the domestic hot water for the building.

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Weekly DIY: Rain Barrels

Elizabeth RedmondPhoto Credit: Elizabeth Redmond

I've been wanting to put in a couple of rain barrels at my house this year. We put in some garden plants this weekend, and they are going to need to be watered. Rain barrels are great because they help conserve water and cut down the amount of potable water that needs to be used. Rain barrels are commercially available for around $100 (or more). These are more "decorative" (if you find a piece of plastic molded with a wood barrel pattern decorative), but with a drill, some silicone sealant, and a couple of basic parts, you can build a rain barrel of your own.

It is important to remember that this is not drinking water that you are collecting. Without further treatment, there are too many possible problems, from dust and dirt to chemicals (from roof materials) to microorganisms that may colonize an available water supply. There are rainwater catchment systems that are designed for potable water use. These are more involved, and need to have other elements in the system beyond what is being discussed here.

It is also important to make sure to prevent the standing water from becoming a mosquito breeding facility, either by closing the barrel with a screen (like a window screen) or by using mosquito dunks (a time release tablet that contains a bacterial agent that kills mosquito larvae, but do not affect people, fish, animals or plants).

Rain barrels can collect a surprisingly large amount of water. "For every 1000 square feet of roof space being used to capture rain you can expect to catch around 600 gallons from one inch of rain fall (at a theoretical 100% catch rate). Some larger roofs can easily be 2000+ square feet." (The Sietch) Conversely, if you have a 100 square foot garden, you can figure that you will want to supply 60 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall you are trying to make up. So if you collect and use five 55-gallon barrels of rainwater, that's approximately 5" of additional effective rainfall that you've supplied to your garden. With a typical 55-gallon barrel size, you are only likely to capture a fraction of the total water that falls on your roof. But this could be increased by putting barrels at several corners, to capture the rainfall at multiple downspouts.

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Weekend Grub: Grilling with Chimney Starters

Joshua Thompson via WikipediaImage Credit: Joshua Thompson via Wikipedia
This week's Weekend Grub is less a recipe for what to cook than some suggestions about how to cook it. If you're looking for recipes, check out yesterday's post on vegan BBQ.

Summer is here, and for many, that means time to start cooking outdoors. For some, bottled gas (propane, most commonly) is a preferable choice for a number of reasons, while many others prefer to cook over charcoal. I'm not going to get into a long debate about which is the best. It's something like the 'paper-or-plastic' debate. Given some of the issues around the extraction and processing of propane, as well as it's non-renewability compared to wood charcoal, I think that it's possible to make the case either way.

If you choose to cook over coals, there are some considerations that can help make your grilling a greener experience. A chimney starter is a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use tool that quickly gives you coals ready for grilling. Most importantly, there is no need to rely on starter fuels to get a good fire for grilling. I was introduced to the chimney starter by a good friend several years ago. I was immediately drawn to the simplicity and efficiency of it. It concentrates the heat to start the coals more quickly and evenly than just lighting them in the grill. (Cooking celebrity Alton Brown famously even uses a chimney starter as a kind of concentrated mini-grill for quickly searing tuna. I haven't tried this myself yet, but I plan to, when I have a suitable opportunity. The recipe for Chimney Tuna Loin is fairly quick and easy, but requires a high quality piece of tuna.)

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What About Your Corn Footprint?

USDA/Wikimedia CommonsImage Credit: USDA/Wikimedia CommonsAmericans eat a lot of corn. Sure there's cooked corn and corn chips and corn flakes and cornbread and the myriad other varieties found in the average American market. And, with the arrival of summer, there is now corn-on-the-cob (though here in the upper midwest: the sweet corn at the local supermarket right now is trucked in from Florida, not locally grown).

But in addition to its recognizable forms, where the corn is recognizable as corn, there are untold numbers of additional places where we don't recognize it, but where corn forms the substance of our diet. And most of that has been highly processed.

I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan recently, and it has been a very enlightening read. One of the most shocking things to discover was just how much corn is suffused throughout the typical American diet.

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Green Funerals and Burial

GreenspringsPhoto Credit: GreenspringsThe move towards a greener lifestyle extends even to the end of life. Choices for the final resting place include some relatively new approaches. Many of these developments seem to be coming out of the United Kingdom and from Europe, though they are being adopted in other countries, as well.

Green burials are now being performed in park- or forest-like settings. The more familiar green lawn with rows of stone markers is being replaced by a more natural setting, a meadow or a stand of trees. Green burials also forego many of the common contemporary conventions in favor of a simpler funeral and burial practive. Green burials do not use formaldehyde compounds to preserve the body, for example. Metal coffins, or coffins that use exotic and unsustainably harvested wood are also not allowed, as well as not using concrete burial vaults. Many of these steps are both more economical choices as well as avoiding consuming quantities of resources unnecessarily.

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Green Schools Education Program

Earlier this week, an article in the local paper noted that a local school had been recognized as one of 18 "Green School certified" schools in the state of Michigan. I wasn't familiar with the program (in part because this is the first year of the program), but I quickly found that rather than a building program, it is instead an educational program for the students.

The Green School program requires a degree of involvement from the school's students in a variety of green projects in order to obtain the certification. A school is eligible for this certification if it completes at least 10 criteria from a list of programs including such obvious green steps as recycling paper, reusing magazines from the library, and holding an Earth Day event. But the list also includes more ambitious projects such as establishing a natural Michigan garden project with native plants, holding solar power presentations or experiments, such as a solar cookout, doing energy audits of their classrooms, and even making improvements to their classrooms as a result of the energy audits.

Participating in a printer cartridge recycling program or a cellular telephone recycling program (both of which can also help the school to earn money) are also suggestions on the list.

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Resources for Creative Recycling Credit: search for opportunities for recycling stretches beyond individual desires to be able to recycle more, as Jennifer discussed earlier this week in our Q & A feature.

While Jennifer discussed some ways of increasing the amount of recycling that individual households participate in, there are websites that are engaging with the ideas of finding new uses for materials that will otherwise end up as waste adding to the volume in our landfills.

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Green Places for Travelers

State of MichiganPhoto Credit: State of Michigan
Eco-tourisim is a growing field, but it's not the only sector where people want to find a green option when they need travel accommodations. Whether they are traveling for business or for recreation, even if they aren't headed to an eco-destination, travellers need a place to stay. And while the Building Design + Construction magazine's 2006 white paper on green building suggested that the hospitality industry was "missing an opportunity" by lagging other construction sectors in green building, there are some places that are beginning to offer greener places to stay.

I started looking into this when a developer in New York City sent out an announcement concerning their plans to build a hotel with a range of green features, including striving for LEED Gold certification. The press material also speaks of organic cotton sheets and other amenities. Unfortunately, this project is still more than a year from completion, and I do not like to write about proposed or incomplete projects, because they can so often fail to meet the expectations, or the final product does not match what was originally promised. And LEED certification is no guarantee that the building or its rooms will be attractive either.

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Weekly DIY: Solar Shower

Path to FreedomPhotoCredit: Path to Freedom
If you have been exploring solar energy at all, you already know that the payback period for a solar hot water system is much shorter than that for a solar photovoltaic system. The system for solar hot water is much simpler. Rather than converting solar energy into electricity with expensive photovoltaic panels and then rectifying the current through an inverter to create AC power, a solar hot water system uses a series of loops to directly heat the water moving through the collector.

Solar hot water systems are a little more complex in cold weather locations where they need to be filled with anti-freeze fluid for heat collection and then use a heat exchanger to transfer heat to the water, or valves and mechanical systems in the plumbing in order to prevent damage from freezing. But even with these elements, the payback period for a solar hot water system can be just a handful of years, even in a northern state.

But if you want to do some experimentation with a hot water system without going to a whole house system, this project will provide an inexpensive demonstration project that gives you a useful device.

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Raining on the Green Parade

As part of the activity around Earth Day, we've been getting press releases forwarded to us from all manner of companies who want to get their name out in association with "green." And, while it is good that so many companies are recognizing the growing importance of green in all our lives, some of the announcements are full of excitement about what turns out to be some pretty weak activity.

I got one press release about a globally recognized brand, Fortune 500 company announcing that they are spending $3 million on green upgrades for their headquarters building. And that's not a bad thing; we love it when companies take green steps. But is it truly newsworthy, or is it closer to "greenwashing"?

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How to Find a Green Builder — Part 1

Editor's note: Thinking about building green? Philip's two-part series (second part on Friday) explains the many variables you need to consider before signing a contract with a "green" home builder.

I recently received a message from a reader asking for help with finding a local green builder. Unfortunately, she is looking in a city two time zones away from me. And while I'm gathering resources and collecting information, the information I have is not that widespread. I don't have a vast database to help point people looking to do green building find the people who can help successfully execute those projects. But perhaps I can offer some guidelines about finding the right people to work with.

Her question is not entirely unique, either. I am in the middle of a two-day conference on green building (Midwest Green Building Conference) right now. One of the sessions I attended this afternoon had this very question come up during some of the discussion: "How do you find a green builder?" And, we found, there are a number of things that make this question difficult to answer. But there are some things you can do to find architects, builders, and specialized tradespeople who can help make a project turn out the way you want.

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Short Takes and a Cold-Frame Follow-up

I've got a couple small items to share today. These are both regional items; just further manifestations of the old adage of "Think Globally, Act Locally." But, though they both have a regional focus, they will both have wider interest for all who are interested in green building.

New York House magazine is organizing the first regional residential green building contest. The program is open until the end of the year, but they already have 40 homes that are going to enter. The contest is open to homes built since January 2000. Architects, builders and homeowners in New York City and the surrounding counties who have been involved with a green home in the region are asked to submit them for this contest.

According to information we received, some of the homes are zero net energy users, which is a category we'd like to see more examples of, particularly in the single-family residential category. The criteria for the contest are based on the LEED for Homes guidelines:

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A Local, Green Forum

Digital Be-In

Cleveland, Ohio doesn't get a lot of respect. It's been the butt of countless jokes, an environmental scapegoat, the "City whose river caught on fire," and a symbol for the declining cities of the "Rust Belt" of the American midwest.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a green heart in the Cleveland area. Even a city in the middle of the rust belt can be a center for "Think Globally – Act Locally." In fact, I've recently found that the Cleveland area has a vibrant local/regional blog at Green City Blue Lake, covering the local and regional scene from a green perspective. GCBL arose out of an earlier site called EcoCity Cleveland, which remains online as an archive with a wealth of information still available in its pages, but is no longer actively supported.

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The Greenness of Prefabrication

Living Homes (via Inhabitat)Photo Credit: Living Homes (via Inhabitat) Bob Ellenberg wrote a good, thought-provoking (and discussion-starting) article at Inhabitat titled 'Prefab Construction: Green or Greenwashing?' and drew comments from Preston Koerner (of Jetson Green) and Lloyd Alter (an architecture writer at Treehugger with whom I had some inter-blog discussion over the past couple of weeks regarding foundations, but more importantly also an entrepreneur in prefab construction with direct experience in the process).

Prefab is a popular concept in green design circles and shows up regularly on a number of blogs. A few of the more prominent examples include: Inhabitat (Pre-Fab Friday); Jetson Green; Treehugger; BldgBlog; MoCo Loco; and even a website devoted to prefabs: FabPrefab. But it's a valid question that is being asked. How "green" is prefab building, and should it be embraced by those who want a greener building? Bob sums his article up this way: "I want to honestly question what is and what isn't 'green' about prefabrication and encourage others to do the same."

Prefab construction can be very green. The LivingHomes prefab illustrating this article is a LEED Platinum building. But, there are very few examples of prefabs that have LEED certificaion. And not every prefab qualifies even as a LEED certified building, let alone a Platinum one.

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Green Building Tour: Ten Shades of Green — Book Review

Architectural LeaguePhoto Credit: Architectural LeagueThe book Ten Shades of Green: Architecture and the Natural World documents the exhibition of the same name assembled by Peter Buchanan at the Architectural League of New York in early 2000. The book was published in 2005, after the exhibition had traveled widely across the country.

With the buildings assembled here, the book could be construed as a small, self-contained Green Building Tour all its own.

The projects contained in the exhibition and the book all were built in the 1990s. All but one (an Australian housing project) are from Europe. There are also four residential projects – single family houses – at the end, and all of these are North American examples (though widely drawn from Nova Scotia, Texas, California, and Arizona). The projects include a museum in Switzerland, a skyscraper bank headquarters in Germany, and academic buildings in the Netherlands and England.

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