Greener buildings

New offices and homes can be environmentally sound. The benefits are significant

Posted 4/14/21

REGION — For most of us, life is enclosed in buildings

Those homes and offices are built of materials. That seems really obvious. What else would they be made of?

But the type of …

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Greener buildings

New offices and homes can be environmentally sound. The benefits are significant


REGION — For most of us, life is enclosed in buildings

Those homes and offices are built of materials. That seems really obvious. What else would they be made of?

But the type of materials matter.

Why do we care about buildings?

Because there are a lot of them, and between work and home, we spend a lot of time inside them.

There were almost six million commercial buildings in the U.S. in 2018, with 97 billion square feet of floor space, according to the Energy Information Administration. That same year, 127.6 million households occupied 256.71 billion square feet of space, according to Statista.

And the buildings last a long time. “Of all the things we create, buildings are the largest, and they generally persist for decades, if not centuries,” notes Project Drawdown, an information resource and plan for reducing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Buildings are also a major source of greenhouse gases.

The International Energy Agency found that the construction sector worldwide is responsible for 36 percent of final energy use and “39 percent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, 11 percent of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and products such as steel, cement and glass.”

How our buildings emit

“Buildings,” says Project Drawdown, “are major drivers of emissions.”

It’s not just a matter of electricity usage, though buildings worldwide use more than half of all electricity. Nor is it just how we stay warm in the buildings or the emissions from our air conditioners. Those are the operational emissions and, don’t get me wrong, they’re important. Worldwide, they account for 28 percent of emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the making of the materials or tearing them down to put up something else—aka “embodied emissions”—has a large and growing impact on greenhouse gases.

Granted, most buildings get built from the ground up once, and knocked down once. (We’re not counting renovation here. But it matters too). Multiply that construction and destruction by the number of structures.

What’s the impact on greenhouse gases?

Martin Rock et al in Applied Energy (January 2020) found a “clear reduction trend” in operational emissions during a building’s lifespan, due to the ways we’ve focused on energy efficiency.

“Energy is required for the manufacturing of construction products; it is ‘invested’ in the construction of new buildings and in modernization and replacement measures,” they say, “and it is consumed by transport and construction processes as well as during the dismantling and disposal of buildings and materials.”

It works out to an additional 11 percent of total global emissions, with the making of steel and cement consuming more than half the total. Embodied emissions are increasing compared to operational emissions, say Rock and colleagues. And it hasn’t really been addressed, they note.

That’s all big commercial buildings, right?

Well, yes. But remember how much square footage living space takes up. Houses are important, and they release their own kind of trouble into the atmosphere.

The problems that emit

Our furniture is made of wood; trees grow slowly. We insulate our homes to keep the heat in or out. Some of our furniture uses nylon and olefin for its stain resistance. Some of our flooring is waterproofed, either treated wood or vinyl flooring. Sometimes our siding is vinyl. Our plumbing is plastic now. That’s an improvement on lead, but has generated a host of other concerns.

Creating many of these products results in greenhouse gas emissions. Vinyl is tough to recycle (although the Vinyl Institute lists recyclers at Some argue that living with products made from petrochemicals is in itself dangerous, whether to the particularly vulnerable (like those with multiple chemical sensitivity) or to the population at large. keeps a Red List, a posting of chemicals that they consider hazardous. Based on GreenScreen benchmark scores, environmental toxicology research and scientific reports, the list “affirm[s] the precautionary principle in their intention and design, represent[s] the collective knowledge of the industry in a unified and aligned voice.”

Paint, primers, sealants and adhesives are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs); they and other chemicals can leach out slowly over time. For some, they are a serious health hazard, irritating the eyes and nose or aggravating asthma or allergies, say the Enterprise Green Communities criteria. (No health standards have been set for home exposure, they add.)

Other chemicals the EGC warns about are APEs, isocyanates, phthalates, BPA and formaldehyde.

But let’s talk plastic, because it’s ubiquitous. “Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” says the Center for International Environmental Law in its report, “Plastic & Climate.”

It states further, “Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle.”

Plastic has its virtues that make it hard to give up. We use it as a protective layer from viruses and bacteria. Heavy plastic furniture and items are easy to clean, which matters if you have to clean a lot for medical reasons. A layer of plastic enclosing our food or medicine makes us feel safer, proving that nobody’s tampered with it. (Anybody remember the Tylenol deaths in 1982 or the 1984 terror attack in Oregon restaurants? Plastic seals became a lot more common after that.)

(For more on plastic, see Jill Padua’s story.)

What can we do?

Maybe you want to build a house or add a room. Maybe you need to do some major renovation. What materials will reduce your carbon footprint?

Let’s go back to the Enterprise Green Communities criteria. There are a couple of handy charts outlining better materials to use and a lot of detail about what those materials are.

Interior paint, sealants and adhesives: Make sure thresholds of VOCs are below the latest numbers on South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Rule 1113 (known as SCAQMD 1113).

Flooring should comply with California Department of Public Health emissions standards. (California’s standards are widely used to evaluate building and interior products for low chemical emissions.) No flexible PVC with phthalates should be used.

Insulation: Must be formaldehyde-free; Enterprise Green Communities prefers board insulation.

Composite wood: Should have low formaldehyde. Ultra-low formaldehyde materials are available.

Roofing: You can have a “green” roof. The Solar Roof Index can help evaluate whether the materials will also give you a cool roof. Check the membranes for phthalates.

Wood: Use wood marked by the Forest Stewardship Council as much as possible.

The following are some more tips from the Enterprise Green Communities criteria:

When you choose an alternate product, choose carefully. “There is a chance of selecting an alternate product with an equally poor chemical inventory that has not yet been characterized or has not been fully assessed, leading to a regrettable substitution,” it says.

If you choose from a list of products, make sure it’s updated regularly.

Recycled products are great, but you don’t always know what’s in them. This is another place where more disclosure would be good.

Check out Declare on regularly. It’s a product database that is connected to the Red List of chemicals to avoid and another list of products to embrace. A Declare listing notes where a product comes from, what it’s made of (this is key, because companies say the information is proprietary), and what can be done with it when the product needs to be tossed.

Cradle to Cradle Certified Products is another resource.

GreenScreen lists hazardous chemicals and better alternatives.

Reducing emissions in construction/destruction/operations is an ongoing challenge, but the benefits would be profound and last longer than the buildings themselves.

Many thanks to Heather Brown and the Office of Sustainability at the Sullivan County Government Center for much of this information.


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