Green building

The creation of ecocities will require us to think deeply about the impacts our buildings have on people and on the earth. We will need ecological, "green" building methods, as well as new ways to arrange buildings and public spaces to form communities.

Consider these initiatives in the building community:

Example: The City of Austin, TX, has introduced the first city-endorsed "green building" program in which anyone building with government funds must demonstrate how they have:

  • Made appropriate use of the land.
  • Made efficient use of limited natural resources.
  • Enhanced human health for builders and homeowners.
  • Used non-toxic, local materials to assist the local economy.
  • Preserved plants, animals, endangered species and natural habitats.
  • Protected agricultural, cultural and archeological resources.
  • Reduced total lifetime energy usage.
  • Made the structure economical to build and operate.
  • Demonstrated recyclability.
  • Created a building that has a positive effect on occupants in the working or living space.

Example: A builder in Chicago is now building homes for moderate-income families that have 2,000 square feet of living space, and he guarantees that they will heat for less than $200 per year or he will pay the difference. He has not paid out a penny yet.

The City of Austin and the Chicago builder are the upside in the move toward "green building." On the downside, the National Association of Home Builders Research Center (NAHB) has completed a study on waste at building sites and found that the typical builder spends $511 per house for construction waste disposal, which includes 790 pounds of solid wood scraps, 458 pounds of manufactured wood, 46 pounds of sawdust, 154 pounds of cardboard, 1,788 pounds of drywall scraps, 155 pounds of plastic, 262 pounds of asphalt roofing scraps, 133 pounds of masonry materials and 21 pounds of paper.

These illustrations clearly demonstrate that homebuilders can take many positive steps to create an environmentally friendly house, but there is still much to be done. It is also very clear that until you, the homeowner, decide that you want a "green building," it is not likely to be built. On the other hand, it is also clear that once you do demand it, builders have been able to respond and produce a product that is not much more expensive to build and, in almost every case, is far less expensive to operate and maintain.


If you are seriously interested in "green building" techniques—whether for new construction or rehab— there are four basic strategies to keep in mind. You should be searching for practitioners who can provide them in your project.

  • Optimum-value engineering: While engineering principles have always been used in the design of housing, there has always been a tendency to overbuild and to not effectively use materials in many instances. For example, wood frame walls are built with studs as the vertical members and wooden plates on the top and bottom to hold the structure together. The current practice is to use two or more plates on the top. We now know, however, that if the floor-framing members can rest right where the studs are, it is not necessary to have more than one top plate. This change can save hundreds of feet of lumber and actually helps reduce heat loss through the walls.Thus, it is possible to design and engineer a solid house, while dramatically reducing the waste products produced.

  • Energy-efficient building:You really can build a house that heats for $200 a year if you seal the building envelope (the exterior walls, ceilings and floors of the structure), insulate the building envelope so heat loss is reduced to a minimum, install ductwork that is not leaky, and effectively ventilate the structure so there are sufficient air changes for good health (without unnecessary air changes that lose the heat you paid to generate). In such a house you need a far smaller heating system, which requires much less fuel to achieve a desired level of comfort. And such a house is cheaper to cool as well. The technical know-how to produce such housing and retrofit existing housing is available right now.

  • Ecological building materials. This involves choosing building materials that use the least energy to manufacture or produce, are most likely to be recyclable or are already recycled, and are produced from an easily renewable resource.
    Would you believe that the construction of homes using bales of straw to form the sidewalls is becoming a common construction practice?
    Hundreds of them are beginning to appear all over the country because straw is readily available in nearly every part of the country.
    Moreover, straw bales are cheap to produce, the simple act of harvesting is the manufacturing process and there will always be a supply. When covered with several coats of stucco, straw-bale construction produces a house with insulation R-values in the walls as high as 30.
    The walls are also extremely durable.
    These days there are fewer and fewer big trees to provide lumber necessary to create beams, rafters and joists. So a growing amount of this kind of material is being made from ground-up wood fibers that, when bonded together, create an incredibly strong piece of wood. In addition, plastic bottles can be recycled and mixed with wood fibers to form a composition material that can be used for decks and other outdoor projects This material will never rot and can be reused or recycled endlessly over time.

  • Nontoxic materials and systems. Green building also involves using building materials and systems that do not foul the environment or harm the health of inhabitants. Over the years, the chemical revolution helped us in many ways, but it also has produced chemicals that have been used in pesticides and building materials that have made people sick. The good news is that we have learned what many of these are and have developed safer products to replace them.
    We also have begun to reduce the number of unvented heating appliances we have in our homes, which have contributed to personal injury and sometimes death. We are choosing building materials that do not out-gas harmful chemicals when they are hot and/or wet. We are adopting strategies for controlling moisture and reducing mold and mildew growth and the deterioration of building materials due to these organisms. And we are manufacturing products that will not present health hazards in the first place.

Cleveland catching up

Whether you are building a new home or are thinking of making improvements to your existing home, paying attention to green building concerns will produce a better building, make for a healthier and more effective living space and contribute to the sustainability of our natural resources.

Where can you start looking in Northeast Ohio for help with green building? We have a long way to go to reach the level of resources available in a place like Austin, TX. In other parts of the country, the driving forces behind such efforts have been environmental or climatic concerns, such as water shortages, soil conditions, very cold or very warm or very humid weather.

We happen to live in an area with plenty of water, a temperate climate and cheap natural gas. A building scientist visiting this area once remarked, "You guys can get away with a lot here because you are not dealing with any serious extremes; if you wait long enough the problem will go away." A bit overstated perhaps, but it means that anyone wishing to make strides in green building may have to work harder in a region like Northeast Ohio.

But we've seen a dramatic increase in interest during the past several years. Local groups like the Cleveland Green Building Coalition and Green Contractors Association of Greater Cleveland (lead by Gary Cole) are developing a network of knowledgeable people in the building community. And more building projects in Northeast Ohio are pushing the design envelope each year (see links above).


  • The Last Straw Journal
  • Cedar Rose Galbraith's The Natural Plaster Book

This article was originally published in EcoCity Cleveland's Greater Cleveland Environment Book (1998).

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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2005



Green building principles
Philosophy of building science
Green building from the inside
Green building codes
Cleveland Green Building Coalition
U.S. Green Building Council
Jim LaRue's green building site

Other green building resources

Local examples:

Back to main Ecological Design



It is clear that until you, the homeowner, decide that you want a "green building," it is not likely to be built. On the other hand, it is also clear that once you do demand it, builders have been able to respond and produce a product that is not much more expensive to build and, in almost every case, is far less expensive to operate and maintain.


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