The Many Shades of Green: Moving from Building Science to Sustainability

Joyce Coppinger, Executive Director/Member of the Board, The Green Prairie
Foundation for Sustainability, PO Box 22706, Lincoln, Nebraska 68542-2706,
402.483.5135, fax 402.483.5161 <jc10508@alltel.net> www.thelaststraw.org (click on Green Prairie)

The term "green building" has become the umbrella for many different approaches to improving building
design and construction. But what do these terms and approaches really mean and how can we begin to
move from Building Science to Sustainability?

Building Science explores how heat is generated or lost in a house and how to "tighten" the building and
eliminate leaks to gain energy efficiency. However, this approach often leads to a "too tight" house that
can cause problems such as mold and mildew, and poor indoor air quality.

Poor indoor air quality is listed by the EPA as the top environmental threat, yet we continue to construct
buildings with windows that don't open, mechanical heating/cooling and ventilation systems that do allow
enough exchange of fresh air or exhausting of stale or polluted indoor air, causing health problems for the
building's occupants.

Building codes and guidelines are often more concerned with structural issues than with the provision of
healthy interior environments and indoor air quality, leading to Sick Building Syndrome or Building
Related Illness.

The US Green Building Council's and it's LEED green building programs are a step in the right direction,
but there are still major changes to be made in attitude, perception and concept of planning and siting,
design and construction, selection of materials and finishes, building orientation and site considerations,
interior air quality if this program is to really produce buildings that are an improvement of the indoor
environment and health of its occupants, as well as the reduction of the consumption of materials and
products, energy and water.

Natural building any building system places value on social and environmental sustainability,
emphasizing simple, easy-to-learn techniques based on locally available, renewable resources, and
leading to sustainability - any method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not
depleted or permanently damaged using the approach of appropriate technologies: to be appropriate,
technology must be connected to the place, resources, economics, culture and impacts of its use. These
are the elements to keep in mind and use as our approach to sustainable building and living.

Building science is the study of how buildings function under various environmental conditions.
Building scientists study how heat is generated or lost in a house and how to make houses more
comfortable and healthy.

Source: www.healthyindoorair.org - a partnership program of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency; Indoor Environments Division, Montana State University Extension Service, Housing
Program; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative State Research, Education, and
Extension Service.

Indoor Air Quality is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a top
environmental threat. The major cause of indoor air pollution are the particles released into the
air that come from a variety of sources. The key factors to "healthy air" is it must be clean, fresh
and have the proper relative humidity.
Our environments fresh air is constantly mixed with pollution. We are exposed on a daily basis
to organic chemicals found in the ingredients of common household products also known as
volatile organic compounds. These toxins build up in our environment to unhealthy levels that
stay in the air long after the activity is completed. Many building products and furnishings in our
interiors "off-gas" harmful toxins over a long period of time.

Source: www.healthylivingfoundation.org and www.epa.gov/iaq

If one or more of your office or home ventilation processes is inadequate, due to poor building
design, inappropriate occupant activities, or improper maintenance or operation, the quality of
indoor air may deteriorate. When that happens, occupants may suffer from Sick Building
Syndrome (SBS) or Building Related Illness (BRI).

(Source: U.S. Department of Energy)
Green building practices offer an opportunity to create environmentally sound and resource-
efficient buildings by using an integrated approach to design.
• promote resource conservation, including energy efficiency, renewable energy and water
conservation features;
• incorporate environmental impacts and waste minimization;
• create a healthful and comfortable environment;
• reduce operation and maintenance costs; and
• address issues such as historic preservation, access to public transportation, and other
community infrastructure systems.
The entire life cycle of the building and its components is considered as well as the economic
and environmental impact and performance.

U.S. Department of Energy, Smart Communities Network, www.sustainable.doe.gov
U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/greenbuilding
Austin Green Building Program, www.ci.austin.tx.us/greenbuilder (An Internet search will take
you to other green building programs around the country)

Source: www.usgbc.org

LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a rating system for new and
existing commercial, institutional, and high-rise residential buildings, designed by the US Green
Building Council using an extensive peer review process. Four levels of green building
certification are awarded based on the total credits earned in each of five categories: Sustainable
Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor
Environmental Quality.

Source: Michael G. Smith, leader in the cob and natural building community

  Natural building is any building system which places the highest value on social and
environmental sustainability. It assumes the need to minimize the environmental impact of our
housing and other building needs while providing healthy, beautiful, comfortable and spiritually-
uplifting homes for everyone.
  Natural builders emphasize simple, easy-to-learn techniques based on locally-available,
renewable resources. These systems rely heavily on human labor and creativity instead of on
capital, high technology and specialized skills.

www.econest.com (light straw/clay)

   sus·tain·abil·i·ty /-”stA-n&-’bi-l&-tE/ noun
   1 : capable of being sustained
   2 a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is
not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b : of
or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>
   Defining sustainability is difficult. It seems to have many interpretations in different aspects
of society, many applications in various settings. And, it’s become an overworked term in recent
   Sustainability in our day-to-day lives means reducing our consumption–sensible quantities,
good quality and healthy choices; recycling and reuse of everything possible; less use of all
chemicals in all forms and uses as well as gas-and-oil-based products, converting to ag-based
and natural products. It means getting off the grid and converting to solar and wind energy, using
rainwater catchment and grey water methods to conserve this precious resource, and turning to
permaculture approaches and xeriscape plantings in our surroundings. It means using what we
have at hand as basic materials for building–as the prairie pioneers and many others did long
ago. It means approaches for farming that are sustainable and natural rather than overuse of the
land, chemical fertilization, weed control and pesticides, and irrigation levels that deplete the
available resources; improved methods of forestry (coppicing, for example), less high energy use
manufacturing and a movement toward small cottage industries creating products from local
resources distributed to regional outlets; control of packaging–one of the highest sources of
   Sustainability requires lifestyle changes. There is an element of drawing from the past to
study what worked and what didn’t or won’t. Accepting the existence of an industrialized world
while attempting to apply agrarian and pre-industrial ways to manufacturing needed goods and
products. And accepting that we probably will not see a sustainable society in our lifetime yet
dedicating ourselves to moving in that direction.

   To be appropriate, technology must be connected to the place, resources, economics, culture
and impacts of its use.
Source: Development Center for Appropriate Technologies, Tucson, Arizona, USA

    Appropriate technology is small-scale technology. It is simple enough that people can
manage it directly and on a local level. Appropriate technology makes use of skills and
technology that are available in a local community to supply basic human needs, such as gas and
electricity, water, food, and waste disposal.
Source: http://lsa.colorado.edu/essence/texts/appropriate.htm

   Appropriate technology is decentralized.
   Today, many of our basic needs are handled by huge, complex systems. These systems are
managed centrally by large private corporations or the government. For example, our electricity
typically comes from utility companies that operate across many states. Similarly, many of the
fruits and vegetables we consume come from large-scale agricultural corporations in California
or other states. In contrast, with appropriate technology, the person who produces a service or a
product also becomes the consumer–the person who uses it. This has several advantages. For
one, consumer/producers are more likely to care about their work. As a result, service and goods
are more reliable and of higher quality. Secondly, centralized systems must invest a lot of money
to purchase large, complex machinery and to employ thousands of workers. Often these systems
are disrupted due to breakdowns in the technology, problems getting needed supplies, or labor
strikes. When this happens, a great many people are affected. Breakdowns such as a power
outage may also occur in communities that use small-scale, appropriate technology. But these
local breakdowns are not nearly as difficult and time consuming to track down and repair as
those that cover a broad geographic area. Thus, a simpler technology tends to be more reliable,
and the effects of breakdowns do not disrupt as many lives.

   Technologically sophisticated, though simple in design.
   It is important to realize that use of appropriate technology does not mean turning the clock
back to the 18th or 19th century. Although the technology involves simple, easy-to use and
repair designs, it is based on sophisticated, 20th-century technologies. One example is the
invention of photovoltaic or solar cells that convert solar energy, a renewable energy source, into

   Environmentally friendly.
   Appropriate technology emphasizes the use of renewable resources, like the energy from the
sun, wind, or water. These energy sources are available almost everywhere and need only the
right technology to capture them. Unlike burning coal and oil, these local energy sources do not
contribute to air and water pollution and they do not need to be transported over long distances.
Food, energy, water, and waste disposal are also handled locally by ecological systems. These
are systems that conserve resources by recycling organic nutrients back into the soil and reusing
manufactured goods in innovative ways. Thus, appropriate technology makes it possible to
satisfy our basic human needs while minimizing our impact on the environment.

   Social problems.
Many people are beginning to realize that neither our economy nor our population can continue
to grow forever. We are running out of the natural resources necessary to sustain ourselves. In
addition we are limited in our ability to deal with the social and environmental problems that
result from continuous growth. There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the complexity
and hectic lifestyle of 20th-century society. Many people would prefer to return to a simpler way
of life. Appropriate technology is attractive because it makes households and industries more
self-sufficient, and most things can be managed at a local level. We may have to do more hand
labor instead of depending on automation to satisfy our basic needs. However, there are many
advantages to simplifying our lives. By growing more of our own food and producing and
buying goods in our own communities, we spend less time and money on transportation, produce
less waste and consume fewer environmental resources.

Development Center for Appropriate Technologies, Tucson, Arizona. www.dcat.net
The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Austin, Texas. www.cmpbs.org
Ecological Building Network, Sausalito, California. www.ecobuildnetwork.org

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