What is Green Building?

Choose better building materials for your home by considering the lifelong environmental effects.

| August/September 2005


Being environmentally conscious when building is imperative for the future.

Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors

In the 1970s and ’80s, those of us involved with the solar movement focused on promoting renewable alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power. The research and experience coming out of that era was tremendous, and it will continue to serve us well over the next decade.

But our focus back then was too narrow — we could create houses with 100-percent solar heating and passive cooling, but we failed to adequately consider the rest of the picture. Would these buildings keep their occupants healthy? Were the buildings durable? How much “embodied” energy was consumed elsewhere to produce the materials used in these buildings? And what about other environmental impacts that result from where we build and the materials we use?

The green building movement, which took off in the late 1980's and early 90's, is built on the solar movement but takes a decidedly broader view. Yes, we want to create low-energy buildings heated and powered by sunlight, but we also want to satisfy these other concerns to address much broader environmental priorities. Green building materials are an important part of this discussion.

Understanding Materials

Products can be considered “green” for many reasons. The raw materials used in making them may come from sources considered environmentally friendly: wood from certified, well-managed forests; recycled materials; and rapidly renewable agricultural fibers, for example. Some products are considered green because they are manufactured in a way that releases minimal pollutants or avoids toxic byproducts. Other products are green because they minimize the negative effects of construction (such as avoiding the need to excavate a foundation), or because they help a building minimize its use of energy or water. Products also can be green because they do not introduce pollutants into the built environment, or because they help remove pollutants.

The process of examining the environmental and health impacts of materials is referred to as life-cycle assessment (LCA). This emerging science considers a product’s environmental burdens throughout its life cycle — from resource extraction and manufacturing, through the use of the product, and ultimately to disposal or recycling it into a new product. Because most building materials are in use for a long period of time, the usage phase of a material’s LCA is particularly important. LCA is a highly complex science that we are only beginning to seriously investigate; European and Canadian researchers are well ahead of their U.S. counterparts in this regard.

The problem is that with so many different types of environmental and health impacts, when we compare products, we often are comparing apples to oranges. Even worse, we may be comparing the color of apples to the taste of oranges. The challenge in evaluating green building materials is in balancing the many environmental and health considerations to determine whether those materials should be considered green.

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