Green Building With Recycled Materials

Green building with recycled materials. The author finds new ways to use recycled cans and other materials to create eco-friendly structures.

| June/July 2000

Learn about green building with recycled materials.

"The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems that cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them." — Albert Einstein

Last fall, I attended a conference on recycling in Washington DC and the keynote speaker happened to be William McDonough, dean of architecture at the University of Virginia and Time magazine's 1996 Hero For The Planet. Now, I don't know about you, but when I think of recycling my Coke can, I'm not thinking about designing a house. McDonough, on the other hand, is. As he sees it, recycling cans and building eco-friendly structures arc at two ends of one long sustainability continuum that begins with materials. For McDonough, the question isn't so much: to throw away or not? It's more: Can we build a better can or bridge or house?

It's a sensible question, really; we're already capable of producing biodegradable polymers and cornstarch-based plastics. Is it such a stretch to think we can make houses that biodegrade?

The incentive is certainly there: Building is one of the largest contributors of nondecomposable and toxic waste in the world. According to David Malin and Nicholas Lenssen, authors of Worldwatch Paper 124 (Worldwatch Institute, 1995), the global building industry uses 3 billion tons, or 40%, of the raw materials taken from the planet every year. Moreover, the industry expropriates 40% of the world's energy for construction and building operations. Here in the United States, building accounts for 20% of the 221.7 million tons of trash we toss out daily; that's 44.34 million tons of trash coming from our building sites each day. Imagine how much cleaner our water and land would be if we built with materials that not only turned back into soil when we finished with them, but also added nutritional value to that soil when they decomposed.

"We must make buildings like trees," an inspired McDonough says. "Our buildings must give back more than they use."

Simply take a look at The Gap Inc. office complex in San Bruno, California, where the roof harbors native grasses and wildflowers, or the new environmental studies building at Ohio's Oberlin College, which produces more energy than it consumes, and you will understand McDonough's vision. These "fecund structures," as he calls them, purify water, produce oxygen and sequester carbon dioxide . . . just like trees.

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