Being Green – Green Building and Health

Hi Folks:

Friday once again, so it’s time for this week’s ‘Being Green‘ post.  First of all, tomorrow (June 5) is the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Environment Day.  I’m not sure how it differs from ‘Earth Day’, but any day that celebrates this planet we inhabit sounds good to me! This is also International Green IT Awareness Week (June 1-7) and next week is Rivers to Oceans Week (June 8-13).  June’s shaping up to be a busy month.

Before I get started on this week’s post I wanted to offer a shout out for a couple of things.  First, I was at the Victoria Emerging Green Builders meeting last night, and there is a ‘Carbon Neutrality’ workshop coming up on June 21, here in Victoria.  This workshop is being offered in collaboration with Sustainability Solutions Group.  For more information and to register for this workshop, click here: Cutting through the hot air: a course on carbon neutral buildings.  NB: Registration for this event is limited, so it’s best to get in early.  Cost for the workshop is on a sliding scale, and since this is the first time this workshop is being offered, costs are expected to rise for future events.

Several people from the Emerging Green Builders group have also collaborated on an entry for the USGBC’s 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition and they profiled their submission last night. I had the chance to talk to a couple of them at the end of the meeting and was quite impressed with the amount of effort and forethought they put into their design.

Second, next week is the 3rd Annual Canada Green Building Council National Conference in Vancouver, BC, running from June 8-10.  Should be interesting!

Okay, the topic for this week’s post is ‘Green Building and Health’.  I’m going to start with a quote from the movie ‘Ghost Rider‘:

“Everything you do in life, every choice you make, has a consequence. When you do things without thinkin’, then you ain’t makin’ the choice. The choice is makin’ you.” ~ Mark Steven Johnson, Ghost Rider, 2007

My choice of topic this week comes from a few articles I read recently, but since I deal well with analogy I thought I’d start with a story.  I actually wrote this story out in a ‘Being Green’ blog post back in April, so if you want to read it, click here. I’ll wait…

Welcome back.

So, if you’re thinking, “That’s great, but what does it have to do with green building?”, there are a few answers.  For one, we need to see buildings as interconnected systems.  It may be apparent to the HVAC person for example that if more efficient windows and/or extra insulation is added, then a smaller heating unit can be installed.  That’s a very simple example.  We need to go beyond that however, and look at the place of buildings in their environment.  All buildings use resources and produce waste, both individually and en masse.  In use we see buildings as having inflow streams and outflow streams – electricity, gas, water, etc. come in, and waste goes out.  What we need to address is much more complex, because when we look at linear processes we can see some connections but we can fail to see others, especially when they’re tangential.  These connections can be either positive or negative.  Hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts.  That’s a direct connection.  Something like ‘the salmon forest‘ illustrates more tangential connections.  We need to change our viewpoint, therefore, to look at these streams as being circular instead of linear, moving from a ‘Cradle to Grave’ concept to a ‘Cradle to Cradle‘ design instead, in everything we do.  In Dr. Suzuki’s book ‘The Sacred Balance‘ he speaks about this in a very real way.  The carbon atoms in our bodies once made up the dinosaurs.  The air we’re breathing right now was once breathed by our ancestors.  In the long term, everything on this planet is ‘recycled’.

Now, in a utopian world nothing we do would cause problems for anything else, but so far we haven’t managed things that way.  A couple of decades ago I did environmental inspection for a pipeline construction project, and every day was about trade-offs.  The bottom line for the project was that the pipe was going to go in the ground.  The creative challenge was to do so while balancing economic costs against environmental impacts, knowing when to let go and when to stand firm.  Building construction involves similar compromises, and these are even more important when we have an intention to ‘build green’.  I mentioned at the top that I read a few articles this week that got me thinking about this.  The first is that the California State Assembly has proposed banning single-use plastic bags from California stores.  Is this a good idea?  Definitely.  Diverting plastic bags from the waste stream will have untold benefits for the environment.  Not producing plastic bags will save huge amounts of petroleum in both the manufacture and distribution of those same bags.  Last year the Worldwatch Institute reported on a similar ban in China, in which, according to the report:

“Prior to the ban, an estimated 3 billion plastic bags were used daily across China, creating more than 3 million tons of garbage each year. China consumed an estimated 5 million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil annually to produce plastics for packaging.”

Other municipalities and other countries around the world have made similar bans.  You can even read ‘How to make your town plastic bag free‘.  This is all good news.  But what about the workers who were being paid to run the factories producing those bags?  How do they now feed their families?  It’s a tradeoff, but must be considered.

The second article I read came from’s Environmental Building News and is titled, “Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation“.  One needs to join/sign in to read the full article, but from the site:

“Two common foam insulation materials are produced with hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) blowing agents that are potent greenhouse gases— extruded polystyrene (XPS) such as Dow Styrofoam of Owens Corning Foamular, and standard closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (SPF). While all insulation materials reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by saving energy), insulating with thick layers of either of these two particular foams results in very long “payback periods” for the global warming potential of the insulation, thwarting even the best attempts to create carbon-neutral buildings. The bottom line is that designers and builders aiming to minimize the global warming impacts of their buildings should choose fiber insulation (cellulose, fiberglass, or mineral wool) or non-HFC foam insulation.”

In short, spray foam insulation is a great idea from a building construction perspective, but if one is ‘building green’ to help the environment, then using a product that increases global warming probably isn’t the best idea.


“As I spend my days within a world of data, certifications, lunch and learns, and labels, I often remind myself why I do this for a living. I think of people living on the front lines of industrial production that I hope will one day benefit from my work. People that I have met in communities struggling for the basic right to clean air and uncontaminated water. Communities like Mossville, Louisiana.”

And finally, I came across an article from ‘Environment and Human Health, Inc’. titled, ‘LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health, An EHHI Report‘.  The full text of the report (.pdf) may be accessed here.  From the report itself:

This critique… is intended to sound the alarm about the health dangers of broad adoption of LEED standards by governments, corporations, and others unless the LEED award system is changed to require protection of human health from hazardous chemicals.

It’s an interesting read.  How does one choose between human health and energy efficiency?  And why should we have to choose in the first place?

Okay, the links for this week include:

Okay, that’s it for now. Have a great week!

P.S. I admit it, I have a weakness for fast cars. (I limit my ‘fast women’ to Marcia; she’s more than enough for me!) However, being environmentally-focused, what’s a guy to do? About a month ago I mentioned the (prototype) Porsche 218 Spyder, which is a gas-electric hybrid sports car that was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show. There are a few other options. Probably the best known is the Tesla Roadster, which is entirely electric. Tesla Motors is now also marketing the Model S, which is about 1/3 the price of the roadster and is a four-door sedan.

Over in Texas is the Ronn Motor Company, which makes and sells the Scorpion. This isn’t a ‘gas-electric’ hybrid. I’m not sure you could call it a hybrid at all. What it does have is a hydrogen-injection system that uses a hydrogen generator to separate the hydrogen from water via electrolysis and adds the hydrogen to the engine’s cylinders along with the gasoline. According to their website, “The H2GOTM system produces and blends gaseous hydrogen with gasoline or diesel fuel to achieve 15% to 35% (see various vehicle test results) improvements in fuel consumption, while increasing power and decreasing hydrocarbons typically by 75% to 90%. Overall CO2 reductions will mirror fuel mileage improvements of 15% to 35%.”

Finally, currently in production is the Fisker Karma, a four-door, plug-in gas-electric hybrid luxury sports car from famed designer Henrik Fisker.

All very nice machines.

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