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The "Why" in Green Building

This site excels in the "how" of green Building techniques, but it appears to me that when things move towards explaining the "why" discussions seem to move onto much shakier ground. Especially if the economic arguments don't seem to add up, rationalizations veer towards more general "It's the right thing to do" or "I want to be part of the solution" type responses.
I'm not discounting the value of these type of reasons but I'd be interested in hearing some clear thinking around the subject of doing projects that can only be justified as educational or furthering energy technologies which may someday become mainstream. In a field that relies on quite a bit of hard science, when does it makes sense, or is it fair, to simply abandon it when the data goes against one's wish to build in a certain way?

Asked by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Sat, 03/29/2014 - 19:14

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26 Answers

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Malcolm,
Assuming that we are talking about building methods that are truly green -- which I'll define as “less damaging to the environment than mainstream methods” -- rather than merely greenwashing, then I'll take a stab at answering your "why" question.

The reason that we choose building methods that are less damaging to our natural environment is because we want (for selfish reasons as well as aesthetic ones) to preserve the planet which supports us, for our lifetimes and for the benefit of future generations.

I think that in many ways the "why" is intuitive and simple to understand. What is much trickier is determining whether any particular building method is really less damaging to the natural environment than some other building method.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 06:04
Edited Sun, 03/30/2014 - 06:05.

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Martin, I think you are too short with Malcolm's reasonable question. Consider for a moment Dr Patrick Moore's February 25 statement to the US Senate. He said

"There is no scientific proof that human emissions pf carbon dioxide (CO2) are the dominant cause of the minor warming of the Earth's atmosphere over the past 100 years. If there were such a proof, it would be written down for all to see. No such proof, as it is understood in science, exists."

I know that you won't accept that statement, but consider for a moment that many pretty distinguished, intelligent and appropriately educated scientists agree with Patrick Moore. Perhaps, just perhaps, Moore is right? If he is, then all forecasts about catastrophic global warming directly or indirectly caused by increases in man made carbon dioxide may be simply moonshine. Many sensible people think so, and they are not all right wing extremists, cranks or "deniers" (horrible and insulting epithet!).

This implies that all the talk about the carbon footprint of a given product may be completely mis-guided. The "why" of Malcolm's post then becomes much more important.

I expect to be insulted and reviled because of this attempt to be rational and honest in face of a cult belief, but so be it.

Tony.

Answered by Anthony Ratliffe
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 10:15
Edited Sun, 03/30/2014 - 10:19.

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Anthony,
In my answer, I made no mention of reducing carbon emissions.

Instead, I wrote, "The reason that we choose building methods that are less damaging to our natural environment is because we want (for selfish reasons as well as aesthetic ones) to preserve the planet which supports us, for our lifetimes and for the benefit of future generations."

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 10:42

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Martin, Thanks for the answer, and I'm in complete agreement agreement with you, but my question, perhaps phrased poorly, is of a different nature.
If we take your answer, that is the "save the planet" argument, then surely we need to evaluate any project on that basis - and look not only at what is done, but what else could have been done or not done to achieve those goals. It isn't enough to say my high performance house saves the planet more than your conventional one. That doesn't give you any criteria on which to make decisions. - and leaves you open to the type of very defensive arguments that have been put to you in response to your latest blog.
To be a bit more blunt, a disproportionate number of the "green" projects I see appear to fall into the boutique category and are indefensible when closely examined. In a field which relies on hard science, why are we still seeing so much being done simply because people want to?

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 11:55
Edited Sun, 03/30/2014 - 11:56.

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Living and building in a conservative and tea party state, I tend to avoid the "save the planet" discussions when talking to prospective clients, unless I know this is their objective. Saving money is one of the major reasons that people build this way; others include much better air quality (important to people with young children especially), less maintenance (on exterior painted siding for example) (NOTE: rainscreen required), and comfort. This last one is the hardest to describe, but my past clients get the idea across when talking to potential clients. Note that "survivalists" and folks worried about a coming apocalypse are also focused on being independent if necessary, and high performance, long lasting buildings are a good fit with their needs.

Answered by Bob Irving
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 12:29

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Living and building in a conservative and tea party state, I tend to avoid the "save the planet" discussions when talking to prospective clients, unless I know this is their objective. Saving money is one of the major reasons that people build this way; others include much better air quality (important to people with young children especially), less maintenance (on exterior painted siding for example) (NOTE: rainscreen required), and comfort. This last one is the hardest to describe, but my past clients get the idea across when talking to potential clients. Note that "survivalists" and folks worried about a coming apocalypse are also focused on being independent if necessary, and high performance, long lasting buildings are a good fit with their needs.

Answered by Bob Irving
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 12:29

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In a field which relies on hard science, why are we still seeing so much being done simply because people want to?

Malcolm,
These are difficult questions to get definitive answers to...

One way to look at it is that human beings are [irrational] humans first and [rational] "scientists" only second (and that is true for actual scientists too).
Or, another way to phrase the same idea is that when confronted with scientific information that contradicts a person's most deeply held beliefs, it is by and large the belief system that is protected while the offending information (as empirical as it may be) is rejected - consider that people's beliefs are very important to maintianing their social identity.
This is a variable response of course, with some individuals investing more and putting greater importance on their social identity than others.

There are a variety of (scientific) explanations from a variety of fields that support this idea.
Unfortunately though, I think people generally prefer to consider the decisions they make as being mostly rational even though this may seldom actually be the case.
I am often critical of modern "popular economic wisdom" for this reason - it is all very logical within the context of shared cultural belief systems but if one pauses to consider whether that context is actually valid or not the logic within the context becomes questionable.

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 13:25

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Bob, That's an interesting perspective, but I can't help be think that most of the attributes you describe are unrelated to what I'd consider "green" or high performance houses. Making building assemblies more energy efficient often results in them being less resilient, so there is no guarantee that houses built that way will enjoy a greater longevity than conventionally built ones. Similarly rain screens and air filtration while great ideas bear only a marginal association with improving energy efficiency.
You sound like you build really good houses but it's hard for me to use your description of them to sell their "green" attributes.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 14:08

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Lucas, these are difficult questions and I appreciate any help answering them I can get.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 16:11

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Malcolm,
It sounds like you aren't really asking why people want to build green. It sounds like you are interested in evaluating whether certain building practices are actually green compared to other practices -- or even whether it's greener not to build than to build.

These are interesting questions, but they aren't about the "why" of green building. They are nuts-and-bolts issues concerning what is green, and what isn't.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Sun, 03/30/2014 - 16:30
Edited Sun, 03/30/2014 - 16:59.

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Malcolm,
I think you have asked some interesting questions...

You wrote:

I'm not discounting the value of these type of reasons but I'd be interested in hearing some clear thinking around the subject of doing projects that can only be justified as educational or furthering energy technologies which may someday become mainstream.

I think experimentation is a (rational) justification for some projects in that the experience gained through trial and error is invaluable - trial and error being a critical and fundamental mode of "learning" associated with the "messiness" of life.
It is only crazy when people persist along one particular avenue despite accumulating evidence that their actions are contrary to their desired goals.
But thinking further down the road, how much more experimentation is required to establish "first principles" of "green building"?
Is there really that much more "frontier" in terms of how to insulate, air-seal, heat, cool and ventilate for energy efficiency?

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Mon, 03/31/2014 - 11:09
Edited Mon, 03/31/2014 - 11:12.

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Martin, I am not trying to be obtuse but I am interested in the why. I 'd like to know what the underlying motivation is so we can judge project's viability or success against that rational. If it's to save the planet, or for educational purposes, or to save energy, or it's the right thing to do - I think we should be able to look at any of theses and say whether the goals are indeed being met, not just leave them unchallanged as motherhood statements. This applies both to individual projects and accreditation systems like Passive house and Leed. If we can't provide a cogent defence of them, then why are we doing them?

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Mon, 03/31/2014 - 11:18

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Malcolm,
I'm hoping you haven't lost interest in this thread yet.
I'm still trying to zero in on what exactly you're getting at (but I think it is a worthwhile exercise).
You wrote:

If we take your answer, that is the "save the planet" argument, then surely we need to evaluate any project on that basis - and look not only at what is done, but what else could have been done or not done to achieve those goals.

A problem I think is that people's attitude towards the "save the planet" argument is not universal - ie, amoung people who want to "save the planet" there are a variety of perceptions on what the risks are and how to best respond to them.
This gets back to my earlier comment about the idea that the reference points for people's decision making often have more to do with culture than with "scientific truth" (that idea being an hypothesis known as "cultural cognition").

Take my comment in Martin's recent blog for example.
Assume that we care about DERs and PV because of the "save the planet" argument.

The research that I have done has convinced me that probably neither DERs nor cheap PV panels are going to "save the planet" and that the more critical issues in this regard have to do with things like "occupant behaviour", which receive very small treatment or serious discussion.
But of course, as Martin points out in his reply to my comment, his analysis is still valid in the context of a "cost effectiveness" argument.
But as you suggest in your statement above, if the "save the planet argument" is what we are supposed to care about why do we confine our discussions to the more conventional aspects of this approach vs that, when in fact the answers we seek may lay outside this box?
I think the answer probably has to do with a tendency for people to become trapped by their belief systems into a type of cultural box which is very difficult to think outside of - straying too far outside that box isolates people socially (ie, nobody wants to be your friend if you live too far outside the "Overton window".

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Mon, 03/31/2014 - 18:04

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Very little about this website’s advice or building methods can be classified as “green”. Most building strategies discussed, researched and advised here (as everywhere) are energy intensive (i.e. high in embodied energy) and the downstream end of a toxic manufacturing cycle. The buildings utilize energy sources (gas, oil, coal) that have supply chains high in various emissions (carbon, HCFC, particular pollution, etc.); use extraction, processing and conversion methods that pollute the air, land and water; and advice is almost exclusively limited to the use of materials and methods that are the antithesis of “green”.

Asphalt shingles
XPS insulation board
Petroleum based air and vapor barrier materials
Concrete, epoxies and vinyl’s and PVC’s
Fiberglass insulation
Mechanical HVAC systems

The driver for this sites interest is not green; its cost savings, building performance, risk management against a rampantly incompetent building industry and seeking advice on the veracity of manufactures and installer claims; quality and long life –reliability and ROI.

And don’t let people tell you that alternative energy solutions are green.

This is just reality; not a criticism. But there is lot of pretendin’ goin’ on.

Answered by flitch plate
Posted Tue, 04/01/2014 - 11:02
Edited Tue, 04/01/2014 - 11:02.

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Flitch,
Your comments reminded me of what I wrote in the first blog I wrote for GBA, back in January 2009:

"Here’s my advice to anyone thinking of building a new green home:

  • The best approach is not to build. Since the number of people per household in the U.S. has been dropping for years, a strong argument can be made to support the proposition that the U.S. already has too many houses.
  • It’s better to renovate an existing building than to build new.
  • It’s better to live in a small house or apartment than a large one.
  • To lower energy use, strive to improve the airtightness and insulation levels in the building where you now live.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Tue, 04/01/2014 - 11:37

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Flitch,
Martin has his head on straight. Most of the annoying advice come from us fellow readers.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Tue, 04/01/2014 - 23:30

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Please don't let me be misunderstood ...
Don't get me wrong, Malcom, I have received a great education on this site. Its a safe place to make a mistake. I use it to test and challenge my assumptions and presumptuousness; and very importantly to advise on product and design performance.

I would like to see more emphasis on energy-reduction at the input side of a project and new build; reduce the cost of capitalizing a building. If we did not have a userous mortgage model (make money from lending money), we would be trying to build houses from what we save, not what we amortize over 25 years.

That would bring a pragmatics into the industry. Green or not.

And frankly, to me “Green” is a marketing ploy. I would be here without pretending the industry or this website were that way.

Answered by flitch plate
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 10:31

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Malcolm,
If you had to write down your own best guess at an answer to your own question, what would it be?
Does this type of discussion help make finding such an answer easier or are the waters just all the more muddy?

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 11:05

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Flitch
I agree with everything you have written. My comment was just prompted as my own realization that not a lot of what appears to be fuzzy thinking here on GBA comes from Martin.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 11:27

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Malcom

I think that was kind of my point, too. In fact, if he would express just a little affection for spot ventilation and passive air-lets, I could practically recommend a group hug. :-)

Answered by flitch plate
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 20:59

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Lucas, I'm sorry I can't put my finger on it but there is something that makes me very uncomfortable about the thinking that the solution to the shortfalls in the way we presently build and live can be cured simply by improving the efficiency of our building envelopes, and that the further you go in this the more the problems go away. That the solution doesn't require any fundamental changes in the architectural forms of buildings or in the occupant's lifestyles.
At the same time I am of course very aware that most of the buildings presently being constructed don't work. So before we rush off to implement any solution, be it vastly increased levels of insulation, more PV production or any other direction, I was just hoping some of the proponents of the various approaches might share their clear-headed thoughts around why they are doing what they do.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 22:17

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there is something that makes me very uncomfortable about the thinking that the solution to the shortfalls in the way we presently build and live can be cured simply by improving the efficiency of our building envelopes, and that the further you go in this the more the problems go away. That the solution doesn't require any fundamental changes in the architectural forms of buildings or in the occupant's lifestyles.

Malcolm,
I very much agree.
If I gave a different impression when I was musing about having little "frontier" that wasn't my intention.
What I meant was that I think the path we've been on - "green boutique", giant solar arrays, thick foam, strict performance standards, etc - leads to a dead end is all.

I'm all for some kind of renaissance.

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Wed, 04/02/2014 - 22:59

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'makes me very uncomfortable about the thinking that the solution to the shortfalls in the way we presently build and live can be cured simply by improving the efficiency of our building envelopes"

you're right, they can't. But as a builder I have to build what someone wants to buy, and since that is a necessity, I need to build the best way I can; in a manner that will use the least energy at the best price of of construction, and at the least damage to the environment. Change takes time; we're all improving on what we've been doing. There is always room for improvement.
What do you suggest?

Answered by Bob Irving
Posted Sat, 04/05/2014 - 18:55

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Bob, I can't suggest anything other than what you are doing. I'm doing the same thing, but I'm not sure it adds up to much.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Sun, 04/06/2014 - 00:26

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Well Malcolm, you're right. Compared to Exxon giving up the oil and gas business in favor of developing solar and wind farms, there isn't much any of us can do that will make a material difference in climate change. But that doesn't mean we should just drive our Hummers into the final sunset.

All major changes to human behavior have started with people changing their behavior, one person at a time. Changing 100% of new homes to Passive House still wouldn't do enough, but our real goal is to change behavior and change the discussion. With that change, people might look at other things differently, and realize that we have the ability to change the way we live and the way we interact with the environment. Will it happen? Probably not soon enough, but none of us know when the "drop dead" date is, and we need to make an effort; it might just be enough and it might work. As a builder, this is the way I make that effort. Building construction is one of the most technologically backward industries in the country, but we have a real chance to change that. That change starts here,and now.

Answered by Bob Irving
Posted Sun, 04/06/2014 - 09:09

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Bob, while I'm in general agreement there are a couple of areas in which I think about it a bit differently.
If as you say "our real goal … is to change the way we live and the way we interact with the environment" then I think we need to rethink how our building interact and allow us to interact with our surroundings. Simply increasing the efficiency of the building envelope doesn't do anything fundamental in that regard.
I'm also not sure that the problem with buildings is their technological backwardness. There may be a lot of solutions to our present problems, (many of which are the result of unquestioned technological adoption) and I'm not convinced that the only solution is more technology.
I think the dangers of pursuing that path can be best seen in the high-tech boutique green projects and more widely in the growing belief that it is possible to solve major world problems like poverty with cell phone apps.
I know good hearted people need a direction in which to focus their efforts. Unfortunately in our trade I don't think that direction is clear enough yet to pursue without continuing to re-think the fundamentals of what we are doing.

Answered by Malcolm Taylor
Posted Mon, 04/07/2014 - 11:36

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