Almost every time I am talking with someone about green building, whether a potential or current client, or just a casual conversation, inevitably solar power comes up. This causes me to go into full on curmudgeon mode, pointing out that solar panels are pretty much pointless on homes until you’ve done everything else you can to make it more efficient and healthy. Solar is hot, trendy, hip, something you can touch (and might want to touch, as opposed to insulation), and a marketer’s dream, as are many other building products, all of which are seem to be labeled “green.”
The sales and installation of green building products, like the promotion of many medical procedures and prescription drugs, are very much driven by consumer demand, which is heavily influenced by advertising and marketing. We take medication for all sorts of illnesses like high cholesterol (guilty), diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and more, even though many of these symptoms and illnesses can be corrected by proper behavior and diet.
Similarly, building performance could be ratcheted up several notches by simply doing a better job with standard materials, instead of focusing on buying more “green” stuff. Not only that: a few simple improvements in occupant behavior could result in energy savings and improved indoor air quality.
Is it time to ban green product advertising?
Green building is being driven as much by the marketing efforts of manufacturers as by any demand for the finished product. And many consumers and professionals are influenced by marketing, driving them to consider various materials and systems individually, rather than as integrated parts of the whole house.
These products — solar modules, geothermal equipment, spray foam insulation, high-performance windows, bamboo floors — can all be effective parts of a green building, but none of them will add much to the project if not integrated properly. Maybe it’s time to ban advertising for green building products — they did it with cigarettes, didn’t they?
Incomplete information leads to problems
There are too many designers, architects, contractors, and even homeowners who pick up a little information and think they are ready to go green on their own. It seems that everyone who uses spray foam insulation thinks that they are building green — even though they tend to not know enough to have the HVAC sized properly, resulting in humidity problems.
Or maybe they install cellulose insulation without properly flashing windows, allowing water into the walls, allowing mold to form and the wall to rot. And how about those people who install high-efficiency HVAC equipment connected to leaky ducts located in unconditioned spaces?
I still see plans with a water heater at one end of the house supplying bathrooms on the opposite side with no thought given to efficient hot water delivery. These are all the result of an incomplete understanding of building science, a situation that I don’t expect to see improve much in the short term.
Small pockets of hope
There are a few professionals out there who “get it.” They understand how to plan green from the start, manage the process carefully throughout, and end up with high-performance projects with few problems.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of building professionals are struggling just to stay afloat in the current market, and they can’t (or won’t) take the time or spend the money to fully understand green building. Better energy codes are a start towards better buildings, but both adoption and enforcement are moving very slowly.
Until buyers understand and start demanding high-performance homes, we will continue to be at the mercy of those products with the biggest advertising budgets.
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