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Which is more important, energy efficiency / water conservation, etc., or protecting the environment in a Green Building?

SR Valluri | Posted in General Questions on

Basically we have on one side the energy efficiency, water conservation etc. and the other side protecting the environment. Which is to be given more importance in a Green Building? I am aware these two are to some extent interrelated, but when we have to consider these two aspects which one is to be given more weight? I know both are important but amongst these two which is to be given preference?
SR. Valluri

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  1. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #1

    Energy Efficiency and water conservation help protect the environment, so there isn't much of a problem with your question. One issue that does arise is the balance between the building science/home performance side of the equation vs. the material sustainability. It is not difficult to avoid toxic materials and easier to locate more sustainable products, I believe that you must make the building as efficient as possible and not sacrifice efficiency in the name of sustainable materials whenever possible. To break it down - building science first, material selection second.

  2. Riversong | | #2

    I will have to disagree with Carl. The reason we're in an ecological crisis is that we've too long put science and technology before ecology. If we don't return to using materials and methods which are environmentally benign, then no amount of building science is going to avert disaster.

    The only reason we even need to consider energy-efficiency is because we've come to rely on non-renewable extractive fossil fuels instead of the solar energy that all other life forms live by. If we live with what nature provides, the balance is maintained. It is only when we think we are more clever than nature, that we get ourselves (and the rest of the biosphere) in deep trouble.

    For this reason, I'm constantly arguing against the use of petrochemicals (e.g. foam insulation) to save petrochemical fuels. We can do as well or better in energy-efficiency without utilizing highly manufactured, high-embodied energy, high global warming materials.

  3. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #3

    Robert - I don't disagree with your point in theory, but in practice it will take us many generations to get where you want us to be. Insulation is an excellent example to use. There are many products to use, and all of them, if installed properly will work well. The problem is that those with the lowest environmental impact are the least available, most expensive, and in some cases the most difficult to make work effectively. If, for example we could all install recycled fiberglass or cotton insulation PERFECTLY with all the required air sealing, I'm OK. the problem is, about 90% of it is installed so poorly that it does almost nothing for the efficiency of the house. Until we can upgrade the performance of all the people doing the work, we may have to use resources to save others. I'm with you, but I just don't see it happening in the near future. We are too lazy a society to make the changes soon enough.
    Another example that I am currently experimenting with myself - I live in Georgia where it is hot and humid much of the summer. I have kept my Air conditioning off for most of the last several days. It takes time to open and close windows and shades to manage the heat. I dress lightly, keep fans on when in the room, and close windows after it gets cool to maintain temperature as best as possible. Most people (thinking me slightly insane) would just keep the AC on straight through September rather than go to the trouble, and slight discomfort that I am experiencing. Once energy costs are as high as they should be we might be seeing enough behavioral changes (including demanding high quality work in our buildings) to actually make a difference.

  4. Riversong | | #4


    You're declaring a self-fulfiling prophesy. By stating a priori that it can't be done, well... it can't be done. And you're assuming that we have generations to make significant change - while the Earth reaches multiple climate change tipping points of no return and species extinction accelerates uncontrollably.

    You claim "The problem is that those with the lowest environmental impact are the least available, most expensive, and in some cases the most difficult to make work effectively."

    I've used cellulose (recycled newsprint with Borax) successfully for 20 years. It's an inexpensive, non-toxic, low-embodied energy, recycled product that is relatively easy to install properly.

    I've also been designing and building truly passive solar homes which don't require the intricate occupant intervention that you describe. While the challenges in the North are different from those in the Southland, the same principles can be applied.

    A growing number of builders in the Northeast are using straw-bales and native clays to build truly green homes with good success in durability and "building science" issues.

    It can be done. But it requires a different mindset and a different set of priorities. Those who claim it can't are those who are perpetuating the problem.

  5. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #5

    Robert, I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree. I appreciate that you have the ability and tenacity to select sustainable materials and install them very effectively. I just have so little faith in the abilities of the industry in general to be able to do what you are doing. Incompetence and ignorance run rampant and there aren't enough people to train, supervise, and inspect the work of everyone to make sure it is done effectively. I wish that we could instantly make all the changes we need to in order to be a more sustainable industry and society, but I just don't see it happening very quickly in the real world.

  6. SR Valluri | | #6

    I am unable agree on the statement "The problem is that those with the lowest environmental impact are the least available, most expensive, and in some cases the most difficult to make work effectively " This might be true before. Now the whole world is working on this area and I am sure they are successful to some extent. For example passive solar energy, even though it appears more expensive in the beginning, if we consider LCS, it is not that bad. In many Green Buildings, solar panels are used extensively. So things are changing and they are changing for better. So many new eco- friendly materials are coming out and with time they will be available at lower prices.I feel that we should consider strongly not to spoil the environment with whatever we use in our lives.For example reduce or eliminate wastes that are dumped into the atmosphere or the gases we let go into the environment. Everybody seems to know these problems, but we have introspect ourselves seriously and sincerely what is being done on this issue.

  7. Riversong | | #7


    We can agree that we DO disagree but I can't simple accept the legitimacy of your position.

    Yes, there is much ignorance and incompetence in residential building. But that is because it IS an industry (as you describe it) rather than a profession or a trade, a vocation or a craft. And this is the gist of the problem - not just with building but with our cultural work ethic.

    If our work, whatever that is, is understood to be a gift to the community rather than simply a way to make money to consume the mis-named "goods" of the world, then these problems will disappear.

    And the only way to make paradigmatic changes in a culture is to live them in our own lives. Aiming for the lowest common denominator only perpetuates a dysfunctional calculus.

    Green building (and green living) should be about an entirely new (really a very ancient) set of axioms.

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