Principles for Sustainable Construction  
 
November 2006
 
  Sustainable construction is about listening. Sustainable construction is about thinking before doing. Sustainable construction is about caring. Here is my list, a manifesto of sorts, of the principles I would like to see adapted in construction. (And something for me to live up to).  
     
   
  Construction waste represents 40% of all solid landfill waste. A further 16% of all water use and 40% of all electricity use is also attributed to our buildings. In other words, the construction of a single 2000 square foot home in our country uses approximately 500,000 kBtus of energy, or the equivalent of nearly 68,000 litres of gasoline. That's enough to drive around the world more than 20 times. [Worldwatch Paper #124, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC]

Almost half of all energy used in a typical home goes towards space heating (47%), followed by lighting and appliances (24%), water heating (17%), air conditioning (6%) and refrigeration (5%).

17 percent of all energy used in Canada goes toward running our homes.

Enough studs are wasted on twenty typical job sites to frame an additional house. [Center for Resourceful Building Technology]

Timber framing with large members uses 30% less material than conventional stick framing. This system also uses younger trees and wastes less wood (typical large members can be milled from 10" diametre trees that are 27 years old vs. milling for dimensional lumber such as 2x4s requires a minimum of 16" or 42 year old tree). [Steve Chappell]

"If we used all of the available straw for the exterior walls of straw bale buildings, 2.7 million 1000 sqft. single-storey homes could be built each year. If we turned that straw into structural compressed straw panels, they could provide the exterior walls, roofs, interior partition walls and floors of 1 million 2000 sqft two-storey homes per year. Or, that straw could be used to produce 22 billion square feet of 3/4 inch particleboard which is five times the current United States production of particleboard and medium-density fiberboard (all thicknesses)". [Environmental Building News 1995]
 

 
 
October Mountain, Mass.
1. Design for Low-Impact and Passive Systems
Low-impact refers to the use of more benign materials in construction as well as local materials. Cork is considered sustainable because it is harvested from living trees but it mainly comes from one country (Portugal) and can only be harvested every ten years. The demand for this product may make it unsustainable in the near future. More benign materials tend to be materials not treated with various preservatives and petrochemical products. Avoid pressure treated wood; it contains various carcinogens.

If it doesn't need a motor, then it doesn't need a constant external energy source. Build for passive systems because they make sense! A passive solar design alone could heat and cool a home without the need for expensive forced air systems. Passive also tend to be quiet. Who really likes the roar of a furnace?

Let the site dictate what needs can be 'naturally' met. A home is more than just a building on a piece of land. It is a living structure that consumes and produces wastes and is in constant dialogue with the external (and internal) environment. A building should help regenerate, support and complement natural systems. A building and its infrastructure should not be a burden on the area. One must consider solar orientation, soil, vegetation, animals, natural drainage, prevalent winds, and precipitation.
 
 
2. Design for Change and Impermanence

Modern humans have a tendency to build things that are not really functional but are just monuments to our own egos. We want our own pyramids or parthenons made of stone yet ironically, the material we build with doesn't last nearly as long as we would like (cracking concrete anyone?). Although houses should last at least three generations or so, they should be reusable or recyclable for another building or other uses (preferably up-cycle vs. down-cycle).

The fact of the matter is that life is impermanent and so are structures. We should be designing for change and impermanence. If the material cannot be reused or recycled, it should be benign enough to return to the earth from whence it came.

No one moves into a home and leaves it as-is. Most people do some remodeling at some point to where they are living. On average, exterior changes to a home averages every 20 years. Interiors every year or so. Wiring, plumbing and other mechanical systems wear-out. Therefore, design for easy dismantling and reusability.

Although we should build with the idea of change in-mind, buildings should still be durable. The simplest way to build for durability is to pay attention to details - proper flashing can make or brake (rot) a house. Focus on investing in timeless structures that are functional vs. trendy excess such as complicated roofs.
 
 
Dave Bowman's workshop, Mass.
3. Quality over Quantity and Material-Social Durability
Let's build quality products - homes, chairs, toothbrushes, pencils. We still crave craftsmanship yet our attention spans are nonexistent and we settle for cheap crap. You get what you pay for and what we pay for is obsolesce and environmental degradation.

Homes can be built to last. As mentioned in the timber framing section, there are timber framed buildings over 1400 years old. There are straw bale buildings in Nebraska that are over 120 years old. With proper forethought, the right skills and a supporting community, we all can revive the lost art of craftsmanship and caring.

 
  We need to re-skill our trades. They need a more rounded education that not only lets them specialize but lets them understand a whole building system vs. just their particular part. Trades need to talk to other trades and to prepare for each other's work.

We need a renaissance of the handicraft. We need to take pride in the creative energies of our local areas and their distinct vernacular styles and accents. Craft and quality work is vital to the soul of a person. Satisfying work creates meaning, joy and worth that feeds other ares of life. We need to emphasize use-value and to stay away from superfluous goods and unnecessary goods and services.

The current industrial emphasis on mass production in the shortest time is the cheapest way is one big lie. Shoddy workmanship, cut corners and the waste produced, bears on the consumer through the cost of replacing, fixing and health risks due to toxic chemicals in the products themselves or in the process of manufacture (in the name of speed). Furthermore, mass produced products draws money away from the local economy.
 
 
1890's sod building. Vallecito Stage Coach, Anza Borrego Nat. Park, Cali.


Post & beam straw bale, Carnarvon, ON.
4. Design for End-Use and Embodied Energy (consider source and impact)
The idea of end-use stems from Amory Lovins who insists that people don't necessarily want things, they want their needs satisfied: "What we want are hot showers and cold beer, not oil or power plants." The end-use concept works backwards by recognizing the need and working backwards to the most efficient and lowest-impact way to provide for it. The idea is to increase our quality of life while reducing material and energy consumption (do more with less).

People need warm homes in winter. Solution option: insulate. With what? It doesn't have to be with polys (extruded polyurethane or expanded polystyrene), you can use sheep wool, recycled denim, etc. People want healthier homes, not necessarily new homes. Solution option: retrofits.

What end-use allows is to see what options one has. The options don't always have to be the newest and most expensive option. It often outlines the most cost-effective way to deal with the need. You won't put in a high-end furnace in a house that's not insulated. That would defeat the purpose! It would cost more and the furnace would probably not be running at its most efficient and it would probably be running all the time (cha-ching). End-use allows the re-evaluation of older technology and systems such as radiant flooring (not really new - the tawakhaneh of Afghanistan was being readily used before 2000 BCE and the more familiar Roman hypocaust was in use around 300 BCE), masonry stoves (very efficient heating source) and natural ventilation are now seen as another viable solution to the timeless problems of making a home comfortable.
 
  Embodied energy refers to the amount of energy it takes to extract raw materials, transport the material, process it and install it. Items such as steel, plastics and concrete have a high embodied energy primarily because of the mining, energy-intensive processing and transportation of the material from remote locales to the markets. Recycling tends to have a lower embodied energy than virgin extraction (but not always), reusing of materials lowers embodied energy further, while natural building systems tend to have the least amount of embodied energy. Embodied energy is a useful tool because it captures the larger cycle of material use and puts into perspective how material choice can make a difference in one's impact on the environment.  
 
5. Waste = Food

I had a satori moment back in university when an indigenous Bolivian gave a talk to my class one day. He asked us what is the ultimate result of capitalism? We bandied around Money, Power, Sex... but those weren't the answers he was looking for. We sat in silence and waited for his response: GARBAGE. The ultimate result of capitalism is garbage. We make things (and people) and throw them out when we are done.

If it weren't for our hidden landfills and flushing toilets, we would be in deep shit.

Nature produces no waste. This is the cycle of being that we should aim to mimic. All out-puts and by-products of construction and manufacturing should be useful for another purpose. This implies that all by-products must then be benign and non-toxic.

Nature cycles nutrients and works within closed-loop systems of exchange and reciprocity. We are beginning to see designed ecological industrial parks that mix uses which can benefit various industries and manufacturers. The pairing of manufacturing, aquaculture and greenhouses allows each unit to 'feed off' each other's by-products and waste heat. The heat generated from the making of 'x' product can heat the water for fish in the next building whose fish-poo can fertilize the food in the greenhouse.

To close these open-loops and to make things reusable and recyclable, we need to focus on product design, material sources and processes of manufacturing. In order of preference of processes, we should aim to reuse items, dismantle and disassemble them for other uses, recycle, and lastly, manufacture for compostability.

Reusable products means quality built and durable - the antithesis of today's mass manufactured items. Reusing items is better for the environment than recycling because recycling often requires a fair amount of energy and the current system tends to down-cycle items which often prolongs the death of the item (example: office paper into toilet paper). One of the few items in vast circulation that does not get down-cycled is aluminum. The current market for recycling does not challenge existing capitalist property relationships and the globalized economy of off-shore and out-source recycling (think toxic computer monitors being picked clean in some rural town in China or ship-breaking in India). Recycling makes good capitalist sense because it carries a limited product and material life-cycle liability.

Our communities must be empowered to control local waste streams. Accessible drop-off sites for the recycling of products and packaging at central areas or areas of high traffic, such as supermarkets, would encourage participation. Companies must take the initiative to take-back their wares for disassembly and recycling. Perhaps people shouldn't own TVs, we should lease them and return them when their use is up.

Of key concern in reducing our toxic chemicals is to scale back our use of petrochemicals. From fuel to packaging to chlorine based toxins (PCBS, CFCS), petrochemicals are our curse and solution to many of the problems we face today. If it weren't for cheap oil, we won't have been raised in suburbs, had the original 'green revolution' in the developing world nor would I be sitting here typing on a computer. There has been so many technological breakthroughs with profound impacts on economical, political and social relations due to this one material yet it is also this singular entity that underlies the debate on climate change and is driving various wars around the world.

There is no denying that petroleum products still have a place in our lives and in the near future, but we need to re-evaluate our rampant use of this finite product before the social and economic costs become too much to bear. We need to rediscover our former plant-based economy that used strong and durable hemp textiles, various straw and grass products and biochemical products such as cellophane that is made from cellulose or diesel engines that were originally meant to run on peanut oil.

Within construction, perhaps the first step is to not have a garbage bin. That'll really make people think about waste and reuse and recycle as much as possible. At the heart of the problem is the materials and methods we use. It is hard to reuse drywall, but not impossible. It is hard to salvage materials if you use a reciprocating saw and a sledge, but not impossible. Of course this has a lot to do with time, budgets and scheduling. If we design buildings that facilitate change and disassembly, this would quicken the ability for owners and remodelers to adapt.

New designs and retrofits should emphasize the recycling of gray water. Many simple designs and technologies exist right now to reduce our use of water. Another item I would like to see become more readily acceptable are composting toilets. It boggles my mind that we use fresh water to push away our bodily functions. You don't see any other animal come up with such a bizarre way to deal with their waste. On top of that, we pay money for bags of compost and fertilizer for our gardens... that's literally money down the drain!
 
 
Solar tubes.
6. Appropriate Technology and Scale - Multipurpose and Multifunctional
"Truly appropriate technology is technology that ordinary people can use for their own benefit and the benefit of their community that doesn't make them dependent on systems over which they have no control." John F.C. Turner

Appropriate technology tends to be decentralized and in a scale that is human or community based. A good case is renewable energy sources that people can install on their own homes; to take charge of producing their own energy. Another option is to produce energy communally by installing larger systems which would benefit more and cost less than a personal system. The advantages of both of these scenarios is that it is local and places responsibility on the owner(s) which is empowering in this system - the owner(s) controls his/her consumption by being aware of matching use with needs. It is also ideal in its distribution system in that it is more efficient to use energy generated directly on-site than to draw power from lines that stretch for hundreds of kilometers (where energy is lost in the transfer).
 
  The community scale is flexible and can more readily adapt to the varied unknowns of climate change. A shift to local production encompasses energy production, food production, waste treatment and education.

Space heating and water heating consume the most energy in any given home. A better designed passive solar home would dramatically cut down on this need. More appropriate heating systems such as radiant floor systems are more efficient in its heat distribution. The use of solar domestic hot water systems to heat water works on 'free' energy from the sun and tankless hot water systems can give you hot water on-demand instead of wasting energy on heating a big batch of water regardless of if it is needed or not.

Another issue to keep in mind when trying to design an integrated and sustainable home is in calculating needs and system sizes. A well-built and properly sited straw bale home will probably not need a lot of heating at all. Be careful not to over-do systems with the newest and best in the market, it would end up being a waste of energy, resources and money. As mentioned before, let the site dictate what the needs of the building will be. Properly siting a building would reduce much of the external and operational energy loads that the building would need over it's lifetime.

Another item to consider is space use. Just about everyone differs in what they want in their homes and often times, people differ in what they say they want vs. what they actually do. Take the time to study the flow of a space and be conscious of where people tend to congregate (for example, I've noticed that the kitchen has become the new living room. It's where people congregate in a casual manner). Design the building on space-use (context is the key) rather than on aesthetics alone. Let's bring people back into the building. Also be flexible with building family homes. Many families are no longer in the nuclear family model and many more people are remaining single. Talk to the client.

Good design should reflect the needs of people. All too often, modern buildings and developments have emphasized design around automobiles and one-use purposes (the ubiquitous suburban strip-mall). Buildings and neighbourhoods should be built for pedestrians and flexible use.

And finally, stop with the McMansions! No one needs 20 000 sq.ft. and 40 washrooms! Size of homes is often dictated by image and not function. The average American family is shrinking yet the house size is growing... more space just to store junk?
 
 
Paint-balled and peeling Wyland mural. Vancouver.
7. Client & Community Involvement
The key to sustainable construction lies in community involvement. The people that surround you, whether family, friends, or neighbour, are the people who keep your home alive. They are the ones that help to finance and build your home, that feed you, visit you at your home and help you make repairs. Ultimately, anything that is said to be sustainable is anything that is cared for. Sustainable home/community/food/economy/politics is for the future of the common good.

Sustainable construction is about participation, education and an openness to change. What we don't want is people living in 'green' homes and driving to Costco for their groceries. Ideally, the community where a building is being built would be consulted and given a minor role in the design and construction. Communities are about belonging and stewardship; it only makes sense to extend that invitation the other way - from the building to the community. Designers and architects can act as educators and facilitators in the design process for community meetings. Having communities participate in the design and construction process of one building does a lot more for this nascent sustainable building movement than building tracts and tracts of green neighbourhoods. Lessons are taken to heart because people are empowered. They feel like they are making a difference because they are.
 
 


As sprawl grows and we become even more individualized, I think it is time to take a look again at communal systems. Buying a energy efficient washer and dryer set is good... what's even better is to share one with others. Let's bring back communal laundries, kitchens, eating areas, shared childcare facilities, and even bathing areas!

A builder's relationship with a client is unique because the builder is somewhat like a psychiatrist: she builds based on the ideas and ideals of the client. They work out strategies together and perhaps bicker somewhat, but the goal is the same: to make manifest the needs of the client. Ideally, the client would also participate in the actual construction of their home. I think it is imperative that an owner learn the basics of how their home works so they can not only fix minor problems, but to really take responsibility of their choices in how they live.

It is also of vital importance to arm trades and construction crews with a sense of caring and embeddedness. This can be achieved by ending the dominance of low-skilled jobs and the transience nature of modern construction. Existing unions should encourage more community involvement through investment options such as using pensions to start mini-coops that specialize in retro-fits within the community which not only 'greens' current homes, but also guarantees work.

 
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