Saturday, February 1, 2014


This is a picture of one of the most notorious contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, the contractor's pickup truck;

Every builder has one (I do too), and every day we drive it to buy materials, to and from our homes, and between worksites.  Unfortunately, this is one transportation problem that cannot be solved with buses for bicycles. Ideally contractors would work only in their own neighborhoods, and only with their neighbors as employees. This is not always an option, but hiring locally is, when possible, a great way to minimize the impact of building projects.

There is a lot of interest in sustainability today. And justifiably so, as we begin to recognize the limits of our natural world, as well as the speed at which be approaching them. It is also a reaction the corruption of other terms like "green" that appear too vague, or too easily manipulated, to be useful as a response to environmental challenges.  Whereas "green" building is largely concerned with materials used in the process of construction, and a buildings energy use during operation, sustainability has a much broader mandate. It seeks to make judgements about a structures future usefulness, its needfulness, and the fundamental value it returns on a given environmental cost.

But in spite of being vulnerable to the "greenwashing" of existing business and business practices, sustainability  remains a concept that must be defined and protected. In practical terms (and what is more practical than homebuilding?) this requires the establishment of commonplace and intuitively simple benchmarks for assessing the sustainability of a given construction project.

The First (and arguably highest) benchmark is also the simplest; does it need to be built?  Technically, the only project that is truly carbon neutral is the one that never gets built. For example;  a 1,000 sq. ft deck (unless its the observation platform at the base of a national monument) is not a green project no matter what materials you use. A 3,000 sq.ft single family home in the wilderness incurs enormous environmental costs regardless of whether or not it is passively heated.

The Second question to ask of any project is; will it endure? My blog post on Heirloom Projects goes into this in more depth. Sustainable designs are intended to last 50 years, and not just because of the quality of building materials, but because they nicest part of the home. Through good design they should be the last place future remodelers look to begin their work.

And Third, and most relevant to the tradesman, are the environmental effects associated with the construction process. One constantly overlooked aspect of sustainability construction is the enormous contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that the process of construction represents. This is why I actively seek jobs close to my shop and home. My shop is on Capitol Hill, my home is in Wallingford, and in between is Dunn Lumber. Most of my work is done within a couple miles of these locations. Most of my supplies are ordered in bulk on the Internet. My subcontractors are skilled, experienced and (whenever possible) local as well. It doesn't solve the sustainability issues inherent in the transportation component of residential remodels, but combined with other sustainable practices it can go a long way to reducing the carbon footprint, over the long term, of construction activities.

To build sustainability into a project requires a keen eye for value,  a knowledge of materials, and a willingness to compromise in favor of sustainable options. Sustainability does not rely on expensive and proprietary 'green' materials. It is an important and realistic goal for every project, regardless of budget.