what color is green?

by Sheldon Wolfe, CSI, CCS, CCCA

Recycle9.wmf (9608 bytes)


our evaluation will be skewed by government subsidies that distort the cost of fuel, transportation, mining, manufacturing, construction,
and disposal

Part 1 - sorting out the garbage

Part 2 - the inside story

Part 3 - "green, green, it's green they say..."

In the first column of this series, we looked at recycling as one aspect of green design. As noted, it is fairly straightforward, easy for the contractor, and often mandated by local ordinance. We then looked at indoor air quality, which requires more research for the architect, but is easily accepted by the owner as a wise investment.

The third category of "green-ness", often referred to as sustainable architecture, is to me the most difficult. In contrast to the other two categories, there are rarely any right solutions but many wrong ones. To make things more difficult, it often happens that what appears to be an environmentally sound decision is wrong, or what seems to be a good choice has hidden dangers.

The problem arises because it is impossible to know, let alone evaluate, the environmental effect of producing all of the many products that go into the simplest of structures.

against the wall

Let us consider, for example, a common, apparently simple product such as gypsum wallboard. The basic material, calcium sulfate, is readily available, mostly from open pit mines, with some coming from underground mines. Other chemicals may be added for strength, fire resistance, or improved water resistance. The core is usually faced with paper, sometimes with glass fibers.

Assuming we don't rely on slave labor, excavation requires large machines, each fabricated from large quantities of metal, with a sprinkling of rubber, plastic, glass, fabrics, and paint. What is the environmental impact of producing a fifty-ton excavator? Don't forget that a large factory is required, along with mines, transportation for raw materials, and processing to produce the steel and other components. Of course, it will also require some sort of fuel, so remember to follow the processes needed to deliver it to the gypsum mine.

Processing the gypsum requires a modest amount of energy, and water for various purposes. Again, the fuel has to come from somewhere, and we can't simply discharge cooling water into a stream - but a cooling tower will affect the air temperature and humidity.

Paper production consumes large amounts of energy and water in comparison to the amount of useful product; be sure to track down everything here, too. The additives will be a little more difficult to trace, but nothing we can't handle in the office. Glass is made from sand - lots of that around - but the fibers don't grow on trees.

O.K., now that we know everything about what goes into wallboard, we have to use it. Oops - there's that transportation thing again. Once on site, it has to be cut, requiring more tools, though the lowly utility knife can't be too much of a problem.

There is a little problem with the dust, though, as it contains silica, a "probable carcinogen". It may be possible to recycle some of the waste now, but we'll have to use a truck to haul it to the plant. If we don't recycle it, we face another problem, as many landfills won't accept it.

As if all of that information isn't enough to deal with, our evaluation is going to be skewed by government subsidies that distort the monetary cost of fuel, transportation, mining, manufacturing, construction, and disposal.

How green is gypsum wallboard? We still don't know, as we have to perform the same evaluation for other products before we can decide whether it is a "better" product than a wood panel, sheet metal, glass, or straw reinforced mud.

"...on the far side of the hill"

How are we to decide between competitive products? I suspect that their respective associations are able to prove beyond doubt that the best structural material is wood, steel, concrete masonry, brick masonry, concrete, or foamed insulation.

As much as we all hate government meddling, these are questions that require more resources than are available to any architectural firm, and may have to be resolved by a federal agency. It would certainly be easier for architects, contractors, and owners to select products if they were rated by an independent organization.

Until recognized standards are established, all we can do is make the best guess possible within the time and budget available, certainly a worthy effort, but one that may leave us a little...green.

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1998, Sheldon Wolfe

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