Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

There is no Green Building

To those of you who have read my work for a while, you may consider the statement in the title and then demote me to hypocritical, inconsistent, contradicting-one’s-own-writing status.

To those of you who might be anxious to illustrate potential flaws in logic, I assure you:  there are many buildings that are painted the color green.

In order to delve somewhat more deeply into the concept of “Green Building,” we need to consider a universally acceptable definition. There are several sources and organizations that define it well from a construction and development perspective, but to keep us all on a relatable same page, let’s consider good old Wikipedia:

“Green building (also known as green construction or sustainable building) refers to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle: from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. This requires close cooperation of the contractor, the architects, the engineers, and the client at all project stages. The Green Building practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. In doing so, the three dimensions of sustainability, i.e., planet, people and profit across the entire supply chain need to be considered.”

Let’s also consider my first-reaction, “elevator speech” definition of green building:  construction and development practices that are minimally invasive to the environment, involve the efficient use of resources, and result in an enclosure that is sustainable with an absolute minimum use of resources from conception to decommissioning.

I’d like you to do something for me:

Close your eyes.

Imagine a beautiful slice of nature. Trees and flowers in bloom. Various species of wildlife in their natural habitat. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Maybe there is water, maybe not. A rolling prairie. A mountaintop perch with million dollar views. Starry skies uninterrupted by artificial light. Sunsets and sunrises.

Now hear the roar of a diesel engine.

The engine of a piece of excavating equipment that is going to tear into, transition and transform, the picturesque beauty you pictured in your mind a moment ago.

Imaging piles of aggregate and sand brought into the site and visualize piles of spoils produced from the site.

Piles 20 feet high or more.

Imagine the trees from a moment ago being in the way. A chain saw and 30 minutes later, they’re gone.

Notice that I didn’t describe what was being built. Perhaps a house, maybe a commercial office building. Maybe it’s net-zero and has solar panels, producing more energy than it consumes. Maybe it meets passive house requirements with an absolute minimum of air leakage and will have minimal utility bills. Or maybe (hopefully not) it’s a code minimum home heated with combustion fuel and will have average utility bills and a typical lifetime impact on the environment.

The point that I would like you to consider is as follows:  There are no building practices that are “green” on an absolute scale. Aside from cleanup and restoration of a previously dilapidated building or contaminated site, all construction is less green than the site which preceded it.

There is no construction method, practice, or technique that leaves Mother Earth “greener” than before someone had the bright idea to build there.

Therefore, the impact of construction, and especially the application of sound and minimally impactful practices, remains more important than ever.

If you think I have become an extremist, think again. I have always said and will continue to say, “If that tree is in your way, cut it down. But consider planting five trees somewhere else. And ideally, go back in time and plant them thirty years ago.”  I have cut down trees and I have developed around trees. A mature tree and the beauty it contains takes way too long, a good part of a human lifetime, to develop. If you hug trees, it is possible that your blood pressure may go down. You may get even get your picture in the paper. I know it’s considered a slang term and often has derogatory connotations, but I don’t use it in those contexts. I use it because everyone knows what it means.

Admittedly, the judicious use of fossil fuels is not universally bad. Aside from not being sustainable. But yes, we can do better. And yes, a gradual transition away from their use makes good sense with the evidence and knowledge that we have about products of combustion and their GWP. In other words, their ability to trap and hold heat over their exceedingly long cycle from production to breakdown.

Climate disruption (does that sound less judgmental than ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’?) is absolutely happening. There are more extreme weather events now than ever before. The western U.S. states are getting thirsty.

I’ll always advocate for building in a robust manner. Build high so you won’t flood. Build solid so you won’t fall over. Build a great thermal envelope so your utility bills will be low. These are decisions that produce a return for the rest of your life in the structure. Oh, by the way, make intelligent decisions about the construction products that you use – avoid XPS sheet foam and spray foam that contains HFCs as blowing agents. Design with minimal concrete. Build airtight. Apply belt-and-suspenders levels of anal retentiveness with air sealing techniques. Realize that you can do a good but not perfect job shedding bulk water, so give it a path away if it does get in. Worry about bulk water and air before you worry about vapor. Then worry about your thermal boundary last.

To my “Green Building” and environmentally conscious friends, and there are many of you, I now hope I have redeemed myself from the claim of the title.

To everyone reading this, always remember that green building does not exist on an absolute scale. Any construction on any plot of raw land is less green than the untouched raw land itself. But…if you equip yourself with contemporary knowledge and principles steeped in appropriate thought and consideration during the design process, you can perform at an increasingly higher level on the overall continuum of “green.”

Serendipitously, yes, you will also save money.

Until next time,

Dr. Lee Newton

How A Doctor Learned To Develop Real Estate



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