Evaluating Green Choices In Sustainable Flooring...

FSC-certified Brazilian Cherry lumber at a sawmill in Brazil.

People often ask me to recommend the ‘greenest’ hardwood flooring option, expecting me to tell them to use reclaimed wood or Bamboo, and they’re shocked to hear my answer. After years of witnessing the impacts of our purchasing decisions on forests worldwide, I tell them to use FSC-certified tropical hardwood. Reclaimed wood and Bamboo are great environmental options – they both help reduce demand for wood harvested from forest ecosystems. But in my view the most significant positive environmental impact we can make is to support sustainable forestry in tropical countries.

The world’s tropical forests are rapidly disappearing – we lose an area roughly the size of Washington State every year. Logging certainly plays a role in some of that deforestation, especially when loggers cut roads into previously inaccessible areas, but the majority of the habitat destruction is for agriculture and cattle. The developing world often faces a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition – if we don’t create an economic value for the forest, it will be cleared for other purposes. So, whether it’s nuts, medicinal plants, or selectively felled timber, products that can be taken from the rainforest without destroying it are one of the best ways to breathe life into the lungs of the planet.

An aerial shot of an FSC-certified forest in the Amazon taken immediately after harvest.

The Peten, a jungle region in Guatemala, serves as a perfect example. The portion that was set aside for sustainable forestry under FSC guidelines enjoys a healthy in tact canopy, whereas the portion that was established as an ecological reserve is now a patchwork of slash and burn agriculture. The Guatemalan government doesn’t have the enforcement capacity to keep poor farmers out of the reserve, but where the forest is creating an income for local communities, they are out protecting the trees themselves. By buying FSC-certified wood from these communities, we create the economic incentive for them to keep the forest alive.

Of course, buying wood from half way around the world may seem like a poor environmental choice because of the transportation impacts, but taking a closer look at the carbon footprints of wood products reveals that things are much more complicated than many people assume. For example, a wood floor that is cut from a log harvested near a river in Brazil will travel primarily over water on its way to foreign markets. Because ocean freight is dramatically more efficient than trucking, it may actually take less diesel to get that Brazilian floor to its final destination in Seattle or New York than to truck an Oak floor to those locations from Wisconsin or Tennessee. Similarly, a Bamboo floor that is grown and manufactured close to the coast in China will have a substantially smaller carbon footprint when installed in L.A. or Miami than a Maple floor coming from Minnesota or Canada. And then there’s the fact that in today’s global market, Chinese factories are importing huge volumes of North American species, turning them into furniture, flooring and other products, and shipping them right back to towns not far from where the trees were harvested. Nowadays, to make an informed judgment about the real transportation impacts of a wood product, we may have to trace back through many legs of the journey.

Bamboo flooring installed in the Dahesh Museum in New York City.

To complicate things further, we can’t make the assumption that certain species are good and certain species are bad. Brazilian Cherry is a species that is biologically abundant throughout the Central and South America, so an argument could be made that using FSC-certified Brazilian Cherry might be better than using uncertified North American Walnut, which is in increasingly limited supply. Much of the White Oak that is currently being sold in the U.S. is coming from Chinese factories that buy illegally-logged material out of Siberia, from what is shaping up to be one of the greatest ecological catastrophes the world has ever seen. One would think that good old-fashioned White Oak wouldn’t be so risky.

So as with many questions in green building, the answers are fairly complicated. But one simple truth will always hold true – we are better off specifying a wood product that is certified under a credible forest certification system like FSC than simply winging it on our own, believing what our suppliers are telling us or relying on assumptions that in many cases don’t hold true. The more we can learn about where the product was harvested, how it was harvested, and the journey it took to the jobsite, the better, but often credible information is hard to come by. If you can take old wood from a building and re-use it in a project just up the street, I may have to re-visit my recommendation about the ‘greenest’ product available, but those opportunities are unfortunately rare. In the meantime, spec FSC, and take the bus if you can.

 

The author in a Bamboo plantation in Zhejiang Province, China.

Dan Harrington, former VP of Product Development at EcoTimber, has spent many years traveling the globe visiting factories and sustainable forestry operations. Dan serves on the Sierra Club’s Forest Certification Committee and formerly served on the USGBC’s Technical Advisory Group for Certified Wood. He is currently the Commercial Sales Manager for Golden State Flooring, an FSC-certified hardwood distributor based in San Francisco.

Green Can Be Beautiful...

I recently wanted to build a home. After spending over 30 years in the energy industry focusing on energy efficiency, energy R&D, environmental issues, and energy policy, I wanted this home to be energy efficient. My wife wanted our home to look very beautiful, and be “green”. A LEED home sounded nice.

We didn’t really know what we were getting into. There is a wide gap between theoretical analysis and practical implementation.

Main Entry to the House

We moved into our home last July and it actually works the way we intended. USGBC just awarded our home a LEED Platinum rating.

And we’re still happily married.

Since this is a sustainable building energy blog, I’ll keep my comments to the energy and design features, and spare you the more interesting details of the design/build process for a Northwest style home with Asian influences.

I did work at the California Energy Commission for 30 years in many different roles, so the energy part is both professional advocacy and personal passion. The home is in Bend, Oregon, where temperatures reach the high 90’s in summer and get below 0 in the winter. The home is larger than it should be for an environmentally conscious couple and tops 4000 square feet. However, our August energy bill was $39, and the home stayed below 72 degrees F. Our January energy bill was $138, and the home was warm and well lit.

Entry Elevation

Our neighbors’ homes have energy bills in the hundreds of dollars, and many have smaller homes. Some of our energy saving innovations cost less than traditional approaches, making most measures very cost effective. Some of these measures included:

– A building shell used 8″ thick staggered stud walls that are very tightly sealed. Our blower door test came in at 3.3 ACH at 50 Pascals, one half of the state standard.

– Insulation using a blown in blanket for R-38 walls and subfloor, with a blown R-49 ceiling.

– A closed loop ground source heat pump with a COP of 4.8 keeps the home comfortable.

– An 8’ overhang and an active exterior solar shade reduces 95% of the summer heat gain from the very large west facing windows needed to allow views of the Cascades. The same shade stays up in the winter days to allow solar gain, and comes down at night to further insulate the windows.

– Almost all lights are a combination of LED cans and CFLs.

– The roof is covered with both solar thermal panels for the hot water supply and a 2.25 kw solar PV system.

Bamboo, Spiral Staircase

We built a larger home so we could demonstrate a key message to architects and homeowners. If you are going to build a larger home, you have a responsibility to build a green home, and reduce your energy and environmental footprint. And you can do this while having a beautiful home.

Oh, did I mention that we were on the Central Oregon Builders Association Tour of Homes, and won not only the green home award for our class, but Best of Show, Best Architectural Design, Best Interior Finish, and Best Master Suite? It is a challenge, but you can build a beautiful home that is energy efficient and sustainable.

If you read blogs on this website, you already know the value of energy efficiency and green building, and probably have excellent examples of your own to offer. Our goal is to help other professionals in the building industry to not only understand this, but for them to convince their clients as well.

Green can be beautiful. Pass it on.

David Maul is currently President of Maul Energy Advisors. He has spent 35 years in the energy field, including 30 years at the California Energy Commission, working on energy and environmental issues. The scope of his experience includes managerial, policy, and technical responsibilities covering energy efficiency, power plant licensing, energy R&D, transportation energy, natural gas planning, and energy forecasting. He can be reached at dave@maulenergyadvisors.com.
 
 
 
 

 

Sink or Swim – Architecture for a Warming Planet...

Comprising 70 percent of our bodies, covering 70 percent of our earth’s surface, and providing more than 50 percent of the world’s ‘renewable’ energy, water is also the ultimate adaptor: evaporating, condensing, crystallizing, icing, melting, flowing and filling, according to its environment.

The beauty of water, and its emotional power as a latent energy force, is celebrated throughout architecture, from the rainwater-pooled Roman atriums and trickling water gardens of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, to feng shui-directed streams, artificial English lakes, and reflecting ponds worldwide.  From Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s built homage to the Bear Run waterfall, to Tadao Ando’s masterful intensification of the calm and weight of water in his epic Awaji Island, water has proven a powerful muse.  Now the changing geography of the world demands a reaction to the practical issues of spreading water and shrinking landmass.  With fast-spreading biofuel plantations jostling with food crops and people for space, what is the appropriate built response for such epic change, and how and where do we build our houses?

The concept of the floating house is nothing new, but the genre just got a whole lot sexier with a raft of new technologies and forms. Koen Olthuis, a pioneer of modern floating structures, hails from waterlogged Holland. His firm Waterstudio.NL is dedicated to designing water-interactive houses using five main concepts.

  • lifted – a dwelling on piles far above the highest water level.
  • waterproof – resistant to the presence of water. (For example, a garage with elevated services, built of concrete and tile, will flood without damage).
  • sealed – dwellings isolated with watertight doors and windows (as in a submarine).
  • amphibious – houses used in dry conditions with a foundation that will float if the land floods.
  • floating – the familiar floating house.

Almost one-third of Holland consists of polders, an artificial landscape of reclaimed land below sea level protected by dykes and maintained by constant pumping. Olthius says rising water levels are forcing Holland to ‘depolderise’, watering down the land available for building. Using patented foundations of foam and concrete, anchored on telescopic piers to eliminate horizontal movement and to allow interconnection for roads, gardens and housing zones, Waterstudio.NL is finalizing a 1400-strong floating settlement for a soon-to-be-flooded polder. Fishing for answers, I grilled by e-mail:

Koen, is it a houseboat?

“A houseboat is in fact a boat with a house-like unit on top. A water house is a house with a floating foundation, but with the exact same specifications as a normal house.”

Does the floating nature restrict its design?

“Everything is technically possible, but not always economically feasible. We always refer to floating oil platforms on the ocean, with many people working and living on board. If that is possible, then a floating apartment beyond the waterfront is easy.”

How do floating structures and their piers affect existing aquiferous ecosystems?

“We tell our clients about the environmental benefits of floating buildings compared to landfill projects. Landfill will permanently destroy the water life of the footprint. Floating buildings give only a shadow to the seabed. We have engineered a patent for a floating beach (http://www.dutchdocklands.com/). It has the look of a beach … but it keeps the seabed intact… we expect a new ecosystem to develop on the underside of the structure. Exciting for divers!”

What’s on the drawing board?

“We are preparing a dynamic development in which buildings can be moved during their life span. Normally a building will be demolished when its economical value is no longer in balance with the value of the land. In a floating city … a building can be moved to another part that is in balance with its value and continue functioning. This will save a lot of energy and is much more sustainable. We [will] design now a floating school which will move every 10 years to a newer part of Amsterdam.”

Floating infrastructure presents a raft of challenges and opportunities to town planners.  Stay tuned for more waterborn architectural innovation.

Trained and practiced in sustainable architecture, Sally Dominguez has moved from a sole practice specializing in architecture that “treads lightly” to a career in award-winning product design.  Sally’s products include the multi-award-winning Nest high chair, held in the Powerhouse Museum and the V&A in London, the Rainwater HOG which was named one of 2008’s Top 10 Green Building Products and recently awarded its fifth “green” award, and the O MOON outdoor light sold through Design Within Reach. Sally is a panelist on ABC TV’s New Inventors program, judges Car of the Year for Fairfax Media and Wheels magazine, and writes and lectures in Australia and the USA on innovative sustainable design and technologies.

Recently a judge of the Spark Design Awards and the TED/Lexus Living award, Sally is also developing more innovative rainwater storage systems and solar accessories for her company BeautifulUsefulGreen.

Emerging Practices Highlight the Demand for Water Recycling...

Competitions give us a chance to elevate the ideas of transforming our existing cities into something new, inspiring and green.  Tackling the environmental challenges of dense living has been a theme of the eVolo Magazine’s Skyscraper Competition for the past few years.  Their forms reflect idealism and digital visualization, yet the ideas face real-life problems.

Taking second place in this year’s competition, the Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta was the most aggressively green project of note.  http://www.evolo.us/competition/water-purification-skyscraper-in-jakarta/ Often green proposals are aimed at a generic, overpopulated city.  This proposal focuses on a specific place and problem – the lack of accessible water in largest city of Southeast Asia.  In 2006, the United Nations Human Development Report estimated 7.2 million individuals were without clean water in Jakarta. 

Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta: 2nd Place Winner in the 2010 eVolo Skyscraper Competition

This proposal not only purifies waste water with a complete filtration system, but also employs and houses a population within the same complex.  The Sanskrit root of Jakarta translates to “complete victory” – replacing the slums along a polluted river within the second largest metropolitan area in the world would be just that. 

The project may be inspired by advances in water recycling, but the challenge of re-creating potable water will require research on small scale systems.

Living Machine® (http://www.livingmachines.com/) has been implementing systems that avoid environmentally harmful chemicals and reduce energy use.  Basing their system on wetlands and tides, water is naturally cleansed by cycling through compartments of gravel, microorganisms, and plants.  The company customizes its system to each installation’s location and needs.  Though the final product is not potable water, responsible water treatment reduces use of potable water and returns ‘waste’ safely to the environment.  As a bonus, exterior installations of Living Machine® provide resort quality landscaping. 

Living Machine at Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA

Living Machine® has potential to be applied world wide.  The U.S. based company has received inquiries from India, Australia, China and the Middle East.  A basic system was installed in Tema, Ghana that has successfully improved the water quality of a protected lagoon and provided agricultural irrigation since 2007.  Currently, additional purification technology can be applied to effluent from the Living Machine® to reach standards for potable water.  Working in countries with greater need and less stringent regulations might push the company to edge their system closer towards this goal.

Currently, Living Machine® has been installed in several locations where the mechanics of the system doubles as landscaping and courtyard for the projects.  The Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta offers an enticing vision for a similar technology in which the mechanics and structure furthers the trend of using living walls which are productive, educational, and lush.

Camille Cladouhos is on staff with Feldman Architecture.

Grasping the Importance of “Watergy”...

With so much buzz surrounding the modern green movement – grant money, tax credits, and an ever increasing market demand – there is an important question of the associated role of water and where it stands.  Energy, for the most part has been a topic that has elicited an enormous political response, especially, at the federal and state level, with generous incentives and subsidies to homeowners encouraging investment in their own residential energy systems.  These energy savings in green buildings are of course very beneficial and are predicted to save approximately 45 million metric tons of carbon output within the next four years.  This is the equivalent of taking 8 million cars of the road!  But, what is also very astounding is the amount of energy that can be saved by de-centralizing water systems, capturing and using on-site water resources for outdoor purposes, as well as for toilet flushing and washing machines.  This practice can equate to a 60-80% percent decrease in annual water use which also entails huge energy savings.  California, the second highest energy using state in the U.S., shockingly uses approximately 30% its energy to move and treat water.  Most people don’t realize that the water coming out of their faucet originated hundreds of miles away.  If homes can be furnished with independent energy systems using governmental incentives than why can’t independent water systems be under the same umbrella? … pun intended.  Using alternative energy to supply power to small residential pumping systems supplying water for 60-80% of a building’s total water needs, equates to an astounding energy savings of approximately 21-28 million metric tons of carbon output per year! In four years, this adds up to 84-112 million metric tons of carbon or the equivalent of 14.8-19.6 million automobiles off of the roads.  The profound implications of water and its relation to energy or “watergy” has unfortunately been held under the radar for far too long.

These numbers, though substantial, are still only taking into account residential water use and corresponding energy savings.  Utilizing rainwater for cooling and toilet flushing in commercial office and retail buildings, public institutions and hospitals could increase energy savings by much more.  When the continuing threat and impact of global climate change has been simplified to an over abundance of carbon in earth’s atmosphere an important question to ask is this:  What is the carbon footprint of a glass of pure rainwater caught from the clouds supplied via gravity, versus, the carbon footprint of a desalinated glass of water filtered from a high saline source and pumped miles to your faucet?

Though the topic of this discussion has primarily been about energy, the other, more apparent issue is water scarcity.  By being aware of water use and supply in any development or future development, and taking certain steps to limit unnecessary water waste as well as harnessing on-site water resources, we can tackle the looming issue of a water crisis.  There are numerous projects that have incorporated water saving strategies as well as on-site rainwater or greywater reclamation systems that have been documented to have reduced water usage by 60-70%.  The most notable examples of these projects are in Australia, where it is common place to utilize rainwater for interior as well as exterior purposes. It is also important to note that only 10 years ago there was almost no legislation of this practice which now is considered mainstream.  Water sustainability can be accomplished in most old and new developments as long as a comprehensive approach is taken.  Given our dwindling groundwater supplies, ever increasing population, reduced snowpack and state budget woes, large scale solutions to water shortages cannot be depended on to solve the problem. 

“We can obtain real water from a Virtual River of water efficiency, trimming water waste, recycling wastewater, and capturing rainwater in urban areas before it flows into storm drains. There’s more water available from these sources than we’ve ever exported from the Delta.”  – Doug Obegi

This quote sums up the potential solutions to water availability and is very profound given all of the political issues that constantly come up regarding water rights and diversion debates.  A top down effort and decentralized approach to natural resource conservation and management is of the utmost importance in the focused efforts of the 21st century’s green movement.  All energy and water systems are inextricably interconnected in nature, and the same goes for modern society.  Water and energy are the two main driving factors for life on earth and should continue to be, as we responsibly carry on humanity through sustainable development for centuries to come.

Bobby Markowitz, founder of Earthcraft Landscape Design, has been designing rainwater harvesting systems and educating professionals for nearly a decade. A licensed Landscape Architect, Accredited Professional by the American Rainwater Catchment System Association, Certified Permaculturist (taught by Founder Bill Mollison), Mr. Markowitz has advanced the viability of water conservation systems into the forefront of landscape architecture. A graduate of Rutgers University, Mr. Markowitz’s work is influenced by his study abroad in Japan and advanced water harvesting workshops in Australia. A frequent guest lecturer and keynote speaker for numerous Landscape Architecture and Rainwater Catchment System Associations, Mr. Markowitz has provided valuable insight into the design of sustainable sites and water conservation systems. In addition to his practice, Bobby Markowitz also teaches “Rainwater Harvesting System: Principles and Design” at Cabrillo College.

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