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Green Building – More than Just Energy Efficiency

While in many ways the green building movement started with energy efficiency due to the 1970’s energy crisis, green building and energy efficiency are not synonymous terms. Green building includes energy efficiency, but it encompasses much more.

Green New Deal Housing engages in many aspects of green building including, but not limited to energy efficiency. Here are a few of the other aspects of green building addressed by our current projects:

  • Indoor Air Quality

  • Carbon Emissions

  • Resilience of Buildings

  • Land Efficiency

  • Local Materials

  • Material Efficiency

  • Waste Management

As you can see, energy efficiency is just the tip of the iceberg.

Indoor Air Quality

How is this part of green building? It has been long known and well documented that quality housing impacts health (Rolfe, et al. 2020). Florence Nightingale put it this way: “The connection between health and the dwelling of the population is one of the most important that exists.” A big part of this connection between housing and health is indoor air quality.


“The connection between health and the dwelling of the population is one of the most important that exists.” - Florence Nightingale


In our building practices, Green New Deal Housing does many things to foster good indoor air quality for homeowners including: careful choices in material selection (especially finishes) for low toxin loads in the house, no combustion appliances for low toxin loads and no carbon monoxide risk, a robust building enclosure that reduces the potential for mold growth, and good mechanical ventilation to exchange stale air (that may include toxin/mold spores) for fresh air.

We also educate those in the construction industry about the importance of indoor air quality and healthier ways to build in our Laying the Groundwork for Sustainable Housing course.

Carbon Emissions

Producing energy from fossil fuels emits greenhouse gasses (GHG), which cause global warming and contribute to climate change. Most houses in our region get much of their energy from fossil fuels.

In order to quantify and sum up the effects of various greenhouse gasses it is standard practice to calculate their equivalent impacts compared to carbon dioxide (the most common GHG). This is often called carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or carbon emissions for short.

Reducing the energy use of a home and/or installing on-site renewable energy to reduce associated carbon emissions has long been recognized as “green building.” Green New Deal Housing is building homes that use both of these green building techniques.

What had been mostly ignored until the past few years was that the energy used to heat, cool, light, and operate homes isn’t the only way housing contributes to GHG emissions. The manufacture, transportation and installation of the building materials do as well. Impact of GHG emissions from the construction of the building can be calculated and is generally converted to the impact of carbon dioxide, the most common GHG. We call this embodied carbon or upfront carbon emissions to distinguish it from the GHG emissions related to the operation of the house after construction.

Recently the embodied carbon of housing has been studied by a handful of people including Chris Magwood who published his thesis about this in 2019 (Magwood 2019) and has since worked to educate others about how buildings can be carbon neutral or even negative from day one.

Resilience of Buildings

The environmental impact of the upfront carbon emissions discussed above can be amortized out over the lifetime of those building materials. This means that using building materials to build a home which lasts longer can be more sustainable. Our homes are designed to have good water management details to keep things dry, one of the most important factors in how long a building will last.

Land Efficiency

Whether a home is close to where the occupants work, shop, socialize, and worship makes a difference in their carbon footprint (the GHG pollution caused by their lifestyle). In addition, the location of a home determines the infrastructure required to support it in terms of roads and utilities. This makes a big difference in environmental impact. We should also consider the implications of taking up land that would otherwise be used for other purposes such as agriculture, parks and forests when building a new house. This is why Green New Deal Housing is building our first home on an urban infill lot and will have a preference for doing the same on future homes. Urban infill makes use of already existing infrastructure where urban sprawl (building on the outskirts of an urban area thus expanding it) requires new infrastructure and takes land away from other uses.

Local Materials

Utilizing local materials reduces the impacts of transporting materials over long distances, fosters a robust local economy by supporting local jobs, and makes use of the materials available locally so that they don’t go to waste. For these reasons, our pilot build uses local materials like steel siding made in Minnesota and countertops from Intectural.

Material Efficiency

One typical home construction involves multiple dumpsters full of wasted construction material destined for a landfill. At Green New Deal Housing, we find this unacceptable and recognize the problem and the solution starts in the design stage.

If a house is designed so that it needs a 6’-6” long piece of plywood, but plywood is sold in 8’ lengths there will be a 1’-6” long piece of plywood wasted unless it is used elsewhere in the project. However, if the architect accounts for this fact and designs the home to use as many 8’ lengths as possible, there is less waste to manage and less waste to affect the environment.

Another way to use materials efficiently is having one material serve multiple purposes. For example, the profile of the steel siding we select creates a natural “rainscreen” so the builder doesn’t need to install furring strips behind the siding to create the desired drying potential (for durability).

Waste Management

Even with a design that uses material efficiently there will always be some waste—boards will accidently be cut to the wrong length, holes will be cut out for windows and doors, some materials come in packaging, sawdust will be swept up, etc. How can this waste be efficiently managed? There are many approaches such as adaptive reuse, recycling, and composting—and Green New Deal Housing uses all three. We have adaptively reused materials to build our demonstration wall which is part of our traveling exhibit. We are using steel siding which can be easily recycled both when pieces are cut out for windows and doors and at the end of its life. And untreated wood scraps/sawdust can be composted or burned for energy/heat.

As you can see, a Green New Deal Home is not only Net Zero Energy when it comes to energy efficiency, but it’s also green in a number of other ways.

Works Cited

Magwood, Chris. "OPPORTUNITIES FOR CARBON DIOXIDE REMOVAL AND STORAGE." Peterborough, Ontario: Trent University, September 2019.

Rolfe, Steven, Lisa Garnham, John Godwin, Isobel Anderson, Pete Seaman, and Cam Donaldson. "Housing as a social determinant of health and wellbeing: developing an empirically-informed realist theoretical framework." BMC Public Health, July 20, 2020.

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