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Greening Things Up: To Build or Not to Build

By Christa Terry

If you’re in the market for some place to put down roots and you have a little scratch to toss around, you have a couple of choices. For example, you can buy an existing house or buy a plot of land and have someone build a fresh house to your specs. When you want to make sure you’re as abso-posi-lutely eco-friendly as possible, it’s time to take a pause. After all, it’s not about living in a geodesic dome or digging out an earth house anymore! Today’s “green” homes — the ones that use less energy, are built using fewer resources, and contain a lower volume of nasty chemicals — look just like their neighbors.

Well, most of the time. This eco-house in the Cambridgeshire countryside is pretty unique, inside and out.

Is it a bit barny or is that just me?

But back to the topic at hand! I know I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s better for the environment to drive a well-maintained used car than to buy a new hybrid, though I don’t know how valid that is. I’ve been trying to figure out whether that same maxim applies to houses as well. Is it better for the environment to buy an older house that’s already been built and then do what you can to retrofit it for eco-friendliness, or is it better to start from zero (either knocking down an extant house or buying a piece of land) with a new house that meets every criteria for greenitude right from the start?

On one hand, there are plenty of things you can do to greenify your home without having to build a new one. On the other hand, there are plenty of sustainable building materials you might use to create a home that is unobtrusive within its environment. The overall expense aside, how does using a previously untouched piece of land fit into the equation?

I’d love to hear your take on this because I haven’t come to any real conclusion yet and my (admittedly spotty) research hasn’t gotten me very far!

6 Responses to “Greening Things Up: To Build or Not to Build”

  1. TeleriB Says:

    I don’t know much about green building, but a large part of my dissertation was on multi-objective optimization – trying to make the least-costly choice when “cost” is measured in two or more different ways. Say, do you want the prettiest dress, the cheapest dress, or the least-expensive dress that meets some standard of prettiness?

    One of the major methods for making these choices is to develop a “Pareto optimal front” – that is, a list of all of the dresses which aren’t worse in both prettiness and cost than any other dress. So the cheapest dress, the prettiest dress, and middle dress, and all the other dresses “in between” (the prettiest dresses at a given cost, and the cheapest dresses at a given prettiness) would be on that front. But an expensive and ugly dress would not be. The expensive and pretty dress would beat it out.

    The user then, according to her own goals, selects any dress from the front and can call it “optimal.” There is no single best answer – their “cost function” (prettiness + money cost) is the same for all of them.

    This works pretty well when you’re trading off two values. It works kinda okay if you’re trading off three (say a dress’s prettiness, cost, and quality). It starts to really not work after that. I can get you a reference for that if you like. 🙂

    Given how many factors go into determining whether or not something is green, I have no idea how you would determine which option is “better” than the other. I’d guess you’re looking at raw materials used to build, raw materials used to maintain, energy used to build, energy used to maintain, and toxic or other byproducts generated in construction/remodeling at a minimum. That’s a lot of trade-offs to balance.

  2. Never teh Bride Says:

    Wow, TeleriB, I didn’t realize the question was so complicated. I’m a big fan of “multi-objective optimization” in my everyday life — when grocery shopping or buying something for the house. I’ve always tried to look at both the monetary cost and some other factor…will I wear this more than once or will it last ten years or how many meals will I really get out of this?

    You’re so right about the greening. Maybe there are just too many factors to really make a definitive choice!

  3. Jennie Says:

    There are a lot of questions to answer. If you are buying property with an existing home, how much are you willing to recycle? This would mean de-construction of the house instead of demolition. How much are you willing to re-purpose on site? If the structure is old, what are you doing about lead, abesteos, and other potential haz-mat? Green would involve using the old house and remodeling with locally produced materials.

    If building new on an undeveloped site, what impact are you having on the local ecology? How many trees and habitats have to be destroyed to build? Will your builder agree to recycling all construction debris? Are you keeping the site naturalized or stripping it and creating high maintenance lawns and landscaping? Can the house be built from locally produced materials and recycled materials? Are you willing to follow LEED standards even if the initial costs are more?

    Whether or not to build green is going to depend on your commitment to green standards, willingness to make some sacrifices to afford and procure green materials, and finding the right contractors that are willing to learn a new way of building.

  4. class-factotum Says:

    Another thing to consider with building a new house is that you might be way out in the burbs where new infrastructure will have to be set up: roads, plumbing, electricity. Taxpayers bear those costs, not the developer/builder. (At least the builder didn’t pay for that in Memphis.)

    Being far out also means you have to do a lot more driving to get to basic services. From my 1928 house, I can walk to everything I need except the post office: library, city hall, church, bakery, grocery store, hardware store, chi-chi cafes, ice-cream shop, etc, etc.

    Older houses tend to be better built, in my experience. (I mean pre-WWII and maybe in the years right after.) Houses built in the 70s and later seem to be crappy, cheap construction with inferior materials. A tree fell on my neighbor’s 1922 house in Memphis and the roof was crushed, but the rest of the house was fine. A newer house built with drywall instead of plaster would have crumbled.

    Older houses have better airflow, which means you don’t need to use the A/C so much — all you have to do is open a few windows. Unfortunately, plaster houses do tend to leak heat, but that’s what new windows are for. That’s an easy upgrade, although not inexpensive.

  5. Never teh Bride Says:

    My house was built in the 50s, class-factotum, and we get great air flow. We’ve actually be amazed how cool the house stays inside on hot summer days, and it never gets terribly cold in the wintertime, either. That’s not to say I would mind if it was warmer, but I’m apparently cold blooded.

  6. class-factotum Says:

    Bride, I lived in my Memphis house almost 7 years and used the (retrofit) air conditioner only a handful of times, and that was when I had company. Open windows plus the attic fan were enough. Amazing what you can do when you don’t design a building around the concept of air conditioning!

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