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Home Improvement: Clearing up some ‘green building’ terms

While our culture grapples with how to reduce overall energy usage, buildings are a very important sector to consider.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, buildings account for 36 percent of overall energy usage and 65 percent of electricity consumption across the country. It is therefore easy to see how building more energy-efficient and sustainable buildings can have a large impact on our total energy usage.
By building or renovating our homes and businesses to make them energy efficient and sustainable, we can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels, but also drastically reduce our heating and cooling costs while increasing our overall thermal comfort.
Marketing and the media are abuzz with stories of new advances in building performance and energy efficiency. We are in an era where it is hip to have a low impact on our environment, and many homeowners are looking for solutions to eliminate needless energy consumption. However, it can be difficult for many folks to sort through all the terms thrown around on the matter. Without a standard rubric for what is lazily called “green” or “sustainable” or “efficient,” it can be difficult to know what to prioritize in your home improvement project. Here are a few terms that will help you more effectively participate in the discussion of how best to accomplish this shared goal.
Green Building is probably the most general term used to describe the intent to build in a way that has fewer negative effects on our soil, water, air and ecosystems. It simply means doing better than standard practices. However careful inspection is warranted when this term is used for marketing purposes as a product may be “green” in one way but overall still a net detriment to the planet.
Sustainability means quite literally the ability to continue doing something in perpetuity. The use of rare materials is not sustainable because we know that they are a limited resource and will therefore, by definition, run out. In general the less material and energy a building uses, the more sustainable it is because it is easier to fulfill the needs of that building forever.
Renewable is similar to sustainable but is usually used to describe resources such as wind, hydro and solar energy, or forests that are replanted when the wood is harvested. Stone is not renewable as we cannot produce more of it; however, it may be considered sustainable because we can’t conceivably use the entire supply.
Efficiency is often talked about in regards to buildings. This means that a building makes the best possible use of the energy that it consumes. Simple things like great insulation and smaller spaces help to make a building more efficient, as do architectural devices like solar shading to reduce cooling loads and thermal mass to maintain a stable building temperature.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a tiered certification system developed by the independent, nonprofit United States Green Building Council. It is the most commonly used rubric for assessing the “greenness” of new buildings. Many jurisdictions now require all municipal building projects to be LEED certified. While there are debatable pros and cons to this system, it is widely recognized to have advanced the cause of energy efficient building practices in the United States.
While some actions and decisions with regards to better building are common sense, building science can get very complex and intricate. It is not always true that common practices are best practices and for a thorough analysis of your building’s performance you may want to consider talking with an architect or building performance engineer to figure out which solutions could save you money and make you more comfortable in your home or place or work.

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