By Michael Tobias

The concept of eco-friendly houses is one that has grown substantially in popularity over the past decade. But there is still a lack of widespread information and understanding relating to what exactly is required, and how we can build, reconstruct, or renovate our homes to make them ecologically sound.

Initial concerns that prompted an interest in eco-houses around the turn of the last century related mostly to climate change and the use of fossil fuels. The ever-rising cost and growing shortage of oil and gas was another motivating issue.

Other issues included the dire consequences resulting from a lack of insulation in houses, the threat of power failures, and in some areas, dangers presented by high winds and storms. All of these can be killers, yet if homes and other buildings are sensitively designed, with due diligence to things like extreme weather, the vulnerability of residents can be avoided.

Chilling events in the early 21st century that led to an upsurge of interest in eco-homes included:

• The heatwave in Europe in 2003 that resulted in the death of more than 35,000 people, many of whom were elderly folk who lived in top-story apartments with metal roofs that weren’t insulated.

• Another heatwave, this time on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States that same year, that led to a power failure that affected more than 50 million people. Bizarrely, most had to be evacuated because the buildings incorporated windows that didn’t open, and the air-conditioning systems weren’t able to cope. Additionally, temperatures surged so rapidly it put inhabitants at risk.

• Hurricane Katrina, which led to epic flooding in New Orleans in 2005, was another horror story that led to the destruction of buildings and the ruin of lives.

• The inexorable increase in gas and oil prices worldwide that clearly indicated that these commodities were becoming increasingly scarce. This heralded the term “fuel poverty” and a situation that has affected people globally.

There have been many more global incidents since, but those quoted above highlighted some real needs in terms of environmental threats that arise when we don’t take climate change and related issues into account. The power of climate is immense. Just last week a huge cyclonic storm ripped through low-lying areas in India and Bangladesh, killing citizens and disrupting power supply.
It is a well-known fact that the region is experiencing a rise in sea level as well as more frequent, very severe storms, and it is not surprising that this event was described as “a bigger disaster than even Covid-19.”

How Building Materials Impact the Environment

Eco-friendly timber home under construction. Picture: Shutterstock

The construction industry as a whole is responsible for at least 40% of carbon emissions caused by man, much of which are directly related to the materials used for building. All building materials need to be processed to some extent before they can be used, and this generally uses energy.
Another factor, down the line, is ensuring that the electric load of any property doesn’t exceed the system and equipment used. An engineer can assist with electric load estimates and with the design of various systems.
It doesn’t take rocket science to realize that choosing eco-friendly materials that require minimal processing will minimize the impact on our environment – and the planet as a whole.

So how do we calculate the potential environmental impact of materials?

We know the impact of some of them. For instance, about 5% of global emissions are caused by the manufacture of cement, half that are emitted from energy consumption during production, and half from the chemical reactions that arise during manufacture. These are two of the most pertinent factors:

• The energy required to produce materials.
• Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that result from the manufacturing process.

Other factors include:

• The direct impact on the environment that results from removing materials from the environment, for example, trees cut down for timber, stone quarried, oil extracted, and so on.
• The toxicity of materials including a large number of chemicals:
o Formaldehyde used to make some composite wood products and some adhesives and paints that create the chemical as they cure.
o Chlorinated plastics, the most common of which is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), usually referred to as vinyl, and used for many manufactured materials from sidings and window frames to pipes and waterproofing membranes.
o Perfluorinated compounds used to make carpets and textiles stain resistant.
o Antimicrobials added to paint, grout, and certain products including carpets and toilet seats.
• Results of transportation of materials both during manufacture and delivery to site. Obviously, the further materials have to be transported, the greater the energy required. The weight of materials will also affect energy requirements.
• Pollution that results at any time as a result of the use of the material, from manufacture to the demolition of the building.

There are also factors that relate more directly to design. These include:

• The location and detailing of architectural elements. Some will be positive and some negative.
• Maintenance requirements as well as the impact materials needed for maintenance will have.
• The contribution some materials have when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of structures, insulation for example.
• Design flexibility that accommodates possible changing uses of buildings over time.
• Life expectancy of materials and their potential for reuse or recycling if the building is refurbished or demolished.

Additionally, it is important to assess the embodied energy and embodied emissions of materials and buildings from which they are constructed. These concepts relate to the entire lifecycle of the materials and buildings.
Even though there is some information available to guide designers, including architects and engineers, when they specify materials, they must still rely on their own common sense. Some factors like transportation can be assessed quite easily by ascertaining where the material comes from.

At the end of the day, the materials that contribute most significantly to embodied energy are cement, concrete (which, of course, contains cement), bricks (some of which also contain cement), aggregates, plaster, steel, timber, and glass.

Metals have a high embodied energy, but a lot is recycled, particularly aluminum and stainless steel. Timber is considered to be a renewable resource that reduces CO2 in the atmosphere. But if it has to be transported long distances, particularly if it is imported from other countries, then this benefit is outweighed. It is also important that timber comes from certified sustainable forests.

The embodied energy of plastics is also very high. Most release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) after manufacture (for instance if incorporated in paint or carpet products) or installation, when used in buildings.
Generally, if materials – including those mentioned – are obtained locally, they will inevitably be more eco-friendly.

Professionals Will Help to Choose Eco-Friendly Materials
There is no doubt that it pays to enlist the services of professionals when building or renovating buildings, including residential homes. A qualified architect committed to environmental efficiency, or an engineer with significant mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) experience, will likely prove to be invaluable on any project. Of course, heating, cooling, and air conditioning (HVAC) experts and those specializing in MEP engineering lighting designs can also ensure that eco-friendly materials are identified and used.

Author's Bio: 

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of both Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.