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Posted by Philip Schmidt | G+ | Oct 03, 2010

When Building "Green" is Not So Green

If there’s one thing that I would label a stupid green choice (aside from a 5,600-lb. hybrid SUV), it’s believing in the notion that green stuff has to be cool, hip, earthy, high-tech and, most importantly, new. I suppose my green slogan, if it’s even advisable to have such a thing, is this: You don’t have to buy green to be green. In other words, it’s easy to muddle the agendas of eco-friendliness and consumerism. We Americans love to get new, better stuff. It’s in our blood. But no matter how green something is, it’s still more stuff, whether it’s a new countertop or a house. And producing, buying and discarding more and more stuff is one of the biggest environmental problems we face.

When I was researching a book I wrote on green remodeling (The Complete Guide to a Green Home) a few years ago, I quickly came to the conclusion that the greenest people in the country are those who live in population-dense cities. With their concrete and glass landscapes, litter, smog and severe traffic problems, places like Chicago or Manhattan might not seem very green to most people, but take a close look at the everyday life of the city’s average resident and you’ll see how green they really are. Most of them don’t own a car; they either walk to work or take public transportation. They live in very small dwellings, in large buildings where they’re surrounded, and insulated, by other very small dwellings. They don’t have yards, recreational vehicles or outdoor security lighting. They also own far less stuff than the typical American homeowner, primarily because they have no place to store it.

For these individuals, all of this small-scale living adds up to a miniscule carbon footprint, reduced landfill stress, less environmental pollution (no lawn fertilizer, weed killer or charcoal grilling), and land usage that’s a tiny fraction of the typical suburban home’s. And let’s not begin to compare city folks to “green” mansion-dwellers like, oh, I don’t know, Al Gore.

(Lest anyone suspect that I've borrowed this idea about green urbanites, I’ll mention that I happily discovered recently that one of my favorite writers, David Owen, has devoted an entire book to this concept. It’s called Green Metropolis, and I haven’t read it yet, but I will.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my favorite homebuilder’s magazine to find a feature article on a super-tight, amazingly green home that’s over 4,000 square feet. And often these are second homes or dream homes for couples without kids. As thoughtfully designed and carefully built as they are, these houses are excessive monuments to the idea of living green.

At a barbecue a while back, I spoke with a neighbor of the host who had bought the house across the street, tore it down, and put up a nice, attractive, modern family home. Now, just a couple of years later, this person was so keen on the idea of being green that she had plans to build a new house with state-of-the-art green technology and materials. So that’s a third house. For one family. To be green.

If you’re looking to buy or build a single-family house, and being green is truly a priority, your best bet is to buy a smallish, well-constructed, existing house in a city or other relatively populated area. And put some of the money you save on the house purchase toward energy-efficiency improvements, like attic insulation, a really good furnace and weatherstripping. Yes, weatherstripping. It sounds boring, I know, but the truth is the environmental benefits of things like new bamboo floors, recycled-glass countertops and low-VOC paint are nothing compared a lifestyle of scaling back, buttoning up (your home) and living close to the places where you work, shop and hang out. 

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