Not only can green building products be healthier for people and good for the environment, but many green products also are less expensive than the conventional building products they replace. Since many green products are manufactured by small startup companies that can't afford expensive marketing campaigns, they just aren't well known by the construction industry or consumers.
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If you're planning a construction project, you may want to consider some of the less expensive green alternatives to conventional products. Why not save on construction costs while building a residence that contributes to your health, well-being, and a cleaner environment?
As an architect in independent practice for more than 15 years and author of the Green Building Resource Guide, I have focused on healthy, energy-conserving, and environmentally conscious building materials for residences. Green products can incorporate all of these benefits for added value to clients at a lower cost than their conventional counterparts. The following suggestions describe construction elements for which immediate initial cost savings can be realized by choosing the green product.
Structural and Exterior Products
In the construction of site work elements, such as driveways and parking spaces, porous paving products can reduce the cost of asphalt surfacing as well as the need to provide drains. Both porous and nonporous rubber tiles and monolithic nonskid surfacing can be applied to outdoor patio areas and walkways at competitive prices. Decks can be rendered maintenance free with wood/resin composite decking. For landscape irrigation, gray water systems are becoming very competitive. One manufacturer will even match the bid price for any proposed conventional irrigation system.
For typical foundations, fly ash can be added to concrete to increase the strength, thereby reducing the amount of concrete required for a project. A gravel substitute can be used for both foundation drainage as well as septic system absorption fields at a fraction of the material and labor costs of conventional methods.
For the walls of a residence, there are many cost-saving alternatives that are a dramatic departure from conventionally framed walls. Metal framing can be less expensive than wood so long as you select the proper metal fabrication system and a builder experienced with steel framing systems. Polystyrene concrete form systems combine formwork with insulation forstructural concrete walls. For concrete block walls, aerated concrete block is a cost-competitive choice. A very effective insulated block wall system that reduces cost compared to conventional block walls with insulation applied is the composite polystyrene/cement block system. Manufactured stress-skin sandwich panels are the most dramatic departure from residential stick framing while still being cost competitive. If you're still comfortable only with conventional wood framing or are adding on to an existing residence with wood framing and don't want to change structural systems, try finger-jointed studs, which are straighter and dimensionally more stable at about the same price as single-piece unseasoned studs. For larger beams, recycled lumber is usually less expensive and of a better quality than new wood. With conventional stick framing, be sure to use gypsum wall clips when hanging your drywall for labor and material cost savings as well as better thermal efficiency.
Healthier and more environmentally conscious low-formaldehyde sheathing is the same price as plywood. And where shear requirements are lower, compressed paper sheathing will do the job for less money than plywood.
Various hardboard, fiber-cement, and vinyl siding alternatives and trim offer inexpensive and low-maintenance alternatives to redwood lap siding and trim.
Cellulose insulation (shredded newsprint with boric acid added) is a healthier alternative to the popular fiberglass insulation that has been added to the list of suspected carcinogens. Cellulose insulation is cheaper to install in ceiling cavities than fiberglass insulation but slightly more expensive in walls and floors. For block walls, perlite is much less costly than polystyrene beads for insulating the cavities.
Roofing shingles to choose from include metal, polymer, and processed wood, all of which also include the benefits of low maintenance.
Typically, good quality vinyl windows are less expensive and more energy efficient than good quality wood windows, in addition to being lower maintenance. The newer composite windows are also very competitively priced compared to wood windows and have excellent thermal efficiency ratings. The flexibility and ease of installing light tubes provides a less expensive alternative to conventional skylights.
Several flooring products offer an attractive alternative to conventional products such as various types of cork flooring. If you're considering resilient flooring, why not use natural linoleum flooring? It's about the same price as comparable vinyl sheet or tile flooring.
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For floor coverings, you may want to consider sisal, coir, jute, or seagrass broadloom and area rugs with latex backing, which can be about the same price as an average nylon carpet. But, if you're in the market for a nylon carpet, one made from 100% recycled plastic can be purchased for only a fraction of the cost of those made with new materials.
Paints offer a wide selection to choose from. If you're interested in ceramic insulating paint for both reducing heat gain and heat loss, it's less expensive per gallon than popular top-quality latex paints. If your main objective is to really save on the initial cost of paint, paint manufactured from recycled paint is the least expensive. If your emphasis is on indoor air quality, there is also a selection of inexpensive nontoxic paints and sealers to choose from.
Formaldehyde-free composite strawboard offers a healthier alternative to particleboard for cabinet boxes, at about the same price. For decorative features in cabinets, flooring, and moulding, a soybean composite fiberboard is also competitively priced.
When remodeling a bathroom, it is worth considering using a porcelain resurfacing product to repair finishes on bathtubs, sinks, and tile, at only a fraction of the cost of replacing the fixtures.
These are a few ideas for reducing the initial cost of residential construction through the use of green building materials and products. There also are many more valuable green products that offer cost savings on a life cycle basis rather than merely an initial cost, and many of those products will also become less expensive as manufacturing costs come down with larger-scale production capacity.
Author Profile: John Hermannsson is an architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and president of The Architectural Machine in Redwood City, California. He has practiced architecture in both the United States and Scandinavia. He holds bachelor's degrees in both architecture and mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master of architecture from the University of Oregon. He was the first solar energy specialist for the state of Oregon and has been in independent practice as an architect and building energy consultant in California for many years.