Tomorrow’s house – housing and environmental concerns

Tomorrow’s house – housing and environmental concerns – includes related article

Julie Titone

The Missoula, Montana, Parade of Homes attracted the usual gamut of gawkers and dreamers. But many of those who wound their way up to builder Steve Loken’s hillside house last September didn’t realize that at this point in the parade they would be marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Loken’s house looks like any other modern, upper-middle-class, three-bedroom home. But there are many differences. Some lurk behind wallboard and under carpets. Others are hidden in plain sight. Through the use of non-traditional building materials, Loken set out to demonstrate that a home can be comfortable and beautiful while using up fewer natural resources.

Especially less wood.

Loken changed his construction methods after he became worried about the impact of overharvesting in western forests. He had trouble reconciling his identity as “a long and strong and rabid environmentalist” with his profession of building houses out of trees.

“I started realizing I was an intrinsic part of the problem,” he says.

Environmental concerns such as Loken’s–combined with diminishing supplies of traditional materials, demands for energy savings, and the need for affordable housing–are likely to transform the way America builds its homes. The changes won’t happen overnight, but new developments in residential construction promise to be more dramatic than any that occurred in the last 200 years.

In all of this, there is good news and bad news for the wood-products industry.

The good news is that there will always be a market for wood. Demand is growing for engineered wood products such as laminated I-beams and oriented strandboard.

The bad news is the increasing interest in non-wood building materials. Ward Hitching, an executive with the National Forest Products Association, frets that a concerted effort to use steel or plastic in place of the wood studs now in 95 percent of American houses would lead to “a host of new dislocations” in an industry facing job losses caused partly by environmental pressures. Besides, he says, some of the enthusiasm for non-wood products is ill-founded.

“The energy cost of bringing steel studs to market, for example–from mining right on to the product–is much, much higher than for lumber framing.”

Regardless of whether they are viewed as gloomy shadows or glimmers of hope, signs of change are evident around the country. Building technology is on the agenda of the American Institute of Architecture’s Committee on the Environment. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is sponsoring research into alternative materials as part of an affordable housing study.

But the most tangible changes are coming at the local level. They involve innovative programs and individual activists.

In the heart of Washington State’s Douglas-fir territory, a thriving new company sells steel framing kits for houses. A Texas city wins an Earth Summit award for its “Green Builder” program. Researchers in Minnesota introduce a building material made of old newspapers and soybean resin that is “solid as a rock but as easily cut, milled, and fastened as wood.” An Eco-Home Network takes root in Southern California. A New Mexico architect aggressively promotes houses in which the exterior walls are made out of adobe-covered used tires.

Los Angeles contractor John Picard, who’s responsible for some of the country’s most expensive homes, built his own experimental house with steel framing made of recycled cars and appliances. Even the facade is of corrugated metal.

Picard loves the warmth of wood, which he says is hard to compare to the strength and integrity of metal. He expects lumber to remain the building material of choice. But he’s concerned that the nation’s forests can’t sustain the “massive cutting” required to build 1.25 million frame houses every year.

“I would be surprised to see a 5 to 10 percent change (in building materials) in the next 5 to 10 years,” he says. “But I’d be happy to see it.”

It’s been several years since Missoula’s Steve Loken began applying missionary zeal to his idea of building houses that use less lumber. His idea expanded to include all manner of resource-efficient design, materials, and construction. It took shape as the Center for Resourceful Building Technology, which for two years was subsidized by South Wall Builders, the business owned by Loken and partner John Lentz. In 1992 the Center incorporated as a non-profit agency and got a boost with the completion of the demonstration house in which the Loken family lives.

Instead of traditional studs and insulation, the home’s exterior walls are built with panels consisting of polystyrene foam sandwiched between sheets of oriented strandboard, a plywood-like material made of fast-growing aspen and poplar. The panels reduce by half the amount of wood in the walls. The I-joists used in the floors use half the amount of wood fiber needed for solid 2 x 12 beams. The floor structure for the top level is made from honeycomb panels that have a craft-paper core consisting of 95 percent air and five percent wood fiber.

Exterior doors are made of fiberglass composite with a foam core. Interior doors are made with wood waste fiber and glue. Window frames are made not with traditional white pine but with mineral composite and a fiberglass core. The blue, 2,400-square-foot house has fiber-reinforced cement lap siding.

The use of veneer on the extensive interior trim helps satisfy a desire for the warmth of wood. The maple planks on the living-room floor were reclaimed from an old church.

“I like using wood,” says Loken. “I’m a carpenter, for crying out loud. But I would put the wood where you can touch it, see it, and feel it. I would not put wood on the outside of my house. It’s flammable, and it’s difficult to maintain.”

Wood isn’t the only raw material conserved or reused in the demonstration home. The long list of “different features” includes a foundation made with fly ash from coal-fired power plants. The ash strengthens the slab, so less concrete is needed. The bathroom tiles are made from recycled windshield glass, the bedroom carpet from recycled plastic milk bottles. When Kristine Loken scrubs her two children, it’s in a tub made of ceramic composite that requires half the energy to manufacture as one made of cast iron.

The house cost $160,000. That’s about 15 percent higher than it would have been using all traditional materials. One-third of that extra cost could be blamed on the shipping cost of materials not yet available in Montana, says Loken’s research manager, Walter Spurling.

Loken said his company is attracting customers “intrigued by the ethics” of his building practices. In contrast, curious contractors commonly ask about cost, warranties, labor. To answer questions, he and Spurling produced a “Guide to Resource Efficient Building Elements” ($20, CRBT, P.O. Box 2866, Missoula, MT 59806). Loken also serves on the advisory board of a bimonthly newsletter called Environmental Building News ($45/year, RR1, Box 161, Brattleboro, VT 05301).

Loken ponders not only the sustainability of raw materials but also the impact of building materials on human health. For example, the foam in the core of the structural wall panels is made without ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. The composite wood materials, such as that used in cabinets, contain no formaldehyde, which can give off fumes that are toxic to some people.

Loken is convinced that the dropping quality and availability of wood–and its rising cost–will nudge contractors into using alternative products. It will take such compelling reasons, he says, because builders are a conservative bunch who don’t cotton to change.

“They don’t like to change or buck tradition whatsoever,” echoes Al Maddox, a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Habitat, the charity championed by Jimmy Carter, builds homes for low-income people. For its 50th house, the Lynchburg affiliate will be focusing on low energy costs and sustainably produced materials. Maddox has invited building-product manufacturers to donate, and showcase, their wares. The wood-products industry would do well to perk up its collective ears at the invitation. According to Maddox, Habitat for Humanity is projected to be the largest home-builder in the country within five years. Habitat has already received national recognition for the quality of its homes in Florida, which sustained relatively little damage from Hurricane Hugo while others in the area were totally destroyed.

Maddox likes the idea of hammering together building products made from wood chips, and from tree species not traditionally used in construction. “If you can utilize fast-growth material as opposed to old-growth–well, why wipe out the little bit that’s left out there?”

Hitching, of the National Forest Products Association, contends “There’s quite a bit of old-growth left.” In their zeal to protect it, he says, environmentalists may also reduce harvest on previously cut timberland, and transfer logging to foreign timberlands where there are fewer environmental restrictions. But he recognizes that the ecological mindset can’t be ignored.

That mindset is being institutionalized in Austin, Texas. The city’s new Green Builder program involves a rating system that home buyers can use to determine the environmental soundness of their investment. Builders sign up for consideration, and their houses are judged on water and energy use, solid waste impacts, and building materials.

The materials category is the most complex, says program director Laurence Doxsey. Materials get points for being durable and having no known ill effects on health. Recycled or reconstituted content is stressed, as are wood products that don’t require as much transportation and that create jobs in the region. For example, builders get points for using yellow pine from the South instead of Douglas-fir from the besieged Northwest. They also are rewarded for avoiding wood from old-growth forests, and for buying from well-managed timberlands.

“This is a little bit futuristic,” says Doxsey. “It’s not that you can go to a lumber yard and find a stamp that says, ‘This wood is from a sustainably managed forest.'”

However, several fledgling groups have organized with the goal of giving forest operations an environmental stamp of approval. Among them is the Institute of Sustainable Forestry in Redway, California. Spokesman Ken Kolevzon says a pilot project in southern Humboldt County should yield the first certified wood in that region. The certification is modeled after that given to organic farmers. Kolevzon says there are a lot of wrinkles to be ironed out, especially in the inspection process that will follow the wood from harvest to sawmill to consumer.

Promoters of “sustainable” labels report initial resistance from wood producers. They believe that problem will be overcome as timber companies see the need to meet the demands of environmentally minded consumers.

“Green” labeling amounts to more public relations than substance, believes Russell Moody, research project leader with the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory. He suggests that labeling isn’t necessary, pointing out that his agency is the biggest owner of timberland in the country and its guidelines for harvest have become “much more sensitive to the environment.”

Moody does not doubt that a change is underway in the home-construction arena. But he believes it is driven by changing supply rather than consumer demand. For example, he says, the laminated I-joist that is becoming an industry standard in floors “is a direct response to the lack of large lumber.”

Another supply factor is the vast expanses of lower-quality eastern hardwoods that need thinning, he says. Maples, oaks, poplar, sweet gum, and the like offer a source of wood flakes that can be glued to create oriented strandboard and other products.

“In the last 15 to 20 years, the people who have made money are the people working with these engineered products,” Moody says. “The people making 2 x 4s and plywood panels … well, you just have have to look at profit and loss.”

The I-joist, or I-beam, was developed around 1970 by Trus Joist Corp. It is lighter, stronger, and straighter than traditional solid beams, according to Kevin O’Sullivan, director of research and development for what is now Trus Joist-McMillan.

The expiration of the company’s patent has only increased Trus Joist sales of the product, O’Sullivan says, because other firms are aggressively marketing I-joists, thus creating new demand. “Housing starts in the last 12 months were up 20 percent, and we have three to five competitors now, but sales are up 50 percent for us.”

O’Sullivan says his company has invested heavily in a joint venture with McMillan-Bloedel that uses low-cost aspen, a species that “grows like weeds.” The aspen logs are flaked, the flakes are aligned and glued, and–voila!–strong dimension lumber comes out of the Minnesota factory.

O’Sullivan hints at “exciting” products being developed at Trus Joist-McMillan’s Idaho lab. “We’re doing a lot of work with waste wood and newsprint and inorganic binders.”

The U.S. has been very slow to change the way it builds its houses, O’Sullivan says. A move toward the solid, factory-built homes common in Europe would mean more energy efficiency, he says, and “would open up a whole lot of possibilities for different materials.”

Europeans also use cellular concrete in home construction. The lightweight product, which can be sawed and nailed, is “going through a rebirth” in the U.S., says Eric Lund of the National Association of Homebuilders.

Lund, an engineer in the group’s research lab, says steel framing–the fireproof standard for commercial buildings–is getting more attention for home use. While plastics are too weak for much structural use, he says, they can replace wood for such purposes as decking.

Engineered wood products show the most promise in the U.S. market, Lund says. One reason is the advancements being made in the glues that hold together the wood chips, veneers, and fibers. (Formaldehyde fumes given off by some glues have raised health concerns.) The result is dimensionally stable building materials with low moisture content and no knots.

Some non-traditional products available to builders are not, in Lund’s words, “cutting-edge technology.” For example, Loken used old-fashioned linoleum on the kitchen floor of his demonstration home, to avoid using petroleum-based vinyl flooring. Linoleum is made from wood flour, flax, and pine resin. It fell from favor, Loken says, largely because it never wore out and people had no excuse to redecorate.

According to Lund, a demonstration home built in the 1950s used structural foam-core panels similar to what Loken put in his Missoula demo home. What’s different now, the research engineer says, are the social and environmental pressures on builders to change.

A Canadian study due out this spring will attempt to weigh the true environmental costs of various products. But, because of changing market conditions, Lund is avoiding direct price comparisons as he prepares a building-technology guide that’s part of a project sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The numbers are pretty slippery. You’re not comparing apples with apples,” he says, noting that a product that initially costs more might provide better insulation, or require less maintenance. “Right now, not many alternatives are that cost-competitive with the best current practices. You really have to look at the long term.”

When the Habitat for Humanity workers build their Lynchburg house out of alternative materials, they will design it like previous houses so they can directly compare construction time, cost, maintenance, and comfort.

Volunteer leader Al Maddox is keenly aware that there are environmental costs to keeping America housed, no matter what building materials are used.

“It’s gonna be a compromise,” he says of product choices. “None of them is going to be pure–just less evil.”

Julie Titone, of Post Falls, Idaho, reports on natural-resource issues going on in the inland Northwest.


The National Audubon Society’s name has long been associated with birds, but it may become as well known for its new lower Manhattan headquarters, a historic structure recycled and renovated into a model of energy-conscious and worker health-sensitive practices.

Audubon hopes the revamped Schermerhorn Building, at 700 Broadway, will prove that it is possible–and economically feasible–to improve workplaces in an environmentally smart fashion. The advanced lighting, heating, and cooling technologies used will mean a 68 percent drop in energy consumption and a savings of $100,000 a year in energy costs–paying for themselves in three to five years.

Audubon’s is the first freestanding office to use environmental and energy-conscious technologies throughout, president Peter A.A. Berle said in a release. “With the cost of energy skyrocketing and the inexorable deterioration of the world’s environment, Audubon’s headquarters will be an important model for demonstrating to the business community how they can create cost-effective structures, ones that have a dramatic impact on our national efforts to conserve energy, the environment, and promote the health and well-being of the workforce.”

The building cost $24 million to buy and renovate, but officials estimate that building the same type of structure from scratch would have cost more than $33 million.

In addition to preserving some of the existing steel, masonry, and concrete, the renovation stressed using products with a recycled content, such as gypsum wallboard, roofing felt, plastic, and glass. All systems and materials used were designed to reduce pollutants associated with global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, and health-threatening “Sick Building Syndrome.” SBS is caused by poor circulation, too little fresh air, the buildup of bacteria and fungi in moist ducts, and toxic gases–such as formaldehyde–from building materials.

Paints, wall coverings, and furniture were screened for toxic properties, and the carpets and insulation used were free of formaldehyde and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). An independent ventilation system provides plenty of fresh air, and the office windows open.

Audubon worked with Croxton Collaborative Architects and A.J. Contracting Inc. to revise the 100-year-old building, which was designed by New York Stock Exchange Building architect George B. Post. To keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer, insulation in the walls is three times that required by the building code. Windows and skylights are double-paned and use “heat mirror” sheets, a transparent wavelength-selective material that allows light but little heat in the summer and retains heat in winter.

The redesign minimized the use of closed office spaces hat block or are blocked from natural light. Specially designed glass partitions were installed along the top of perimeter office walls to allow daylight to reach interior halls and offices. Occupancy sensors cut off ambitent lights when offices or corridors are vacated.

Audubon has set a goal of recycling 80ercent of all waste materials from products that enter the headquarters. It has installed four building-high chutes for the recycling of high-quality paper, aluminum/plastics, colored paper, and food waste. Newspapers, glass, and hazardous materials are collected on each floor, and desks have three-slot waste-baskets for separating trash. Audubon estimates its new practices will save 42 tons of paper each year, and has pledged to, whenever practical, buy only products that contain recycled content and can be recycled.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Forests

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