Why Build Green?
By Dan Johnson, Owner, Midwest Earth Builders
Tapestry Magazine May 2006
It is June 24, 1995, the second day of our 3-month sea-kayaking expedition into the Great Bear Rainforest of the mid-coast of British Columbia, Canada. My companions and I push off from Yeo Island, where we were serenaded the night before by wolves, and begin the long paddle north up Bullock Channel toward Ellerslie Lake. The channel we travel is a fjord carved long ago by glaciers that is carpeted by moss-draped forests of cedar, hemlock and fir. The silence of the channel is suddenly interrupted by the sound of air exhaled at the surface of the water by a small pod of killer whales. They dive several yards in front of us, and I find myself staring down into the dark water ridiculously fearful that they might not realize I am up here and capsize my kayak. Moments later they surface far down the channel and the three of us are excitedly asking, “How many were there?” “Was that a mother with a calf?” and “Did anyone get a picture?”
So, what does a sea-kayaking trip through one of the world’s largest
remaining temperate rainforests and an experience with killer whales have
to do with us here in the Upper Midwest?
The answer is this: killer whales eat salmon, and salmon require cool,
clear streams that flow through healthy forest ecosystems for spawning
habitat. These same forests also provide cedar for siding and
dimensional lumber for building. When these forests are incorrectly
harvested, for example by clear-cutting which removes all of the trees,
the associated loss of spawning habitat for salmon negatively affects
the killer whale, along with the grizzly bear, black bear, bald eagle, seal,
wolf, and others that depend upon the salmon for food. Our Midwestern
connection to the killer whale is direct, yet the impact is out of sight and
too often out of mind.
I tell the story of the killer whale and the temperate rainforest because it sets the context for why many people make a conscience decision to build “green.” The decision to build green is based upon the recognition of our personal connection and impact on the rest of the world. It takes into account the impact we make upon the environment and the amount of fossil fuels required to provide the resources, build, and maintain a home or structure. Green building allows us to take personal responsibility for the way we impact our local and global environment.
It is estimated that 50 percent of the wood consumed in the U.S. is for residential construction. On a global scale, the U.S. represents only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for over 15 percent of the world’s wood consumption. An obvious beginning place for many people wanting to build green, is to decide what material to use to build their home. The question is not entirely whether or not to use wood, but rather what is the environmental cost of the wood that is used? Similar to the Norwegians who built our farmhouse over 80 years ago, people in this region are starting to look right here at home for their wood resources.
yellow pine and Douglas fir timbers, even better quality alternatives have been reclaimed from decommissioned buildings and are widely available? And, why buy materials shipped here from the Pacific Northwest when perfectly good alternatives can be found in our community? Using recycled and local, sustainably harvested lumber supports healthy forests and healthy lifestyles
Besides local and recycled wood sources, there are slowly becoming more sources for certified wood. Similar to organic food certification, wood products from forests that are managed in a sustainable way can be labeled with a logo that identifies them as such. A forest that is managed sustainably is one that maintains the ecology of the forest from the micro-organisms in the soil to the diversity of plants and animals while providing wood products. However, not all certification programs are equal. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification program is the most reliable program of those available. This is a third-party certification program which means that the people certifying the management of the forest are not the ones who profit from the logging of the forest. For certified lumber to become more available, consumers must begin demanding it from their builders and local lumberyards. The initial cost will be more, but the long term impacts of unsustainable forestry for uncertified wood is diminished or eliminated.
When alternative lumber options are not available, another choice is to use less wood. Framing a home with 2 x 6’s on 24 inches-on-center, instead of the standard 16 inches-on-center uses 30% fewer pieces of wood while providing more space for insulation and less thermal bridging through the wall. Not only are wood resources conserved, but also energy efficiency is increased. This method of framing, which requires that all of the framing from the wall studs to the rafters be lined-up on the same spacing, is called “optimum value engineering.”
There is of course always the alternative of substituting other natural building materials for wood construction. My own company, Midwest Earth Builders, for example, takes locally available clay soils and hydraulically presses them into masonry blocks. These blocks are then used in a double wall system that provides both insulation and thermal mass for increased energy efficiency. These blocks are then used in a double wall system that provides both insulation and thermal mass for increased energy efficiency. A number of local builders such as Turtle Shell Construction are using straw bales for wall construction. Straw is a rapidly renewable byproduct of grain farming that provides highly insulated walls that reduce heating and cooling costs. Other alternative construction techniques that can be found in the Midwest include straw-clay, rammed earth, and cob.
In the eleven years that have passed since my first visit to the coast of British Columbia, several watersheds in the Great Bear Rainforest have been logged including much of Yeo Island where I saw my first wolf. Native salmon runs have also declined during this period, the result of logging, over fishing, pollutants, and dams. Although there have been recent victories in the protection of some of the Great Bear Rainforest from industrial clear-cut logging, these have come about only because people have fought hard and spoken out. Additional forest protection globally requires us all to look at where our wood comes from and make a conscience decision to build “green.”
Dan Johnson is a builder and owner of Midwest Earth Builders of Soldiers Grove, WI. Visit www.midwestearthbuilders.com for more information.