Selecting Environmentally Friendly "Green" Building Materials(downloadable pdf version of this article)
Selecting green building materials to use in your garage project is a great way to help contribute to the sustainability of our planet. There is not one specific characteristic that makes a product environmentally friendly, or “green,” but there are some good features to look for when choosing a green product:
- Recycled content
- Rapidly renewable content (bamboo, for example)
- Products from a local source
- Products that are salvaged or refurbished
- Reusable or recyclable at the end of its useful life
You might ask why durability is on the list of environmentally friendly building product characteristics, but this one is really more important than you might think. If a product needs to be replaced every few years, then it will most likely end up in a landfill. Look for products with long lifecycles to reduce the landfill cycle. The more durable products might be a little more expensive, but they have value in the long run since you won’t have to deal with the time and expense of replacing them for years after the less expensive item is already in a dumpster.
The following is a list of common construction materials, and some green alternatives to some traditional, not-so-green products.
- Local lumber: When choosing lumber, pay attention to where it is harvested. If you live in Maine and the wood you use is coming all the way from South America, you can be sure that a massive amount of energy was expended to get it from the southern hemisphere to your doorstep. The environmentally friendly way is to choose wood that is harvested from a local forest.
- Sustainable wood: Another important feature to look for is wood that has been certified “sustainable” by a third party. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a very reputable organization that aims to promote the responsible management of today’s forests and the ethical treatment of forestry workers around the world.
- Urea-Formaldehyde (UF) free products: Look for UF free plywood and sheathing. UF is a chemical used in many of these products, and according to the EPA, it may be linked to some serious health problems, including cancer.
When choosing siding, it is important to keep in mind the lifecycle of the product, and to choose something with great durability.
- Solid Wood: This is only a good choice if you are planning to use FSC-certified wood siding or wood that has been reclaimed (i.e. wood that is salvaged from abandoned buildings or from construction/remodeling projects). Otherwise, the most durable wood tends to come from old-growth forests, and their deforestation is hugely detrimental. Solid wood can also require a lot of maintenance.
- Engineered Wood: This includes hardboard and oriented strand board (OSB). Look for the FSC logo and for products that are UF free (to help prevent off-gassing and its potentially hazardous effects).
- Fiber-Cement (such as HardiePlank): This is a unique alternative to traditional wood siding – it has the look of natural wood, but is made from cement and wood fibers, which makes it much more durable.
- Metal: Aluminum or steel siding can be a good choice, especially if they have a large amount of recycled content. The siding itself is 100% recyclable at the end of its life. Aluminum or steel siding generally takes more energy to manufacture than vinyl siding.
- Vinyl: Vinyl siding is made from a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic resin that has been linked to health issues for people involved in its manufacturing. Although vinyl siding can last a long time, it won’t last forever and older vinyl siding is not as recyclable as most of the newer products.
When choosing an adhesive, look for one that is Low-VOC or No-VOC.
VOC = Volatile Organic Compound
VOC’s are harmful chemicals that are found in many building products. They have been linked to many serious health problems, and some have even been linked to cancer. While there is a wide range of VOCs, from those that are extremely toxic to those that have no known health risks, why take the risk? Look for adhesives and sealants that don’t have VOCs.
Fiberglass is currently the most widely used type of insulation in the U.S. Unfortunately, the structure of fiberglass is similar to that of asbestos, and tiny pieces of glass can break off and lodge themselves in your eyes and your lungs when you are working with it. Although there is no definitive evidence, some say that fiberglass leads to health concerns similar to those associated with asbestos. Regardless, it is clearly not something that you want to be handling without protective equipment.
- Recycled Denim Insulation (cotton): These days, several manufacturers offer their own brand of 100% recycled blue jean insulation. This serves two very wonderful purposes – 1. Better insulation which leads to reduced energy consumption, and 2. Old blue jeans are given new life instead of going to the landfill. It is easy to install, and requires no special clothing or equipment (unlike traditional fiberglass insulation).
- Sheep Wool Insulation: We all know that wool is a wonderful insulator – it is probably a main component in many of your favorite winter sweaters. These days, it is being considered for use in home insulation (it’s hard to come by in the U.S. right now, but it is catching on in Europe). Wool also has some flame retardant qualities which make it burn more slowly than cotton (sorry blue jeans!), and in some cases, it will self-extinguish.
- Recycled Fiberglass Insulation: If you insist on using fiberglass to insulate your garage, you can at least get it with recycled content!
- Spray-In Foam Insulation: There are several varieties on the market today, and they are not all created equal. Some of them are loaded with harmful chemicals, while others (such as Icynene) are water blown and produce no off-gassing. If this is the route you decide to go, do your research! They are extremely energy efficient since they penetrate every crack and crevice, but they can cost significantly more than traditional insulation methods (especially since they require a professional with special equipment for installation).
When choosing a roofing material, it is important to consider several things. Choose something durable and long-lasting (this will help to alleviate the burden on landfills). Look for products that have been salvaged for reuse or can be recycled at the end of their life (this also alleviates the burden on landfills). If you live in a high-heat area, look for products that are light in color (this improves solar reflectance and reduces the amount of heat your garage will absorb which will cut down on electricity). Asphalt shingles are the most popular option on the market today, and also the least eco-friendly. They utilize petroleum products (a non-renewable resource) and the hot midday sun causes the release of toxic VOCs into the atmosphere and into your home. Many of them have a very short lifespan (about 15 years), and they are rarely recycled. So here are some more eco-conscious options:
- Metal: A very durable material, metal roofing products may also contain large amounts of recycled content. Since it can be painted a light color, metal roofs can reduce the amount of heat that your garage absorbs in the hot summer months, thus saving you energy. Metal is also fully recyclable at the end of its useful life, which means it doesn’t have to ultimately end up in a landfill.
- Slate Tile: Slate tile is incredibly durable and can last for hundreds of years. It can be repaired easily and repurposed at the end of its life (there is a huge demand for salvaged slate these days!). If you plan on using a slate roof, look for something that has been quarried locally since it is so heavy (it would take a lot of energy and resources to haul it across the country), and also be aware that it may require additional roof support. In addition, there is some debate as to whether or not quarrying is a green practice. It depletes the earth of a non-renewable resource, leaves massive craters where it is mined, and disrupts local wildlife. So an even better alternative would be to use salvaged slate – that way you are not contributing to the destruction of local ecosystems, plus you’re keeping it out of a landfill! Since slate is usually very dark, it is not recommended for high-heat areas.
- Clay Tile: If a local source is available, clay tiles may be one of the greenest roofing options. They are incredibly durable, utilize fewer resources, and are available in a variety of colors (go for the lighter colors to improve solar reflectance and keep your garage cooler). Since they are so heavy, they do require some extra roofing support.
- Recycled Synthetic Shingles: This product is shaped to look like wood shakes, but is made from a mixture of plastic or rubber combined with wood waste. They are composed largely of otherwise waste material, can have a long life (comparable to 50-year shingles), are UV-resistant, and fire resistant. However, they cannot be recycled at the end of their life due to the inseparable nature of the product. Despite this fact, they are still a more environmentally friendly option than traditional asphalt shingles.
- Solar Roof Shingles: A fabulously green option!! These shingles provide you with an infinitely renewable source of energy (as long as your roof is un-shaded, and preferably has a southern exposure). Unfortunately, these systems are incredibly expensive at this time.
- Green Roof: Another incredibly green option is a vegetated roof. For most of your purposes, an extensive green roof would be appropriate. This is a self-sustaining community of indigenous plants that is virtually left alone (in a shallow soil environment) to develop on its own. While this may seem like a strange idea, it is actually one of the most eco-friendly options you have. This type of roof can shield your home from the blistering sun and can absorb anywhere from 50-95% of rainwater, reducing rainwater runoff and subsequent pollution of local waterways. This is a great green option, but be sure to do your homework and make the most out of your roof!