Green Building

By Sally Deneen

What the heck is a "green building"? It doesn't mean it's painted green. (Although it could be.)

To the exasperation of some people, there is no standard definition. Some builders may do little more than erect townhouses that increase urban density rather than building a highly energy-efficient product that's truly light on the land, as the "green" term implies.

At the other extreme, buildings may be packed with environmentally friendly features, such as solar technology that generates electricity or heats water. More examples: toilets that are flushed by using water captured from the shower drain, thanks to a "gray water system"; and "green roofs" featuring grasses and plants that soak up some rainwater before it can pick up pollutants and flush them into local waterways.

It may come as a surprise to hear that buildings are energy hogs that consume more energy than cars and trucks. Commercial and residential buildings in the US are estimated to consume 65 percent of all electricity, as well as 12 percent of drinkable water and 40 percent of all raw materials, according to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international organization.

One problem: Homes are becoming humongous. President Abe Lincoln was born in one-room log cabin that might be smaller than your living room (16 feet by 18 feet). Today, the average new single-family house is nearly the size of nine Lincoln cabins. Lots of homes are even bigger. Big homes require more energy and building materials. A 5,000-square-foot house is estimated to consume three times as much material as a 2,085-square-foot home, even though its square footage is only 2.4 times larger, according to an analysis by Environmental Building News.

If the point behind the green building movement is to shrink every person's footprint on the planet, then the societal shift toward 3,500-square-foot or larger homes runs counter to that spirit. Smaller homes are lighter on the land.

So what's a consumer to do? Don't accept a "green" label at face value. Ask questions about features. There are voluntary green-building rating systems--some local, a few national -- such as perhaps the most predominant one, U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program ( All rating systems require buildings to earn a certain number of points to earn "green" certification, and they don't give too much weight to home size. The National Association of Home Builders' Green Building Program addresses house size by awarding four points for building smaller, says Alex Wilson, president of Vermont-based BuildingGreen. That's out of a 300-point rating system.

For more info:

Wonder how much of an impact your home and lifestyle have on the environment? To determine your family's "carbon footprint" and learn ways to shrink it, check out the calculator at To figure out how many Earths would be needed if everyone in the world lived a lifestyle similar to yours, go to


what's your definition?

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