The Health Benefits of Green Construction

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While green construction is often touted for its ability to save companies a great deal of money on energy costs, the health benefits it offers may have a much greater impact on your business. According to Syracuse University’s Center of Excellence in environmental and energy innovation, insufficient indoor environmental quality (IEQ) costs Americans between $40 and $258 billion each year in lost worker productivity. These poor working environments cause health problems in 30 to 70 million Americans each year.

When a building has poor indoor environmental air quality, its inhabitants often suffer from respiratory problems, skin rashes, nausea, headaches, and allergies and other ailments. These health issues are caused by factors such as poor air circulation, bad lighting, mold, tainted carpeting, dangerously high levels of pollutants, extreme temperature discrepancies from one area of the building to another, pesticides, and toxic fumes from paint and adhesives.

Advantages of Green Construction

Environmentally friendly structures offer a much more pleasant and healthier place for their occupants to work. Two of most highly praised benefits of green construction include:

  • Improved Indoor Air Quality

Improving indoor air quality (IAQ) is one of the main goals of green construction. When a building doesn’t have proper ventilation, it can’t get rid of fumes and odors.  Green buildings are constructed from low-emitting materials, but even low-emitting materials need ventilation. During construction of a green building, 100% outdoor ventilation is used to improve air quality. This helps building occupants to be more comfortable, improves well-being, and results in higher productivity. Improved IAQ can have a great long-term impact for companies, including decreased absenteeism and healthcare costs.

  • No Asbestos Risk

Many older buildings were constructed with harmful asbestos insulation, which can cause a type of cancer called mesothelioma. Individuals often aren’t even aware they’ve had contact with asbestos until they’ve been exposed to the deadly material for years, as it often takes a long time for symptoms to become present. When people opt for green construction, they’ll never have to fear exposure to asbestos. An alternative, blown-in cellulose insulation, made from 80% post-consumer recycled newspaper, is commonly used in the construction of green buildings. There are no known negative health consequences associated with this type of insulation, and it’s also treated to resist mold, fire, and insects.

Going Green with Construction

If you’re getting ready to break ground on a new building, consider the many benefits of green construction. The idea may seem overwhelming at first, as there’s a lot to take in, but you don’t have to do it on your own. Look for a green construction company that can help you through the building process, from the first stages of design to completion. Not only will your new green building be environmentally friendly, it will also serve as a much more pleasant place for your employees to spend their days. The resulting higher productivity and lower rates of absenteeism will yield greater profits for your business.

Brandon Hodzic

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Brandon Hodzic writes for LEED consultant Gaia Development, which assists businesses and home buyers with green construction projects.

Save Energy – and Money – with a Cool Roof

November 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Green Building, Slideshow, Sustainability

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Energy-efficient roofing can save homeowners significant money in air-conditioning costs. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Energy Saver

Energy-efficient roofing can save homeowners significant money in air-conditioning costs. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Energy Saver

Whether you’re replacing an old roof or choosing roofing for a new house, make energy efficiency a priority

Discussions about improving home energy efficiency usually revolve around topics like insulation, air sealing, replacement windows and high-efficiency HVAC equipment. But roof shingles and other roofing materials also deserve attention in the energy-saving plan for a house or other building.

Cooler Roofing = Energy Savings

"Cool" roofs reflect far more of the sun's heat than traditional roofs do. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Energy Saver

“Cool” roofs reflect far more of the sun’s heat than traditional roofs do. Photo: Courtesy Dr. Energy Saver

On a bright summer day, the temperature of a dark asphalt shingle roof can easily reach 150 degrees. This heat moves into the attic and into a home’s living space, making rooms uncomfortably hot while also placing extreme demands on the air conditioning system.

New roofing materials that meet ENERGY STAR® requirements for energy efficiency are designed to reflect more of the sun’s heat than traditional roofing materials, staying 100 degrees cooler in some cases. A “cool” roof, as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy, reduces air conditioning requirements and can actually cut peak cooling demand by as much as 15%.  Who wouldn’t like to pay 15% less for air conditioning?

During cold winter months, it can be beneficial to have a roofing material that absorbs solar heat to help cut the cost of keeping warm inside. But research has shown that the benefits of cutting summer cooling requirements far outweigh the benefits of solar gain through the roof in winter. This makes sense when you consider winter conditions: shorter daylight hours, more overcast weather, and the sun’s lower position in the sky.

Cool Roof Benefits Go Beyond Energy Savings

It’s important to understand that cool roofing shouldn’t be your only defense against high summertime air conditioning costs; you also need attic insulation, which provides energy savings during heating and cooling seasons. But having a cool roof installed on your house can work together with your attic insulation to save you hundreds of dollars every year.

There are other benefits, too. Through local and national programs, a new cool roof may qualify for rebates & other financial incentives. To find out what programs are available in your area, visit the Cool Roof Rating Council website. The CRRC manages a system for evaluating the properties that define energy-saving cool roofing materials.

Since energy efficiency is a major feature in any “green” house, a cool roof helps to reduce environmental impact and (thus) increase green value. Other benefits you can expect after installing energy-efficient roofing are longer life for the roofing material and lower summertime attic temperatures (which are less damaging to certain items stored in the attic).

Choosing Energy-Efficient Roofing

If you’re in the market for new roofing, it’s wise to stick with roofing materials that meet ENERGY STAR® requirements for energy-efficient performance. Many people are surprised to learn that asphalt shingles (used on about 75% of homes in the U.S.) that qualify as cool roofing don’t have to be white or light in color.

Darker brown and grey tones are also available, thanks to improvements in making and mixing the tiny granules that form the finished surface of an asphalt shingle. Major manufacturers like Owens Corning, GAF, and CertainTeed offer ENERGY STAR® asphalt shingles in a wide variety of styles and colors –good news for homeowners who want a new roof that helps cut cooling costs

Tim Snyder

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

A journalist specializing in sustainability, energy efficiency and home building topics, Tim Snyder writes frequently for Smart Care Exteriors and Dr. Energy Saver, a nationwide network of energy improvement contractors.  


Home Builders and Remodelers Are Greener Than Ever

Eco-friendly building practices are on the rise—in Denver and other cities. Photo: J Wasson

Eco-friendly building practices are on the rise—in Denver and other cities. Photo: J Wasson

According to a recent report released by McGraw-Hill, 33% of home builders are committed to going green by 2016. Similarly, 34% of home remodelers have claimed that they plan to implement eco-friendly practices by 2016.

Just last year, only 17% of home builders and 15% of home remodelers expressed interest in developing strategies to increase the energy efficiency and decrease the carbon footprint of homes.

The findings detailed in the McGraw-Hill report indicate that we can expect homes to become significantly greener over the next few years. This will reduce individual homeowner’s energy costs and reduce the overall environmental impact of homes, which is certainly good news.

Additionally, we can expect that the dedication of home builders and remodelers to green practices will increase the amount of available green jobs and maybe even help reduce unemployment and bolster the housing market. However, all of this is speculation.

We do know that those in the construction industry have witnessed a boost in consumer interest in green building and construction practices.

And, according to another McGraw-Hill report, around 50% of all workers in the construction industries are expected to hold what can be classified as “green jobs” by 2015.

The same report specified that only 35% of those in the construction industry currently hold green jobs. A job is considered green when it involves practices that reduce non-sustainable energy consumption and the overall environmental impact of a building.

These McGraw-Hill reports will likely inspire the hope of those who have committed their lives to creating a more environmentally sustainable future. We’ll just have to see if home builders and remodelers stick to their promise to be green by 2016.

Ryan Frosh

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Ryan writes on the subjects of real estate trends, eco-friendly building, and interior design.

Build or Remodel Your Home with Eco-Friendly Products

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Consider concrete countertops for a low-cost option for eco-friendly building or remodeling. Photo: © Elenathewise -

Consider concrete countertops for a low-cost option for eco-friendly building or remodeling. Photo: © Elenathewise -

If you’re lucky enough to have the time and money to build your own home (or more likely, have it built by others), then there’s absolutely no reason you can’t get the greenest house in existence, thanks to building companies that specialize in just this sort of construction.

Whether you’re interested in building a green home from scratch, or you’re looking to renovate the home you already own in a way that is in keeping with your environmental sensibilities, there is an increasingly wide variety of eco-friendly products to help you meet your goals on the home front.

The first thing you should consider is concrete, an incredibly green product which has an amazing array of uses. For example, you know it is poured to create the foundation of a home, but did you know that insulated concrete forms (which are fire-, water-, and insect-resistant) can be used as a framework for your home instead of wood?

And stained or polished concrete can provide beautiful flooring and countertops, as well as molded furnishings. If you’re pleasantly surprised by this news, just wait until you see the price tag. It’s generally far less than standard materials, although the price could go up, depending on the customization options you choose.

And since your renovations projects could include knocking out walls and putting in new ones, think about greener options for drywall, such as EcoRock, which has won several awards for its eco-friendly properties. Not only are 85% of the materials used to make this drywall recycled, but it also requires 80% less energy and produces 90% less CO₂ in the manufacturing process. This is one of those items that sounds too good to be true but isn’t, for once. And just so you know, removing interior walls is a great way to let more natural light into your space (and reduce energy usage).

Consider, too, reclaimed woods. Like concrete, this eco-friendly alternative to buying brand-new hardwoods could meet many of your building needs while reducing your cost and your carbon footprint. Not only can recycled and reclaimed woods be used throughout the building process, but they can also account for many interior dressings, from flooring and railings to cabinetry, decorative woodwork, and even furnishings. It’s a great way to fill your home with warm hardwoods without denuding any more forested lands or going over-budget.

Of course, it’s important to act in a responsible manner when purchasing any goods, including those for home-building purposes. This means opting for construction operations that used locally sourced materials (rather than having items shipped and creating an alarming amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the process). Contractors who embrace eco-friendly practices are also a must.

And when it comes to putting the finishing touches on your space, install products that help you to conserve energy (alternate energy systems, energy-star heating/air and appliances, tankless water heater, etc.) and water (low-flow toilets and aerated faucets, for example). Every little bit helps to keep the environment clean, and a comprehensive plan allows you to add to the value of your home while potentially having a significant positive impact on your utility bills.

Evan Fischer

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Evan Fischer is a contributing writer for Morrison Hershfield, a leader in innovative, eco-friendly and cost-effective engineering projects.


Striving for Sustainable Design

Sustainable design is getting easier with a wide variety of eco-friendly materials to choose from. Photo: © danimages -

Eco-friendly, or “green,” design options are better for everyone involved, from the builders and painters to the people who use the completed structure. The new norm is sustainable design, and “green is the new black” in building and decorating homes, offices, and other buildings.

Defining Sustainable Design

The primary purpose of sustainable design, according to Wikipedia, is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design.” Sustainable design includes green building materials, paint/stain, flooring, counter tops, furniture, hardware/fixtures, lighting, and even decorative accents.

It may sound easy, then, to choose sustainable products and materials when you are building, renovating, or improving a home. Yet, there’s still much to learn in this relatively new field, and the importance of doing things right is overwhelmingly obvious. After all, the more resources we use right now without acknowledging the necessity of sustainability, the less we will have to work with later.

Benefits of Using Green Building Materials

Using green building materials accomplishes the primary goal of sustainable design, and also serves a few other important purposes. The cost to maintain the building is lower — including heating and cooling costs — over both the short- and long term. The design is much more flexible, and the health of everyone who frequents the building is improved due to the building products’ benefits.

Green products use resources that can be renewed — such as soybean, bamboo, and hemp; recycled materials — such as recycled bare steel and recycled plastics (deck boards, for example); and previously used materials — such as interior hardware, wood flooring, knee walls, cornices, architectural features, wood beams, paneling, and brick. Green products are friendlier to the environment than materials made from dwindling resources. They often include more durable, easier to care for, recycled, refurbished, remodeled, or reusable product options.

They’re also better for the health of the occupants, as they don’t release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like many particle board, oil-based paints, petroleum-based insulation, fire-retardant-sprayed carpets, and fabrics do. Some substrates under veneered furniture are also comprised of composites and the glue that holds them together may release VOCs.

From a resource standpoint, we are responsible for taking care of what we have. If the materials we use cannot be renewed quickly and easily, then we are technically robbing our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to make use of the same resources that we have enjoyed for centuries. Look at it this way: If, by using sustainable practices, you could increase the odds that your descendants will be able to appreciate the planet you and your ancestors have enjoyed, wouldn’t you do so?

Popular Green Building Materials

Some of the more popular green building products include soy-based paint, glue, and insulation; brick, bamboo, ceramic, cork, and terrazzo, which are great for building or flooring options.

Choices in window frame materials include “aluminum, wood, combination of wood and vinyl or aluminum, or solid vinyl,” according to But your best bet for energy efficiency is solid wood or steel with heavy insulation. also suggests, “Exterior doors should be either solid wood flush doors, wood panel doors with panels at least 11/8″ thick, or insulated steel doors.”

Don't underestimate the beauty and functionality of natural lighting. Photo: © david hughes -

For natural lighting, consider high-performance window glazingsolar tubes, and even wood to adhere to sustainable design theories. Or how about wall coverings, decorative accents, and display cases covered with reclaimed sorghum straw; furniture, flooring, and dramatic ceiling accents made from bamboo; wall coverings and decorative accents made from coconut shells; or furniture made from wheatboard with low VOCs? The options in sustainable materials are growing all the time.

When it comes time to choose paints and stains, consider those that are low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound). These are better for the environment and better for the health of the painter and people who will be residing or working in the building afterward. These items and many other green products can be found at many popular retailers, while shopping online or in traditional stores. They may cost slightly more initially, but the savings and benefits are much more significant in the long run.

You may not think of water-based building materials as a part of choosing sustainable products, but water is one resource that is difficult to replenish, and nearly impossible to replace in areas that have less rainfall per year. Water is arguably the most valuable of all resources, so choosing plumbing materials that offer water-saving features is of paramount importance. Those that conserve water, use rainwater, or recycle the water after filtering or cleaning it are most popular, and very friendly to the environment.

Among bathroom options to consider are dual-flush toilets and water-saving showerheads. For outdoor use, consider installing a rain barrel to collect rainwater or a system that captures graywater from your sinks and showers for watering lawns and gardens.

These are only a few of the many sustainable options available to designers and builders today. Check with your local LEED-certified contractor for the latest ideas and innovations.

Innovative Ideas

Some of the most forward-thinking sustainable designs are capturing energy in surprising ways. For example, the Fluxxlab Revolution Door takes advantage of the human energy used to push a revolving door and turns it into electricity that helps power an office building.

One of the most recent developments in solar energy is solar-powered window glass, which converts the sun’s energy to electricity for your home or office.

Lower Your Footprint

The point of recognizing sustainable design, or “green” building options, is to produce as small a carbon footprint as you can. One way to evaluate your effectiveness is to compare your footprint to the average carbon footprint of others in your community, as someone living in a temperate climate is likely to use less energy on heating and cooling than those living in more extreme climates.

Simply reducing what you use is only the start of a long and necessary road toward accomplishing a valuable goal. It takes all of us, joining together in the same goal, to make a real impact, but our efforts to reduce our carbon footprints could change the future of the world. Begin by improving the sustainability of your own surroundings. Then encourage your friends, family members, and acquaintances to choose sustainable design. As the sustainability movement gains popularity, it is beginning to make a positive impact for our planet.

Jessica Ackerman

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Ackerman also writes for

Donovan Rypkema on “Sustainability, Smart Growth and Historic Preservation”

Razing historic buildings is often an unnecessary waste. Photo: © Alex Yeung -

Razing historic buildings is often an unnecessary waste. Photo: © Alex Yeung -

Now and then, I run across an article so worthy of reading that I’m compelled to share it with friends — no matter that it was written some time ago. The article that follows is excerpted from a presentation by Donovan Rypkema, called “Sustainability, Smart Growth and Historic Preservation.” Rypkema gave this speech in 2007, to an audience at the Historic Districts Council Annual Conference, held in New York City.

You may be familiar with Rypkema’s speech, as it has circulated somewhat on the Internet. It was new to me until recently, however, and I am pleased to have Mr. Rypkema’s permission to share it with readers of Blue Planet Green Living. If you’ve never read it, be prepared to rethink some of the cherished notions of “green building.” And if you have read it before, consider reading it again. I learn more each time I do. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


A Broadway producer once told an aspiring playwright, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.” So I’m going to begin by giving you this entire presentation at a length you can put on the back of your business card.

1. Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness.

2. Sustainable development has more elements than just environmental responsibility.

3. “Green buildings” and sustainable development are not synonyms.

4. Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.

5. Development without a historic preservation component is not sustainable.

So that’s my presentation — everything I say now is just fill. I’m very fortunate that much of my work in the last few years has been international. And what I’ve discovered is this: Much of the world has begun to recognize the interrelationship and the interdependency between sustainable development and heritage conservation; but much less so in the United States. I’m not so sure we’ve really learned those lessons in America, or at least we have not yet broadly connected the dots. Far too many advocates in the US far too narrowly define what constitutes sustainable development. Far too many advocates in the US think that so-called green buildings and sustainable development are one in the same. They are not.

Sustainable development is about, but not limited to, environmental sustainability. There is far more to sustainable development than green buildings, such as:

  • Repairing and rebuilding historic wood windows would mean that the dollars are spent locally instead of at a distant window manufacturing plant. That’s economic sustainability, also part of sustainable development.
  • Maintaining as much of the original fabric as possible is maintaining the character of the historic neighborhood. That’s cultural sustainability, also part of sustainable development.

But if we don’t yet get it in the United States, others do. There’s an international real estate consulting firm based in Great Britain – King Sturge – that has been at the forefront in broadening and communicating the concept of sustainable development. Their framework of sustainable development certainly includes environmental responsibility, but also economic responsibility and social responsibility. I’m going to take the liberty of expanding the third category into social and cultural responsibility. They further identify these important nexus: for a community to be viable there needs to be a link between environmental responsibility and economic responsibility; for a community to be livable there needs to be a link between environmental responsibility and social responsibility; and for a community to be equitable there needs to be a link between economic responsibility and social responsibility.

When we begin to think about sustainable development in this broader context, the entire equation begins to change — and includes more than simply, “Does this building get a LEED gold certification,” or “Is that development making sure that the habitat of the snail darter isn’t being compromised?” When we begin to think about sustainable development in this broader context, the role of historic preservation in sustainable development becomes all the more clear.

Let’s start with the environmental responsibility component of sustainable development. How does historic preservation contribute to that? Well, we could begin with the simple area of solid waste disposal. In the United States, almost one ton of solid waste per person is collected annually. Solid waste disposal is increasingly expensive both in dollars and in environmental impacts. So let me put this in context for you. You know we all diligently recycle our Coke cans. It’s a pain in the neck, but we do it because it’s good for the environment. Here is a typical building in a North American downtown — 25 feet wide and 100 or 120 or 140 feet deep. Let’s say that today we tear down one small building like this in your neighborhood. We have now wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We’ve not only wasted an historic building, we’ve wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of our community. And that calculation only considers the impact on the landfill, not any of the other sustainable development calculations like the next one on my list – embodied energy.

Embodied energy is defined as the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of the building and its constituent materials. When we throw away an historic building, we are simultaneously throwing away the embodied energy incorporated into that building. How significant is embodied energy? In Australia, they’ve calculated that the embodied energy in he existing building stock is equivalent to ten years of the total energy consumption of the entire country. Much of the “green building” movement focuses on the annual energy use of a building. But the energy consumed in the construction of a building is 15 to 30 times the annual energy use.

Razing historic buildings

"Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources." Photo: © Danielle Bonardelle -

Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years. You’re a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.

Let me put it a different way – if you have a building that lasts 100 years, you could use 25% more energy every year and still have less lifetime energy use than a building that lasts 40 years. And a whole lot of buildings being built today won’t last even 40 years.

The EPA has noted that building construction debris constitutes around a third of all waste generated in this country, and has projected that over 27% of existing buildings will be replaced between 2000 and 2030. So you would think that the EPA would have two priorities: 1) make every effort to preserve as much of the existing quality building stock as possible; and 2) build buildings that have 80 and 100 and 120-year lives, as our historic buildings already have.

Instead what are they doing? They are sponsoring a contest to design buildings that can be taken apart every couple of decades and reassembled. Now I’m all for reusing building materials when structures have to be demolished, but to design buildings to be taken apart is to consciously build in planned obsolescence, and planned obsolescence is the polar opposite of sustainable development. And even if this approach met the environmental responsibility component of sustainable development — which it does not — it is the antithesis of the cultural and economic elements of sustainable development.

Here is this federal agency that is supposed to be our country’s lead entity for promoting and fostering sustainable development. Last fall they issued their five-year strategic plan, complete with goals, objectives, and standards of measurement – 188 fact-filled pages. How many times was the phrase “sustainable development” mentioned? Exactly twice – both times in footnotes. Once because a document they were citing had “sustainable development” in its title and the other because the database they referenced was maintained by the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development. How can you be the agency responsible for sustainable development when “sustainable development” never appears in your strategic plan? Oh, and by the way, the number of times that “historic preservation” was mentioned in the strategic plan? Zero.

Within the plan, the EPA has an element targeted to construction and demolition debris. The objective is “Preserve Land” and the sub-objective is “Reduce Waste Generation and Increase Recycling.” But they have missed the obvious — when you preserve a historic building, you are preserving land. When you rehabilitate a historic building, you are reducing waste generation. When you reuse a historic building, you are increasing recycling. In fact, historic preservation is the ultimate in recycling. At most perhaps 10% of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation. But 100% of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment.

And when I’m told that the fast changing needs of households and businesses cannot be met in historic buildings, I respond in polite company, “nonsense” and in less polite company, “bullshit.” Identify for me any use you can come up with in today’s economy, and I’ll find you an example of that use being accommodated in a historic building. The functional adaptability of historic buildings is one of their great under-recognized attributes. You cannot have sustainable development without a major role of historic preservation, period. And it’s about time we preservationists start hammering at that until it is broadly understood.

Part II

My technical background is as a real estate appraiser and in the appraisal field there is a concept of functional obsolescence. Functional obsolescence is when a building or its components no longer meet the utility demands of the marketplace. Functional obsolescence is real, but for many developers, real estate owners, architects, and city officials, the response to functional obsolescence is demolition. But the alternative environmentally responsible response is adaptive reuse. In real estate language, functional obsolescence represents the loss of utility, but adaptive reuse is the reinsertion of a new utility into an existing building.

Old warehouses like this one can be converted to many new uses. Photo: © adnanrezoone -

Old warehouses like this one can be converted to many new uses. Photo: © adnanrezoone -

But be careful when you hear that phrase functional obsolescence, because it is often mis-assigned. And my favorite example of that is here in New York City. I lived there in the mid 1980s. And at the time, the conventional wisdom of architects, developers, and many city officials was that all those class B and C office buildings in lower Manhattan had to be razed because they were functionally obsolete. Those 28-year-old MBAs on Wall Street, making $600,000 a year ought to be making big contributions to preservation organizations in the city. Why? Because had preservationists not stood up and said, “Like hell are you going to tear down all those 1920s office buildings” those investment bankers wouldn’t have their $3 million condos in those very structures.

On the commercial side, if we want to begin to mitigate the endless expanse of strip center sprawl it is critical that we have effective programs of center city revitalization. Throughout America over the last decade, we have seen downtowns come back and reclaim their historic role as the multifunctional, vibrant, heart of the city. Now this is the area where I do most of my work. I typically visit 100 downtowns a year of every size, in every part of the country. But I cannot identify a single example of a sustained success story in downtown revitalization where historic preservation wasn’t a key component of that strategy. Not a one. Conversely, the examples of very expensive failures in downtown revitalization have nearly all had the destruction of historic buildings as a major element. That doesn’t mean, I suppose, that it’s not theoretically possible to have downtown revitalization and no historic preservation, but I haven’t seen it, I haven’t read of it, I haven’t heard of it. Now the relative importance of preservation as part of the downtown revitalization effort will vary some, depending on the local resources, the age of the city, the strength of the local preservation advocacy groups, and the enlightenment of the leadership. But successful revitalization and no historic preservation? It ain’t happening.

The closest thing we have to a broad-based sustainable development movement is known as Smart Growth. There is no movement in America today that enjoys a more widespread support across political, ideological, and geographical boundaries than does Smart Growth. Democrats support it for environmental reasons, Republicans for fiscal reasons. From big city mayors to rural county commissioner, there are Smart Growth supporters everywhere and support is growing and becoming broader. The Smart Growth movement also has a clear statement of principles, and here it is:

  • Create range of housing opportunities and choices.
  • Create walk-able neighborhoods.
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration.
  • Foster distinctive, attractive places with a Sense of Place.
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective.
  • Mix land uses.
  • Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas.
  • Provide variety of transportation choices.
  • Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities.
  • Take advantage of compact built design.

But you know what? If a community did nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation IS Smart Growth. A Smart Growth approach that does not include historic preservation high on the agenda is missing a valuable strategy and is stupid growth, period.

Historic preservation is vital to sustainable development, but not just on the level of environmental responsibility. Remember that the second component of the sustainable development equation was economic responsibility. So let me give you examples in this area.

A frequently under-appreciated component of historic buildings is their role as natural incubators of small businesses. It isn’t the Fortune 500 who are creating the net new jobs in America. 85% of all net new jobs are created by firms employing less than 20 people. One of the few costs firms of that size can control is occupancy costs/rents. In both downtowns, but especially in neighborhood commercial districts a major contribution to the local economy is the relative affordability of older buildings. It is no accident that the creative, imaginative, small start-up firm isn’t located in the corporate office “campus”, the industrial park or the shopping center — they simply cannot afford the rents there. Older and historic commercial buildings play that role, nearly always with no subsidy or assistance.

While I’m often introduced as a preservationist, what I really am is an economic development consultant. At the top of the list for economic development measurements are jobs created and increased local household income. The rehabilitation of older and historic buildings is particularly potent in this regard. As a rule of thumb, new construction will be half materials and half labor. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, will be sixty to seventy percent labor with the balance being materials. This labor intensity affects a local economy on two levels. First, we buy an HVAC system from Michigan and lumber from Oregon, but we buy the services of the plumber, the electrician, and the carpenter from across the street. Further, once we buy and hang the sheet rock, the sheet rock doesn’t spend any more money. But the plumber gets a haircut on the way home, buys groceries, and joins the YMCA — each recirculating that paycheck within the community.

Many people think about economic development in terms of manufacturing, so let’s look at that. Across America for every million dollars of production, the average manufacturing firm creates 23.9 jobs. A million dollars spent in new construction generates 30.6 jobs. But that same million dollars in the rehabilitation of an historic building? 35.4 jobs.

Other areas where historic preservation adds to the economic responsibility of sustainable development include heritage tourism. Wherever heritage tourism has been evaluated, a basic tendency is observed: heritage visitors stay longer, spend more per day and, therefore, have a significantly greater per trip economic impact.

Historic housing

Historic districts tend to increase in value. Photo: © jStock -

Perhaps the area of preservation’s economic impact that’s been studied most frequently is the effect of local historic districts on property values. It has been looked at by a number of people and institutions using a variety of methodologies in historic districts all over the country. The most interesting thing is the consistency of the findings. Far and away the most common result is that properties within local historic districts appreciate at rates greater than the local market overall and faster than similar non-designated neighborhoods. Recent analysis indicates that historic districts are also less vulnerable to the volatility that often affects real estate during interest rate fluctuations and economic downturns.

Like it or not we live in an economically globalized world. To be economically sustainable it’s necessary to be economically competitive. But to be competitive in a globalized world a community must position itself to compete not just with other cities in the region but with other cities on the planet. And a large measure of that competitiveness will be based on the quality of life the local community provides, and the built heritage is a major component of the quality of life equation. This is a lesson that is being recognized worldwide.

A great study just released last month in Australia reached this series of conclusions: 1) a sustainable city will have to have a sustainable economy; 2) in the 21st century, a competitive, sustainable economy will require a concentration of knowledge workers; 3) knowledge workers choose where they want to work and live based on the quality of the urban environment; and 4) heritage buildings are an important component of a high quality urban environment.

From the Inter American Development Bank, we get, “As the international experience has demonstrated, the protection of cultural heritage is important, especially in the context of the globalization phenomena, as an instrument to promote sustainable development strongly based on local traditions and community resources. If the IADB gets it, why doesn’t the EPA?

Certainly among the most competitive cities in the world is Singapore. But here’s what Belinda Yuan of Singapore National University says, “the influences of globalization have fostered the rise of heritage conservation as a growing need to preserve the past, both for continued economic growth and for strengthening national cultural identity.”

What neither the supporters nor the critics of globalization understand is that there is not one globalization but two — economic globalization and cultural globalization. For those few who recognize the difference, there is an unchallenged assumption that the second is an unavoidable outgrowth of the first. Economic globalization has widespread positive impacts; cultural globalization ultimately diminishes us all. It is through the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings that a community can actively participate in the positive benefits of economic globalization while simultaneously mitigating the negative impacts of cultural globalization.

Part III

There are some ways that heritage conservation contributes to sustainable development through environmental responsibility and through economic responsibility. But I saved the third area – cultural and social responsibility for last, because in the long run it may well be the most important.

First, housing. In the United States today we are facing a crisis in housing. All kinds of solutions — most of them very expensive — are being proposed. But the most obvious is barely on the radar screen — quit tearing down older and historic housing. Houses built before 1950 disproportionately are home to people of modest resources — the vast majority without any subsidy or public intervention of any kind. So you take these two facts — there is an affordable housing crisis, and older housing is providing affordable housing, and one would think, “Well, then, a high priority must be saving that housing stock.” Alas, not so.

In the last three decades of the 20th century, we lost from our national inventory of older and historic homes 6.3 million year-round housing units! Over 80 percent of those units were single-family residences. A few of those burned down or were lost to natural disasters, but the vast majority of them were consciously torn down — were thrown away as being valueless. And today millions of American families are paying the cost by paying for housing they cannot afford.

Certainly not every one of those houses could or should have been saved. But if even half were retained instead of razed, the picture today would be much different for the millions of Americans inadequately or unaffordably housed. For the last thirty years, every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year we have lost 577 older and historic houses. For our most historic houses — those built before 1920 — in just the decade of the 1990s, 772,000 housing units were lost from our built national heritage. But when there are policies to conserve older housing stock, we are meeting the social responsibility of sustainable development.

But at least as important as the affordability issue is the issue of economic integration. America is a very diverse country — racially, ethnically, educationally, economically. But on the neighborhood level, our neighborhoods are not diverse at all. The vast majority of neighborhoods are all white or all black, all rich or all poor. But the exception — virtually everywhere I’ve looked in America — is in historic districts. There, rich and poor, Asian and Hispanic, college educated and high school drop out, live in immediate proximity, are neighbors in the truest sense of the word. That is economic integration, and sustainable cities are going to need it.

Earlier, I mentioned the labor intensity of historic preservation and the jobs it creates as part of the economic component of sustainable development but I want to mention it again in the social context. Those aren’t just jobs. They are good, well-paying jobs, particularly for those without formal advanced education. That too should be part of our social responsibility within sustainable development.

I told you that I work in the area of economic development. Economic development takes many forms — industrial recruitment, job retraining, waterfront development, and others. But historic preservation and downtown revitalization are the only forms of economic development that are simultaneously community development. That, too, is part of our social responsibility.

So I want to return to the premise with which I started. Green buildings are part of, but in no way are a synonym for sustainable development. That is not to say that we should not all be very pleased that preservationists are beginning to try to enlighten the green building people. Preceding the National Trust conference in Pittsburgh last fall was held a National Summit on the greening of historic properties. This was an excellent step forward and I certainly don’t have any quarrel with any of their conclusions or recommendations. I am certainly not wedded to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings. And if the Secretary’s Standards have to be adjusted to be more environmentally sensitive, so be it. But I am very concerned that in our rush to make nice with the green building people we will forget this is about sustainable development, not about green buildings. Here’s this great report. Green buildings mentioned 53 times; sustainable development mentioned exactly zero times.

Of course, the big accomplishment of the U.S. Green Building Council is the development of the LEED certification system. In the pilot stage is a checklist for evaluating neighborhood development. And it’s fine. 114 total possible points, including up to a gigantic 2 points if it’s an historic building. But if you look at the individual line items in the checklist, at least 75% of the goals of those items are automatically met if you rehabilitate an historic building. If we really need such a checklist, it ought to be 200 points and you start out with 75 points for being an historic building.

I’m not sure we need platinum plaques on porches. But if we do, they should be for sustainable development, not for green buildings. And, in fact, just such a checklist has been devised in Great Britain. Using the three elements of sustainable development, this scoring system includes such elements as “functional adaptability,” cultural importance, cultural adaptability, lovability, local amenities, and embodied energy as well as energy consumption, ecological attributes, etc. This certainly includes green building attributes, but within a broader sustainable development context.

Environmentalists cheer when used tires are incorporated into asphalt shingles and recycled newspapers become part of fiberboard. But when we reuse an historic building, we’re recycling the whole thing.


When we reuse an historic building, we recycle the whole thing. Photo: © lofik -

Finally, I’d ask you to take a moment and think of something significant to you personally. Anything. You may think of your children, or your spouse, or your church, or god, or a favorite piece of art hanging in your living room, or your childhood home, or a personal accomplishment of some type. Now take away your memory. Which of those things are now significant to you? None of them. There can be no significance without memory. Now those same things may still be significant to someone else. But without memory they are not significant to you. And if memory is necessary for significance, it is also necessary for both meaning and value. Without memory nothing has significance, nothing has meaning, nothing has value.

We acquire memories from a sound or a picture, or from a conversation, or from words in a book, or from the stories our grandmother told us. But how is the memory of a city conveyed? Here’s what Italo Calvino writes, “The city … does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” The city tells its own past, transfers its own memory, largely through the fabric of the built environment. Historic buildings are the physical manifestation of memory and it is memory that makes places significant.

What is the whole purpose of the concept of sustainable development? It is to keep that which is important, which is valuable, which is significant. The very definition of sustainable development is the “ability to meet our own needs without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We need to use our cities, our cultural resources, and our memories in such a way that they are available for future generations to use as well. Historic preservation makes cities viable, makes cities livable, makes cities equitable.

I particularly appreciate that the broadened concept of sustainable development is made up of responsibilities — environmental responsibility, economic responsibility, and social responsibility.

Next year [2008], of course, is an election year. And every side in every race will be supported by dozens of advocacy movements. Most of them are “rights” movements, and I’m for all of those things — rights are good. But I would suggest to you that any claim for rights that is not balanced with responsibilities removes the civility from civilization, and gives us an entitlement mentality as a nation of mere consumers of public services rather than a nation of citizens. A consumer has rights; a citizen has responsibilities that accompany those rights. Historic preservation is a responsibility movement rather than rights movement. It is a movement that urges us toward the responsibility of stewardship, not merely the right of ownership. Stewardship of our historic built environment, certainly; but stewardship of the meaning and memory of our communities manifested in those buildings as well.

The social/cultural components of sustainable development can be addressed at the neighborhood level, in fact that is the most effective scale for those issues to be addressed. That’s why neighborhood level historic preservation advocacy is so important. YOU are the sustainable development movement in your city. The EPA, the Green Building Council and far too many environmental activists just haven’t figured that out yet.

Sustainability means stewardship. There can be no sustainable development without a central role for historic preservation. That’s what you all are doing today, and future generations will thank you for it tomorrow.

About Donovan Rypkema


Donovan Rypkema, Principal of PlaceEconomics, was educated at Columbia University, where he received a Masters of Science degree in Historic Preservation. He has lectured widely on economic and preservation issues relating to rehabilitation, community development and commercial revitalization. His specific fields of consultation include feasibility analyses for real estate and market analysis, economic revitalization of downtowns and neighborhood commercial centers, and the rehabilitation of historic structures. He is author of several publications, including Community Initiated Development, The Economics of Rehabilitation, the Downtown Real Estate Development Series and others. His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals and journals. His book, The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide (The National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994) is now in its second printing and is widely used by preservationists nationwide.

Donovan Rypkema


Guest Post

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Dallas Cowboys Go Blue (with a Greener Stadium)

Turning off some of the stadium lights during cleanup could save $500 each hour.

Turning off some of the stadium lights during cleanup could save $500 each hour.

It’s time for Super Bowl XLIII, and the NFL is powering the entire event with renewable energy, as well as planting trees to offset carbon created by activities related to the big game. For 16 years, “going green” has been a part of planning and producing the Super Bowl. But the Super Bowl isn’t the only green venue in the NFL world.

In a press release last October, the Dallas Cowboys, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that the Cowboys were on a path “to be the first sports stadium to gain recognition in the EPA’s National Environmental Performance Track program.” This bold action is in conjunction with the design and construction of the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, which will be open for business in Arlington, Texas next summer.

The Cowboys hired Culture Technologies, Inc., led by Elizabeth Frisch, to help implement the EPA program at their new stadium. In a recent interview with Frisch, she described several of the issues the stadium design and construction teams will consider as they begin their EMS. This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Frisch about her work at Culture Technologies. — Publisher

Elizabeth Frisch, president of Culture Technologies. Photo: Courtesy Elizabeth Frisch

Elizabeth Frisch, president of Culture Technologies. Photo: Courtesy Elizabeth Frisch

FRISCH: The Cowboys had decided they wanted to join the National Environmental Performance Track. This is a U.S. EPA environmental recognition program that requires you to put in an environmental management system (EMS) and continually improve and measure your environmental performance, year after year.

For the Cowboys, this isn’t just, We’re putting in a green building, or We’re putting in a green product; this is an entire process. It’s infinite. As long as the system is in place, it drives continual improvement, so every year you raise the bar and take on something more. It’s a very robust and powerful model, if done correctly. We had been recommended to the Cowboys because of our reputation in making culture changes leading to performance improvement.

BPGL: Was this move prompted by a desire to save money?

FRISCH: The new stadium will hold up to 90,000 people at one time. That’s an entire city sitting in one spot for an extended period of time — and consuming food and beverages. The Cowboys management said, “We want to save money. This new stadium is going to kill us with utility costs and consumption. And we know we’re not doing certain things efficiently.”

Greening the Dallas Cowboys Stadium will require a cultural change for fans used to littering the parking lot. Photo: Courtesy Culture Technologies

Greening the Dallas Cowboys Stadium will require a cultural change for fans used to littering the parking lot. Photo: Courtesy Culture Technologies

So, we audited a playoff game last November. We looked at how the fans, the employees, the contractors, the vendors, and everyone who came in and out of that stadium during a game used it. We looked at the behaviors that are driving the footprint consumption, as well as what they’re consuming. It’s different from a utility audit, where a consultant just goes out and tells you how to save money. We do culture change, behavior-based audits. We actually stood in the bathroom and watched how people used the space, what their habits were. We asked people questions, like, “Why did you throw this here?” There’s also a lot of social thought that goes into such an audit, to determine why the behavior is happening.

Once we identify behaviors, such as discarding paper, we track the discarded item’s movement from that point on. We do it both from a recycling and an energy-consumption standpoint.

BPGL: What other activities did you look at?

FRISCH: We looked at utilities and any kind of resource consumption — whether it be paper, food, or even people’s time. We also looked at how traffic comes in and out; the longer a car idles, the more emissive it is. It’s about getting the highest level of efficiency around consuming each resource.

Tailgating is a "big deal" on game days, and generates huge amounts of waste. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

Tailgating is a "big deal" on game days, and generates huge amounts of waste. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

For a stadium, tailgating is a big deal. There are companies around the stadium that become tailgating locations on game day, and huge amounts of recyclable aluminum end up in the trash or on the street. How do we incentivize people to not dump that stuff?

BPGL: At the stadium, which items in the waste stream will you recycle?

FRISCH: The Cowboys use cups that are recyclable. They’re also collector’s items. The ideal thing is that most people take them home. But if they don’t take them home, they’re number 5 plastic and can be recycled.

And cardboard is a huge waste stream. It’s a matter of just segregating the types, but you still have to get people to do it.

BPGL: What about food waste?

FRISCH: With any stadium, there are huge amounts of food production. I think the new stadium will have five separate kitchens. And these are huge. They’ll be feeding 90,000 people. They have beautiful suites, and they’ll do full catering for those suites.

The ways they use the kitchens and stage the food and open freezer doors and turn on the ovens create a huge carbon footprint. But that can be reduced just by getting people to take small steps. It’s as simple as turning on the shrink-wrap machine only for the first and last hour, instead of leaving it on for the entire game, when no one is using it.

We also looked at how they’re disposing of the grease and even how much food they’re throwing away. We examine habits that people do automatically.

Kitchens provide opportunities for cost savings in energy, packaging, and food.

Kitchens provide opportunities for cost savings in energy, packaging, and food.

BPGL: People across the country are changing out light bulbs to use CFLs. Are there similar savings to be made with lighting at the stadium?

FRISCH: We looked at how the cleaning crew uses the lighting in the stadium when the fans aren’t there. There’s huge wattage in those lights, and the default is that they just leave everything on when they clean. They can turn off some of the lights and save about $500 an hour.

BPGL: What are some suggestions you gave them?

FRISCH: That’s where the social engineering part comes in. We can tell people what to do, like turn off the lights, stage the food a certain way, separate the recycling, add more recycling bins in certain areas. But people actually know all that. You can go to any website on the top ten things you can do for the environment and get that list.

The missing piece that we’re working on is, how do you get them to commit to doing the action? We know what action they have to do. What we’re training them to do is to create the framework that will get people to actually commit to doing those actions. That’s the behavioral change side of it.

BPGL: How do you get people to change entrenched behaviors?

FRISCH: I wish there was a cookie cutter answer to explain how you change someone’s behavior. It’s helping them think about, Why does the tailgater put it here? and What is the only thing they would need to make them not put it there? This varies by city. Each fan base has its own personality. Geographically, there are some things that fly easier in certain parts of the country, and other things that don’t, depending on what the culture is.

One of the things we have them working on first is what they can control directly. And of course, what they can control directly is their employees, their vendors, and their contractors.


One of the biggest waste streams is the packaging the food comes in. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

BPGL: We hear a lot about “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” It seems that the stadium has the recycling aspect covered. What have you recommended to them about reducing and reusing?

FRISCH: Ideally, “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” is the hierarchy. Recycling is actually the last thing you want to do. We start by asking, What are all the things we can reduce at the source? Then, What can we reuse? Then, What can we recycle?

One of their biggest waste streams is the packaging that the food comes in. They pay twice for it. They pay for that box or wrapper to get manufactured and sold, and then they pay to throw it away. So we tell them to go back to their supplier or vendor and say, “This particular product is taking up 30 percent of our waste stream. We want to continue doing business with you, but we want you to propose a packaging that uses half as much.” That’s greening the supply chain.

BPGL: You said you don’t have a composting set up for the food waste. Do you have any ways of reusing the food waste stream?

FRISCH: Typically, the short answer for the Cowboys Stadium is, “Not at this time,” although we’re looking at lots of different options. Initially, what they committed to is energy reduction, water reduction, and solid waste reduction. So for year one of their EMS, we’re looking at projects in those areas.

Each year, we’ll revisit projects. Composting is not on this year’s. list. But, as composting is becoming more popular, the cost of taking all that food waste goes down, because a composter is less than 60 miles away.

Fans leave paper and food waste behind when they leave the stadium.

Fans leave paper and food waste behind when they leave the stadium. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

BPGL: How will you encourage fans to make good choices?

FRISCH: We have to consider what type of recycle bins to use, how far fans have to walk to get to one, what kind of stuff to put up on the big screen to make it amusing and entertaining to recycle, and what to give away as a reward. Everybody likes Cowboys paraphernalia here.

We’d like to incentivize the behavior before we punish it — and punishment is a bad word. There’s a consequence if you use up the environment. There’s damage, so there’s a consequence. But even fear of death doesn’t cause people to change their behaviors. A study was published a couple years back, in which they said that 90 percent of patients who had had a heart attack, even being told they would certainly die if they didn’t change their ways, didn’t change their ways. So, that’s the dynamic you’re looking at. Even fear of death doesn’t make people change their behavior. You have to get behind what views are driving their results and getting them to commit. Commitment is the only thing that can pull us out.

BPGL: What’s the next step at the Cowboy Stadium?

FRISCH: The one great thing about behavior change around the environment is that it’s evolutionary. So the exciting thing about the Cowboy Stadium — and all the stadiums — is that they can put in one program, then the next, then the next. And as the consciousness raises, there’s infinite stuff to do. If you get champions, you can enroll the fan base and take certain things on. We want to start looking at, What will the fans be willing to do?

There really are infinite ways to get people to transform their behavior. It’s just that we’re so used to either putting a law or some kind of gate in place, but that’s really not effective. People will still break the law. People will still break the rules.

BPGL: How will you assess the effectiveness of the Cowboys’ program?

Sports teams can flip fan behavior and get them to act in more responsible ways. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

Sports teams can flip fan behavior and get them to act in more responsible ways. Photo Courtesy: Culture Technologies

FRISCH: They’ll review their performance annually. We’ll initially help them do it. One of the great things about taking on the National Environmental Performance Track and an EMS is that they will have the capability of doing it themselves. Then every three years, if they want to stay in the EPA’s program, they need an outside, third party to do that for them.

BPGL: Are other sports teams as progressive as the Cowboys at going green?

FRISCH: The sports teams are really on the cusp. A lot of them are looking at LEED. A lot of them are looking at recycling. It’s only a matter of time before they realize they have a fan base and employee base they can flip and deliver on those behaviors. Considering what they spend on operations, it’s a very nominal amount of money to support that environmental change.

Just so you know, their new tagline is, “Dallas Cowboys Go Blue.” They’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it’s a non-attainment area for air quality, so blue is clean air. And blue is clean water, and recycling, and lowering our carbon footprint. With leadership from the Dallas Cowboys, we’re hoping the word will spread and all fans will follow the team’s lead. The goal is not just a better stadium, but a better world for all of us.

Part 1: Culture Change Drives Environmental Improvement

Part 2: Dallas Cowboys Go Blue (for a Greener Stadium) (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Green Carpenter “Turns Liabilities into Assets”

Reproduction of a Russian architecture on the side of the Gwinnups' home. Photo: Joe Hennager

“If you’re building a LEED-certified house in Iowa, but you fly the bamboo flooring in from California or China, that’s not green,” says carpenter Roger Gwinnup. “On the other hand,” he points out, “you can pull up the oak flooring in an old house that’s being torn down, then drive across town and nail it in place in another house. That’s greener.

A salvaged stairway pillar may become an "asset" in a new way. Photo: Joe Hennager

Green building is supposed to be about lower energy use,” Gwinnup adds. And that includes the energy used to get the materials to the site. “You can have a quantitative measure of how green a building is by calculating the foot-pounds used in getting the materials to the site.”

Gwinnup should know. He’s been in the business of carpentry since 1973, and he lives his convictions. As a nearby city council debated what to do about houses condemned after last spring’s floods, Gwinnup approached them with an idea. “‘The top half of the buildings are still good,’ I told them. ‘Condemn the buildings you need to condemn, then use undamaged parts from the tops of those to repair the bottoms of the ones that can be saved.'” But the city council had other ideas. “Before I knew it, the houses were being torn down.”

It’s a disappointment Gwinnup takes to heart. His appreciation of the beautiful, old woodwork and his understanding of the craftsmanship and quality of historic homes are undeniable. What may have seemed expedient to the city council for reasons of their own is a needless waste in Gwinnup’s estimation.

“They have over 70 houses that they’re just crunching up and throwing away,” he says. “I saw truckloads of lap redwood siding laying by the road [for the landfill]. You can’t even get redwood siding anymore. Some people see these old homes as a liability instead of an asset. You can turn your liability into an asset by reusing it for a little bit longer time.”

The Gwinnups' home

The Gwinnups' home has unique decorations inside and out. Photo: Joe Hennager

As a visitor to the Gwinnup home, I was awed by the unique features this talented carpenter has added by converting other people’s liabilities into assets. Walking up to their house in rural Johnson County is akin to approaching a fairytale cottage in the woods.

When Roger’s wife, Donna, found a picture of an elegant Gothic-style arch from a Welsh monastery window, Roger sculpted it out of wood. With the ingeniousness of a master carpenter, he fashioned two identical pieces to overlay the glass on both sides. The wood on the inside is made from salvaged 1″ x 8″ yellow pine, shiplap sheeting boards. The glass is from an insulated picture window rescued from a house in Iowa City. The wood on the outside is cedar.

Along the back and sides of the house, he has duplicated a design from Russia, with row upon row of scalloped trim. “Whenever we had some scrap, we added it,” he says. And the result is magical.

Inside the house, glowing stained glass windows reflect Donna’s talent and current artistic passion. Other features proclaim the couple’s seriousness about reusing whatever they can in unique and interesting ways.

Innovative use of used building materials provides interest in the Gwinnup home. Photo: Joe Hennager

Every corner of the home holds another delightful surprise. And almost all of it was salvage. In fact, the Gwinnup home is a museum of architectural history: The floorboards, trim boards, doorknobs, radiators, lighting fixtures, faucets, mirrors, even a copper European-style toilet, are now assets that were once someone else’s liabilities.

The couple heats with an antique wood stove and passive solar. They added a loop of copper tubing along a kitchen wall to circulate heat from a second wood stove — another example of Gwinnup’s skill and innovation. The kitchen island is cleverly pieced together from many sources. In fact, nearly everything in the kitchen had a previous life.

The one-of-a-kind master bathroom shower is constructed from old bricks the city of Iowa City pulled up when repaving a street. Boards as wide as 21 inches provide a rich paneling in the bathroom. “You can’t get boards that wide anymore,” Gwinnup says. “They only cost me a couple of bucks. Someone was going to throw them away.”

Gwinnup is like any good carpenter. He loves the wood. He appreciates craftsmanship. But unlike those who prefer to buy new materials and scrap the old, he hates waste and does all he can to prevent used materials from going to the landfill. “It hurts to see a house thrown away like a Styrofoam cup. It just doesn’t make sense,” he says.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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