Being green isn’t that simple sometimes. What happens when you are faced with a choice between two things that both have some green qualities but aren’t perfect. Take the often discussed case study of whether it is greener to use disposable plates or to use reusable plates. Well, the answer is both and neither (and much more nuanced than my simplified version). Using paper plates saves water, soap, etc because they don’t need to be washed but they use energy and natural resources to make and often end up in the landfill. One could make an argument for both or neither.
In construction, we have similar dilemmas. Here are a few:
Steel studs vs. wood studs – Often only used in commercial projects, steel studs are becoming more popular in residential projects. They are 100% recyclable – a huge bonus – but take a lot of energy to produce. Wood, on the other hand, is theoretically a renewable resource but it is not recyclable once its lifespan is over.
Floor finishes – Water-based wood floor finishes are better for the indoor air quality (lower VOC) but generally aren’t as durable. In contrast, oil-based floor finishes are filled with chemicals and but are proven to last for years, therefore, they won’t need to be refinished as soon (saving resources).
Fluorescent vs. incandescent bulbs –Fluorescent bulbs last longer and use significantly less energy, which is probably enough to make the case. However, disposing a fluorescent bulb, which contains mercury, is quite problematic and may lead to compromising the quality of our drinking water in places.
Whole house fans – One of my favorite catch-22’s is self-inflicted. During the last revision of the building code, there was a study that people didn’t open their windows enough and that was affecting their indoor air quality, leading to stale air and sick house syndrome. Therefore, they added a requirement for a whole house fan that would constantly bring fresh air into the house. Seems like a good, green solution. However, you are also constantly pushing your mechanically conditioned air outside and bringing new unconditioned air inside, seriously affecting the energy efficiency of your building envelope and heating/cooling system (not to mention the power used in running the fan 24/7).
So, where does this leave us? Well, we should still do our best to be as green as possible that is for sure. My personal feeling is that we need to dig deeper into the various green categories and create our own hierarchy of importance. Is indoor air quality more important to me than water use? And how do those compare to energy efficiency? If your goal is to do your part to help slow global warming, prioritize energy efficiency over the other categories because that will have the biggest effect on the creation of greenhouse gasses. If you are more concerned about the availability of water in coming decades, prioritize that.
Realize that no solution is perfect – and neither is any soapbox – but this may help make the decisions easier as you try to wade through a project. And for everyone’s sake, if you like to open your own windows, disconnect the whole house fan!