I came across a book at the local library, a recent publication that looked like it might be of interest to read: “Green From the Ground Up: Sustainable, Healthy, and Energy-Efficient Home Construction” (2008). The Taunton Press is the publisher, the same place the magazines Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking emanate from. The authors are Scott Gibson and David Johnston.

I was curious to see what the ‘latest’ in green building might be, and how a mainstream publisher would address such a topic. Well, the biggest hint as to the orientation of the book comes on the cataloging data page, immediately following the inner title page. Here one finds the following paragraph at the bottom:

The following manufacturers/names appearing in Green from the Ground Up are trademarks:

air-krete®, Andersen®, Cedar Breather®, Cor-A-Vent®, Corian®, Cracker Jack®, Duette®, Dumpster®, Durisol Wall Forms®, EnergyStar®, Enerjoy®, FSC®, Gortex®, Grace Ice and Water Shield®, Gravely®, GreenSure®, Heat Mirror®, Home Slicker®, Hunter Douglas®, Hylar®, IceStone®, InterfaceFlor®, Kynar®, Lyptus®, Medite®, Metlund®, Micronal®, PCM Smartboard®, Milgard®, Mylar®, NuCrete®, PaperStone®, Polyureseal BP®, Rainscreen®, Richlite®, Silestone®, Skyblend®, SolaHart®, Superglass®, Thermafiber®, Trex®, Typar®, Tyvek®, TyvekDrainwrap®, Ultra Touch®, Wal-Mart®, Zodiaq®

Nothing against any of those manufacturers and their products, or the propriety of their trademarks (I didn’t even realize that Dumpster® and Rainscreen® were in fact trademarks, but then so is Heroin® a trademark, and where would, um, civilization be without that?). The point is that one can tell at a glance that the thrust of the book is to provide ‘green solutions’ that are industry-driven solutions. This is confirmed rather early in the text, page 9, when a sidebar makes mention of
Building with Straw: here we learn that while it is a “low tech construction method that can be managed without a lot of building background”, on the downside, “the availability of straw probably has something to do with where you live” (really?!), that it must be kept from getting wet during construction, and building code officials unfamiliar with the method might not like it. Well, big news there folks. Though numerous books have been written on the subject of straw bale, from folksy-hippy in content to highly technical, all it merits in this book is a couple of paragraphs, and with a certain tinge of disapproval or that is it a risky proposition. You’re insurance company might not like it (enter horror movie theme music). And they are right in what they state, technically- straw is not local to many places (but then, neither is Tyvek®, etcetera), and water getting at the straw either during shipment, construction, or after the building is complete are all distinct negatives. I suppose the same could be said for finish-grade wooden building materials too. Anyway, it’s apparent that this book isn’t going to be devoting much time to such methods as straw-bale, which as they state at the outset of the sidebar, will “probably never be mainstream”.

On the immediately following page we come across another sidebar, this time on Rammed Earth and Adobe. Here we learn that while “both techniques are appealing for their use of natural materials”, unfortunately a “variety of factors is likely to keep them confined to a limited geographic region”. We find that building a rammed earth structure is “not a beginner’s game”, taking “specialized equipment as well as know-how”, and that the process “isn’t inexpensive”. I wonder how the millions of Chinese rammed earth structures, built without any specialized equipment, and looking no more complex a process than that of erecting forms with a few planks and tamping the soil in place by hand, serves as a counterpoint to that perspective? As for adobe, while “there’s probably no reason that adobe homes couldn’t be built outside their traditional geographic stronghold”, on a practical level, they say, “you’ll also need hot, sunny weather and the right kind of soil to make the bricks”. Well, that sounds like a waste of time doesn’t it? I guess it wouldn’t be possible to simply dry bricks under a roof…. Funny though how with cob, which is after all monolithic adobe (same mix of materials, clay, sand, straw), there is a fairly wide range of mix possibilities that will work – it’s quite a forgiving material in fact, especially in comparison to say, mixing concrete, and I would be puzzled if adobe bricks were much different a proposition….

After those brief two sidebars, no further mention is made of any sort of alternative building methods, until a later short section on living roofs (where again they are marginalized due to ‘high cost’ an the fact that the plantings must be appropriate to local climatic conditions (well, duh!)), and a small sidebar on clay plasters (again, ‘difficult’ to do). Building techniques using timber crucks, hemp hurd walls, earthbag foundations, cob, light-clay woodchip infill systems and so forth, receive no consideration at all. The owner builder process is not mentioned. Too bad.

Well, no time to ponder such matters in a book like this – there’s a bright future of exciting new products to be consumed to build your very own ‘green’ building! You see, ‘green’ is nothing more than a different set of consumer choices, it’s not, heaven forbid, about avoiding products of industrial manufacture, say seeking to find ways to build using materials of low embedded energy and high resiliency and durability – the type of buildings that learn as Stewart Brand talks about. No! we can’t have that. That’s not glamorous enough I guess. And is small beautiful, as E.F. Schumacher so eloquently put it? Not in this book – no mention is made whatsoever about building smaller homes, more conserving of materials and energy inherently. Again, too bad.

Well, to the books credit they do spend some time talking about the benefits of passive solar orientation, and how to site a building optimally for that benefit. They do discuss briefly the issue of on-site construction waste, which, by golly, is one of the arguments that the manufactured home industry puts forward too. They talk about saving and conserving water, and all that is very good, but I can’t get away from the fact that the solutions they put forward in nearly every case, are technological solutions of the sort made possible by big industry. As usual they advocate for the ‘tight’ house, the ‘living in a plastic bag’ approach to construction, and once again, the solution to any possibility of stale air in such a system is to be provided by the HVAC people, and a whole-house mechanical ventilator, preferably with computerized controls.

They devote a paragraph in the book to recycling, however then make little mention of the post-use recycle-ability of many of the materials they advocate, like finger-jointed studs, OSB sheet goods, glued-on closed-cell insulation, gypsum board, vinyl siding, insulated form concrete foundations, engineered lumber products, and so forth. The book strongly advocates for SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels), which they claim to be “a green building product on every level”. Huh? Well, how about the embedded energy level at the manufacturing, shipping and crane-erecting end? How about the recyclability of those SIPs when the lifespan of the osb and foam board sandwich comes to an end? How about the inherent flexibility of a product like that, where inevitable building modifications, either to the structure or the building systems will be mandated- how easily modified are SIPs? Not so much methinks. Curiously too, while they mildly deride straw bale due to the issue of water getting at the bales during construction, with SIPs the same problem is noted, that the panels and water “don’t make good bedfellows”, but never fear, the solution is at hand: “careful flashing is key”. The next page reiterates this: “The oriented strand board faces of structural panels would be damaged by water. A continuous waterproof membrane and careful flashing details are essential”. In other words, there’s a problem, but it’s all solvable so long as you pay attention to a few details. Again, comparing to their comments on straw bales, where one of the negatives is that “straw isn’t local to every area”, how local are SIP panel factories to ‘every area’? Does the ‘straw industry’ take out color adverts in Taunton Publications? I’ll let the reader guess.

We learn in the ‘Framing’ section of the text that the timber frame, while “beautiful in it’s own right”, has a drawback: due to the quantity of wood used, is “inherently a lesser choice than a house built with advanced framing techniques”. By advanced they mean using the absolute minimum of wood, with a high prevalence of osb, finger jointed studs, engineered lumber, lvls, and so forth. Again the question of material consumption and use seems to be from the ever so narrow lens of the short term – the fact that larger timbers can be, and are, readily recycled into useful material many years down the line, while all that other modern junk simply ends up in the burn pile or landfill when its life comes to an end (or building fashions change, or the new owner scrapes it off the lot to build something bigger) is not acknowledged. Neither is the significance of the emotional-connective realm of people living within a timbered structure, a place where one can see and relate to its natural elements, as opposed to the sheet-rocked, fundamentally alienating box most of us inhabit and work within. If that is the sort of advanced that is proffered as the solution, I want no part of it – low tech, for me, is the way to go. Low-embedded energy, locally-procured, owner-builder driven, based in traditional craftsmanship and the hand the artisan, with high recycle-ability, materials that are safe to work with, easy to make changes to if the need arises (resilient)– those are virtues to be sought in truly building green, in my view.

I guess it’s not much a surprise that such a book would come from a magazine, especially from Taunton. Most magazines exist for the purpose of selling advertising, end of story. They may start out with ideals, but eventually the needs of ad revenue dictate that their sponsors have some say in the content and slant of the publication. I have read virtually every issue of both Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding, and it is most noticeable how much better they were, each of them, through the first 50 issues of publication or so. More varied, eclectic, open to alternatives, more committed to craftsmanship, even if it was quirky or non-standard. Nowadays, the magazine’s focus seems to be primarily in new tool and product reviews and any form of construction that is pushing the latest industrial product. The ‘solutions’ are ever more uniform and standardized. Articles on such things as the house that the artist Wharton Escherick built (June/July 1984), Charles Greens’s James House (January 1985), or the Bow-Cot Cottages in New York of the architect Ernest Flagg (November 1981) are now but quaint memories in Fine Homebuilding magazine. How can Fine homebuilding, for instance, be reconciled with vinyl siding and vinyl handrails, as have been featured cover stories in the past year? Ya got me. So, for me, these magazines no longer merit purchase, except on a very rare occasion when there a particularly good article appears. And that happens, in my view, about once in two years or so, and that itself is a dwindling rate. If you come across old back issues in a used book shop, they’re worth a look.

Anyhow, the bigger issue is the version of ‘sustainable building’ that this proffered by this book, and others like it, and I don’t see that message, of industrialized ‘green’ building, as part of the solution, just more of the same, only with a new color: green. The t-shirts are on sale as we speak – look for the ® mark and you’re all set.

4 thoughts on “Greenwash

  1. Hi Steve,

    sure, the world can appear sad at times, and something horrific seems to always be goings on, yet in terms of building, there are so many positive and sustainable practices, both drawing from traditional vernacular and new approaches in the natural building movement. I wish sometimes that this society could break, if only ever so slightly, out of the same old patterns that have gotten us exactly where we are today.


  2. Thanks Davej. Re-reading this piece more than 2 years on, I still feel exactly the same way about the issue – a bit outraged.


Anything to add?