Eek-ology

The costs and trade-offs in green building give many people pause. Insulation out of Levi's?

FEW HOMEOWNERS have the patience, budget, or interest to embrace environmental rehab methods as fully as the Hupperts (see previous story, p. 24). No surprise, then, that many of those building all-green are, like the Hupperts, themselves in the architecture/ construction/design trades. Says architect David Vandervort, who recently gave his family's Magnolia home a green remodel and modest expansion: "I feel like I learn something new every day on it."

But most homeowners are coming to the topic completely, well, green. "I typically take the initiative on it," says Thomas Jacobson, whose Seattle firm does mostly high-end remodeling. Jacobson likes to introduce eco-friendly materials and methods to his clientsespecially the use of sustainably harvested timber for the framing (which demands a lot of wood and generates a lot of waste). But he notes, "It comes down to budgetary constraints for everybody." Some green partisans may suggest that eco-construction can be done just as cheaply as industry standard, yet Jacobson says, "There's just no way."

On one recent job, he used Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber that cost more than double the price of standard framing wood. "It had to be special ordered; we had to wait for it and wait for it and wait for it." Still, Jacobson says lumber is the best entrée to a broader discussion with his clients about green options. For one thing, the effects are so visible: "You only have to drive a few miles out of town to start seeing clear-cuts." Perhaps a third of his customers sign on, though they "tend to be smaller interior projects," he says.

On top of cost, there's also the "scheduling factor, [which] is another big turnoff," says Jacobson, "tracking down all that stuff, ordering it, waiting on it. Any recycled products are going to cost more and take a little more orchestration in procurement." The other side of green buildingproductive disposalcan be just as arduous. Architect Vandervort recalls, "It was difficult to find uses for things I wanted to recycle. I had to throw away a lot of beautiful cedar siding."

WEIGHING HASSLE AND cost against environmental benefit is one obvious point of analysis. But architect John DeForest notes, "There's other things like risk. If it's a new product that's using recycled material, it may not be very well tested. It may have other problems. A lot of the things that have failed recently and been the source of big lawsuits, like LP siding (the notorious composite siding sold by Louisiana-Pacific in the mid-'90s) or different types of roofingit's not necessarily that they were bad products, but they were predicated on people knowing exactly how to install them and installing them well. And that might be true for some green products."

For example, low-Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paints, which discharge fewer potentially harmful chemicals into the air, "can take a little more prep work," says Jacobson. "They don't adhere quite as well. If you don't get the prep work right, it can actually fall off the wall." Even certified lumber, he says, while "very high quality," is "still very wet, which can lead to some drywall cracking later on from shrinkage." Other options, says Jacobson, like cotton insulation made from recycled blue jeans, "sounds like a great idea, but then people start worrying about things like rodents, decomposition. A lot of this stuff is actually kind of scary for people to try out. People aren't willing to take a chance on their house for the money that they're spending."

All of which confirms the importance of sustainable living, not just building. Instead of springing for the kitchen tile made out of native-grown dandelion extract, consider whether you really need that new kitchen this year (or decade). "Don't put stuff in that you're going to want to tear out a couple years from now," says Jacobson. "Building for the long term saves a lot of resources."

mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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