Time for an update on our sustainable material use
From: Tom Lent (tlentigc.apc.org)
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 1997 16:11:49 -0500
Successes and failures lessons learned
updated April 16, 1997
by Tom Lent

It has been a priority to find ways to maximize our use of environmentally
sound materials and design in this project. We have had several successes
and several disappointments as we have succeeded in including some elements
and not others. Our failures are in part due to the nature of the state of
the art, in part to budget limitations (we are working under affordable
housing price guidelines as well as our own pocketbook restrictions) and in
part to our own lack of time and energy to pull off this whole crazy project
and do all the research we would like to do to push the envelope on
sustainable material use.

Our sustainability concerns started before construction with site prep.  We
have tried to adjust the grading of our site to try to maximize
opportunities for percolation of water before it runs off into the storm
sewer system - not easy in an area with dense clay soils and not easy with
engineers who get really nervous with any solution that doesn't just move
the water off site as rapidly as possible. 

We salvaged and milled acacia trees that we had to cut down (they were
nearing the end of their life, developing serious cracks and crown root rot
and starting to come down of their own accord). We plan to use the lumber
for interior stairways. Getting this wood rough milled, dried sufficiently
and finish milled in time for the construction time line turned out to be a
major headache and quite expensive. A large palm tree that needed to be
removed was transplanted to a new home - a spectacular process involving a
large crane hauling the gigantic 40' tree over a house and a set of power
lines that didn't cost us a penny. We saved a redwood that we had been told
would have to come down because of its proximity to a house.  Digging to
explore its root structure allowed us to determine that it was coexisting
with the house satisfactorily. Unfortunately, this exploratory surgery
resulted in a water line break that led to reshingling a section of house
and cost us $1000 to repair. 

Demolition provided many more opportunities to reuse and recycle. We
salvaged lots of bricks, tile and lumber from the demolition process. The
contractor separated most materials for recycling such as wood and concrete
and asphalt roofing material during the initial heavy demolition phases of
the project. This separation ended as the project went on and the weekly
volume of debris went down. At that point it became harder to rationalize
the space and expense of separation. Once we got to the finish stage, where
lots of light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, appliances, cabinets and other
things arrive on site in boxes, we started separating cardboard for
recycling. Getting the message to all workers and subcontractors to separate
the recyclables was difficult and constant dumpster diving was required. Old
sinks, toilets, windows and a water heater saved from the demolition got us
enough exchange credit at the local salvage yard to obtain several windows
and doors we needed. We designed our site drainage to percolate as much
rainwater back in to the ground as possible rather than sending it in to the
storm drain.

Starting from the ground up, we used concrete with a 15% mixture of fly ash
- a recycled waste product from coal fired power plants - replacing some of
the energy intensive cement. We'd rather not have the coal fired power
plants, but if they must burn the coal, at least we can make good use of the
waste. In addition, the fly ash also makes the concrete a stronger and more
workable product.  

Our mud sills (the wood that goes directly on top the concrete foundation)
and much of the deck framing is wood  treated with "ACQ Preserve", an
alternative to the usual highly toxic copper-arsenic (ACA or CCA)

We investigated the possibility of using straw bale construction but
returned to traditional stick framing because of severe space constraints in
our urban infill situation. We could ill afford to give up the 100 square
feet or so that the thick bale walls would occupy in each unit.
Additionally, we needed to build two story buildings to get the most out of
our space. Since Berkeley had yet to approve a one story bale house,
starting with a two story house was too large a leap. We will be using straw
bale construction for our sound wall at the end of our property that fronts
a noisy busy street. We also investigated straw panel options, but could
find no manufacturers that were actually in production at the time we were
completing our design. We came close to using a product called Thermoply for
shear sheathing made of recycled cardboard covered with foil, but it has not
yet gone through certification testing for this earthquake zone. Maybe next
Turning to stick framing we hoped to use sustainably harvested wood for the
framing and sheathing, but during the planning stages of the project, we
could find sources for neither. As we started construction we found plywood
for sheathing was still not available at all, but Douglas Fir for framing -
while not available predried off the shelf - could  be purchased milled to
order and delivered green. Alas, since we didn't have time to store it
ourselves to dry, we could have serious moisture problems. This could mean
problems with warping wood and popping nails down the road. Hem fir was
available kiln dried, but still had long lead time (4 weeks) for delivery.
By the time we discovered this availability, it was too late. We were under
construction, rushing to beat the winter rains and even a couple of week
delay in our schedule at that point could have been disastrous. Lesson
learned: Try hard to get your lumber list together before the construction
loan close so you can place your order at the earliest possible time as soon
as the money is committed. We couldn't do all we hoped to, but at least we
are part of creating the demand for those who will follow us. Soon it will
be available dried off the shelf if enough of us request it.

We tried to use certified sustainably harvested redwood for decking and
trim. This proved to be a supply challenge as well. Check the certification
documentation from your supplier carefully and demand it up front early in
the process. Many suppliers will say they have certified lumber, but that
can mean many different things, often only that they plant as many trees as
they clear cut. Only the "Smart Wood" or "Scientific Certification Systems"
certifications mean that the wood really came from truly sustainably managed
forestry operations that care for the long term health of the forest
ecosystem. Lumber  delivered for our first deck was claimed to be certified
sustainable, but turned out only to be cut like all other timber, under weak
state law guidelines. We managed to get most of the remainder of our decking
in truly certified lumber, with the exception of some odd dimension items.

We also are using finger jointed wood pieced together from smaller lengths
wherever we can in places like trim and siding where there are no structural
problems and we will be painting over the joints (instead of staining)  

Our flooring is made from bamboo plank instead of wood in several units,
from certified sustainably harvested machiche laminate floating floor in
other units and from salvaged hardwood flooring in another. The carpet pad
and floating floor pad are made from recycled materials (fabric for the
carpet pad, old tires for the floating floor pad).  

On the roofs we used fiberglass composite shingles, which are much less
toxic than standard asphalt shingles. 

We tried hard to specify materials that would have the least impact on the
indoor air quality in addition to being otherwise environmentally desirable.
In order to avoid radioactive materials, we are using photoelectric smoke
detectors instead of the normal radiation based ones.  We are using carpet
from wool with jute backing instead of plastics. We considered using carpet
made from recycled plastic, but decided against it on account of the out
gassing from plastic carpets (whether recycled or not) and due to the
controversy over the environmental appropriateness of recycled plastic
products. We avoided the use of particle board due to its high formaldehyde
off gassing, instead substituting solid wood and plywood in all cabinets. We
are using paints with no VOCs on the interiors (Benjamin-Moore's Pristine
line). One finish we did not evaluate for environmental impact was stains
and clear wood finishes. I certainly would try to improve that in future

We wanted to avoid using PVC in the plumbing due to the toxic nature of its
production and disposal and concerns about its impact on water quality. We
ended up splitting - spending the extra money for copper for the water
service work, but resorting to PVC (instead of clay) for our sewer work for
price and resilience reasons. 

Our heating energy designs, exceed the state standards for the moderate Bay
Area with good insulation and efficient windows. We fully retrofitted
insulation in all of the existing buildings at or beyond the level of energy
efficiency required of the new buildings (R-19 in all floors, R-13 in walls,
R-30 in ceilings). I wish now that I had pushed harder to thicken our walls
and get more insulation into them. It required very close supervision to get
a quality installation job out of the subcontractor. Crews left large voids
in some places and over packed the fiberglass in others in ways that  would
have cut the insulation effectiveness dramatically if not fixed. Some
problems could only be fixed by going back after the crews and redoing it

We designed the buildings with more glass area on the south side to capture
solar heat, extra thermal mass (through the use of a thicker than normal
5/8" sheetrock, gypcrete or concrete floors and some tile floors) to absorb
the solar heat and smaller window areas on the north to cut down heat
losses. Overhangs are designed to shade summer sun and allow winter sun in.
Heating efficiency is increased in our design by using a single water heater
in each duplex to supply all space heat and hot water for both units. Three
of the new units use radiant slab system to deliver space heat. The
remainder use fan coil distribution systems that can be individually shut
off for zoning control. Air conditioning is not an issue in the Bay Area
with ocean breezes moderating temperatures throughout the summer. We will
have plumbing installed to the roof and strong south facing roofing
structures to support future solar water heating options on all new units

We are going the extra mile in conserving electricity and water as well. We
designed for compact fluorescent lights in almost all fixtures and are using
water saving toilets, showerheads and faucets. In our common laundry, we are
installing horizontal axis washing machines to reduce our water consumption
and water heating gas use. Of course, we also use solar clothes dryers

The good news is that we are doing much of this at little or no extra
financial cost - in many cases just the cost of our time to research, find
and evaluate the options - an important consideration in this project with
serious price constraints. Some of the materials (certified redwood, no VOC
paint, recycled floating floor pad) did cost more, generally 5-10% over the
standard material. Some of the energy efficient products, such as the
compact fluorescent fixtures, cost far more than that over the alternative,
but pay for themselves in energy savings.  Some of our efforts to reuse and
recycle (milling our felled trees, reusing old cabinetry, etc) became quite
expensive in time and or money.

Of course, the project inherently has positive environmental impacts beyond
these design and materials issues. As urban infill near downtown Berkeley
and on bus and subway lines to downtown San Francisco, we are providing more
housing that is walking and mass transit friendly. By our community
orientation (common meals, shared child care, group social activities), we
cut our needs to drive and to own more redundant appliances (like washing
machines) dramatically. We recycle every material we can. Living in
community makes it easier to pool our resources to handle the materials that
are not picked up at curbside. We compost all of our food waste for use in
our gardens and are exploring permaculture options for our post construction

Do you want to improve the environmental impact your project? You can do far
better than standard practice without going broke, but you will have to work
for it. Start early and be very specific with your architect and your
builder about the energy and resource efficient designs and materials you
want to incorporate. Be ready to do lots of research and ask lots of
questions. Don't assume that your design team or builder understand your
desires or understand sustainable materials and design. Be persistent as
well as clear. Don't be put off by your design professionals or builder
telling you that "we will deal with that issue later in the process".
Anything not specified pretty precisely very early on is likely to end up
costing more money to add in later or to not to happen at all. With
persistence, your efforts will be rewarded with a project that is much more
friendly to the environment. Perhaps even more important, you will have
educated your architect, contractor, subs and suppliers, making it that much
easier for the next person to do the right thing.

For more info about how to join our community, contact us at 510/549-3749.
To chat with me about sustainable design and materials, e-mail me via the
CoHousing-l list or directly at "tlent [at] igc.org". For more information about
other CoHousing groups, call the CoHousing Company at 510/549-9980.
My bible and yellow pages for sustainable construction materials was the
Architectural Resource Guide, prepared by members of the Northern California
ADPSR (Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility). It
includes excellent descriptions of the pros and cons of different approaches
as well as extensive regional and national contact information to reach
manufacturers and distributors of the materials. To order a copy, send $20
($18 for the book plus $2 shipping and handling) to ADPSR, P.O. Box 9126,
Berkeley, CA 94709-0126. 
Also very useful are some of the computer databases of sustainable
materials, such as the Sourcebook from EcoLiving International in California
at 510-452-0500. 
The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse is a good toll free
source of information on energy efficient design at 800-DOE-EREC sponsored
by your tax dollars.
Fly Ash should be available through RediMix and other local concrete
distributors. If they are not familiar with it, contact Pozzolanic
International in Washington at 800-416-5171 or Mineral Specialties in
Montana at 406-656-2334.
ACQ Preserve treated wood should be available through local lumber yards.
For help finding a local distributor, contact Chemical Specialities Inc., in
North Carolina at 800-421-8661.
Straw Bale information is available from Out On Bale in Arizona at 520-624-1673.
Sustainably harvested wood including framing, hardwoods, and all wood and
bamboo flooring products (including pads) used here is available through
EcoTimber in Berkeley at 510-549-3000 and a growing number of other
suppliers. Ask your local lumber yards first. If you can't find a source of
certified lumber in your area check with the certifiers: Rainforest Alliance
in New York at 212-677-1900 and Scientific Certification Systems in
California at 510-832-1415.
Fiberglass composite shingles should be available through local roofing
Wool & other natural fiber carpets and recycled carpet pad are available
from Hendrickson Naturlich Flooring in California at 707-824-0914.
Recycled plastic carpet is manufactured by Shaw Industries in Georgia at
800-441-7429. Call for distributors. 
Recycled paint is made by E-Coat Recycled Paint Products in California at
916-920-0550 and distributed by Kelly-Moore.
Photoelectric smoke detectors are made by BRK Electronics, model 2839.
Energy & water efficient appliances are rated in the "Consumer Guide to Home
Energy Savings" published by ACEEE in Berkeley at 510/549-9914. Oddly they
do not include the most efficient refrigerator (and also - by a long shot -
the most expensive) on the market, the SunFrost from Arcata and available
from the Real Goods Trading Company. 

This report is printed on recycled paper, of course.
Tom Lent * 2220 Sacramento St * Berkeley, CA 94702-1907
           email: tlent [at] igc.org * phone: 510/845-5243

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