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Posted on Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 1:45 p.m.

What does green mean? Builders, environmentalists gather to discuss the environment, building practices

By Janet Miller

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The patio on this home is made from reclaimed local Kasota limestone and bordered by rain gardens. Fifty-five-gallon rain barrels capture water runoff from the metal roof, which is used for the plants and drought-tolerant grass.

Photo courtesy of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, LLC

What does green really mean when it comes to home building? Can builders tell a client who wants to use questionable building materials no? And is hardwood better than bamboo and a brick exterior better than vinyl?

Those were some of the questions and issues discussed Monday when 10 of Ann Arbor area’s green-thinkers gathered to discuss the environment in general and the green building movement specifically.

Prompted by a visit by Michael Anschel, a Minneapolis-based green designer and builder and nationally recognized writer and speaker, the group of builders, government officials and environmentalists were called together by Ann Arbor architect Michael Klement. Anschel will be speaking at the NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) of Southeast Michigan today.

Green building is more complicated than installing a high-efficiency furnace. “When people hear about green building, they think expensive and they think energy,” Anschel said. “It’s more than that. It’s ecology and physics and life sciences. It’s about durability and moisture. There’s so much opportunity to do green.”

It’s even about human rights, he said.

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The cabinets in this home are reclaimed submerged beech from Lake Superior and remnant granite pieces make up the countertops of this kitchen. Upper cabinetry is located on an interior wall to allow more natural light to fill the space.

Photo courtesy of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, LLC

For example, some shale and marble quarries in China engage in dangerous labor practices that put workers at risk.

“There’s one company that even uses a poster to advertise that shows workers in rope sandles on a rickety ladder where they could fall 200 feet,” Anschel said. “I won’t use that product. Our role as remodelers is as advocates.”

And yes, he told the other builders gathered Monday night, he sometimes refuses a client request. That’s part of being a green builder, he said.

As green building practices snowball, issues become complicated. Building tight houses is a good example. It became pro forma a couple of decades ago as a way to save energy costs only to discover that houses that didn’t “breathe” had problems with air quality.

“It’s like the core of an atom,” Klement said. “The more we go into this, it gets more and more complicated.”

Take the bamboo vs. hardwood floor debate. Bamboo grows fast and is sustainable and became a popular green alternative to flooring. But it started to fall out of favor as complaints that shipping bamboo from China was not earth-friendly followed. What’s important, said Anschel, is not to draw broad conclusions and instead to look at what’s called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The Web site of the Pharos Project can help, he said.

“Every different product has a different green quality or lack of green quality. You have to look at the entire process, from extraction to production to transportation to deconstruction. You have to look at the total energy impact and the total environment impact. And you have to include social justice.”

That’s why bamboo can win over hardwood, depending on the location of the installation. While bamboo must be transported thousands of miles on a ship while hardwood may only need to be transported several hundreds of miles on a truck, boat shipping is much more energy efficient when considering cost per pound to transport. Shipping bamboo from China to San Francisco, for example, is greener than trucking hardwood from Canada to the same location, Anschel said.

When making the same argument for brick vs. vinyl exteriors, most everyone was surprised to find that vinyl came out on top, Anschel said. When it comes to energy impact and environment impact, vinyl was dramatically lower,” he said.

It’s a result of environmentally unfriendly quarrying, baking and mixing process for making brick, he said.

Clients are asking for green building practices, said John Beeson, of Better Environment, LLC, who attended the gathering. “I am running into people who want to do the right thing, but there’s so much out there. I’m wondering if they are coming out of this as lost as I am.”


Brian Trimble

Mon, Apr 26, 2010 : 11:26 a.m.

Mr. Anschels comparison of clay brick v. vinyl is inaccurate. His statement, [Y]ou have to look at the entire process, from extraction to production to transportation to deconstruction. You have to look at the total energy impact and the total environment impact. And you have to include social justice, may omit several critical factors in the green debate. For example, what about durability and performance of the product while its being used? What about a products recyclability and/or reusability? Assuming these factors are included in a conversation about green, then vinyl siding fares very poorly against clay brick. Vinyl doesnt last nearly as long, and it cannot withstand severe weather events, such as fire, wind-storms nearly as well as brick. Moreover, most vinyl is typically tossed into a landfill after its service life because it contains high levels of a contaminant that makes it extremely cumbersome to reuse and/or recycle. Brick, on the other hand, is allowed by the building codes to be reused as a building material. Perhaps these factors explain why a vibrant market exists for used and antique clay brick, but not for used, vinyl siding. It is clear from this article and some of its comments that a universal definition of the term green has not yet been adopted. Until that day occurs, people evidently will have to sort through several different sources of information to help determine how green can best benefit them. In the meantime, I would encourage people to visit to learn more about genuine clay brick. Respectfully submitted, Brian Trimble, Sr. Director of Engineering Services and Architectural Outreach Brick Industry Association


Wed, Apr 21, 2010 : 6:27 p.m.

What's wrong with using NH3 as a fertilizer? What's wrong with using insecticides that break down into inert elements like H2O, N2 etc? What's environmentally wrong with using petroleum based fertilizers since the carbon is bound into the growing plant matter?


Wed, Apr 21, 2010 : 8:33 a.m.

ICF is the way to go! My husband and I have our dream home all planned out: a dome home. No roofing, no siding, hurricane, fire, tornado proof...almost non-existent heating and cooling costs, and endless design possibilities with no interior load-bearing walls. The only problem with dome homes (IMHO) is that they are usually designed by engineers instead of, well, designers (which is where my aesthetics come in...hehe!) So lots of natural materials: wood, stone, brick, careful landscaping so the building blends effortlessly with the environment (Aka, not a boring "pimple" or Starwars looking home.) I figure in 10 years we'll be able to start the process in earnest.

Cathy M.

Wed, Apr 21, 2010 : 8:24 a.m.

On organic farming: no mention has been made about the poisoning of the earth, water, and air by using petroleum-based fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Also, to say that those who buy local organics "don't care about any of that stuff, like affordable food for the middle and working classes. The want backyard chickens while they drive their Volvos, Food Salons while people in Washtenaw County lose their homes and go hungry and arugula picked by slave wage workers" - you're very wrong about most of us. We care a lot about those issues, and write to our legislators asking them to stop subsidizing factory farming, which is what makes the bad foods so cheap. We've got to start changing our food systems somewhere, and local foods, organic if possible, is a great way to start.

Janet Miller

Wed, Apr 21, 2010 : 5:43 a.m.

Thanks. The revision has been made.


Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 8:47 p.m.

Steve, Cited from Janes Shaw "Eight great Myths of Recycling" My mistake 10 miles on each side and 255 feet deep. I typo'd the zero. The assertion on organic farming is solid... 50% yields.

Steve Bean

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 8:19 p.m.

Janet, I think you meant "high-efficiency furnace", not "high-energy". braggslaw, so each American gets a little over a half of a cubic foot of landfill space each year? (5280 ft per mile x 5280 ft per mile x 600 feet deep / 300,000,000 people / 100 years = 0.56 cubic feet per person per year.) I think your source has misled you. Your other assertions are similarly of questionable validity, the assertion about organic farming in particular. And digging up plastic would require more energy than would be saved by recycling it.


Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 3:18 p.m.

It really bothers me that the government and media are all pro recycling, while the State of Michigan takes on Canadian trash in the name of the all mighty dollar. Stop taking other countries waste for profit, and I will then feel the need to do my part with more dedication. Don't get me wrong I do my part now, but I could probably do more or a better job if I tried a little bit.


Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 2:03 p.m.

Green should include the total energy footprint and effect of a product. For example, many organic food buyers tout organic food as being "green". It is in fact an inefficient method of farming that wastes arable land and uses much more energy/calorie than conventional farming. The yields on organic food are about 50% per acre compared to conventional farming. Organic food is a lifestyle choice not an environmental choice. Another speculative practice is the recycling of paper products and plastics. (Recycling metal is clearly more efficient than smelting iron ore or processing bauxite). If it take more energy/time/dollars to collect, handle, and then reprocess paper and plastic then it would to harvest trees and use petroleum. Why are we doing it? The trees harvested for paper were planted by paper companies for the sole purpose of making paper. Those trees would not exis but-for the paper companies. I probably will get somebody talking about how are country is being overrun with landfills, nothing could be further from the truth. This is not an issue at all. A single square mile at 600 feet deep could store all the garbae in the U.S. for a century. Plastic is inert so if we really wanted to recycle used plastic we could dig it up later. Let's use a scientific rational approach to what "green" really is.

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 : 1:23 p.m.

One potentially major issue. Is it greener to build using ICF (insulated concrete forms) rather than the conventional wood frame? ICF homes save a huge amount in energy costs. They also hold up better to major weather events. That's why they're becoming popular in the hurricane states. Not so much yet here.