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North Hills Monthly

Home, Green Home: The Importance of Sustainable Building

Apr 02, 2017 12:04PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

Photo by Denmarsh Photography

The green building movement has taken off in the past 10 years. According to a 2015 report by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which certifies green building standards, more than 3.6 billion square feet, or 69,000 buildings, have so far been certified in 150 countries. 

Green Building in Pittsburgh

Green building, or sustainable design, is the practice of increasing the efficiency with which buildings and their sites use energy, water, and materials, and of reducing impacts on human health and the environment for the entire lifecycle of a building. True green building concepts extend beyond the walls of buildings and include site planning, community and land-use planning issues as well.

According to Pittsburgh Green Story—a partnership of collaborative organizations that are champions of Pittsburgh’s historic, current, and future green stories—the city’s ongoing physical, mental, economic, and environmental transformation has propelled a surge in sustainable development, green innovation, and collaboration across sectors. Municipal governments, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and university-based initiatives have all worked side-by-side on creating a progressive, sustainable region.  

Although green building and the practice of sustainable principles have definitely been on the forefront of the design and building industry for the past 30 years, it really isn’t a recent trend, according to North Hills’ resident Bill Biss. As the assistant professor of interior architecture at Chatham University, Biss believes the philosophy has been in existence since the earliest forms of shelter were built with indigenous materials. That being said, most consider the energy crisis of the 1970s to be the birth of what we now consider today’s green building trend.

“High energy costs, paired with a heightened awareness of environmental issues, were definitely the catalysts for change in the 70s,” Biss explained. “As great as the Industrial Revolution was for the U.S. in terms of manufacturing and building technology, there was approximately 100 years of production without any consideration of the environment. Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh are still dealing with the adverse effects today.”

Professor Biss has seen an uptick in green building in the region over the past decade, however. “True green building, which is a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach covering  all aspects from planning to design to construction through occupation/use to demolition, has been gaining momentum for years in both commercial and residential construction,” he said. “People are becoming not only more environmentally conscious, but they are realizing the cost-saving benefits of ‘going green’ as well.” 

RE/MAX Realtor Karen Frank agreed. “What started out as being beautiful and luxurious is now considered environmentally ethical and healthy,” she said. “There’s definitely a population that feels that building a green home is the right thing to do, and that the extra savings over a period of time is worth it to them.”

Going Green in Your Home or Business

While Frank explained that the greatest opportunity to find a truly green home is by way of new construction, there are still many opportunities to make existing homes ‘greener’ by choosing eco-sensitive materials and energy efficient systems when renovations are desired. 

“There are a number of ways that homes can be created or retrofitted to use less energy,” she explained. “Changing to a tankless water heater; utilizing products such as carpeting made from recycled fibers; using low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints such as Sherwin Williams’ Harmony paints; and switching to linoleum made from linseed oil and renewable materials, in place of vinyl that is made from petroleum products—all are easy ways to make your home more green.” 

Frank shared that the use of sustainable materials in furnishings can also help create a healthier living space. “Cork, soy and hemp are all being found in furnishings and fabric. The use of these materials is paramount because it does not take more from the environment than what can be readily replenished,” she said.

Professor Biss believes that green building will continue to grow and that, in many ways, certain green practices have already become commonplace. 

“Low-E, argon-filled, double-pane windows to control solar heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter have become the standard in both new construction as well as in replacement windows,” he said.

Other small steps to increase home efficiency that almost anyone can do include the use of Energy Star® rated appliances as well as the use of natural materials such as stone or granite, solid wood, and recycled materials.

So is the cost of ‘going green’ worth it in the long run? Professor Biss thinks so. 

“As technology advances, many green strategies and products become more affordable. There are also tax incentives in place for green practices and making these types of upgrades to current homes,” he said. “Sustainability is all about the long run financially, environmentally, and socially.”

Pittsburgh’s environmental transformation has played a key role in its rankings as one of the top places to live, work, and visit in the United States, so in some ways, the city’s green story has been achieved. But for many, it is just the beginning.

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