Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction (Book Review)

green building© Cengage Learning

Every year when I start my class teaching sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design, I explain that there is no textbook for the course, because nobody has written one that is any good in a field that is changing daily. Next year I will have to qualify that; when it comes to green building, there is now. It's written by Abe Kruger and Carl Seville, AKA the Green Building Curmugeon, and it is very, very good at what it does.

It is focused on the single family residential sector in the United States, and as sick as that industry is, and as much as I think it is a tremendous misallocation of resources, that is where the action is, and that is where green building has to take root. The book acknowledges it, discussing smart growth, rejecting sprawl, talking about right-sizing and the Not So Big Home, but in the end it is a textbook about how to build a detached home better. And it does that better than any book I have seen.

Before I read it, I had a list of "gotcha" questions, where I would try to see how they dealt with some of the controversial issues of green building. Most of the green building industry in America is obsessed with energy conservation, but often ignores issues of durability, embodied energy, air quality, community impact or sustainable site development. They don't here; it covers them all. My bete noir, insulated concrete forms, don't get a free pass because of their embodied energy. Styrofoam gets called out for its fire retardants. They make wonderful use of outside experts, bringing in Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen to throw cold water on radiant floors and Steve Mouzon to explain the very shocking concept of the "comfort range", that you don't actually have to design a house with mechanical systems that stay at 68 degrees all year round. Almost every gotcha that I could think of was there.

There could have been a few more alternate voices; in the section on certifications, there is nothing about why there are so many, why competing interests support different labels, and the politics behind them. There is surprisingly little about the Passive House concept, about the philisophical split between the approach of superinsulation and low tech vs gizmo green high tech, the Thermos bottle vs heat pump debate that I think will dominate the green building discussion in the next decade. Carl has written about this, too. In fact, their answer to the question "how much insulation should be installed?" is vague and incomplete, simply saying that "installing more than the minimum is always a good idea" until you reach the "point of diminishing returns." That's way too little information for such an important subject.

Similarly, I think the issue of whether vinyl has a place in a green building is an important discussion that deserved better. The book addresses it in a sidebar, "the environmental challenges of vinyl", but concludes that "while these are all valid concerns and should be considered in the overall context of a home's environmental impact, they will have a limited effect on the home's occupants or builders." Vinyl is the only knockout material in Cradle to Cradle certification for two reasons: 1) there are environmental challenges, and 2) there are alternatives, so that getting rid of it is a visible demonstration of environmental commitment. I think that holds true in green building as well.

a typical house© Cengage Learning

This is not a book about design; it is about construction. It acknowledges that we should really be living in multifamily buildings or at greater densities in walkable communities, but moves on really quickly to detached houses on big lots with two car garages sticking out in front, which is hardly green at all.

But if everybody building those houses read this book and followed its best practices, the results would be a lot more energy efficient, a lot healthier, and would last a lot longer. It is more than a textbook for students; everyone in the industry could learn from this. I did.

Tags: Book Reviews | Green Building


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