Pardon my prolonged absence. I’ve been sleeping in a tent for the past five days. I wrote a piece about this annual event last year, so rather than rehash the adventure, you can go here and read about it. The only thing different this year were the lightning storms that set off a forest fire. Helicopters were lifting water to fight it from a nearby lake.

I have also been busy finishing up a set of house plans for a two-story addition. My client wanted to use structural integrated panels (SIPS) for the exterior walls and roof because they have twice as much insulation as a conventional 2 x 6 wall and use half as much framing lumber. The idea was that by using these panels, along with engineered lumber (PDF) for the beams, posts, and floor joists, we would save energy and trees at the same time. But, like everyone else, my client also wanted lots of big windows, a cathedral ceiling, views, and cavernous space.

So, upon closer inspection, just how “green” is this home design? Plywood, oriented strand fiberboard, TJI beams, LSL, LVL, and PSL beams and posts are all made by peeling veneer off of logs or chipping them up and gluing them back together using high temperature and pressures. The processes use a lot of fossil fuel and create their share of formaldehyde and other air pollutants. The panels are essentially Styrofoam planks sandwiched between plywood. Styrofoam is not usually considered a green building material. In addition, though SIPS use half as much framing lumber, they use twice as much plywood. My client could have opted to clean out and finish off his basement and add a second story, reducing wood use, heating bills, and cost all at the same time, but for whatever reasons, that just isn’t what he wanted. This “bigger is better” mindset is the weak link with green building. We need to fix it.

The present building boom in America is consuming lumber like there is no tomorrow. Canada is cutting trees and sending them south as fast as they can chop them down. I called my local lumber yard to check on the availability of fascia boards for this project and was told that since they can’t get cedar anymore, they are now selling fascia made from “Asia fir.” I asked what the hell that was and was told, “I’m not sure, but it’s coming from China.” China? A country the size of the United States with 1.3 billion people and a fifth of the arable land is shipping lumber from the other side of the planet for us to build our houses? It’s a strange world.

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Green housing and food-crop-based biofuels are rapidly growing trends. In both situations, there is money to be made and lots of incentive for greenwashing. Parsing the reality out of the collective fantasies and hype is not always easy to do. If we are going to move trends in directions that are truly environmentally beneficial, we need to be critical of ideas coming along that claim to be green, but fail under closer scrutiny to pass muster.