1. Why Green Building?

credit: Lloyd Alter/ House at Mühlwasser
  • Green Building is a holistic idea that starts with the understanding that a building, such as your home, can have a profound effect on our natural environment and we who are part of it.
  • At the outset it is important to recognise that we are an intrinsic part of the natural environment – and not, as some would traditionally believe, in some way distinct from it. There isn’t an ‘Us and the Natural World’, even less one which we somehow have ‘dominion’ over. There is only the Natural World.
  • As a component of the environment, we have relatively recently, within the last 100 years, achieved the capacity to grievously damage or destroy it – and, by extension, ourselves, our children and subsequent generations.
  • To become aware of this capacity is to become ‘Environmentally Aware / Conscious’
  • This awareness of our own potency is new to generations from the late 20th Century onwards.
  • People usually become environmentally aware through learning and experiencing the impact of their lifestyles on the environment.
  • Our lifestyles are largely the material product of industrialisation.
  • The effects of industrialisation have been essentially good for us - yet industry damages the environment and the eco systems that we live in and depend on.
  • Since the Industrial Revolution, the damage to the environment, and by extension to ourselves, has snowballed.
  • How we make things and live our lives determines to a lesser or greater extent the damage we cause the environment we live in and share with others around the world.
  • We have learnt that by committing to slightly different lifestyles, we can arrest and even reverse the damage we cause the environment.
  • People find that through making positive choices, even at a small scale, they can mitigate the damage and even improve the environment.
  • We can limit our individual environmental impact in many ways by changing the materials we consume, the way we travel, the food we eat and the type and amount of energy we use - but the most easily identifiable entity and capacity for improvement is the home we build and live in.
  • Cumulatively, building and operating a house has a significant effect on the environment we live in and depend upon. 
  • ‘Green Building’ is the response to that recognition. By building, or refurbishing houses in ways that reduce environmental impacts – we can make homes that rest lightly on the earth whilst providing healthy, safe, beautiful and affordable environments within which to live.
  • The extent to which we can ever understand and predict the impact that industrialisation has on our environment can be represented by the tip of an iceberg.
  • What lies below the waterline and beyond our knowledge is a vast interrelated matrix of eco-systems. The environment doesn’t work like a classical machine. It is instead almost infinitely complex and constantly shifting. It is essentially unknowable.
Difficult to comprehend: This is the level of complexity represented by just a simple yeast protein network


  • It is just about impossible, therefore, to realise the full extent of the disruption and damage our activities can cause the eco-systems of which we are a part .
  • Of course the current headline problem is Global Warming. Although its causes and effects may not be fully understood, available science is sufficiently robust and agreed upon to realise that Climate Change is our No. 1 environmental issue. Failure to recognize that and arrest its progress will so compromise our existence that the other damaging aspects of industrialisation will fade in relevance to our overall survival
  • But we’re not there, yet. Through international agreement we might be able to prevent and even turn back the present course of Climate Change. Our future is in our own hands. At this moment of human evolution, a dramatist would put us on ‘a knife edge’
  • Apart from Climate Change, many other aspects of industrialisation cause readily obvious instances of disruption and damage in our everyday lives. For example, the effect of diesel fumes is now known to cause lung damage to people living near busy roads. Indeed, the most apparent environmental impacts in the UK that have caused illness historically, are airborne. Before the Clean Air Act of 1956, the intense ‘fog’ suffered by Londoners and others in industrial cities, would have done away with tens of thousands of people
  • Still though, in more subtle ways that we can’t fully understand, pollution caused by transport and industry and the materials we create and live with continue to affect our health.
  • However, we can know enough to begin to identify probable cause and effect to a greater or lesser extent through a number of impact studies that relate to our current subject matter - the built environment.
  • Set out below are the key environmental impacts that we can address and limit through the way we build our homes.
  • In the next section of the site ‘Green/Eco House Design Principles’, we will address potential solutions to each of these environmental impacts.
Getting Hot
  • In the UK, the headlines are that temperatures are rising.
  • If you live in the South / South East England, pay attention!
  • The South East of England is particularly vulnerable to Climate Change with increasing drought-inducing conditions combined with higher temperatures in the summer .
  • By the second half of this century, the climate in the SE will be similar to the South of France today.
  • In the South of England it will become increasingly difficult to control summer indoor air temperatures.
  • The way we build in these areas will determine the level of resilience our homes can provide.



Carbon Emissions and Energy Use

  • The UK’s buildings produce 50% of CO2 emissions (responsible for global warming)
  • Although Renewable Energy sources such as wind are making inroads, most of our heating and electricity is still produced using fossil fuels. A lot of Carbon Dioxide is the result.
  • If you depend on fossil fuels, their financial and environmental cost to you will only go up
Embodied Energy (the Energy it takes to make things)
  • Embodied energy is that used to make materials and building products, including transport. Some materials, like timber, use very little energy whilst others, like aluminium use a lot. Like in all other industries, energy is largely generated using fossil fuels.
  • Includes metal ores such as iron, copper, aluminium, 'rare metals' and uranium; minerals such as the 'non-renewable' fuels gas and oil (see below); and building materials such as aggregates, stone and clay.
  • The extraction, processing, and transport of minerals all have impacts on the environment, as well as risking the health and safety of those working in the industry.
  •  The un-extracted quantities of the various minerals naturally vary enormously. For example clay and stone exist in abundance whereas formerly common metals such as copper are increasingly difficult to extract. The 'rare metals' used in electrical products are found in very few locations -  mainly in China where their extraction and exportation are severely controlled.
  • Our children and succeeding generations are unlikely to be offered the same resource opportunities that are being exploited by ourselves and previous generations.



Fossil Fuel Depletion

  • Our way of life depends on the use of fossil fuels to stimulate economic growth. The most flexible of these fuels is oil. 'Peak oil' is the point in time when the maximum rate of global extraction happens. That peak oil happens is obvious, the only question is “When?”. Opinion varies, some say that it has already happened; most opinion would look to a maximum rate occurring within the next 10 - 15 years, with the most optimistic putting there faith in a longer period still.
  • We all rely on oil in particular for not just fuel, but also the raw material that gives us plastic, a multitude of chemicals, medicines and clothing.
  • Oil should be understood as a capital resource, not an income.

The pollution of our land and water is self-evident and worldwide. Since the industrial revolution our environment has taken the knock. Even now, after years of legislation, our industrial processes continue to pollute water and earth. ‘Ecotoxity’ is the potential for biological, chemical or physical 'stressors' to damage ecosystems.


Alumina plant sludge disaster, Hungary, 2010


Examples of headline world-wide events since the millennium include:

  • Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill
  • Alumina plant sludge disaster, Hungary:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/07/hungary-toxic-sludge-spill-danube
  • Coal fly ash spill, Kingston, Tennessee: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingston_Fossil_Plant_coal_fly_ash_slurry_spill
  • Baia Mare cyanide spill, Romania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_Baia_Mare_cyanide_spill
  • Plastics pollution: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/19/plastic-pollution-risks-near-permanent-contamination-of-natural-environment
  • The Shrinking of the Aral Sea: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/aral_sea.php
  • Ongoing UK water pollution: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/15/englands-waters-to-remain-illegally-polluted-beyond-2021
  • In addition to the above international disasters, we can add the hundreds of thousands of acres of land and miles of water courses in the UK that are contaminated by former industrial sites, factory spillage, waste disposal, mining, quarrying, agricultural chemicals and atmospheric deposition.

In addition to the above international disasters, we can add the hundreds of thousands of acres of land and miles of water courses in the UK that are contaminated by former industrial sites, factory spillage, waste disposal, mining, quarrying, agricultural chemicals and atmospheric deposition.

In this country at least, the full extent of industrial pollution to land and water is yet to be mapped, or its full effect on people documented. We can, though, identify a whole range of toxic materials that are known to cause damage to ecosystems. These include heavy metals, asbestos, persistent organic pollutants (eg pesticides and herbicides), cyanide, sulfuric acid (sulfur dioxide plus rain), mercury, fertilizers and plastics.

  • Most air pollution results from energy use and industrial manufacturing.
  • Burning fossil fuels releases gases and chemicals into the air. And in an especially destructive feedback loop, air pollution not only contributes to climate change but is also exacerbated by it.


Source and for more on air pollution: http://facts.net/air-pollution/


Smog and Soot

  • For people in cities, ‘Smog’ and ‘Soot’ is perhaps the two ways that most experience extreme air pollution. Nobody really escapes it indoors or outdoors. Smog, or “ground-level ozone,” as it is technically called, occurs when emissions from combusting fossil fuels react with sunlight. Soot, or “particulate matter,” is made up of tiny particles of chemicals, soil, smoke, dust, or allergens, in the form of gas or solids, that are carried in the air.
  • The tiniest airborne particles in soot—whether they’re in the form of gas or solids—are especially dangerous because they can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death.
  • Smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs—especially of people who work or exercise outside, children, and senior citizens. It’s even worse for people who have asthma or allergies—these extra pollutants only intensify their symptoms and can trigger asthma attacks.

Hazardous air pollutants



  • These are either deadly or have severe health risks even in small amounts. Some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. They are most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or in the case of benzene, found in petrol. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but are also present in small amounts in the air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn. Mercury affects the central nervous system.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are toxic components of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer. In one recent study, the children of mothers who’d had higher PAH exposure during pregnancy had slower brain processing speeds and worse symptoms of ADHD.

The indoor environment of the home can have a strong effect on occupant health and the productivity of occupants, particularly young children and the aged, whose auto-immune systems are more susceptible to toxic materials and off-gassing fumes. Excessive noise, glare, drafts, heat, humidity or cold can be potentially damaging or dangerous.



Air Pollution
  • By far the most high-profile of indoor pollutants are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products used within the home, including a number of building materials and internal surface finishes such as paint and wood preservatives
  • Studies have found that levels of several organics average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. 
  • Formaldehyde, one of the best-known VOCs, is used in a variety of products, ranging from lipstick and shampoo to kitchen cabinets, carpeting and wall insulation, because it is an excellent preservative and bonding agent. Wood fibreboard (eg mdf; plywood) products and furniture made with these products are found in most homes.
  • A major concern is of the number of carbon compounds that are synthesised by the chemical industry. Carbon compounds are characterised by a chain of carbon atoms that are attached to other atoms. The permutations of combination are almost infinite. Only very few of the thousands of compounds and their effect on humans are fully understood.
  • An early carbon chain polymer was Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) discovered in 1872. PVC is one of the most common plastics to be found in buildings. Its properties as a material make for wide use. It is used particularly for pipes, wire covering, gutters, fascias, vinyl (ie PVC) flooring and most visibly in the form of window frames, the so called “uPVC” windows used almost universally in new housing and replacement windows in older properties
  • PVC has a bad reputation, running from its being dangerous to manufacture to health fears about its use as a building material. Of concern in the home is its ability to off-gas potentially cancer-inducing phalates as well as if it burns, it produces dioxins that cause severe illness or death. As a precautionary measure, it is best to avoid its use wherever possible. In most cases alternatives exist.
  • Asbestos, a carcinogen, is a mineral fibre that was widely used in a variety of building materials and as an insulating material and fire retardant. Though banned in the 1970s, it is not uncommon to find it during refurbishment projects.
  • We should be aware too that just because we’re indoors we are not immune from car pollution. Car fumes find their way into our houses in the form of Nitrous Oxide and Diesel particulates. These two pollutants are known to have a grave effect on our lungs.




  • Nearly all of us suffer moisture in our homes - commonly experienced as water running down the windows on a cold morning
  • Moisture originates in many ways: including our breathing, drying laundry, cooking and bathing.
  • Too much moisture in the air can increase the growth of bacteria and house dust mites
  • In the form of condensation, it also damages the building fabric. We will all be familiar with black mould growing on walls or window frames where there is little ventilation.
  • Good ventilation is key to dealing with condensation.
  • Green builders will also be familiar with ‘breathing’ wall construction. Materials are used to help ‘diffuse’ moisture through the structure.
  • Noise is not just annoying, the long term effects of chronic noise can be debilitating.
  • It can cause increased levels of stress hormones, increasing the risk of cardiovascular effects.
  • Noise has been shown to to increase blood pressure and stress hormones in children as well as cognitive issues such as lack of concentration.
  • Noise control in design is a key element in designing a stress-free environment.
  • As we have all experienced, there feels a link between daylight and sunlight and our feeling of wellbeing.
  • Some people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are affected by its absence during the winter months.
  • In offices, where most research is conducted, natural light has been shown to improve quality of life measures such as quality and quantity of sleep and reduced sick leave.
  • Sunlight is crucial to the production of Vitamin D, essential for strong bones as well as a host of other health issues.

  • 'We live on one planet with finite natural resources. But look at the numbers. It would require the resources of nearly three Earth-sized planets for future populations to consume at the rate we currently do in Europe. The increasing global population means we cannot consume at current levels without a change in the way we use resources.’(source: WRAP)
  • ‘There is no silver bullet. No single action by a government, business or individual will suffice. To tackle the challenges we all face, the world needs an urgent and radical step change in how efficiently we use the Earth’s resources.‘(source: WRAP)

  • The effects of construction activity on waste production are enormous. The industry produces 109m tonnes of construction waste each year (24% of total waste), of which up to 13% is delivered and unused. It produces three times more waste than all UK households combined. Although around half of this waste is reused or recycled, the amount that is simply disposed of remains alarming. (source: Green Building Council)
  • ‘The future is about enabling countries, businesses and individuals to move away from the ‘design, make, use and discard’ model of the linear economy towards a resource-efficient, more circular economy.
  • An economy in which we keep resources in productive use as many times as human ingenuity can conceive. Where we can extract the maximum value from products and materials whilst in use, then recover and recycle resources at the end of each service life. An economy that has supply chain resilience and shared value hard-wired in.’ (source: WRAP)

  • It’s almost counter-intuitive to say that water in this country is becoming a diminishing resource.
  • But in the UK we’re aware of the incidence of the weather extremes flooding and drought
  • As the climate warms, the overall temperature in the UK warms too - often leading to long periods of heat and dryness during the summers, particularly in the south of England.
  • Our use of water in our homes has increased over the last 30 years - a trend we need to reverse urgently.
  • Water saving and water re-use is an important Green commitment.

  • In the West we have caused often terminal damage to the world’s forests, land and rivers through their exploitation for our own enrichment. Apart from the damage we have caused to the environment, we have induced misery and sickness to already very poor people who make products for our consumer markets.
  • The construction industry is a major consumer of natural resources, user of manpower and has a large impact on the sustainability of the UK and the wider world