Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Importance of Housing and Building Construction Choices on the Health of the Earth

Construction methods have an enormous impact on energy usage world-wide. Energy production is playing a huge part in the unintentional human modification of the global environment. Heating and cooling loads of housing in aggregate far exceed transportation in the global energy budget.

Such choices also have an enormous impact on the demand for raw materials that must be taken from the Earth in order to replace worn out buildings and homes.

Unfortunately, construction methods and the attendant demands the resulting buildings place on global energy and materials supplies are not nearly so much discussed in most quarters when considering how to reduce greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions as are other issues. The focus in most current discussion seems to be on energy production first, followed by transportation fuel types and efficiencies, then by appliance efficiencies, and the lastly making existing construction methods more energy efficient in relatively small increments.

I suppose that this lack of sufficient importance in current discussion on sustainability is a result of the common human condition of longing for times and people that have gone by and passed out of the world. Nostalgia, cultural tradition, and a wish to hold on to as much of the past as possible for as long as possible all seem to hold sway in the reluctance to truly address the type of home developers and home buyers choose to build. People grow up to see the homes their parents and grandparents own as symbols of status and wealth in their cultural hierarchy and choose what they feel will raise their status within the bounds of tradition. I even find myself confronting this "feeling" of "what makes a beautiful house a respectable home."

The problem is, such emotional decisions based on tradition often block innovation that could vastly reduce the demands that housing and building construction place on both the global environment AND on the home or building owners and residents' financial resources and monthly budget. Additionally, many traditional constrcution methods require greater maintenance and replacement of failed components than construction methods waiting in the wings would, if they were embraced in modern culture.

Earth bag construction, rammed earth construction, straw bale construction, and adobe construction are far more energy-efficient and durable than conventional stick or brick housing. These methods can be applied in almost all climate types, and are extremely sustainable.

Additionally, earthen construction methods and materials when properly executed are capable of withstanding hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and even earthquakes up to magnitude 6.5 in some cases when properly executed. This type of construction would vastly reduce economic losses and insurance demands in the face of most natural disasters, and displace far fewer people in such circumstances. The recent experiences of the Gulf Coast of the United States, Indonesia, Bam, Iran, and the Asian victims of the tsunami come to mind. So do the victims of wildfires in the Western US.

An excellent resource on many of these types of construction is Mother Earth News magazine.

Additionally, many of these construction methods cost a fraction of "conventional" housing in terms of materials, and are more labor-intensive. Thus, choosing such construction methods will increse employment opportunities for construction workers while reducing the demands on global forests and energy supplies.

Many such homes are habitable for up to 500 years vs. the 100-200 years possible life cycle of wooden homes.

In addition, homes designed to work in harmony with nature, using such features as a prominent Southern exposure for most windows and rooftop gardens can further enhance their organic beauty and energy efficiency.

Many of these construction methods have been known, employed, and perfected for millennia. These are far less "new" methods than ones that originate in modern Western cultures.

Such construction methods should be sought out, modernized as necessary, and used extensively as rapidly as possible. A commitment to such a construction renaissance could have an incredibly vast impact on the future of the global climate and the economic resiliency of the global economy in both the short and the long term.

It is incumbent upon modern developers and consumers to lay the foundations for such change, in coordination with educational institutions and building inspection and regulating officials.

It is up to Earth Stewards to lead the way in this effort. Many of us will face the traditional nostalgic and cultural tradtions of spouses and parents in the attempt to move such change forward. Still, the effort must be made.

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