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Low-Cost Green Strategies

06/30/2011 by


A green approach to designing, building, and maintaining a facility or home need not be any more costly than conventional building and can actually have lower initial costs in many cases. Even if these individual steps are not enough to win a LEED designation on their own, they will reward building owners with various types of cost savings—from lower first cost, to reduced energy and water use, to good public relations and customer satisfaction. The measures described in this article are economical in terms of both first costs and life cycle costs. It is important, however, to also consider green strategies with higher first costs since they can often provide substantial long-term savings, not only in reduced utility costs, but in the comfort, health, and productivity of building users. Also worth noting, is that a key factor in a successful, cost-saving, green facility is the integration, early in the building design process, of all systems for optimal results.

Orient New Buildings Optimally

Site new buildings and position windows to take best advantage of natural daylight, solar heat gain, and prevailing breezes. Natural light, typically strongest on the south wall, provides psychological benefits, while reducing the energy cost of artificial light.


Reduce the Amount of Needed Materials

Renovating an existing building instead of building a new one saves materials and energy, reduces waste, and can shorten the time required for regulatory review and approvals. There can be some challenges in remodeling an older building with green goals in mind. For example, the building’s orientation on the site or historic preservation standards may restrict the opportunities for new techniques for daylighting and optimizing energy efficiencies. On the other hand, many older buildings were designed with large windows to maximize light and ventilation before the days of air conditioning and fluorescent fixtures. Serious structural problems or hazardous materials are another issue that can substantially increase costs.

Using standard-dimension materials in the building design minimizes waste. This not only saves money on materials purchased, but reduces the cost for debris disposal.

Leave structural materials uncovered—for example, concrete floor slabs, wood beams, and concrete wall panels. There are substantial savings in this approach, even after factoring in special texture or color treatments. Forgoing carpet, drywall, and ceiling tiles also reduces the opportunity for mold growth.

Avoid drop ceilings to gain opportunities for daylighting and possibly lower the total building height (taking full advantage of available floor-to-floor height). Surface treatments, including fireproofing and paint, as well as pendant light fixtures, will offset some of the savings.

Plan for open layouts and reduce the number of interior walls to optimize natural light penetration and make spaces more flexible for future changes in use. Special treatments may be needed to contain sound in separate-use areas.


“Deconstruct” when demolishing a building to prepare for a new structure. Salvage materials from a remodeling project to reduce disposal/landfill fees for building renovation debris. Many salvaged materials can be sold, or at least given away, and while the time and cost of careful removal is greater than for standard demolition practices, the tax benefits and reduced disposal costs can result in substantial net savings. Deconstruction costs can be 30%–50% less than demolition.

Another option is obtaining salvaged materials, such as lumber, hardware, and code-appropriate plumbing and light fixtures, from another site. Some extra time is needed to separate and store these materials, and labor costs tend to be higher when installing some salvaged items.

Use engineered lumber, which is made of recycled or scrap pieces of wood, as well as cheaper, faster-growing trees. If bonded with toxic glue, these materials should be sealed to prevent off-gassing. Engineered wood is stronger than ordinary lumber, and more resistant to warping and splitting.

Use concrete with recycled fly ash instead of Portland cement. If existing slabs, foundations, or other concrete structures must be demolished on the site to prepare for new construction, consider crushing the concrete on site for reuse as fill in specific areas or sub-base for roads. Always consider recycled products, from roofing to decking, to insulation, paint, and many others.

The project team should set waste management goals for every project and require a plan from the contractor. The methods might include having materials delivered without cardboard packaging or designating specific materials that will be recycled on-site or returned to manufacturers and suppliers. Specific targets and associated costs and savings should be established.

The cost of installing recycling bins for building users is relatively low and reduces the volume and cost of standard refuse removal, while keeping these materials out of the waste stream. Check with local recycling centers and waste authorities to identify what materials can be recycled and how they must be separated.

Use Environmentally Friendly Materials

Low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, caulks, and joint compound are widely available, as are recycled carpet pad, tile, and insulation, mostly without significant difference in cost from conventional choices. Carpet squares allow for future savings through selective replacement of worn areas. Formaldehyde-free or sealed materials are the best choice for counters and cabinets. Some natural products, such as resins, beeswax, shellac, and linseed and tung oils, may be a bit more expensive, but have lower toxicity and are better for air quality.

Select or add high R-value insulation to minimize heat flow through the ceiling, walls, and floor and reduce air conditioning and heating demand. Check current prices on alternative insulation materials such as recycled cotton and newspaper.

Framing lumber is often from old-growth species like white pine and Douglas fir. Spruce is typically less expensive and may also be grown locally, for additional green value. Look for affordable, certified lumber, or at least make sure treated lumber is sealed to prevent off-gassing of VOCs. (If wood needs to be treated to prevent termites, Timbor, made from boric acid, is considered a low-toxicity product.) Using native materials, including wood (and stone), should reduce costs because there is no need for shipping. It also generates less pollution.

Excerpted from Green Building: Project Planning & Cost Estimating, 3rd Edition, available through RSMeans.

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