By Matthew Power.

Resources at Risk: Material World

When the NAHB Research Center measured the materials used to build new homes a few years ago, they made an observation that has since become prophetic. Forget the fact that average home size has more than doubled since the 1950s. When you take residential construction to the next tier--as so many builders have--and double the size again, to, say, 5,000 square feet, resource use triples. Higher ceilings. More windows. Bigger garages. So much for economies of scale.

The classic defense: This is the product consumers want. But some resource ecologists and sociologists argue that builders have their economic model backward.

"Production drives consumption, and not vice versa," says sociology professor and author Kenneth Gould, of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. "People don't go out and ask for glittery toothpaste. Somebody makes it, markets it, and convinces them they will be happier people with it. It's not about individuals, it's about the structure of our economy, which requires constant increases in consumption for its survival.

"Why are houses getting bigger?" Gould continues. "Because we have more stuff. Why do we have more stuff? Because consumers are bombarded with thousands of commercials telling them consumption will fix them. But we have to go after production, and that means challenging political power. What do we do instead? We blame the victims."

Give and take

Hold on. What's the problem with living large? We seem to have plenty of resources. Tree cover in the United States is actually increasing, due in part to the growing practice of "plantation" growing by the timber industry. And most of the other raw materials that go into our homes remain plentiful--and can be extracted from native soils. These include gypsum, limestone, shale (for cement), and aggregate.

But at the same time, forests in the developing world have declined by nearly 10 percent from 1980 levels because of expanding economies, in concert with greater demand from the industrial world.

Photo: Shane Rebenschied

The problem, say ecologists, is that the world environment is now economically linked. Excessive consumption in the United States ripples through ecosystems from Russia to Brazil. To illustrate, consider the dynamics of the global forest products industry. For example, in Canada, the largest exporter of softwood to the States, the impact of U.S. housing demand is clear and present. According to environmental watchdog Global Forest Watch, "the logging of frontier forests and clear-cutting account for approximately 90 percent of all logging activity." The result: a dramatic impact on biodiversity and the landscape in a country with "one of the lowest population densities in the world."

In another example, a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer describes a huge surge last year in U.S. imports of exotic woods--especially mahogany--in the form of inexpensive furniture from Asia. These materials take a circuitous route, from tropical forests to Asian factories to U.S. homes.

But that doesn't negate the environmental impact. Along with loss of biodiversity and damage to the developing world's freshwater supplies, increasing evidence suggests that changes in forest cover directly affect regional and global climate. NASA climatologists acknowledge that they don't fully understand the process, but they clearly see the results: drought, floods, and extreme weather.

The other penalty for over-consumption is our "hidden" waste stream--the byproducts created as we extract raw materials from the earth (see "The Waste Trail," right).

The Waste Trail
Hidden Flows (in thousands of metric tons, 1996)
Coal, mining overburden, and waste 6,006,355
Soil erosion 3,448,536
Earth-moving for infrastructure 3,105,838
Minerals, mining, overburden, and waste 2,478,403
Dredging 458,700
Other 876,834
What a Waste: So-called hidden flows account for almost 75 percent of the total domestic output of the United States, yet they do not enter the economy. They represent materials that are "displaced," to end up in landfills and waterways, and do not include recycled or exported materials.
Source:"The Weight of Nations: Material Outflows from Industrial Economies," by the World Resources Institute, 2000

These pollutants may end up in our waterways, lakes, and oceans, compounding the ecological damage. What to do?

Increasingly, large trophy homes are being seen as symbols of flaunted wealth and privilege. In some places, they may simply be legislated out of existence. Opposition to large homes has already reached the political front line in some communities, such as Duck, N.C., where officials put a six-month moratorium on homes with more than six bedrooms.

Paul Turrell, a builder in Grand Valley, Ontario, Canada, says he used to build starter mansions, until his conscience--and his love of the local landscape--got the best of him. Now, he and his wife, Donna Pascoe, are building and designing eco-friendly homes, made with certified lumber, composting toilets, photovoltaic panels, recycled materials, and modestly sized floor plans.

"Most people sacrifice their convictions," says Turrell, "but we feel you can have it all, with proper design, planning, and careful spending where it counts. When we went into this, we found that nobody was even offering these things. It's a niche that is completely open."

"We made a commitment to ourselves," he adds, "as well as to our children and the earth--to live responsibly."

Mathis Wackernagel, author of Our Ecological Footprint, suggests there are many ways builders can do the same. He notes that pushing housing density and working in urban locations really works.

"Preliminary estimates show that living in a multi-unit condominium or apartment of similar market value to a suburban house, and using a compact, energy-efficient car rather than a standard-sized vehicle, can reduce a household's transportation and housing footprint by a factor of three," he notes.

Wealthy buyers can actually help ecologically, he says, by making choices that locate their expensive townhouses in urban areas. "A person's footprint size is not fixed by their income," he explains. "The wealthy have more lifestyle choices that can affect the size of their ecological impact."

Recycling of materials can also help, although the difficulty is often in finding a recycling center for construction and demolition waste. But Gould warns that recycling alone is not a solution to over-consumption. In fact, he says, it may act more like a religious indulgence, encouraging more resource use by making people feel good because they sorted their trash. "For building materials, what's much more important is reuse of materials," he notes. "That way, you avoid the costly process of converting recycled material back into products."

Paths to Glory

Adopting any of these 10 globally minded philosophies will move you toward environmentally responsible building. 1. Build smaller, better-designed homes. Offer them first in your plan book.

2. Look for urban infill sites first, not rural, agricultural tracts.

3. Consider multifamily construction.

4. Phase in alternative structural materials.

5. Build only with certified lumber.

6. Choose products with the highest recycled content.

7. Question the geographic source of furnishings and panels.

8. Weigh durability above cost.

9. Use salvaged materials whenever possible.

10. Recycle anything that can't be reused on the next job.