If you haven't asked or been asked about ways to increase energy efficiency, you are in the minority. Americans overwhelmingly agree that energy costs are the most serious financial concern facing their families.  Big surprise. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the typical family spends close to $1,300 a year on their home's utility bills.  Unfortunately, a large portion of that energy is wasted.

If you haven't asked or been asked about ways to increase energy efficiency, you are in the minority. Americans overwhelmingly agree that energy costs are the most serious financial concern facing their families. Big surprise. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the typical family spends close to $1,300 a year on their home's utility bills. Unfortunately, a large portion of that energy is wasted. The amount of energy wasted just through poorly insulated windows and doors is about as much energy as we get from the Alaskan pipeline each year. If each American replaced one100 watt incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent lamp, we would save enough energy to eliminate three power plants.  

Energy is usually the first environmental concern to be raised by building owners because the utility bills track the cost impacts very clearly. But there are other environmental concerns that can save money. Water, of course, is one concern because there are utility bills for water, and these are set to increase rapidly. Much of the water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States is now approaching the end of its useful life. The American Water Works Association estimates water utilities will have to invest $300 billion over the next twenty years to replace aging pipes. The cost of pipes for new developments, security upgrades, advanced treatment methods and other needs may raise that bill to $500 billion. That means utility bills are only going to rise. So, you may not have been asked about water efficiency yet, but you will. 

Indoor air quality (IAQ) can have significant cost impacts also. Just ask anyone who has had to deal with insurance claims related to mold or mildew contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that poor indoor air may cost the nation tens of billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and medical care. EPA estimates a 3 percent productivity loss attributable to poor IAQ. 

Schools, especially, get interested in IAQ.  If you are a parent, you understand this.  Things we may accept as unavoidable for ourselves are absolutely not okay for our children. We protect them. We want a better life for them. And potentially toxic chemical exposure is an intolerable risk if it is associated with our kids. The schools know that.  They also know the statistics for academic performance and IAQ. Children's overall performance decreases due to sickness or absence from school. Respiratory health effects, such as respiratory infections and asthma, are the illnesses most closely associated with increased absenteeism. In fact, asthma-related illness is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, accounting for over 14 million missed school days per year. Respiratory infections and asthma attacks are directly related to IAQ.  The EPA has published voluntary guidance that addresses IAQ in schools through the "IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit," which outlines cost-effective approaches toward making the school environment more conducive to improved health and performance.

Energy is a slam dunk. Water will be soon. IAQ is another opportunity.

The trick is to find the balance between potential (okay, typical) increased initial costs for green products and the savings that the investments will generate. That has been complicated because lots of people see the demand and just repackage their business-as-usual approach to claim "green" or "sustainable" or "environmentally friendly." Some manufacturers come up with their own green label that implies a level of certification without really providing any. Some join green organizations and liberally use the green organization logo in their advertising hoping that the green, warm and fuzzy feeling will somehow rub off on them. It's called "greenwash." The term was defined in the Tenth Oxford English Dictionary as:

Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Various citizen action groups, including Corporate Watch and The Green Life, keep watch on the worst offenders and publish annual Greenwash Awards. The Green Life's "Don't Be Fooled" report, released annually on April Fool's Day, profiles America's ten worst greenwashers.  

2004 Greenwash Award Recipients:

  • Project Learning Tree
  • Avalon Natural Products
  • Starbucks
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • BP
  • American Chemistry Council
  • Salmon of the Americas
  • Subaru

2005 Greenwash Award Recipients:

  • Ford Motor Company
  • BP
  • United States Forest Service
  • Chevron Texaco
  • General Motors
  • Nuclear Energy Institute
  • Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
  • TruGreen ChemLawn
  • Xcel Energy

While such lists are never complete, they clearly demonstrate the danger. The old adage "buyer beware" definitely applies. There are lots of opportunities to save money and save the environment at the same time. But, do your homework. Otherwise, you won't see any savings, and worse, you may end up with some unhappy customers.

For energy, any product with an Energy Star label is a good choice. Roofing, HVAC, appliances and lighting all have a range of available Energy Star labeled products. For more information, go to the EPA Energy Star homepage at www.energystar.gov/.

An interesting commercial product is HOSS, the Horizontal Opening Solar Solution, a light-sensitive automatic shading device for skylights. This product can be installed on new and existing skylights. It dramatically reduces direct solar heat gain and maximizes available daylight admitted through skylights. In addition to the energy savings, HOSS can increase fire suppression effectiveness and allow users to abide by increasingly popular dark sky ordinances. HOSS is a product of SOL Inc.


For water, you can't go wrong with xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is an approach to landscaping that utilizes indigenous plants and low maintenance plants which are tolerant of a site's existing soils and climate. Such climate appropriate plants thrive without supplemental irrigation or fertilization once established. They may take longer to look good, but once they are established (usually by the second to third year), they are great. Depending on the landscape design, you may actually reduce your initial costs by eliminating irrigation. Operational costs decrease with the water savings. Additionally, the use of pesticides, which ultimately seep into the water table and damage the quality of our water, can be virtually eliminated as well. Less water use equals healthier yards. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) outlines sustainable approaches to landscaping in the ASLA Code of Environmental Ethics and ASLA Public Policies. For additional information, refer to www.asla.org

For IAQ benefits, consider biobased products-anything that doesn't rely on the vast array of synthetic chemicals that can outgas not only during normal, daily operations but that can become especially toxic during an "event," such as a fire. A great bio-based product line is the new corn-based crash rails, corner guards and handrails from Arden Architectural Specialties, Inc. Arden Architectural is pioneering the use of biobased plastics in such applications. Unlike the polyvinylchloride (PVC) traditionally used, the bio-polymer is designed to be non-toxic, recyclable and biodegradable. It has a melting temperature significantly less than PVC, thus lowering embodied energy. It also performs extremely well; it has the same impact performance as PVC and meets ASTM E-84 requirements for a Class 1 fire rating. 

For an easy introduction to how products and systems green a building, take a look at the National GreenPLUS Registry by referring to greenplusregistry.com. The GreenPLUS Registry is a free, web-based tool to rate the sustainability of a home. It is applicable to both new and existing homes. Thus, it is useful for assessing and marketing not only new construction, but also renovation projects. Ratings are provided in three categories: health, safety and welfare.

  • Health- rates the potential indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and indoor air quality (IAQ) impacts of products used in the home
  • Safety- rates the potential of the home and occupants to withstand a disaster event and function without normal utility services. In addition, it considers the potential of the home to contribute to a disaster event.
  • Welfare- rates the environmental impacts including energy, water and materials efficiency. Furthermore, potential impacts on the quality of resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity are evaluated.

The National GreenPLUS Registry offers current related news and featured products. It is anticipated that a full green building product database will be added soon.

Nobody claims their personal goal is to pollute the air and contaminate the earth.  Pollution is mostly a byproduct of other goals-goals that are laudable in themselves.  We want to earn a good living, own a nice home and send our children to a good school-maybe take a trip to Disney. Still, we know a lot more about those unintended consequences now.  And, guilt never feels good. So, the market advantage goes to the person who can help us meet our goals and do so with greener products. That is one of the biggest, strongest trends in building today.




  • Gallup Poll 10/05; www.publicagenda.org/issues/pcc_detail.cfm?issue_type=economy&list=5
  • US Dept. of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/energy_savers/intro.html
  • "On Buying the Wrong Light Bulbs (A Note on Energy Efficiency) by Amory Lovins, AIA Environmental Resource Guide Subscription, April, 1992. The American Institute of Architects
  • Green Seal; Washington, DC; excerpted from solicitation letter dated 12/14/94.
  • The EPA reported that in 2000, over 20.3 million Americans drank water supplied by 4,229 community water systems that had reported violations of EPA's basic health or treatment standards. Re: Natural Resources Defense Council; In Profile 01/04; p 14.
  • www.awwa.org/Advocacy/StraightTalk/docs/Straight%20Talk%20on%20Infrastr…
  • An Office Building Occupant's Guide to Indoor Air Quality. US EPA Indoor Environments Division (6604J). Office of Air and Radiation. EPA-402-k-97-003. October 1997
  • Douglas, J.W.B, and J.M. Ross. 1965. "The effects of absence on primary school performance." The British Journal of Educational Psychology 35:28-40.
  • Weitzman, M., L.V. Klerman, et al. 1982. "School absence: A problem for the pediatrician." Pediatrics 69(6):739-46.
  • O'Neil, S.L., N. Barysh, et al. 1985. "Determining school programming needs of special population groups: A study of asthmatic children." The Journal of School Health 55(6):237-9.
  • Silverstein, M.D., J.E. Mair, et al. 2001. "School attendance and school performance: A population-based study of children with asthma." Journal of Pediatrics 139(2):278-83.
  • 25. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2002. "Surveillance for Asthma-United States, 1980- 1999." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 51 (SS01):1-13.
  • www.thegreenlife.org/dontbefooled.html
  • Numerous books have been published on the topic, including (per Amazon.com) Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism and Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash.


Construction Business Owner, April 2007