Hepcats Build Green

 

“A person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns esp. in music; characterized by a keen informed awareness of or interest in the newest developments.”
— definition of a Hepcat from The World of Swing, Newsletter #2, October 2000.

An 18 story building in Brumunddal, Norway, has taken over the title of world’s tallest timber building after its completion this month. The construction firm Moelven Limitre used cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glued laminated timber (Glulam) to assemble the building’s structural elements. Until the recent development of laminated wood products capable of bearing heavy loads (unlike plywood, another laminated wood product), building heights of more than four or five stories were simply not possible using a wooden structure. For constructing buildings in the middle range of story heights, wood may be a greener alternative than steel, concrete, and brick, all of which have high environmental impacts in their production.

 

The good news in green building is that there are more options than ever, certainly more than the few allotted to the three little pigs in the story for children. Some of these, like straw bale building, will likely never be more than niche choices because of building code hurdles, expense of materials or labor in installation, or maintenance difficulties. Unusual building choices also often require specialized knowledge in their implementation if they are to be successful, and that can add to cost as well as scare off those unwilling to try something with a relatively high chance of failure. Working with wood or with steel and concrete has the advantage of familiarity, even considering new contrivances like wood laminates.

Straw bale house x - Dyssekilde økolandsby ecovillage Denmark
A straw bale house in Denmark. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad.

Anyone in decent physical condition with access to a supply of timber and a hammer and saw could assemble a wooden building using balloon framing, also known as stick building. Since stick building was typically limited to two or three stories at most, it was best used for residential or small business construction. Building with brick or concrete, and especially with steel, required more knowledge and experience, but the buildings could be made much higher than wooden stick buildings, and so they were more suitable for large commercial enterprises and apartment buildings. For all of the twentieth century there existed a bifurcation in building types and uses based on the divide between materials and the expertise and expense involved in assembling them.

 


The Emlen Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey, designed in 1879 in the “Stick Style” by architect Frank Furness. Library of Congress photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Now there is a crossing of the lines, and helpfully it is the search for green options that appears to be causing architects, builders, and the ultimate occupants of the buildings to cross them. For more people than ever before, it is important that a new way of building and living incorporate materials and methods that leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. Certainly the pricing for these novel uses will be high, at least at first, and affordable only to elites, but that’s alright since historically it has been elites who, per capita, have had the heaviest footprints. There are far more poor people than rich people, unfortunately, and in the aggregate they demand a lot of resources, but individually their requisites are relatively light. In the nineteenth century, the Plains Indians required only a few buffalo hides for their individual shelter, while a Manhattan plutocrat deemed it necessary to amass expensive materials from every corner of the Earth to plop himself and his family down in an enormous mansion on 5th Avenue.

An imaginative 1957 reframing of “The Three Little Pigs” by a wonderful ensemble of animators, musicians, and storytellers.

If conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous greening then that’s a move in the right direction, and if prices and usage comes down to the level of ordinary folks, it will have become a movement. It’s definitely better for everyone if builders start looking at environmental impacts as equal to or greater than the lowest possible cost for everything, and consequently the highest possible profit for themselves. That should apply most of all to manufactured housing, typically the lowest cost option of all, but also often the most dangerous to its occupants because of the prevalence of noxious materials, heavy reliance on energy for heating and cooling, and flimsy construction. After Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a movement started to design and build quality, humble cottages for the poor, and that movement needs rejuvenation if large gains are ever to be made in going green because the idea behind them would change whole neighborhoods and cities eventually, from the ground up rather than the top down, the way green grows naturally.
— Izzy

 

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