By Robert Montoya

Ask a random person what it means to be green, and they will probably provide some type of explanation that includes the word recycling. The problem is, that reduction and reuse actually have a much larger impact on the environment than recycling. My theory is that, since America is such a wasteful society, we have a lot of things to recycle. An over emphasis of a low priority eco-solution over a higher priority eco-solution can actually do more harm than good to the environment.

I learned this lesson the hard way, by running a recycling business. My company, at the time, recycled Styrofoam, which was an exciting accomplishment. Even with major cooperation from all the communities in the region, it was still much more expensive to collect the post consumer Styrofoam and grind it, than it was to simply buy the ground waste cutoffs from the factory. Most of the cost was associated with recycling Styrofoam was energy. For example, the cost to transport the waste back to our factory and then grind it, made this type of recycling prohibitive.

The striking thing is that cost effective recycling is more the exception than the rule, which raises some important questions, namely, “Why are we putting such a big emphasis on recycling and completely neglecting the reduction and reuse?”
Green building also over emphasizes low priority eco-solutions. Most assessments assume that the home itself should also be disposable and will need to be recycled. The possibility of a home lasting forever and not need to be recycled is not even considered as a possibility. The longevity of a home is almost completely absent from most green building assessments. Wood frame buildings rarely last more than 100 years, and yet continue to be the most common type of construction in the United States and Canada. The Ancient Romans built concrete buildings 2000 years ago and many of these buildings are still standing. It is interesting that even the poorest countries in the world build with concrete. Now, granted, other countries do not put much emphasis on insulation, nevertheless, they do build structures that last for centuries. Insulated Concrete Forms combine the benefits of super insulation with a building that lasts for centuries.

After less than a century, wood frame homes are demolished, which takes energy, hauled to the landfill, which takes energy and space, only to be replaced with yet another wood frame home. In contrast wood frame homes can last a thousand years or more. Insulated Concrete construction is the ultimate reduce and reuse technology since these homes get reused for centuries and utilize less energy for that duration of time.

Now this revelation is controversial since so many people own wood frame homes, but it is important to expose this myth about wood frame homes being considered green building. Giving people the illusion that their wood frame homes are green built is not ethical. Assessments that ignore longevity as a component of green building assessments, force people away from the best environmental technology available

The benefits of Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) construction are staggering. ICF construction is proven to withstand tornado hurricane force winds, have up to a 4 hour fire rating, are resistant termites, roaches and rodents, use up to 50% less energy for heating and air conditioning, are allergen resistant with no hidden danger from mold and mildew. Insurance premiums can be as much as 20% lower, can save up to 47 trees and actually require less construction time and labor. There is simply no better way to build a home.

This passive solar home is built completely with concrete and steel so that it will last for a thousand years or more.

The cost of ICF construction is 2-10% higher than wood frame construction, but this extra cost is usually recovered in energy savings over the first ten years. In addition, in communities like Santa Fe, where 2000+ buildings have been built with ICF, homes appraise up to 20% higher than wood frame construction, so it is an economical as well as environmental solution.

ICF construction is a great example of a reduce and reuse technology since buildings are so large and should never be recycled, but these solutions exist in all areas of our lives. From disposable water bottles to the paper and plastic dilemma at the supermarket, there are always ways to avoid recycling all together by finding a way to simply reuse and thereby completely eliminating a product from the waste stream. After all, isn’t eliminating a waste product altogether better solution than simply recycling it?

Robert Montoya is President of ExtremeGreenDesign.com which is a Design Build company devoted to using environmentally friendly construction techniques that are economically viable.   Extreme Green was ranked as the leading residential green builder in New Mexico, by NM Business Weekly.