Introduction to Sustainable Construction

Sustainable and ‘Green’ are buzzwords used in the marketing of many products today. Some are legitimate claims of sustainability, while others are propaganda of what has become known as ‘green washing.’

In this series of articles I plan to address what sustainability means in the construction process. Whether you are planning to build a new home on a rural lot or renovate an old building in an urban area, sustainable building practices should be included in your project.

In the construction world we often think that green building has to do with integrating solar panels and the latest insulation techniques into the building process. While these are good systems towards sustainability and reducing energy use, they are but a link in a holistic approach to sustainable building.

The fundamentals of sustainable building and design include many components. We will examine the importance of the site and place in this article.

Location, location, location, the three most important values of real estate, but one person’s ideal location may not be desirable to another. Consider where we want to live and why we want to live there. Consider too, when we are not at home, where are we? For most of us that is probably our place of employment. What is our proximity to our work place? How about the commute, is public transportation available? What is the time consideration? What other destinations, such as schools, shopping and recreation, are related to our commute? As the cost of energy, and specifically gasoline, become a substantial portion of our budget, we need to think about what sustainability means to us.

Once we decide on the location of our site, we can look more closely at the site specifics.

If we are building a home on a rural lot, one of the first things to consider is its orientation to the sun, also known as southern exposure. Very simply we want to position and design the home with the glass and windows placed to take advantage solar heat gain during the cold winter season. Also as important is reducing that heat gain during the warmer summer months. Shading, integrated into the building design, such as large roof overhangs, and placement of trees and vegetation, helps to reduce that heat gain.

Existing trees and vegetation also must be considered for wind protection, aesthetics, and natural wildlife habitat.

The next consideration is the utilities and the connection to the public infrastructure, such as electricity, water, sewer, and the public road system. The cost of constructing a long driveway has become very expensive. On a rural lot an onsite septic system and a well may be the only option for those systems, so we need to be sure the site can support these needs.

When choosing an urban, or an in town location, we still want to consider the fundamentals above, but we also have the closer environment to consider. The ability to create intimate spaces becomes a priority. Is there space for a garden or courtyard? How close to a park and how is the site integrated into the community? Walkability is another important element and can be a huge asset to the urban community.

In the urban location the public utility infrastructure may be already established, so the need to extend pipes and wires and roadways is not necessary. Many of our existing towns in southeast Pennsylvania are models of walkable communities. For example, in Pottstown the public bus transportation system connects all parts of the town together and also connects with the regional transportation system. Pottstown also has ‘Bike Pottstown,’ a program that provides free bicycles throughout the town for everyone’s use. The Schuylkill River Trail and Greenway runs through the town offering commuting and recreational opportunities from Philadelphia to Reading and beyond. A rail line connection, known as the Schuylkill Valley Metro, (SVM), is in its planning stages and, when built, will connect all the towns along the Schuylkill River, from Philadelphia through Reading creating another form of sustainable connectivity.

Other topics to be addressed in this series will include water, energy, heating and cooling, lighting, building materials, indoor air and environment, and solar.