K+BB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Sep 13 2010

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Interview with Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen

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I spoke last week with Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen and executive editor of the Environmental Building News.

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Alex was just named the 2010 winner of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing, and will be speaking at the upcoming West Coast Green Conference in San Francisco.

BuildingGreen has been in my secret toolkit for many years and it is the first place I turn when needing information on a green material. Looking for a “green” cabinet manufacturer? Well, BuildingGreen lists 74 articles and product listings for you to review, as well as a detailed discussion of the issues in cabinet manufacturing, including formaldehyde and wood species. Think of it as the Consumer Reports of Green Building. Their unbiased (and often surprising) reviews don’t play any favorites or have blind faith in any company.

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For nearly two decades, BuildingGreen has published their Environmental Building News (EBN) and has always been ahead of the curve on controversial topics in Green Building. They explained the good and bad side of the vinyl industry way back in 1993. EBN discussed the controversy surrounding waterless urinals in 2002. Any green building issues you’re grappling with now are ones they’ve likely dealt with years ago.

While Alex and his staff are inundated with new product information, he continues to be surprised with new innovations in materials. He is particularly excited to see the West Coast Green innovation pipeline.

When asked for a wish list of products he’d like to see, Alex immediately asked for an alternative to polystyrene (you may know it by the brand name Styrofoam™). This oil-based product raises many concerns over the chemicals, flame retardants and the blowing agents used to install polystyrene. He is currently obsessed with finding below-grade insulation alternatives to polystyrene, and has been featuring some on his weekly blog.

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Recently, BuildingGreen revised their previous position on another controversial subject—the use of fly ash in building products.

Fly ash is the powdery soot byproduct from coal-fired electric power plants. Since the burning of coal provides up to 85% of our electricity (depending on where you live), a great deal of this waste product is produced. Some 71 million tons of fly ash were produced last year, resulting in 71 tons of mercury byproduct.

Depending upon the use of the concrete, fly ash can be substituted for 20%-50% of the Portland Cement in the concrete mix. There have been reports of some people using as high as 70% fly ash substitution.

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“Like most people in the Green Building field, we used to think fly ash was great virtually all of the time, since it kept this waste material out of the waste stream,” Alex explained. “But concern about the leeching of heavy metals [mercury, for example] has caused us to modify our position somewhat. We are no only recommending fly ash in applications where 1) it’s locked up, as in concrete, and 2) the fly ash replaces the carbon emissions that would normally come from manufacturing Portland Cement.”

Officially, BuildingGreen no longer considers the use of fly ash in products to be beneficial unless it offsets greenhouse gas emissions.

Portland Cement, the key ingredient in the mixing of concrete, is one of the most carbon intensive industries. The processing and heating of the cement are responsible for 8%-12% of all carbon emissions. Since concrete is a required part of virtually every building, a substitute like fly ash could go a long way to cut carbon emissions.

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I wrote about it back in 2006 and the logic of using fly ash to replace a portion of the Portland Cement still makes good sense. After all, cement manufacturers are already substituting up to 15 percent of the Portland Cement with fly ash to save money.

You can read more at BuildingGreen, download the latest issue of the Environmental Building News and read Alex’s weekly blog.

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Eric Corey Freed is an architect and author of four books, including Green$ense for the Home.

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