Green Building Introduction

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Over 86,000 commercial chemicals are manufactured or processed by U.S. industries, with many of them employed to manufacture building materials.  The average American spends about 90% of their time inside buildings.  So healthy building materials have a pronounced effect on healthy people.

In 1991, the City of Austin established one of the first green building programs in the world to integrate energy use, water consumption, building-site waste reduction, solid-waste recycling and composting, and healthier building materials into the environment.  It played a formative role in establishing strategies and concepts in what would become a global trend.

While great progress has been made in most areas of green building since the 1990s, efforts to remove toxic chemicals from building materials have been more limited.  Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) air emissions from materials such as paint, caulking, and carpet have indeed gotten lower, but many common materials are still highly toxic to manufacture.  Some of the poisons in the materials migrate into the indoor environment and can expose construction workers and building occupants.  Many of those exposed are children, who are more susceptible than adults due to their low body weight and high metabolism.

The use of toxic building materials is even more pronounced in homes inhabited by people in lower income groups.  Most low-income residents are tenants, and have no control or scant control over the products used to build and maintain their home.  Often the cheapest available materials for apartment builders and owners are also the most toxic.  Even homebuyers who purchase tract (entry-level) homes are exposed to cheap, more-toxic materials because homebuilders feel they need to keep costs down.

Apartment managers that take healthy materials into account do exist.  One good example is Foundation Communities, an Austin non-profit that owns and manages a number of affordable housing rental complexes.  The managers replace their carpet with tile (which is much easier to clean and usually lasts longer), use least-toxic paints, and encourage their tenants to clean their homes with baking soda and vinegar instead of toxic (and more expensive) commercial cleaning products.  However, such shining examples in the rental sector are relatively scarce.

Up-scale green homeowners and builders are much more likely to purchase non- and least-toxic building materials than tract home builders, and exponentially more likely than apartment builders.  This unequal access to healthy homes exemplifies the importance of using building codes and incentives to begin regulating and eliminating toxins in building materials.

Use of toxic building materials can adversely influence the health of building occupants for decades.  And they can affect the world for literally hundreds of years, as some of the toxic chemicals used in building materials do not completely biodegrade for centuries.  Instead, they bioaccumulate in the environment, in the food chain, and ultimately, in our bodies.

The materials in these articles were selected because: 1) they would directly affect the indoor environment; 2) they were likely to be selected for existing homes in retrofit and maintenance situations as well as new ones.

While these articles drew on various sources for information, they were greatly instructed by the research and assistance of the Healthy Building Network.  It is a research and advocacy organization educating the U.S. building industry and consumers on ways to eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals in buildings and building materials.  This organization also inspired the color-coded product ranking charts in these articles, though the author sometimes modified them based on his own research and judgments.

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Green Building Materials

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Green Building Materials
Windows Solar Tubes Fireplace LEDs Solar Attic Fans Paint Caulk Flooring Flooring Adhesive Composite Lumber Counter Tops Wallboard Insulation


Glass in energy-efficient windows can prevent 80% of sunlight from entering a home.

But units with vinyl frames are made with a toxic material. Choose frames made with aluminum, wood, or fiberglass as better options.

Solar Tubes

While these tubes do save energy compared to skylights, both tubes and skylights eliminate roof insulation, which increases heating and cooling costs.


If a fireplace is indoors, it should be sealed and have adequate combustion and ventilation air. However, no type of indoor combustion of ANY fuel (including ethanol replacement for wood and even candles) is completely safe, as they will release toxic particulates and gases.


Residential LEDs (light emitting diodes) have increased in quality and decreased in cost since the first ones were marketed in about 2009. Look for products that have good color quality (a Color Rendering Index of 90 or above). And if you use LEDs in enclosed fixtures (with little exposure to air) or in dimmers, make sure the product is rated for these uses. Otherwise, they may not last very long.

Solar Attic Fans

In the vast majority of cases, ceiling insulation and weatherization are more effective than solar attic fans.


Hazardous chemicals in paint include Volatile Organic Compounds, biocides, antifreeze, and alkylphenol ethoxylates (surfactants that are acutely toxic endocrine disruptors that bioaccunulate in the food chain).


Some ingredients in caulking can be extremely toxic. They include solvents, phthalate plasticizers, and isocyantes.

Though every product is different and Safety Data Sheets should be reviewed, plant- and acrylic-based caulks are the safest classes of products. Polyurethane is the most toxic class of caulk.


Carpet and vinyl can contain toxic petrochemicals, Teflon stain resisters, coal ash filler, flame retardants, and antimicrobials. Together they make up more than 2/3 of flooring sold in the U.S. Carpet is also difficult to clean, and sometimes uses toxic solvents to do so.

The best flooring for the environment and indoor air quality is usually smooth (non-fibrous), and made from non-toxic plant or ceramic materials such as wood, natural linoleum, cork, tile, or stone.

Flooring Adhesive

Actually, the safest floor mount is the one without chemicals. Nails, carpet tacks, and "Floating floors" that use shoe moulding to hold the floor in place are environmentally preferable to chemical adhesives. Peel-and-stick strips are also a good choice since most of their toxic offgassing takes place when they are manufactured.

If using chemicals, plant- and acrylic-based adhesives are the safest class. Polyurethane and epoxy are the more dangerous classes.

Composite Lumber

Composite, non-structural, wood is used in the manufacture of cabinets, countertops, doors, floor underlayment, flooring, furniture, moldings, and shelving. These products can emit formaldehyde.

Products with fewer emissions are either made of solid wood (as opposed to fiberboard or particle board) or are manufactured with no added formaldehyde and employ soybean oil-based resins.

Counter Tops

• If you choose stone, granite and quartzite are extremely hard and durable. But avoid using toxic Teflon-based sealants.

• If you choose tile, avoid products that might have lead-based pigments the glazing.

• If you choose laminate, it is best to buy it premanufactured, because onsite installation can increase VOC emissions found in the adhesives.

• Avoid counter materials treated with antimicrobial chemicals, which generally more harmful than beneficial to health and the environment.

• And poor quality products (that are not easily repairable) of any kind need replacement or refurbishment; such construction creates a different kind of indoor air quality problem.


Gypsum wallboard can often contain "recycled gypsum" from coal ash, with toxic minerals and heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These toxins can be exposed to workers installing the product, and can get into house dust until installation clean-up occurs. When building or remodeling, use as little recycled gypsum as possible.


Insulation can affect the indoor or outdoor environment even if it is wall-off in the building's shell. Though formaldehyde has been removed from many fiberglass and rockwool products, some fiberglass ductboard and rockwool batt products still may contain this chemical, which can offgas Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into a home. Make sure to consult the Safety Data Sheets. Spray foam insulation that is not properly installed can also offgas VOCs into a home, including formaldehyde and asthmagens.

Foam board insulation can contain toxic fire retardants and pesticides that can leach into the outdoor environment.

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