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Q: Why are concrete and cement floors used so often in modern, environmentally sustainable homes?
A: For several reasons, concrete (= cement + an aggregate) is one of the best building materials when it comes to the environmental impact. The raw ingredients used to make it are almost always sourced locally so transportation emissions are very low and you’re supporting local businesses. Also, many items of construction waste would be headed for a landfill can be used in concrete production since it contains all sorts of recycled aggregates. It can also be re-used after demolition.
Concrete and cement floors are incredibly low-maintenance, long-lasting (we’re talking centuries) and ultra-durable. They won’t rot or decay like wood or rust like metals. And they can withstand fire, wind, snow, flooding and other perils.
Green architects love concrete and cement floors for all of those reasons, plus the fact that these floors can be stained, stamped, or colored to complement any interior.
Net-Positive house with concrete floors by green architect Arielle Condoret Schechter, AIA
Those who aspire to Net Zero/Net Positive Passive house status rely on concrete/cement flooring to hold cool night temperatures in the summer – and the chill from air conditioning.
In colder months, well-designed sustainable houses let the low winter sun inside to warm the floors by day, so that they can radiate that warmth back into the house at night.
Modern house owners also love polished concrete floors because they’re equal parts sleekness and sturdiness as well as inexpensive and easy to maintain. And it may be counterintuitive, but they lend a sense of spaciousness to modern interiors.
Q: What are green roofs and what practical purposes do they serve?
A: Basically, green, or “vegetated,” roofs are roofs on buildings and houses that are partially or completely covered in living vegetation and a growing medium, which are on top of a waterproof and root barrier membrane with a drainage system.
The type of plant material used depends on the climate of the region where it’s applied and how deep and complicated the owner is willing to go. Some green roofs sport actually small trees and shrubbery. But succulents are popular for low-maintenance green roofs almost everywhere. What purpose do they serve? Many! Here are six to get you started: 1. They keep the sun from baking the roof in summer, thus reducing energy usage and saving home and builder owners’ energy costs. 2. They are excellent insulators year-round (ditto!) 3. They effectively utilize plants’ natural ability to filter rainwater and lower air temperature in city and suburban landscapes. 4. By absorbing and filtering rainwater, the also reduce urban stormwater run-off with pollutes the water system. 5. They reduce the “heat island” effect in urban contexts where pavement is predominant. 6. They’re beautiful. (That’s not “practical” but important.) Green roofs are suitable for retrofitting onto an existing home or building as well as the new construction. They can be as small as the roof over a garage or campus bike rack, or as large a broad, cantilevered beauty over a large modern residence, atop a historic academic structure, or across an entire industrial complex. A green roof must be installed by bonded professionals. This is not – repeat: not – a job for a “weekend warrior.”
Q. I’ve heard about porous pavers as an eco-friendly solution for driveways. What are my benefits?
A. We are huge fans. Porous – or permeable – pavers allow rain and any other water to go straight through to the ground, eliminating both runoff that carries pollutants to waterways and the need for expensive drainage systems. And they dry quickly. The permeable pavement grids are made of recycled material. At the end of their long lifespan, they can easily be recycled, further reducing their carbon footprint.
Porous pavers are available in a vast array of styles, colors, textures, shapes, and degrees of "openness" to let green show through. They are as durable as concrete or asphalt (perhaps more so than the latter) yet capable of “moving” with the ground so there are no buckling or cracking issues. They’re easy to install and less expensive per square foot than concrete or asphalt.
Bottom line: If you’re building a driveway – or parking spaces – do the earth a favor and choose porous pavers!
Q. We have to replace our shingle roof and my partner wants to use metal, which is going to be more expensive. Is it worth it?
A. If you care about energy efficiency, it is absolutely worth it and the reason why most “green” architects specify metal for the homes they design, whether modern or traditional.
Standing-seam metal reflects radiant heat from the sun, minimizing midday heat gain. So you’ll save energy (and money) on air conditioning during the day.
Properly installed, metal roofs also seal out water better than shingles, survive high winds, resist mildew, insects, and rot, and should last as long as the house. We suggest taking some time to do a search on the “pros and cons of metal roofing.” But we suspect you’ll see that the “pros” far outweigh the cons.