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New York Times

Green House

How to Build a Low-PVC, Reduced-Plastic, Polar-Bear-Sensitive House

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By Florence Williams - March 5, 2006

If the greenest house is no house at all, what's the next best thing?
For homeowners like Tony and Sally Grassi, ecologically responsible construction isn't just about minimizing the immediate impact on the environment (their new 3,000-square-foot house in midcoast Maine was built on the site of a small hunting lodge) or energy consumption (photovoltaics, or solar panels, will supply some of their energy needs). It's about materials, especially plastics, adhesives and additives.

"We wanted to push the envelope on things that green builders don't always pay attention to," says Tony Grassi, a 61-year-old retired investment banker who was chairman of the Nature Conservancy for three years. The Grassis were concerned not only with indoor air quality but also with the impact of the manufacturing process on those who produced the building materials — and the disposal of the byproducts of those materials. Their biggest concern was PVC, otherwise known as polyvinyl chloride, a cheap, hardy plastic used in everything from plumbing pipes to electric conduit. "PVC is just awful," Grassi says. Its byproducts — dioxin and other organochlorines — are carcinogenic, and PVC itself is tough to recycle. But it was often difficult to find a substitute. The Grassis and their architects, Matt Elliott and Dwayne Flynn of Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture, based in Blue Hill, Me., certainly tried.
One alternative, a special polypropylene tubing made without chlorine for the well pipes — called Fusiotherm — came from Germany via Israel.
But for the interior electric wiring, there were no good alternatives at all.

The Grassis had better luck avoiding other chemicals. The house is insulated with blown-in fiberglass, not the familiar fluffy pink stuff, which contains formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also found in fiberboard and plywood, so those were out, too. (Though the Grassis did relent when it came to certified low-formaldehyde plywood for the kitchen cabinets, because no other material was durable enough.) The couple were equally concerned about certain flame retardants — PBDE's — which they'd read are released into the environment and eventually accumulate in the tissues of polar bears living in the Arctic. All their furniture is upholstered with PBDE-free fabric, and their mattress is stuffed with organic cotton (naturally flame-resistant).

The Grassis also avoided copper, because "copper mining is such a horrible process," Grassi says, and mines typically dump arsenic into nearby streams. To replace interior copper water pipes, the Grassis opted for PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) tubing, which is derived from oil, a fact that, for some, would make it a poor replacement. "The trade-offs are driven by personal values," he says. "There is always a greener alternative."

Some of the Grassis' eco-measures were actually cost-effective, others not at all. The PEX tubing was cheaper than copper, but the German Fusiotherm pipes added $10,000 to the cost of the well. One big-ticket item was the $85,000 10.9-kilowatt-hour solar array. At current energy prices, 15 years would have to elapse before it would begin to pay for itself. Overall, the Grassis figure their costs ran 12 percent higher than conventional construction. But, Grassi says, it's worth it if it begins "to drive the market for better products."

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