Going Green during Construction

Or: Minimizing Waste and Pollution
by Rachel Preston Prinz and Carrie Christopher

Construction projects produce seven to ten pounds of waste per square foot. This is one of the reasons why construction projects are one of the largest contributors to landfills. To reduce or eliminate construction waste, plan your purchases so that you use all of your materials, then reduce waste, reuse, and recycle what is left.

Materials and products that are benign and can easily be managed through construction either by recycling, reuse, or other means, include:
  • Woody and plant materials
  • Concrete
  • Gravel, aggregate, stone and rock
  • Masonry and rubble
  • Metals (ferrous and non-ferrous)
  • Wood
  • Plastic
  • Glass
  • Doors and windows
  • Asphalt roofing
  • Gypsum board (also called sheet rock)
  • Carpet and carpet padding
  • Cardboard and paper
  • Plumbing
  • Lighting fixtures
Suggestions for preventing building site waste:
  • Provide recycle bins for wood, drywall, cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum, and metal (including steel framing).
  • Store lumber on level blocking and under cover to minimize warping, twisting and waste.
  • Set aside lumber and plywood/oriented strand board (OSB) cut-offs that can be used as fire blocking and spacers in header construction.
  • Set aside large drywall scraps for use as filler pieces in small hidden areas.
  • Reuse joint compound buckets for tool or material storage.
  • Stack and cover loose brick and other masonry materials to prevent staining or loss.
  • Branches and trees from site clearing can be stored separately and chipped for use as landscaping mulch and erosion control during construction.
  • Clean concrete chunks, old brick, broken blocks and other masonry rubble can be used as backfill along foundation walls as well as in landscape gabion walls.
  • When remodeling, separate metal radiators, grates, piping, aluminum siding, and old appliances for recyling.
  • Use leftover insulation in interior wall cavities or on top of attic insulation.
  • Collect clean sawdust for use in compost piles, around planting areas, or for outhouses. Avoid sawdust that might contain painted or treated wood.
  • Use biodegradable trash bags for actual trash. Compost what you can!
  • After construction is complete, donate unused materials to the local building component recycler (often Habitat for Humanity ReStore) or to neighbours.
To maximize the recycling benefits of building materials, also consider:
  • If using a contractor to pour foundations, make sure that they use reusable aluminum forms rather than wood forms, which are most often thrown away after one use.
  • Use the more natural 30-year roofing materials like slate, clay, or metal.
  • Use finger-jointed wood windows, trim, top and bottom plate material, and studs (ask at your lumber yard).
  • Avoid large dimension solid lumber.
  • Minimize material cuts.
  • Use engineered wood "I" joists for flooring.
  • Use trusses or "I" joists for roofs.
  • Use structural insulated panels for walls or roofs.
  • Use engineered wood studs, beams, joists or headers.
One of the more subtle ways we can have a positive impact on our sustainability footprint, especially when we are building the home ourselves, is to think about how we get materials to and from our site. The first instinct for most is to use the vehicle we have. But if our vehicle is a Toyota® Prius, that could be a problem. Many people buy an old truck for the purpose of the build. The issue with that is... lots of gas and exhaust in most cases. So we are building green but polluting during construction. That does not make sense, does it?

To combat this, we suggest that if an alternate vehicle is required, consider one powered by renewable fuels. Buying new is always an option, but if funds are not readily available for that, consider that many governmental agencies auction their fleet vehicles. Check sites like autoauction.gsa.gov or your state’s fleet services sites for public auction dates. Government fleet auctions are a great place to find a first-generation biodiesel truck for getting your construction materials to your site in the most environmentally-friendly way possible.