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This deck is plastic - recycled plastic - and has a longer life than wood. Going green building in your home improvement project is a double-edged sword well worth the effort. Provided you are prepared for the extra leg work and higher up-front costs than those for conventional building, the pay-off is reduced energy and maintenance costs, increased home values and environmental protection.

"Green building" means building with sustainability, longevity and conservation in mind.

Rather than using materials that must be replaced in a fairly short period of time and techniques that eat up energy, green building uses more durable, recycled materials, renewable products and less energy to manufacture materials. It also reduces resources during and after construction, avoids toxic materials and engages climate-and site-responsive design.

 

"Definitions for building green vary somewhat. Most would include a discussion of goals aimed at efficient use of land, enhancing energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air quality and resource conservation," says Liza Bowles, President of the Upper Marlboro, Md.-based National Association of Home Builders Research Center.

For the past decade, the trend has focused on using unconventional materials and techniques in building new homes to get the most bang for the green building buck, but smaller home improvement jobs can benefit as well.

"You have less choice when doing remodeling. You are stuck with the foundation and the framing, but with everything from replacement roofing to window replacements, there are resources," says Tracy Mumma, a program specialist at the Center for Resourceful Building in Missoula, Mont.

NAHB's research center says green building benefits include:

Lower operating costs. Homes requiring less heating and cooling and using less water have lower utility bills.

Lower maintenance.  Long-lasting materials reduce upkeep and replacement costs.

Improved environmental quality. Attention to, say, moisture control or using low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints can contribute to a healthier indoor environment and ultimately a better local environment.

Increased value. Documented lower monthly utility bills and homes that perform better and longer, enjoy increased value.

Experts say virtually every home improvement project lends itself to green building.

"There are many levels of "greenness" - from using low-VOC paints in your conventional, wood frame/sheet rock home to building with straw bale and earthen plaster," says Bill Christensen, founder of Austin, Texas-based Sustainable Sources, which helped make Austin a leader in the green building effort.

Green home improvements can include:

No-VOC or low-VOC paints and finishes and less toxic adhesives.

Ceramic tiles made from recycled windshield glass. "It looks like custom-made tile, so it'll have jagged corners, but when you are finished you'll have what you were looking for," says Leon A. Frechette, author of "Build Smarter With Alternative Materials" (Craftsman, $34.75), which offers green building techniques, materials and theory for more than a dozen housing components.

Durable decking materials made from recycled plastic grocery bags, sawdust and pallet wood. "A lot of individuals are upset about keeping deck surfaces clean and free of flaking. This is a polymer, a maintenance-free product. You won't have to worry about staining and sealing," said Frechette.

Carpeting and carpet under padding spun from shredded plastic soda pop bottles. "You feel these things and they feels like cotton. It will blow your mind," said Frechette.

Bamboo flooring that's harder than oak. "It can be harvested in four years, compared to 20 years or more for trees," says Christensen.

A variety of shake roofing made of light-weight concrete; recycled polyvinyl chloride or steel; as well as a combination product made of wood fiber, fly ash and cement; all are designed to look like wood shake.

Unfortunately, the new products aren't always readily available, forcing consumers to seek out proven materials and contractors skilled in using them.

Green product manufacturers are often reluctant to emblazon their products with the recycled symbol and face the "made-from-garbage" stigma, says Frechette.

Home Depot, Lowes and other major retailers don't heavily stock green products because of their higher prices.

Contractors who are trained in building green must grapple with local building codes that often aren't green-building inclusive.

"Get some type of education. There are books and Web sites promoting alternative materials. Contact manufacturers to get samples and check them out. Get references from contractors who have installed these products. Check the track record. Just because it's an alternative material doesn't mean it was designed for your geographical area. Yes, you really have to do a lot of homework and investigation," said Frechette.

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