About this Article
Written by: Laura Jones
Written on: March 12th, 2003
Tags: building & architecture, energy & sustainability, environmental engineering, material science
Thumbnail by: Chineeb/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In Spring 2003, Laura was an engineering student at the University of Southern California.
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Volume V Issue IV > Alternative Building for the Future
The advancement of technology and the preservation of the environment do not have to be opposing goals. When taken together, these objectives provide the basis for sustainable technologies that reduce resource consumption and pollution. Through the use of these technologies and a little creative planning, a building can be constructed that includes all the expected amenities of modern living using less resources and producing less waste. The Loken House in Montana, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, and the Healthy House in Canada each were built with sustainable systems and are demonstrative of the feasibility of urban sustainability.


In an age of rapid growth and development, often the health and preservation of the environment are neglected in the quest for profit. Technological developments have the potential to either deepen our rapid consumption of the earth's resources and generate new sources of contamination, or, if properly designed and implemented, significantly contribute to the efficient use of resources and pollution prevention. Technology is not the answer to these problems, but it can be an important part of the solution. Sustainable technologies are those that reduce resource consumption through efficiency improvements, help to strengthen community, and reduce or eliminate the production of toxic substances. Building designs that implement sustainable technologies that help us reduce our consumption of energy, water, and materials will be key in progressing toward urban sustainability. Today, a variety of sustainable technologies have been developed and many are used in structures around the world. Through an examination of three building projects, the advancement and feasibility of these new developments will be presented.

Explaining Sustainable Technologies

First, we need to establish the definition of a sustainable building. According to Canada's national housing body, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), there are five characteristics a sustainable building design should possess:
  • 1. Occupant Health - The building must ensure superior air quality through the use of a high efficiency ventilation system, low emission paints to reduce vapors, cabinetry made from products that do not emit formaldehyde, and storage rooms that ventilate to the exterior.
  • 2. Energy Efficiency - The building must reduce fuel consumption through the use of efficient hot water heating, increased insulation, efficient windows and doors, energy efficiency appliances, energy efficient lighting, and generous windows (to reduce lighting costs).
  • 3. Resource Efficiency - The building must reduce natural resource depletion through the use of low flow toilets and plumbing fixtures, recycled building materials such as rapid growing woods like spruce and maple, and locally produced materials to support the local economy.
  • 4. Environmentally Responsible - The building must minimize its environmental impact by recycling old building materials, having a recycling center in the kitchen, having exterior compositor, increasing occupant density, and incorporating a home office to reduce vehicle usage.
  • 5. Affordability - The building must minimize long term costs by incorporating a flexible design to reduce future renovation costs, the use of long lasting materials with low maintenance, a high indoor air quality for lower health care costs, and energy efficiency with lower heating and electricity costs [1].

Using Recycled Building Materials

One building that meets these standards is Steven Loken's house outside of Missoula, Montana. Loken, a general contractor, dedicated his career to building with recycled materials and promoted his ideas through his own home using primarily recycled building materials and energy efficient systems [2]. "I wanted to show that you could use recycled building materials without making any compromises on the type of house most Americans want," said Loken on his website, "This meant that the place had to look like any other house if the ideas behind it were going to catch on."
The driving force behind Loken's non-conventional methods is his desire to conserve resources [2]. He claimed that while a traditional wood-framed house uses 11,000 board feet of lumber, he could build the same structure using one sixth of that amount, and all the wood is either salvaged or composite [2]. The kitchen sink may look stone, but it was really molded from epoxy and granite dust [3]. The carpets are made from recycled milk cartons while old car windshields line the bathroom as blue tile [3]. The house's insulation is derived from shredded newspaper, and the waste product fly ash was added to the foundation's concrete instead of cement [3]. Other passive design ideas were utilized, such as a southern exposure that alone can heat the house, even in winter [4].
Loken and others have been using recycled building materials since the early 1990's [4]. They watched communities become involved in recycling programs, but saw the need to bring post-consumer products back into circulation (Lorken). At first the materials were too expensive to use in everyday projects, but the prices have dropped dramatically as more builders promoted them [2]. In fact, the concept of recycled building materials has sparked so much interest that over 12,000 construction industry professionals have traveled to view Loken's house since its completion [4]. Houses like Loken's demonstrate the impact that a passion and some creativity can have on society.