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The Green Outdoors

With the topic of global warming now fixed in the national discourse, green building and remodeling has surged. Contractors, architects and clients are more likely than ever to ask: how can this project be energy efficient, resource-conservative, and healthy and comfortable, too? Those questions apply to outdoor living areas, too: how can we use green building principles to construct this deck?...

April 30, 2007

With the topic of global warming now fixed in the national discourse, green building and remodeling has surged.

Contractors, architects and clients are more likely than ever to ask: how can this project be energy efficient, resource-conservative, and healthy and comfortable, too?

Those questions apply to outdoor living areas, too: how can we use green building principles to construct this deck? Or this arbor? Or this patio?

Here are some ideas:

The original plans for this stairway and a retaining wall called for concrete block and plaster walls. However, when Allen Associates' team unearthed giant sandstone boulders while excavating a motor court, the contractor quickly substituted them in. This helped move the project in the green direction the contractor sought.
Photo by Kathy Price-Robinson


Wood or composite? There is no definitive "green" answer when it comes to this choice. Each material has its benefits and limitations, and much depends on client preference.

Wooddecking: When wood is the preferred decking material, the green choice would be to use lumber that is not treated with arsenic, is harvested locally (which typically means within 500 miles) and/or is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The non-green alternative is to use lumber that is not sustainably grown and comes from tropical forests. You and your clients have a choice of any lumber you want, but if you or your clients desire planet-friendly choices, buying wood culled from a diminishing rain forest wouldn't make sense.

Outdoor designer Pamela Berstler, co-owner of Flower to the People landscape design firm in Los Angeles, says determining the origin of the wood you use is not difficult: "Ask your lumberyard: Where does your wood come from?" Berstler suggests.

Composite decking: Clients concerned about the environment but not opting for real wood can choose composite decking. Representatives from Trex, for example, claim the company receives 50 percent of the recycled grocery bags in the country and that every year it diverts from landfills 300 million pounds of used plastic and 300 million pounds of hardwood sawdust.

Brand, color and surface profile choices in composite decking are ever-expanding. If you tried composite decking years ago and found it wanting, the product might be worth another look, says Karen Feeney, green building specialist with Allen Associates, a builder and remodeler in Santa Barbara, Calif. "They've gotten so much better" over the years, she says.


Lighting embedded in decking stair stringers or risers can be energy efficient, too. LED lights can use a fraction of the energy of conventional lighting and last for years — some brands claim to last 15 or more years. If your clients or contractors once hesitated to include accent lighting in deck stairs for fear of future maintenance issues of replacing burned-out bulbs, LED products could be a good alternative.

This entry courtyard displays three green principles: the natural limestone underfoot was quarried locally; the gravel allows rainwater to percolate into the ground; and the benches are made of ipe wood from Brazil, which is said to resist decay for up to 50 years without any emissions-producing protective sealants.
Photo courtesy of Raymond Yin and Mark Word

Patios, Walkways and Retaining Walls

Green choices for patios, walkways and retaining walls include recycled or recyclable materials and rainwater management.

Stone: If carbon emissions are contributing to global warming, as many scientists claim, the "carbon cost" of moving materials around must be factored into any green goals. Whereas clients once bragged about granite, marble or other stone that was quarried from distant lands, the future bragging rights could shift to stone quarried locally.

Sometimes, the stone can be so locally sourced that it comes from the site itself. This was the lucky circumstance encountered by the excavation crew at the Santa Barbara residence of Bill and Denise Bielby. While their remodeling company, Allen Associates, planned to build a retaining wall between the driveway and the home, the enormous sandstone boulders unearthed during construction served that purpose well.

Concrete: In terms of production, concrete might not be the greenest material around. But in terms of recyclability, it's at the top of the list. At the end of its use in a patio, for example, concrete can be broken up and used for pathways or ground up for use in new concrete products. Plus, new concrete can be made more green by adding fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired energy plants.

Rainwater management: The key to managing rainwater is to encourage it to percolate into the ground on site rather than force it to run off hard surfaces into streets and gutters, and from there to waterways. Water that percolates on site does not pick up pollutants from the roadway and helps replenish aquifers.

Permeable surfaces and/or catch basins are critical for on-site percolation. Some cities in dry areas require this for new construction. To encourage percolation on pathways and patios, gravel can offer a good solution. Even when stones are used for a patio, gravel can be used in the gaps.

The arbor outside this home is Santa Ynez, Calif., is oriented to soften the harsh sun in a hot climate to cut down on air conditioning. The permeable patio and grounds allow rainwater to percolate into the ground rather than run off onto the toads and sweage systems.  Photo courtesy of Allen Associates

Arbors and Trellises

An arbor is an arbor is an arbor, right? While it's tempting to reach for the timber you've always used to create arbors and trellises, the goal of sustainability brings more choices to the fore. Some considerations:

Old wood: Recycled timbers from demolished buildings are one option, as are timbers from logs salvaged from lake bottoms or old piers. Although some homeowners will insist on new wood, some might prefer "experienced" lumber in their projects.

Nontoxic wood: The advantages of using wood treated without arsenic and other toxins are not only good for the health of clients and their children, but for a company's workers as well. Companies who push the green angle can use the fact of a healthier work environment to attract the highest quality employees.

Sustainably grown lumber: As with decking wood, lumber used for trellises and arbors should be harvested from a sustainable operation and sourced locally or within a few hundred miles. While several programs exist to certify the level of sustainability for wood, the FSC label is the best known and one of the most stringent.

Solar panels: Arbors and trellises may not immediately bring to mind solar panels. And of course, black, opaque panels would be a disaster topping a structure meant to filter light below. However, translucent solar panels would be ideal on top of a trellis. Schott North America offers a selection.

A passive solar hot water system for a pool cuts down on the homeowner's energy bills significantly.

Pool and Spa

These bells and whistles of outdoor living bring great potential for incorporating green building principles.

Solar-heated hot water: Pools and spas make ideal uses for passive solar hot water systems. In these systems, solar collectors heat the water rather than a machine creating energy to heat water. An outdoor shower could make use of such a system. Fafco, has created a "hot water in a box" system for homeowners to install on their own. Even if clients are not ready to invest in outdoor showers and solar pool heating, they can keep these options in mind for the future.

On-demand water heater: There's really no reason to run a hot water line from a tank water heater at the house all the way to a pool house, especially for use in a sink. That need could be met with a mini on-demand electric water heater by German manufacturer Stiebel Eltron. The unit is about 7 inches square and 3 inches deep.

Barbecue: And finally, a barbecue for outdoor cooking is by nature a green product when you consider this: an air-conditioned home in a hot climate will not be heated up when a barbecue is in use. Even clients who are minimally inclined toward a sustainable lifestyle may still enjoy another excuse for a barbecue.

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