Green Building News

Green Building News February 2002

February 26, 2002

Arsenic-treated Wood Will Be Phased Out by 2003

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement with the wood treatment industry to phase out arsenic in their products by the end of 2003. EPA has been engaged in a review of wood products treated with the wood preservative, chormated copper aresenate (CCA), since last year. Arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans, but the industry has claimed for many years that there was no danger because the chemicals were firmly "locked up" in the wood and did not rub off or migrate into surrounding soil.

Lab tests on playground equipment in Florida showed high levels of arsenic in soil around playground equipment and raised alarms with consumer and environmental groups. Certain groups have pushed hard for a ban of CCA-treated wood, but the EPA action falls short of a total prohibition.

An EPA press release refers to "virtually all residential uses", leaving a question about which residential uses are not covered and leaving commercial and industrial uses unaffected. However, it's unclear if the industrial infrastructure for CCA production will survive the huge drop in its market as other alternatives gain greater acceptance. During the next year, wood preservatives that do not contain arsenic will be phased in, allowing the industry to retool its operations.

Two large home improvement retailers, Home Depot and Lowe's, announced that they will phase out CCA long before the ban takes effect. The Environmental Working Group, who strongly pressured EPA on the issue, is calling on all retailers to stop selling arsenic-treated lumber immediately, because of the consistently high levels of arsenic in lumber on store shelves and in homeowners' backyards. Tests sponsored by EWG showed four times as much arsenic on new material in stores as occurred on material in service as decks and other structures.

"The question now is what can millions of American families do with the hundreds of square miles of highly hazardous arsenic-soaked lumber in their back yards," said Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at EWG. "Children increase their cancer risk every time they play on this wood, and like lead paint this product could drive down property values for millions of homeowners."

"Those who have CCA wood in their yards now should do what they need to make them feel they've created a safe environment for their families," said Paul Bogart, campaign coordinator for the Healthy Building Network, an environmental advocacy group. "Some may choose to remove the wood altogether. Others may choose to seal the wood."

EPA offers these suggestions for dealing with CCA lumber:

  • Children should wash their hands prior to eating.
  • Food should not be placed directly on treated wood.
  • CCA-treated wood should never be burned, as toxic chemicals are released as part of the smoke and ashes.
  • Consumers who work with CCA-treated wood are encouraged to use common sense in order to reduce any potential exposure to chemicals in the wood. They should wear dust masks, goggles and gloves when sawing, sanding and machining CCA-treated wood outdoors.
  • Clean up all sawdust, scraps and other construction debris thoroughly and dispose of it in the municipal solid waste. (Although some solid waste facilities treat CCA scraps as toxic material, and require that it be taken to a hazardous waste facility. - ed.)
  • Do not compost or mulch sawdust or remnants from CCA-treated wood.
  • Those working with the wood should wash all exposed areas of their bodies thoroughly with soap and water before eating, drinking or using tobacco products. Work clothes should be washed separately from other household clothing before wearing them again.

For new projects, a number of alternatives exist. Recycled plastic lumber can be used for all non-structural purposes such as flooring for a deck or fence boards. A few recycled plastic lumber products can be used for structural applications. Wood species with natural decay resistance, such as redwood, cedar and black locust, can be used for some purposes, although sustainably managed sources may be difficult to locate. Wood treated with ACQ (Ammoniacal Copper Quaternary) performs like CCA, but contains no arsenic. Borate treatments are suitable for wood that is not exposed to the weather. Another option is to build a different structure for the same purpose. For example, a ground level patio can serve in place of a deck. The Oikos Product Directory lists sources for ACQ treated wood, borate treated wood and recycled plastic lumber.


RASTRA Opens Second U.S. Factory

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and RASTRA® inventor Karl Holik presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony on February 23rd at a new plant that will soon turn out RASTRA insulating concrete forms. The New Mexico plant will join another factory in Arizona to provide a local source for this European technology. It is scheduled to start producing product by mid-March.

The decision to build a factory in Albuquerque, was based on the high local demand for this product, according to Robert Montoya, owner/director of Rastra of New Mexico. The New Mexico market comprises nearly 35 percent of all RASTRA sales in the United States.

"We believe that people are enthusiastic about this environmentally-friendly product since it also makes good economic sense," said Montoya.


Daylighting in Schools Improves Scores

In 1999, a study showed a compelling correlation between the amount of daylight in classrooms and the performance of students on standardized tests. The study -- conducted by Heshong Mahone Group (HMG) -- analyzed test scores of 21,000 students in three school districts in California, Colorado and Washington state. While a panel of experts was generally satisfied with the result and methodology of that study, they expressed two concerns. First, could "better" teachers be assigned to classrooms with more daylight? Second, would the results be different if each grade level were analyzed separately rather than aggregated?

To answer these questions, HMG reanalyzed the data. Here is a direct excerpt from the reanalysis summary report:

  • Did the reanalysis study validate the original student learning rate findings? Yes. The reanalysis study found that elementary school students in classrooms with the most daylight showed a 21 percent improvement in learning rates compared to students in classrooms with the least daylight. This is highly consistent with the range of findings in the original study.
  • Were the original results biased because "better" teachers are assigned to classrooms with more daylighting? No. Better teachers were not significantly more likely to be assigned to classrooms with more daylighting.
  • Does this daylighting effect vary by grade? No. There do not seem to be progressive effects as children get older, and younger children do not seem to be more sensitive to daylight than older children.
  • Do physical conditions in the classroom affect student health? When student attendance is used as the measurement of student health, there is not an obvious connection between physical classroom characteristics (daylighting conditions, operable windows, air conditioning and portable classrooms) and student health
  • Might other factors still be the reason for the variation on test scores? A wide range of factors potentially affect student test scores, but of the many variables we studied only daylighting showed a strong correlation to improved standardized test scores. All these results were observed with 99.9% statistical certainty.

The reanalysis was funded by the California Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program. The full reanalysis report and the summary are available from the PIER section of the New Buildings Institute Web site. The original study can be found at the Heschong Mahone Group Web site.


DOE Releases Energy Guidelines for Schools

Guidelines to help the nation's K-12 schools save millions of dollars on their annual energy costs have been published by the U.S. Department of Energy. New construction practices and technologies, along with energy efficient renovations can slash the nation's $6 billion school energy expense by 25 percent. Schools could make good use of the savings for books, teachers, computers and other worthy uses.

The first set of guidelines released target hot, dry climates. Six more sets geared to other specific U.S. climate zones will be published by summer 2002. The information is pertinent to architects, builders and school officials nationwide.

The document includes case studies that illustrate energy efficient practices already in place at various schools across the nation. One example is the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas, which uses daylighting, passive solar heating and a rainwater catchment system that incorporates a garden with indigenous plants as a teaching tool.

One energy saving suggestion is the use of natural daylight. A 1999 study found that daylighting substantially improves students' test scores in addition to its clear-cut savings on electricity use. In other studies dating back to 1992, researchers have found that improved attendance among teachers and students is correlated with improvements in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.

DOE's design guidelines grew out of meetings that its Rebuild America program convened during 2000 and 2001 to discuss best energy-saving practices with school administrators, architects, teachers, developers and others. Rebuild America revitalizes communities through energy efficient building retrofits by providing business and technical assistance to school districts, local governments and community organizations through more than 400 voluntary partnerships in 50 states and three territories. Partners that worked with DOE to develop these guidelines include the National Institute of Building Sciences, the Texas State Energy Office, Ashley McGraw Architects, the Oregon Office of Energy, Environmental Support Solutions, the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Building Science Corporation, Energy Design & Consulting, Innovative Design, and the Facility Improvement Corporation.

Over the next three years, school districts will spend more than $79 billion to build new K-12 schools or to renovate existing schools. To help make these schools energy efficient and to enhance the learning environment, Rebuild America's EnergySmart Schools team is producing energy education materials and other resources for teachers, administrators, parents and students.

The guidelines include the following topics:

  • Site design
  • Windows and daylighting
  • Energy efficient building shell
  • Renewable energy systems
  • Lighting and electrical systems
  • Mechanical and ventilation systems
  • Environmentally sensitive building products and systems
  • Water conservation
  • Recycling systems and waste management
  • Transportation

The guidelines for schools in hot, dry climates are available at DOE's Smart Schools Web site.


Habitat and EPA Agree to Develop Housing in Brownfields

Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that focuses on the future development of brownfields.

“One of the greatest obstacles for Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the United States is the acquisition of land for house building,” said Tom Jones, HFHI’s Managing Director of the Washington Office. “Partnering with the EPA and working together in the development of brownfields will be a huge support to Habitat and will ultimately allow more people to achieve the dream of homeownership.”

“EPA is proud to be joining Habitat for Humanity as partners in the effort to make the dream of homeownership come true for families across the country,” said EPA Secretary Christine Whitman. “By turning brownfields into affordable new homes, our children will be healthier, our communities will be safer, and our families will be stronger."

The MOU establishes a general working agreement between the EPA and Habitat for Humanity International on coordinating policies to enact assessment and cleanup of brownfields, to promote community revitalization with residential energy efficiency, and to provide affordable housing for low-income people by outlining in broad terms how the EPA, HFHI and state and local officials can work together and train staff on potential program implementation.

EPA has worked cooperatively with HFHI’s affiliates in the cities of Wellston, Missouri., and Minneapolis, Minnesota., to build homes on former brownfields properties.  With this agreement, EPA pledged to expand its work with Habitat to five additional cities. 

EPA will use brownfields funds to perform environmental assessments at community identified brownfields properties so that HFHI can locate safe, affordable building lots.  Also,  EPA through its new authority in the recently passed brownfields legislation may offer cleanup grants to non-profits such as HFHI to provide cleanup funds if the properties are found to be contaminated.  In this way, EPA will provide environmental assessment and cleanup support to the Habitat effort to build energy efficient, affordable housing on property that was formerly abandoned or under-utilized.


Florida Solar Energy Center Receives International Standard Accreditation

The Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) recently received distinction as the only laboratory in the United States accredited for solar thermal and photovoltaic equipment testing to international standards.

The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation issued the accreditation after its four-day site visit. Testing and certification of both solar water and pool heating collectors is mandated by the State of Florida. All collectors and systems sold or manufactured in Florida must be certified by the FSEC. These requirements were established by the Florida Legislature through the Florida Statutes Solar Energy Standards Act. Through this act, FSEC developed testing and certification requirements for solar collectors and design and installation criteria for solar systems.

The Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute of the University of Central Florida. Current research activities include solar water and pool heating, solar electric systems, energy-efficient buildings, alternative transportation systems, hydrogen fuel and other energy areas.


New Technology Transmits Photovoltaic Power Without Wires

A patent has been awarded to Flour City International Inc. (FCI) for a technology to transfer electricity generated by photovoltaic (PV) panels without wires. Currently, individual PV modules that convert solar energy into electrical energy, are connected using a network of wires to form larger arrays.

FCI's wireless technology promises to enhance the use of PV panels within the construction industry by reducing the cost of maintaining and trouble shooting potential PV problems associated with wiring a large number of modules together. The company has a memorandum of understanding with Siemens Solar Industries and Atlantis Energy to develop and implement a business strategy for identifying and pursuing new business opportunities for Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) modules within multiple industries including the building and construction industry.

FCI is a designer, fabricator, installer and provider of non-load bearing custom exterior wall systems (curtainwalls). The integration of PV panels into the curtainwall of new buildings reduces the overall consumption of electricity and should have a significant impact on the building and construction industry.

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