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Which is more important in green construction: materials or tech?

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What does it mean to be green? Green means reduced carbon emissions, lowered energy consumption, and trending away from non-renewable resources for the greener pastures of solar and wind and biofuel. Green means lowering our carbon footprint while developing new methods of construction. Green is good -- but what kind of green is best? In one corner we have green construction materials, eco-friendly products that lesson the environmental impact of building new communities and businesses. These include materials like biodegradable paints, recycled insulation, and natural building substances like hemp and rammed earth.

In the other corner we have cutting-edge technology. These are the innovations that drive us to new discoveries and new methods of powering our society. These are the advanced solar panels, geothermal systems and smart electronics that fundamentally change our lives. but is one category really more important than the other? Let's take a look at how green materials and green technology are influencing the development of construction.

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iStockphoto.com/Lacy Rane

Picture this scenario: You're building a home on a tight budget. You have enough money to build a comfortably roomy house, and everything is planned out to fit within the limited amount of money you have at your disposal. You love the idea of using renewable energy resources like solar power to run your home, but the solar panels are simply too much of an up-front cost to fit into your budget. In this scenario, it might seem like your options for building green are limited. But that isn't necessarily the case. Green building materials don't have to cost thousands more than the alternatives.

Affordable green materials include recycled insulation made from newspaper (celluloid) or from denim (cotton). You could plan to build a house with a cool roof -- which may simply require a special coat of paint -- to reflect a large quantity of sunlight. Not only do cool roofs lower heating costs, they lessen the impact of the urban heat island effect, a local atmospheric warming that results from the high concentration of heat-absorbing materials like concrete in urban areas [source: EnergySavers]. Even smart house design can lower your energy usage with passive solar heating, which uses strategically placed windows to harness the sun's heat.

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All of these green construction materials and techniques can aid the environment without breaking the bank. Next we'll explore green technologies, but remember: Many current building projects neglect to use the resources mentioned above. Future technologies are important, but more widespread adoption of recycled materials alone would be a major step in the right direction.

Drawing the line between green materials and green technology can be difficult -- after all, those construction goods are all the product of technological development. Nevertheless, we can use the term "green technology" to refer to advanced implementations of eco-friendly design that are more complex than recycled materials. Active solar power is the perfect example. Active solar uses panels to harvest the sun's rays and convert them into energy that can be used to power an HVAC system.

Cutting-edge green technologies don't have the same widespread support as green materials. Some simply aren't on the market yet, while others present prohibitively expensive up-front costs. Nevertheless, new technologies are constantly being developed. Electrochromic smart glass is a green technology we may see in buildings within a few years. The glass uses a tiny jolt of electricity to trigger a tinting response, darkening a window on command to reflect the majority of light that would normally pass through it. These windows are expected to save as much as 25 percent on annual HVAC energy costs [source: Tested].

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Of course not all of the green technology advancements are in construction. Some of today's most amazing green technology is already driving around on the road: Hybrid and electric cars like the Prius and the Tesla Roadster lessen the environmental impact of transportation. The Tesla Model S can drive 300 miles (482.8 kilometers) on a charge and emits zero waste because it's completely electric powered [source: Tesla]. Gas cars still own the roads, but it's only a matter of time until green technologies like electric power make a dent in the market, and who knows, these hybrid cars may perhaps influence what happens in the construction industry, as well.

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Sources

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