Is Concrete Green?

Now that the old decrepit studio is basically down – only an alley-side wall made of leftover plywood and a neighbor-side wall of old fencing remain – it’s time to take stock and figure out what happens next.

I’ve taken the big Dutch doors and old windows and glass to the Resource Yard for salvage. (The skylight, sadly, didn’t make it that far, due to my poor pickup-packing skills; it cracked on the way there.) I’ve dumped the old cedar shingles and particleboard at the city’s mulcher. I even saved all the nails we pulled – well, maybe 80 percent of them – and dumped them into EcoCycle’s scrap metal recycling bins. I’ve made about a hundred bucks by taking all the copper wiring, plumbing pipes and aluminum flashing (and the assortment of aluminum beer cans the job site seemed to collect) to the local metal recyclers – used copper goes for like two bucks a pound! And I’ve got piles of reusable stuff – framing lumber and giant beams, a toilet and sink, insulation – nicely stacked and ready to go…somewhere.

Annoying little story: The wood-waste drop-off, where they turn old 2x4’s and plywood into new mulch, is right next door to the regular dump. One day while Kris and I were disgorging the truck of shingles and other wood whatnot, we watched a dude dump two lawnmowers, a bunch of cardboard boxes, some glass bottles, and a flower vase made in China out of his truck and drive away. (This was maybe a day after we watched another guy dump a full bathroom – toilet, sink, fixtures, cabinets, bathtub – out of his truck.) But what really got us was the vase: Made in China, under surely environmentally sound principles, then shipped halfway around the world, then trucked to the Boulder Pier One Imports shlock shop – all so this doofus could toss it in the dump. I stood there thinking This is why the world is doomed. Kris picked up the vase and took it to Savers.

As I was saying, now is the time to figure out what comes next. A normal, well-organized, at-all-qualified builder would have had all this planned out months ago, but, well, disorganization is one of my charms. So I’m still diddling over materials for the whole building itself. We had a visit from Paul, the guy who sold us the house, the other day. (“Those weren’t my carpenter ants!” Seriously. He said that.) He’s been building a wall out of Cempo, another one of the recycled-polystyrene-and-cement brand of building blocks – like Rastra, which one of the other buildings on our property is made of. So Paul was proselytizing about Cempo: It uses recycled polystyrene that would otherwise sit in landfills; it comes in giant, ten-square-foot blocks that you simply stack and grout; it needs no wood framing, unlike straw bale buildings; it has an R-value comparable to that of straw bales…

Now, I don’t know how to frame. For the studio, I’m going to have to hire people who do know how and watch and learn and hammer a nail wherever I can. But really it’s going to be other people doing the work. Which is kind of counter to the whole DIY aspect of my new studio. Those giant Cempo forms, however, look like they need to be placed with a crane. But I’m so, uh, wussed out by my fear of framing that I’ve been convincing myself that Cempo might be a better option than building with straw bale.

Here’s a major sticking point: A Cempo structure, as you might guess, uses quite a bit more cement than its straw bale brethren. Not only in the forms themselves – once the forms are stacked, concrete, which contains cement, is poured into channels that crisscross the forms, creating the building’s structural skeleton. And cement, though in concrete form is super-durable and can last forever, isn’t exactly sustainable. As a recent New York Times article put it, saying “sustainable cement” is a bit like saying “vegetarian meatballs” – there’s really no such thing. For starters, cement plants contribute 5 percent of global CO2 emissions.

There are cement alternatives, like using magnesium-based mixes that reduce CO2 output. But the real issue, I figure, is reusability. Even if the building lasts 100 years, what its made of won’t be reusable. (It might be recyclable by that point, but I’m not big on predictions.) With a straw bale building, I’m going to be using as much salvaged material from the old studio – and as little new material – as possible. At the end of 100 years, the whole thing could be theoretically thrown into a field and left to biodegrade without much environmental worry. I mean, I’d have to take my bikes out first, but you know what I’m saying.

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