If you're still wishy-washy on the need for building green, or don't know what it is -- green buildings require less energy to build, heat and cool, have good indoor quality, and, where feasible, use recycled materials -- perhaps you will be swayed by the words of a passionate green building advocate.

David Gottfried, known in green building circles as one of the founders of the U.S. Green Building Council, has written "Greed to Green" (Worldbuild Technologies Inc., 2004), the story of his transformation from developer honcho to committed environmentalist. It's one of several recent books that explore issues that affect environmentally aware construction.

A freshly minted 1982 Stanford grad, Gottfried left his native California for Washington and a job with his successful real estate developer cousins. He made his mark (and pots of money). Life seemed great until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the D.C. real estate market crashed.

Observing the harsh reality of the business -- all those real estate developer fortunes that are so easily made can just as easily be snuffed out -- he looked for something more rewarding. By chance he attended a local American Institute of Architects meeting. This led him to the 1992 national AIA convention in Boston, where he was exposed to a new paradigm for the construction industry. Instead of profit, the watchword was "sustainability" -- in design, construction and materials.

Heady with revolutionary fervor, Gottfried returned to Washington and helped start a group that eventually became the U.S. Green Building Council, the group most responsible for bringing green building principles to mainstream construction in this country.

But that's jumping ahead. Initially, the going was hard. Green was just a color in the construction business, and prospective clients were not receptive to the idea that they should pay anything extra for sustainability. Even the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks key environmental, social and economic trends from a global perspective, said no.

Gottfried persisted. His group, which included architects, lawyers, engineers, manufacturers and developers, devised a holistic approach to building design and construction that was a radical departure from the way business was done.

With the "old think" approach, energy efficiency, for example, was left to the engineers, after the architect had designed the building. But, as Gottfried points out, to minimize energy use, you have to start with the architecture. From the start, the architects, working in concert with the engineers, have to consider all the aspects of a building's design that can affect its energy consumption: "its siting on the property, its massing and footprint, the shading potential, wall and roof insulation, glazing performance, roof color and daylight penetration."

After many ups and downs, the council has become a major force in the construction industry. Gottfried, who now lives in California, commutes to his office by foot or bike, and is busy working on the World Green Building Council.

If Gottfried's environmental passion does not convince you of the need to be far less profligate in construction, a look at the big picture certainly will. "The New Consumers" (Island Press, 2004), by Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, describes the environmental consequences of worldwide affluence.

The 2.8 billion "long-rich" have now been joined by the "newly rich," the more than 1 billion people in developing countries who earn enough to enjoy a "consumerist lifestyle." The authors are quick to point out that this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and much of it has only "moderate environmental impacts." The vastly increased consumption of electricity, meat and cars, however, spells "environmental trouble." In all three categories, it has contributed significantly to global warming.

In the case of meat, the emission issue would be amusing were global warming not serious. Millions of cattle and other ruminants pass so much gas every day that they now account for one-sixth of global methane emissions.

Moving from the atmosphere to ground level, Myers offers another sobering point: Our rapacious consumption of the Earth's resources is unsustainable.

In 1960, the long-rich, newly rich and everyone else were exploiting a worrisome 70 percent of the Earth's resources. By 1999 this had ballooned to an untenable 120 percent. Myers said in an interview, "It's a bit like a business not living off its income, but living off its capital. Eventually you'll be bankrupted."

Segueing from the really big picture to the home-building picture, how do you build an environmentally benign house that doesn't contribute to the desecration of the planet? A good place to start looking for answers is Jennifer Roberts's "Good Green Homes" (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2003).

Although the author clearly knows a lot about the subject, she has pared it down to a manageable amount for the general reader looking for Green Building 101. In addition to basic information about heating, cooling, insulation, indoor air quality and a host of other subjects, Roberts's stylistically varied "housing profiles" at the end of each chapter quickly convey the idea that good green homes follow a set of design and construction principles, but do not have a specific style or look.

Roberts offers plenty of sensible advice. For example, she suggests that you study old houses in your area that predate central air conditioning and central heating to see how climate was accommodated (or not -- many of those old houses weren't great every month of the year).

Another helpful tip: Stick with the materials and construction methods that are commonly used in your area because you will have an easier time finding builders, subcontractors and suppliers, but tweak them "to achieve a higher environmental performance."

As a follow-up to "Good Green Homes," try Angela Dean's "Green by Design" (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2003), which also sticks to the basics, but has little overlap with Roberts's book. As Dean takes you through the design and construction sequence from idea to finished house, she offers advice that will be useful, no matter how green your new house project becomes. Unusual for an architect, Dean suggests that for some people, designing and building their own house may make the most sense, but she cautions that it will be more daunting and take longer than you ever imagined.

Of the 14 houses that Dean describes in some detail (she includes floor plans, which the Roberts book does not), only one has the familiar rural farmhouse with clapboard siding look. The others are more rustic and built with materials such as rammed earth and straw bales that are well known within the green building community, but still, I suspect, exotic to the general public. All the houses appear to be located on generously sized rural lots. If you want to build a green house on a tight urban site, you will have to look elsewhere, but this is a small quibble in an otherwise highly informative book.

If you're open to fascinating digressions, spend an afternoon with "Built by Hand: Vernacular Buildings Around the World" (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2004). Bill and Athena Steen and Eiko Komatsu are credited as the authors, but the text is minimal and the book is essentially a photographic essay by Yoshio Komatsu. It features several hundred stunning pictures of village housing taken over 25 years as Komatsu and his wife, Eiko, circled the globe.

The houses are about as green as you can get. The only energy embodied in their construction is human -- the calories consumed in getting the materials to the site and transforming them into a house. The houses ingeniously accommodate the climate, though the level of comfort is not necessarily optimal by 21st-century standards.

The materials are the most basic -- earth, wood, stone and plants that are used to make walls and thatched roofs -- and they remind us that the rammed earth and adobe houses now being built in the American Southwest have a several-thousand-year-old pedigree.

The most important take-away lesson, however, is that the low-tech solutions that characterize these houses can teach us volumes about sustainability and how to build "good green homes."

Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

{copy} 2004, Katherine Salant

Distributed by Inman News Features

The curved, stepped plastered straw bale partition wall and hand-peeled salvaged cedar columns give an exotic flair, but green building principles such as passive solar heating and natural cooling can be used in any house.