Which Environmentally Sound Products Should Be Considered
Select wood that comes from sustainably harvested trees and is certified by FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). This wood has gone through a rigorous set of steps to ensure that it meets high standards for sustainable harvesting. Also consider using recycled/reclaimed wood. Many firms are reclaiming wood from old barns/houses. Once the wood is run back through a mill it looks brand new, with the exception of a few telltale nail holes...There is a premium cost for these products, however, one must weigh the consequences of the actions of buying products from companies that are not being good stewards of the land. While the short-term benefit may save you some money the long-term negatives of unsustainable forest practices affect all of us not to mention the ecosystem and wildlife as a whole.
Look for insulation with high recycled content and minimal or no use of formaldahyde. Cotton & cellulose insulation are very high in recycled content (90+%), very safe to handle and do not use formaldahyde. However, they do use some fire retardents (the MSDS sheets & companies indicate they are safe and no special handling is required other than a dust mask). Rockwool (Mineral Wool) has a significant amount of recycled content (40+%) but does use some formaldahyde. However, one of the companies (Roxul) that make this product indicate that there are very minimal volatile gases that come off the finished product since it is "cured" at the factory. To back this up they have received the "greenseal" approval rating for indoor air quality. In addition, Roxul has a good environmental history and has been working for the past 6 years to track and reduce use of chemicals and greenhouse gases throughout their company (specific details and tracking information is available on their website). If you want to stick with fiberglass look to Johns Manville, although they dont have the best environmental track record, they do offer a product with 20% recycled content and no formaldahyde binders.
Insulate your house well to reduce the amount of energy you need to heat. If possible install R-40 in the ceilings and R-20 in the walls. While it may be more expensive up front the benefits will last for as long as you own the house. As utility rates continue to rise the additional insulation will more than pay for itself. Regardless of whether you are in a cold or hot climate insulation can help you keep your house warm in the winter and cooler in the summer.
daylighting is important to consider as a way to reduce energy use of lighting.
Use compact fluorescent bulbs. Although these bulbs cost more they last significantly longer and use much less energy. A typical 60 watt fluorescent will put out the same light as a 60 watt standard buld but only uses 16 watts of power to do it (instead of 60). Those bulbs should not be thrown away with normal garbage: they should be collected separatly.
LED's are also coming into the spotlight. These last significantly longer and typically use less energy than even the fluorescents but are more expensive.
Windows have come a long way in the past 10 years. There are several different types vinyl, wood, aluminum, fiberglass, etc. While vinyl will typically be the cheapest it is also the worst choice for the environment. Wood is a natural choice, however, wood windows typically require a significant amount of maintenance and typically wont last as long as other materials. Aluminum is a material that usually has a lot of recycled content, however, aluminum frame windows have poor insulation characteristics and their coeficient of expansion is significantly different from glass which causes seals to break in a relatively short period of time. Fiberglass frames are fairly new to the market and are typically the most expensive. However, they will last much longer and require very little maintance primarily because the color of the windows is "baked" into the fiberglass - so no painting required (although you can paint them if you want to). The coefficient of expansion for the frames is similar to glass so the seals last significantly longer as well. Fiberglass is essentially indestructable making it the top choice for environmentally friendly houses.
A couple of other critical items to consider are the insulative charactertics of the panes (u value) and the amount of solar gain you want for light that comes through the window. Glass panes have very little insulative ability. In an effert to give windows a better insulation value almost all are constructed as double paned with an inert gas injected in the space between the panes (one of the reasons tight seals are important is to ensure this gas does not leak out). Triple pane windows can also be purchased but the cost is substantial. Different U values are reccommended depending on where you reside in the US. Your dealer should have information that will be specific to your area. The second item to consider is solar gain. Most windows can be purchased with a "glaze" that will regulate the amount of solar heat that comes through the glass. To determine which type of window you need you will need to evaluate your home based on where you live and which directions the windows face. For example, if you live in the North Dakota and you have a window that faces South you may want to choose windows that allow for a higher solar gain. A high solar gain will help heat your house in the winter while the sun is low on the horizon.