You needn’t go deep, dark green (build a solar-powered house with recycled-wood flooring and plantings on the roof) to do your bit for the environment. Light-green living, when enough of us choose it, will be of great help to planet Earth.
Green is good: Over the past few years, we’ve all learned that. Rising energy costs, fear of global warming, and the widespread desire of parents to create healthy homes for their children have turned worrying about the environment from dorky to trendy. Indeed, more than half of the 250 residential builders surveyed by Green Builder Media (a publishing and consulting conglomerate) indicated, in a study released at the end of January, that homebuyers will pay a premium of up to 25 percent for houses built to green standards.
Americans know (for the media continually remind us of this) that we are the world’s biggest consumers and the most heedless contributors to waste. The United States currently gets 70 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil, but only 2 percent from renewable sources. And we routinely throw away materials that, used in another way, could save forests, water, landfill space, and even the creatures in the sea.
Clearly, it’s time for all of us to build consideration for the finite resources and precious atmosphere of our fragile planet into our daily routines. It would be folly to wait until our government can build into laws (or regulations) major changes like better fuel-emission standards and regulations that encourage the manufacture of hybrid cars and the use of alternative power (the wind, the sun, etc.). The changes that each of us can make now would, in combination, have an enormous impact—for good—on our environment.
Going green requires incorporating, throughout your home, the principles of “sustainable design”—reducing waste and the consumption of non-renewable resources and the choice of materials that will not be harmful to human health. Creating a truly green (sustainable) home involves action on three fronts: installing materials and systems that are extremely energy efficient; using nontoxic products indoors; and choosing materials made from recycled or renewable sources.
How far are you prepared to go, in building a house, to protect the environment? Are you ready to turn your home really green—say, serious, hunter green—by installing as much green technology as you can?
Going Hunter Green
Going seriously green requires starting from scratch—having your architect consider the environmental impact of the way your residence will be sited and incorporate green materials into its design.
Very few homeowners will go all the way to 100 percent green—constructing a house with walls made of hay bales covered in plaster, with plantings on the roof. But the house we have designed and are building for ourselves in Vermont will be very, very green.
• It has an ideal prospect—a southern exposure and a high vantage point that allows for excellent wind-capture by our wind turbine (700 feet above sea level). Most of the energy for lighting and appliances will come from solar and wind power.
• A geothermal system (see the “Green Options” article on page 92) will take care of our cooling needs and provide a heating option. Because the heat from our geothermal system is dry, we are incorporating radiant heat into the finished basement and the first floor as an alternative heat source. And, because our estate borders on 2,800 feet of riverfront, we will be able to take advantage of hydropower to run our outbuildings, like the barn and the studio.
• Our organically grown five-acre garden produces soybeans that we can convert to bio-diesel to run our tractor and other farm equipment.
• Our house is framed with LEED-certified lumber. The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit coalition of 9,000 organizations in the building industry, works to “promote buildings that are environmentally responsible,” its Web site declares. The council’s rating system, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), provides “the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings.” And also, if you are commissioning the design for a house, ask your architect to make sure the building materials are LEED certified. (For information, visit www.usgbc.org.)
• Naturally, our house will use as many eco-friendly materials as possible. We’ll use paint that does not give off toxic gases (see “Green Options” for information on nontoxic paint products). Our floors, milled from reclaimed and recycled materials, and our kitchen cabinets, by Holiday Kitchens (see www.holiday kitchens.com) are also green products. We chose Toto dual-flush toilets (www.totousa.com), which are equipped to perform either a short flush, to conserve water, or a longer flush. And, of course, we use ENERGY STAR–rated appliances and CLF light bulbs (read on).
Going Holly Green
Not everyone can start from scratch. But, as builders of homes (some of them modest, some luxurious) and also as proprietors of Green Home Solutions, a green retail and consulting firm promoting methods of building more ecologically friendly residences, we are finding that more and more homeowners want to go green when they remodel. We are currently incorporating green technology in 10 remodeling jobs.
The owner of a home in Greenwich was eager to do her bit for the environment when we told her how she could help. (Most of the homeowners we work with have that concern.) She asked that we use eco-friendly materials in the remodeling of her 100-square-foot bathroom.
And so we gutted the room down to the bare two-by-fours (the exterior walls). We used spray foam insulation in the (badly insulated) walls and ceiling, and all-natural stone tile. We used energy-efficient LED lighting (see “Green Options”), water-conserving fixtures, a water-conserving toilet, and eco-friendly paint. Our client has certainly done her part to help the environment by remodeling the green way. Her new bathroom conserves water and, because of the superior seal created in its walls, will reduce the use of fossil fuel for heating/cooling.
In a small remodel we’re doing in Darien (we’re adding 350 square feet to the kitchen), the main issue is siding. Our clients have repainted the siding many times in the past 20 years—spending a lot of money and getting, in return, paint that flakes every few years and emits volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)—low-level toxic emissions.
We are stripping off the siding and putting up a product made of concrete and water that is environmentally friendly and maintenance free; it comes pre-painted with no-VOC paint. We’ll replace the rotting trimwork with eco-friendly synthetic wood; it looks just like wood, but it’s long-lasting (guaranteed for 50 years) and maintenance free. We will also install green cabinetry, and all demolition waste will be passed on to professionals who will recycle it responsibly, rather than throw it into a dumpster.
Going Spring Green
If you’re not building a new house, and therefore can’t work with an architect to go green from foundation to rooftop, and you’re not remodeling, you can nevertheless make changes (some easy, some not) that will have a significant—and positive—impact on planet Earth.
Change No. 1: Conserve water. This is simple—all you need to do is install low-flow showerheads, water-conserving toilets, and a water-conserving clothes washer and dishwasher. Consider this: If everyone reduced his shower time by one minute, that would save enough water to supply the entire state of Texas for one month.
Change No. 2: Reduce the amount of energy used to heat water for your home. A standard electric water heater emits about half of the amount of carbon dioxide produced yearly by the average car. To use as little power as possible to heat your water, you can install faucet aerators. The next step: insulating your hot water tank and hot water pipes. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Consumer’s Guide site (see “Green Options”) provides details on insulating electric and gas water heaters. And, if you’re really committed, you could switch to a solar hot-water system or an on-demand unit that eliminates your having to have a holding-tank full of hot water 24 hours a day. Your swimming pool, too, can be heated with solar power.
Many homeowners dislike the idea of solar panels on the roof of their home. (Still, according the Web site of the National Resources Defense Council, it’s estimated that 1 million solar energy systems will be installed on rooftops across the United States by 2010.) Now there are options for “off-house” panels with sun-tracking systems that can blend into the landscape.
Change No. 3: You can use spray foam as insulation, so your house becomes sealed-envelope-tight. This costs more than the traditional fiberglass insulation, but some poorly insulated houses have so much air infiltration, and lose so much heat, that it might make sense to reinsulate; it’s a laborious process, but it can be done. Certainly a window of opportunity presents itself when a house is being remodeled. Our design/build firm, Green Home Builders, uses spray foam insulation made up of 50 percent recycled plastic. We also use insulation made of recycled denim jeans. (To learn more about the benefits of spray foam insulation, see “Green Options.”)
Change No. 4: You can install energy-saving appliances, including those that have earned the government’s ENERGY STAR label. ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U. S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy. To learn more, go to ENERGY STAR (www.energystar.gov), a Web site of the EPA. “ENERGY STAR appliances are the same [as] or better than the standard products, only they use less energy,” the EPA site declares. ENERGY STAR products can save, on average, between 15 percent and 66 percent in energy cost when compared with the energy cost of a standard appliance. (Check out the amount of energy saving before you buy a particular product.)
Change No. 5: You can change to energy-efficient windows. Choosing good windows and superior insulation will save you money by reducing the amount of energy needed to heat and cool your home. (See “Green Options” for information on windows that seal well.)
Change No 6: You can substitute more efficient lighting in your home for the energy-wasting incandescent bulbs that have been around for a more than a century. ENERGY STAR qualified light bulbs (compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs) use up to 75 percent less energy than a standard incandescent bulb, and last 10 times longer.
We citizens of the world possess the ingenuity to reduce the threat of global warming. Every ecologically responsible action benefits our environment, whether we decide to build completely green or simply commit to making small changes in our daily routine. Using energy more efficiently, recycling what we use, and shifting our thinking to renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and bio energy) will make us intelligent custodians of the Earth. (Read on for a few suggestions.)
You can improve your house’s energy efficiency—or reduce the health hazards lurking in your surroundings—without investing in advanced, expensive equipment. Here are eight ways to improve your home’s eco-friendliness without hiring a techie.
Fireproof, fungus-free wallboard. Highly useful and very green, the construction paneling called Dragonboard has many advantages over Sheetrock, plywood, and OSB board for sheathing, decking, and drywall. Manufactured from mineral components and water, Dragonboard is insect-free, fungus-free, waterproof, impact-resistant, and sound dampening. Its fire resistance (one to four hours) is unprecedentedly high. And it is 100 percent impervious to mold and mildew: That in itself makes it a healthful building option. (Its resistance to impact and mold make it ideal for use in areas vulnerable to hurricanes.) The cost of Dragonboard is about double that of Sheetrock, plywood, or OSB board. However, the labor costs of installing Dragonboard are lower. Photo courtesy of Dragonboard
Nontoxic paint. Almost anywhere you go, you are surrounded—practically enclosed!—by painted surfaces. Paint covers not only the walls of the rooms you’re in, but the ceiling too. Paints contain VOCs (volatile organic chemicals)—the fumes you smell when you paint, and sometimes for days afterward. Some paints release low-level toxic emissions into the air for years after application. A 2003 article by the senior editor of The Green Guide (an online publication recently acquired by the National Geographic Society—see “Getting Wise,” page 94) describes the air-pollution hazards posed by VOCs in paint (www.thegreenguide.com/doc/112/air). Click on “Paint Product Reports,” a link on that Web page, to get the details. A link on the Paint Product Reports page, “The Solutions” (last updated at the end of 2003), explains how to find low-VOC or no-VOC paints. Photo courtesy of AMF Safecoat
Recycled and new wood. Recycled wood, and wood from renewable forests, is available for framing, sheathing, and flooring, It’s “green” because it comes from “sustainable” forests—forests whose careful management means that their biodiversity, productivity, and capacity for regeneration is maintained. Consider these eco-friendly woods:
• Lyptus, the hardwood grown on plantations in Brazil that meet standards recognized by PEFC, an international organization that endorses credible sustainable-forestry programs. Lyptus, a natural hybrid of two species of eucalyptus, is ready for harvest in 14 to 16 years. The wood comes in color variations ranging from light pinkish to a dark cherry. Solid, dense, and stable, Lyptus can be used for flooring, cabinets, molding, and lumber.
• Cork flooring combines the beauty of a natural material with the comfort of a cushioned surface that eliminates static shock. It is durable, sound-absorbing, and a great insulator—a good choice for walls, ceilings, and floors.
• Bamboo rejuvenates quickly. It offers variety in both color and grain; it’s useful for flooring, plywood, lumber, and cabinetry. Photo courtesy of The Woods Company
Ingenious insulation. The right insulation will provide a seal for your home that saves you money and conserves fuel. Spray foam is far more energy-efficient than traditional insulating methods. It provides structural integrity, high thermal resistance, an airtight seal, and a moisture barrier. An added benefit: A good spray-foam insulating seal will allow fewer allergens and less pollen and dust to enter your home.
Spray foam is even more effective when combined with recycled cotton insulation (which, made almost entirely from recycled denim jeans, is highly effective at absorbing sound). Adding the cotton boosts the insulation’s “R-value,” a term used to indicate resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating efficiency.
Spray-foam insulation can cost twice as much as conventional methods of insulation, but it forms so effective a seal that your heating and cooling costs will be dramatically reduced.
An airtight home requires a mechanical venting system to bring fresh air into the home. Panasonic offers a whisper-quiet unit (a large home can require several units); view this new system at www.panasonic.com. Photo courtesy of Bill Thomas.
Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning that uses no oil or gas. “Geothermal” heating and cooling employs the warmth of the Earth to heat and cool the house. (Piping in heat from nearby hot springs made the Hot Lake Hotel, near La Grande, Oregon, the first large-scale user of geothermal energy in America, the U. S. Department of Energy’s Web site notes.) An energy-efficient geothermal system burns no gas or oil, although electricity is needed to run the pump system that moves the cold or warm air through the house. There are “open loop” systems and “closed loop systems”: For more information, go to www.geothermalsystems.com. Photo courtesy of ClimateMaster.
Mold-eliminating spray. Concrobium Mold Control, registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can be used as a fogging treatment on virtually any surface, and from all sides of drywall, flooring, ceiling tile, and new lumber used in construction (as well as on exterior surfaces). This nontoxic spray is particularly useful in flood-prone areas. For details, go to www.concrobium.com. Photo courtesy of Siamons International.
Energy-efficient windows. In the northern part of the U.S., windows that bear the ENERGY STAR label are required to include features that reduce heat loss. The most common way to reduce heat loss is by using glass with a Low-E coating—a microscopically thin metal coating applied to the glass by the manufacturer. All Low-E-coated glass products provide less loss of heat than clear glass products without a Low-E coating. Look for the energy performance label of the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) on windows you’re buying. You want a window with a low U-factor (U-factor is a measurement of how well a product prevents heat from escaping). As the NFRC’s Web site, www.nfrc.org, notes, U-Factor ratings generally fall between 0.20 and 1.20; the lower the U-value, the greater a window’s resistance to heat flow and the better its insulating value.
Some Low-E products also reduce solar heat gain. A window’s solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) rating indicates the percentage of solar heat admitted through a window. The lower the SHGC rating, the less solar heat the window transmits into your home. Photo courtesy of Anderson.
Eco-Friendly roofing options. These include metal, slate, and recycled materials such as Enviroshake—an engineered roofing composite that accurately replicates the desirable look of a “silvered,” taper-split cedar roof. This material is durable, long-lasting (backed by a 50-year, non-prorated and transferable warranty), and maintenance-free. No topical treatments are required, and there are no painted or granular coatings to peel, lift, or wear away over time. Enviroshake is made of mostly (95 percent) recycled/reclaimed materials, The manufacturer claims that it will not rot, warp, crack, or blister, and that it is resistant to hail, mold, mildew, and insects. The shakes are easy to install on plywood or strapping. For more information, see www.enviroshake.com. Photo courtesy of Enviroshake.
• Thegreenguide.com, a fully owned publication of the National Geographic Society, aims to be “the go-to source for practical, everyday, environmentally responsible and health-minded product choices and actions.” Its “Green Home” button brings up articles about the hazards (to the environment, and sometimes to you) posed by various appliances and products used in the laundry room, the bedroom, the kitchen, and the living room. The “Green Home” page articles suggest alternative (less energy wasting or nontoxic) household appliances and products. For a $12 yearly subscription, you’ll get six bimonthly Green Guide newsletters and access to free product reports on household items from A (air conditioners) to W (wood furniture).
• The U. S. Department of Energy offers a consumer Web site that provides information on energy-saving appliances (ranging from clothes washers to water heaters), heating and cooling systems, electricity-generating systems (ranging from solar to wind turbine), insulation, landscaping, windows, and more. Go to www.eere.energy.gov./consumer.
• Visit the American Architectural Manufacturers Association Web site (www.aamanet.org) for information about energy-efficient doors, windows, and skylights.
• Weyerhaeuser can supply hardwoods, from building lumber to finished products, for those who are building green; go to the company’s Web site, www.weyerhaeuser.com, to learn more about sustainable forestry.
• Green Demolitions, a nonprofit organization, recycles and resells beautiful, high-end items (quality wood; architectural elements; rugs; lighting; fireplaces; current kitchen appliances from Sub-Zero, Viking, and Wolf; high-quality bathroom fixtures; marble and granite vanities; interior and front doors, and more) from houses about to be demolished, renovated or remodeled in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and Westchester County, New York. See www.greendemolitions.org. TME