Friday, June 23, 2017

First Steps in Sustainable Living

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. - Creighton Abrams

The entire topic of sustainability and living in a home in the most environmentally friendly way can be overwhelming. Some of the things that contribute to the complexity of this subject include:

  • a plethora of definitions of what sustainability (or any of a number of other related concepts) even means.
  • a startling variety of products and techniques that are marketed as "green".
  • multiple trade-offs, advantages, and disadvantages of various technologies and choices that should be considered.

So how do you get started?

It is not uncommon for someone who is in the first flush of enthusiasm for a project or a lifestyle change, such as becoming more green, to set some extremely ambitious goals for themselves. Sometimes, these goals turn out to be unrealistic for their particular situation. As often as not, the end result of this process is an individual who has made few, if any, changes that stick, and whose enthusiasm for the entire project of reforming their lifestyle may have been burned out as well.

To deal with these two issues - the multitude of options and considerations, and biting off more than you can chew - I suggest a three step process.

First: focus on one aspect of sustainability that appeals to you. This could be conserving electricity, reducing water use, using recycled materials, reducing transportation costs, improving indoor air quality, or any of a number of other goals. Pick one, and only one, to start with. You can get to other goals later. (Not too much later, I promise!)

Second: after you have identified the area you want to focus on, pick a small project or lifestyle change that will move you in the direction you want to go. Picking something small is key, because it is much more likely that you will follow through on it. For instance, if you want to reduce water use, start with installing low-flow shower heads rather than tackling the rooftop rain collection and filtration system. If you want to reduce your gasoline consumption and resultant carbon emissions, start with routinely combining errands (“trip chaining”) rather than selling the car and switching to exclusively using public transportation.

Third: after you have picked your project or lifestyle change, implement it, and then let that settle in for a bit. In particular, if you have chosen a new habit, you need to allow some time for that habit to really establish itself before taking on the next change.

When it comes to making your home more sustainable, the temptation to go down the “whole house makeover” route becomes even more intense, since many of the decisions regarding any one aspect of the home have implications with regards to other areas and systems in the home. But even (or perhaps especially) with regards to your home, it is important to keep your projects manageable. A whole house makeover might make intellectual sense in terms of evaluating all of the trade-offs and implications of various projects in a single holistic process, but it is also likely to become a project of daunting complexity and expense. Simple is generally better.

For more specific ideas on where to start with making your home and life more sustainable, you can subscribe to my e-mail newsletter. Each week, I will be presenting a tip or an idea for action that is meant to be easily implemented.

After successfully implementing the project or change you have made in your life, repeat this three step process. By starting with smaller projects, you will start to gain insight as to what larger projects or changes you might really want to take on, and which you can realistically accomplish. This process may not be as grandiose as implementing a whole-life and whole-home makeover, but the odds that you will be able to stick with it and see it through are much higher, and over time, little by little, those small changes will add up to something pretty dramatic in their own right.

Friday, June 16, 2017


What is a Sustainable Home?

The term “sustainable” has come to mean many different things to many people. When talking about homes and real estate, “sustainable” (or “green” or “resource efficient”, to name just two other popular terms) can mean any number of things, so it is useful to clarify definitions.

For the purposes of this blog, “sustainable” and “green” are used as broad umbrella terms. Some of the meanings covered by this terminology (and by this blog) include:
  • A home that saves money and operational costs by using resources, such as energy and water, economically. 
  • A home that uses renewable energy sources. 
  • A home that utilizes low embodied-energy building materials or ones that originate from sustainable sources. 
  • A home that contains no harmful substances or off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or one in which indoor air quality is maintained at a high level and which provides a comfortable and healthful living environment for the residents.
A green home can go by a variety of names, such as a resource-efficient home, high-performance home, or smart home, among other labels. There are also a number of certifications that homes may have that attest to aspects of sustainable design and construction. These include Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Energy Star®, and National Green Building Standard certifications, among others.

Why are Sustainable Homes so popular now?

Our daily lives are filled with messages about environmental responsibility, from ubiquitous recycling containers to advertising for “all-natural” products and media reports of high-profile environmental disasters, such as the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill or extreme weather events that may be linked with climate change. Power generating wind turbines dot the landscape and remind us of the possibilities of alternative energy sources. The millennial generation, now entering prime years for starting a household and buying a home, has had environmental values instilled since childhood. 

For some homeowners, expression of their beliefs and concerns about the environment starts at home. They are passionate about living by principles of sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint through conservation, recycling, and renewable energy sources. They may make the same choices as a cost-conscious consumer, but living consistently with their values is the primary motivator.

All of this adds up to heightened awareness of our relationship with the environment and responsibility for protecting it. Concerned citizens are increasingly looking for homes to purchase and live in that will use resources wisely and provide a healthful, harm-free indoor environment.

And it isn’t just homeowners who are driving this change towards sustainability. Nearly every municipality and state in the country has adopted minimum energy-efficiency standards, which gradually raise the bar for compliance. Additionally, governments and utility companies ease the cost and burden of retrofits by promoting various tax incentives and financial subsidies to encourage resource conservation. Building codes may require replacement of old materials and systems with newer, more resource-efficient parts and materials.

A stroll through the aisles of any home improvement store offers a quick lesson in how building standards have changed, largely as a result of environmental and health concerns. For examples, government regulations ban the sale of toxic materials, such as lead-based paint, asbestos, and certain types of pressure-treated lumber, although these materials may still be present in older homes. Compared to old toilets that use 3.5–7 gallons per flush, new models use 1.6 gallons and many feature dual flush. In the appliance aisles, Energy Star® labels are prominently displayed on dishwashers, refrigerators, and stoves. And, thrifty compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs shoulder out energy-intense incandescent bulbs on store shelves.

But how does this all really impact the bottom line?

While some people may be willing to spend more money in their housing choices in order to live fully by their values, does it really make financial sense to invest in making your home more sustainable? A number of studies focusing on local markets affirm the market edge of certified homes, but the type of advantage varies from market to market. A compilation of national and regional studies about the market performance of Energy Star® homes found these results:
  • Less time on market: Certified homes tend to sell faster.
  • Price premium: In some markets, particularly those that have a high degree of environmental awareness, certified homes can fetch higher prices. 
  • Higher percentage of list price: Even when certified homes do not command a price premium, they tend to sell at a high percentage of list price. 
  • Maintain value in a down market: When home values are depressed, a certified home tends to sustain its market value better than a non-certified home. 
In addition to the advantages listed that are realized when it is time to sell your home, many sustainability improvements will also pay off financially by reducing utility costs and other costs associated with maintaining your home. 

Making decisions that improve the sustainability of your home can yield a wide spectrum of benefits, including a more comfortable and healthful home, reduced environmental impacts, and financial benefits in both the short and long term.

What will this blog be about?

Each week, I will be posting about one of a variety of topics related to sustainability. These topics will include:
  • Energy Conservation
  • Water Conservation
  • Food Production (Agriculture)
  • Green Construction
  • Eliminating Toxins
  • Transportation
  • Sustainable Lifestyle Choices
  • Waste Reduction
  • Home Maintenance
  • Emergency Preparedness
Some of these topics might not appear to be related to Sustainable Homes, but I have found that there are linkages among all of them, and pursuing a broad and integrated approach can yield some surprising benefits. I will be sharing my knowledge of these topics in the coming weeks and months, and I hope that you, the reader, find this information useful and interesting. 

In addition to posting on this blog, I will be publishing a weekly email newsletter which will include not only material presented here, but a weekly tip that will be an easy to implement idea for action that can make your own home and life more sustainable, and also other shorter articles, announcements, and comments about sustainability related news, events, and topics. Follow this link to subscribe.

Happy reading!