summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

Monday, July 14, 2014


I'm going to assume that not everyone is taking this class because they're building a new building.

Is it possible to rate your home as it is?  Not really by the letter* of the system, but the spirit of the system...  Sure!

Let's take those rude questions from lesson #018 and apply them to where you live.  For our exercise, each item that you can achieve is one point.  Report back on Google +!

Rate Your Home

bicycle parking
Image courtesy of baudman  via Flickr
1.  avoid light pollution:  all outdoor lighting should only shine down (not up into trees or sky).

2a.  public transportation: can you walk to a bus/rail stop from your home? (ideally within 1/4 mile to a bus stop or 1/2 mile to a rail stop)
2b.  neighborhood amenities: can you walk to a grocery, a park, an elementary school? (ideally within a 1/4 mile)
2c.  alternative transportation: do you have a place to park bikes at your home?  There should be room for every member of the family.

3a.  indoor air quality -- fresh air: can you open windows on both sides of your home to allow natural ventilation through when the temperature is comfortable outside?  Alternately, do you have a fresh air intake on your heating and cooling system?  (most do not)
aerosol paints are notoriously high in VOCs
Use them outside only.
Image courtesy of felixtsao via Flickr
3b.  indoor air quality -- green housekeeping: do you avoid heavy chemicals for cleaning indoors that come with warnings?  If you absolutely must, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 24 hours.
3c.  indoor air quality -- paints, adhesives & sealants:  when doing improvements inside, do you avoid paints, glues & caulks that offgas toxins and/or carcinogens?  Choose low- or non-VOC products and follow all instructions.  If you must use such products indoors, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 96 hours.  If you can still smell it, flush more. By the way, Sherwin Williams has a great premium zero VOC paint.  Love it!
3d.  indoor air quality -- composite woods: do you avoid subfloors and furnishings made of plywood, MDF, OSB or particleboard?  Most of these contain formaldehyde as a binder, which can slowly offgas for up to 30 years.  Once these are in your home, there is little you can do.  Look for composite woods that are formaldehyde-free, denoted with an "E" or "E0."  Buy antiques instead of new; choose solid wood furniture.

Ixnay on the arebay ulbsbay, okay?
CFL in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo
Image courtesy of Paul Keller via Flickr
4a.  energy performance -- evaluation: most utility companies offer a free (or reimbursed) energy audit.  Get one performed at least every 5-10 years.
4b.  energy performance -- maintenance: get a checkup on your heating/cooling system every 1-3 years.  Replace your filter every 1-3 months.
4d.  energy performance -- lighting: use compact fluorescents throughout your home. Caveats:

  • CFLs can be off-color, so don't put them in plain sight.  Use indirect lighting or light fixture shades to help diffuse the light.  At bathroom vanities, consider halogen bulbs instead, which have a warm light and are almost as efficient as CFLs.  However, they do add heat like incandescents!
  • CFLs have mercury inside, so dispose of them properly. Don't let it worry you too much, though.  It would take 100 bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in one 1980s thermometer.
  • CFLs are notoriously poor at dealing with complex lighting switches like dimmers and sensors.  These are also good places to use halogens.

Image courtesy of bsabarnowl via Flickr
5.  minimize waste:  do you recycle as much as possible?  Do you reuse water bottles and avoid products with excessive packaging?  Do you have a household goal for how much trash you send to the landfill?

6a.  water use -- fixtures:  do you have efficient fixtures?  The standard is 1.6 gallons/flush, 2.0 gallons per minute on a shower.  Sink faucets can have lower water use and still significant pressure with the installation of a $5 aerator.  Some water companies provide free audits.
6b.  water use -- landscaping:  30% of residential potable water use is for the outdoors.  Do you water properly and efficiently? H2ouse.net has great resources for improvements.  Consider using gray water or captured water for irrigation purposes.

Image courtesy of glasseyes view via Flickr
7.  local purchases: do you buy local for at least 50% of your purchases?

8.  natural daylight and views: can you see outside from every habitable room in your house (not including storage spaces)?

Let's see some high scores!!!  This exercise should exhibit a few more aspects of sustainability than most people have been exposed to.  It may even inspire you to improve one or more of these aspects of your home.  :)

A Note on Priorities

I am well aware that most building professionals believe that energy efficiency is our main concern.  After many years of focusing on sustainability, I believe that our priorities should start with:

London Air pollution Level 9 Very High April 3 2014
Image courtesy of David Holt London via Flickr

1.  First, do no harm to the users.  That means Indoor Air Quality.  Don't import bad stuff into your home; and keep it ventilated with fresh outside air.
2.  Do no harm to the immediate surroundings.  Minimize pollution of every kind.  Light pollution, waste water & stormwater management, solid waste recycling, transportation emissions, power plant emissions, to name a few.
3.  Do no harm to the larger environment.  Minimize our energy & water footprints. Be mindful of where our materials come from and how they are acquired.

These things ought to be clear and required and obvious to everyone!

Once we're not doing any harm, then we can BEGIN talking about the more wonderful aspects of building sustainably, like connection to the outdoors, using natural and renewable materials, living off the grid, living small, cooperative communities, etc.


*By the way, this list of questions is only a very basic smattering and simplification of credits available through the LEED program.  If you're interested in seeing the whole checklist, look HERE.