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Sustainable Design and Green Building

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What is sustainable design and green building?

These terms have become popular in recent years, yet their meaning remains a mystery to many. The answer is really quite simple. Sustainable materials are those which do not deplete the environment, are renewable, usually recyclable and easily maintained. They are also long-lasting, not needing to be replaced during the life of the building.

You will notice that all of the text on this page is green. This was done to signify the need for sustainable design in our homes and communities, using materials that don't deplete our natural resources, that are easily replenished naturally and are recyclable.

Much of what is built today throughout the world wastes natural materials and energy. Developers and builders are generally not sensitive to the environment and to the future use of the materials that go into the homes they build. After the Florida hurricanes in 2004, most of the damaged or unusable materials were sent to landfills. After the 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and Florida, many environmentally sensitive people led an effort to recycle as much material as possible, or to use what is not recyclable in ways that can produce inexpensive energy. Many areas in California now mandate that building material from tear-downs be recycled and documented. This is the right direction to pursue if we are to salvage this planet for future generations.

Builders and developers also need to be cognizant of the fact that just because one house plan works on a particular lot doesn't mean that it will work on every lot. Homeowners also need to develop a caring attitude to this issue, regardless of their social status or income.

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What materials are right for your home? That depends on where you build, what materials are locally available, environmentally friendly, sustainable (that is: long-lasting), energy-efficient and economically feasible.

Mount Ranier

In the Northeast and New England, as well as the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest, you might want a log home. In the Lower Midwest and the Southeast, brick is often the material of choice. In many mountain areas, natural field stone and rough-cut timbers are a time-honored material that have stood up to the heavy snow loads and high winds. In Florida and the Gulf Coast, concrete block has the advantage not only of availability, but of endurance in hurricanes and in repelling termites and carpenter ants. In the desert Southwest, adobe and stucco are not only locally available, but are also sustainable over long periods of time. Clay tile roofs are able to withstand the brutal heat. Where heavy rains permiate the wet season, especially in the Northwest, metal roofs are quite common and very sustainable.

Whatever material you select, it should be available locally, be sustainable, easy to maintain, economical and fit with the environment and local architecture. Materials that must be imported from other areas have a huge impact on the environment because of the energy required to move them from one place to another.

Fall Colors

The population of the United States comprises about 5% of the population of the world, yet we consume 25% of the natural resources and available energy. The time has come, in fact it is overdue, for us to seriously think about the way we use the resources available to us. This applies not just to automobiles, but in our communities and our homes.

As discussed on the Community Planning page, our homes need to be integral to our communities, and our communities need to be integral to our geographical environment. It makes absolutely no sense to use materials and building methods in one geographic area that are compatible with that area, and then try to use the same methods and materials in another area just because "that's the way we do it where we came from." If you move from one area to another, you need to consider the environmental impact of using incompatible materials and methods. Igloos don't work in Arizona, and adobe doesn't work in northern Alaska.

There are a lot of dysfunctional families in today's society. There are also a lot of dysfunctional homes. I firmly believe that there is a correlation of the two in many cases. I am not saying that all dysfunctional families are the direct result of living in dysfunctional homes, but I believe that there is at least some dysfunctionality that can be attributed to improperly designed homes. They may work well for the families who initially lived there, but they don't necessarily work for all families. When a new family moves into one of these homes, it may be like trying to fit the figurative square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't work, resulting in the need to remodel.

If more homes were designed correctly to begin with, much of the dysfunctional housing would be eliminated and thus the need for so much remodeling. This would save a lot of money and materials because the homes would be able to fit more families.

I also believe that this would go a long way in curing at least some of the dysfunctional living within those homes. This would help families to function as harmoniously as their homes and make for happier living. It doesn't cost to design well; it pays. Remember: this is the most expensive material possession purchase you will ever make. With housing as expensive as it currently is, doesn't it just make sense (dollars and sense) to get the design right? Paper and pencil are cheaper than hammer and nails.

Family walking along the shore at sunset

We can individually do much to help preserve our environment and contribute to the welfare of our community while we design and build new homes and remodel older homes. Here are my top ten ways to help preserve our environment and reduce energy consumption.

1. Think about the impact of the home on the land and how it will affect the homes and land around it. Does it fit in with the neighborhood? Does it contribute to or drain the resources of the surrounding community?

2. Learn what materials and construction methods are common to your area. Don't try to impose your idea of what is acceptable or environmentally friendly unless you have solid experience in the field and can support your findings.

3. Consult an experienced design professional who has the ability to develop a design that meets not only your needs, but also the requirements unique to your community.

4. Hire a knowledgeable, experienced builder who has the ability to translate the plan specifications into the built home accurately. Your builder must be a team player who is willing to learn new methods and is conscious of the environment.

5. Consider using alternative energy resources, including solar, geothermal, wind, hydrodynamic and other non-polluting energy sources. In southern climates where cooling is an important factor, keep east and west facing glass to a minimum in order to reduce solar gain. In northern climates where heating is more important, make sure that your building orientation maximizes solar gain to reduce its reliance on non-renewable heat sources. Protect northern exposures from the effects of cold, north winds. Remember: homes built in the north cannot be designed and built the same way as homes built in the south.

6. Use natural materials that will protect your home from damaging insects, water infiltration, humidity, fire and wind. Consider using recycled materials where appropriate and effective.

7. Use water saving devices throughout your home and develop habits that conserve water. The surface of the Earth is 78% water, but only 2% of that water is drinkable. Don't leave water running when you don't need to. Don't water your lawn during the wet season, and do so only once a week during the early morning or evening for only 20 minutes. Use Xeriscape landscape materials.

8. Purchase only appliances that are "EnergyStar" rated. They may cost a little more, but will save money over the life of the appliances through less energy usage. Purchase long-life, energy-efficient light bulbs that use 1/10 of the energy for the same light output. Unplug appliances when not in use, including toasters, blenders, battery chargers, curling irons, hair dryers and night lights. Even when off, they are still consuming electricity. Use rechargeable batteries for portable appliances, such as radios and computers. Don't leave lights, computers and TVs on when you're not using them. Use ceiling fans to keep air conditioning use down, but turn them off when no one is in the room. Set your thermostat a little higher in the summer and a little cooler in the winter. Three degrees Fahrenheit difference can save as much as 12% on your heating/cooling bill. Turn off your water heater when you are away for days or weeks. Use a tankless water heater that heats the water only when it is needed. If you have a hot water tank, set the thermostat to a cooler setting and install a heat recovery unit.

9. Change your living habits. Build in an area where you can minimize your driving. Reside as close as possible to your employment, schools, medical facilities, etc. Consider an in-home office if possible and if you are self-employed or are permitted to telecommute. Use public transportation whenever possible. If you must drive, buy a vehicle that is as environmentally friendly and as economical as possible. Hybrid vehicles are popular and the prices are becoming more affordable. Drive at or below the speed limit. For every 10 mph you increase your speed over 45 mph, you reduce your fuel efficiency by 15%. If you have a deadline, leave early enough so as not to be behind schedule. Such lifestyle changes will help to reduce your stress levels, make you happier and give you a sense of well-being. Try not to drive during heavy, peak driving times. Local municipalities can help by synchronizing traffic lights, thereby reducing the time spent idling at red lights. Carpool and combine trips to several places by advanced planning. If you feel that you must drive fast, especially for long trips. why not consider flying instead? The airlines can usually get you there faster and cheaper than you can get there by driving.

10. Whether or not you are affluent, please be considerate of those less fortunate than you by not insisting on having the biggest, most extravagent materials that money can buy just because you can afford it. Many extravagent homes waste space, and thus waste materials and energy. Some of these homes have unnecessarily complicated designs. Simpler is usually better, and can appear just as elegant as a more complicated design. This planet does not contain an infinite supply of fossil fuels, water, wood, metals and other materials. In other words, don't build more home than you need. Whatever materials that you use in your home that are unnecessary, that's material that can't be used in someone else's home.

New York City Taxis

Let's all do our part, individually, as families and as a worldwide community of responsible humans in order to keep our world has livable as possible. We cannot ignore our responsiblities and think that we cannot help. This needs to be a united effort on the part of everyone in order to preserve our precious, delicate planet for the future of our families.

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