Green Home: Sustainable Ways of Living on Planet Earth
This article is a guest post from Jeffery Marlow
Efficient building is not a new phenomenon. In times past it may have been known as smart building or may have been a business practice that differentiated failed companies, from those that were passed on to succeeding generations. Most of us are not capable of designing, contracting and building earth friendly homes. Green building professionals are Architects, Engineers and Contractors that have refined their expertise to specifically address sustainable building practices. They also possess the licenses needed to assure life safety provisions are met. If considering building a new house or doing a major renovation, their inclusion in the process can be indispensable. However, there are building improvements that can reduce the footprint imposed by conventionally built homes and are easily accomplished by a homeowner. The latest technology presented by the media should only be considered after a realistic review of the buildings current limitations. The least expensive improvement usually provides the greatest impact. Core principles of efficiency, optimizing passive components and minor lifestyle changes need to be considered first.
Green Home: EFFICIENCY
A majority of the energy we consume goes into keeping ourselves comfortable, entertained and fed. The age of a home’s systems is directly related to how efficient they are. While a refrigerator purchased 7 years ago may still perform its functions and resemble current designs, technology improvements warrant replacing it. Using purchasing tools like Energy Star ratings to review products can be an effective means of reducing a homes daily drain on resources and your wallet. The heating and air conditioning (HVAC) system of production housing was included to condition the house, satisfy bank mortgage standards, meet a price point and installed to meet a schedule. Regardless of the quality of the product or installation, most residential HVAC systems were built to operate at no more than 85% efficiency. That required builders to oversize a system to maintain comfort for all potential weather conditions and home designs. Modern systems are approaching 95% efficiency, with variable frequency fan/pump cycles programmed to improve comfort and reduce energy usage. Point of use water heaters can remove the energy required to keep a tank of water hot, even when it is not needed. Depending on the fuel and system used, operating costs can be minimal compared to a 10 year old tank unit. A simple outlet strip can provide a convenient means of shutting off phantom loads from many entertainment devices simultaneously, without a major impact to lifestyle.
Green Home: PASSIVE
A passive improvement that is cost efficient and DIY friendly is to improve the building envelope. That can include windows and doors, insulation, air and moisture infiltration and roofing.
Replacing windows and doors is an expensive option and technology changes rapidly. No matter how manufacturers improve what is effectively a hole in the wall, it will still compromise a homes thermal envelope. There may be a time when a wall is constructed uninterrupted, with artificial lighting, environmental controls and images of the outdoors projected on flat screen televisions. Natural light and ventilation are important to our physical and mental well being. Operating a window to meet climatic conditions seems an acceptable lifestyle change compared to such a bubble existence. Windows and doors that leak air or water need to be addressed. If your home has factory sealed, double pane windows, with solid or insulated frames, replacing them will probably not be cost effective. Adding storm panels to less efficient windows, sealing draft channels and using thermal curtains can be effective options that are cheap and easy.
Insulation needs to be plentiful and in the correct location. Ceiling insulation settles over time and can be compromised by people accessing the attic or using it for storage. Adding an additional fiberglass layer or using loose cellulous to fill settled areas is cheap, improves comfort and saves energy for years. Inspecting wall insulation can be difficult. Walls are usually finished on both sides, so checking insulation continuity without damaging finished surfaces is complicated. Contracting for thermal imaging services can be worthwhile, especially during the pre-design phase of any considered renovation. Thermal hot spots shown on the imaging can identify areas that need to be corrected. Basement and crawlspace areas can be improved by adding an air infiltration barrier to seal the open bottom of the joist bays. The barrier also helps to keep critters out of the insulation. Verifying that the tops of each mechanical chase was sealed can be a dirty, but effective means for assuring fire blocking and air infiltration barriers are in place. Contracting for air infiltration testing using blast doors can be useful to develop a cost effective plan for improving a homes air infiltration and thermal efficiency. Quality testing companies will test the existing condition of the house, offer a correction plan to improve the homes efficiency and then will retest to verify the improvements.
When reducing air infiltration, it is imperative that air quality be addressed. Mechanical systems can cause pressure imbalances within a home that inhibit removal of flue gases. Improper ventilation can be a cause of molds to form. Using finishes or furniture that gives off toxic fumes can agitate allergies and other breathing disorders. Adding air exchange features to HVAC equipment and limiting the use of materials that include Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) is a necessary inclusion to assuring superior air quality. VOC inclusions can be identified by reviewing material safety data sheets (MSD) or by seeking certified green material manufacturers.
Limiting and controlling moisture is critical to the longevity of the structure and health of building inhabitants. A buildings ability to shed precipitation is directly related to the known strengths and weaknesses of building cladding systems. What constantly changes is the weather and exposure of each site. Horizontal rain can penetrate the best systems and installation techniques. Moisture trapped within components of a building exterior are a guarantee of rot and insect infestation. In my decades of contracting history, I have never replaced a door or window without first repairing the rot or termite damage that resulted from years of moisture intrusion. My own home was no exception. Standard exterior doors were no match for the frequent storms we experience along the Chesapeake Bay. No matter how well they were flashed or weather-stripped, the water forced its way in. Self sealing flashing and outswing, multi point locking PVC doors and frames are technology currently available and seem to be working. Verifying the integrity of caulk joints around different materials and building surfaces can be cost effective and included as part of a yearly building envelope inspection. Caulk joints that fail within months of being replaced identifies excessive movement or internal moisture. Exterior paint that flakes at a certain location, no matter how often painted, is a symptom of moisture migration to the exterior. Moisture follows gravity, so the problem may not be where the symptom is demonstrated, but at some point above. Caulking a material seam at the bottom may force the moisture into the structure and compound the problem. Building cladding systems are designed to shed water. They will never be totally sealed, but overlapping components keep the water deflected and flowing out. Caulk is not a water diversion system. It is an effective sealant for temporarily bonding dissimilar materials together and limiting water intrusion. It should not be relied upon as primary waterproofing.
Roof longevity is directly related to how cool and ventilated it is maintained. If attic insulation is added and roof vent baffles or eave vents are covered, the life of the roof and supporting structure can be compromised. Roofing materials vary greatly regarding lifespan and critical features. Modern roofing is being developed to include cool technologies, such as paints that reflect radiant heat, colors that reduce heat gain and venting systems that improve longevity. Before considering adding solar panels or rainwater collection tanks, the roof and its materials should be carefully reviewed. Most roofing materials have reached their effective life within 10 years of installation. The warranty may be for 35 years, but adding solar panels over asphalt shingles midway thru their effective lifespan is an invitation to wasting money and chasing leaks. Using rainwater collected from asphalt shingles or galvanized metal can leach chemicals and heavy metals that are counter productive to health. Prior planning and phasing future features over time is a cost effective means to achieving a sustainable lifestyle. Time also provides the opportunity for technology to improve
Green Home: LIFESTYLE
The simplest rule for maintaining a comfortable home with minimal impact on the planet starts with identifying your ultimate goals. Wanting to change windows in a location with historic covenants will at best be expensive and may not be permitted at any cost. Wanting to include a new geo-thermal or a solar energy system may be the latest thing, but current costs for purchasing energy compared to producing it means that your money is better spent improving your insulation and reducing air infiltration. Houses built in the 1940’s, were designed and built to meet the needs of unskilled trades, inexpensive purchase price, rapid construction and cheap energy. They were rarely built to last longer than 50 years without major improvements or rigorous maintenance. The costs to improve or expand a home at the end of its effective lifespan could end up greater than the cost of building new, especially when considering improvements in material technology. Modern production houses are not significantly different than homes built in the 40’s. Current building codes have added some energy saving regulations, but unskilled labor, price and speed of construction are still very relevant. A home purchase is one of the most significant lifestyle choices that can be made, similar to the birth of a child. Few people are willing to limit the comfort or lifestyle of their family for debatable benefits to the planet. Image is the motivation for many home decisions. Buildings designed for prestige alone are rarely sustainable. It should be mentioned that truly sustainable designs can be some of the most impressive buildings available. When low operating costs prove the value of these buildings, even the most stalwart critics of green building are silenced Most people support a house that is far greater than they really need. Keeping empty bedrooms for grown children, with the intention of having a place for them to visit is a common situation. The cost to maintain unused rooms greatly exceeds the cost to house infrequent guests in the finest hotel. Property values may necessitate building a house to meet market value. Is a 5 bedroom home for a couple really the best lifestyle decision that can be made, regardless of location? The decision truly becomes one of identifying your goals and how to limit the impact of achieving those goals. Until you experience the benefits of a comfortable, low maintenance and cost effective home, you may not understand how important it is to yourself or the rest of us.
Jeffrey Marlow works developing properties in Maryland, Virginia, Florida and Costa Rica. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and has managed the construction of several commercial buildings that achieved a LEED Silver rating from the US Green Building Council. While no longer contracting to the public, he offers consulting services for select projects
To learn more about green living, read GO From 0- Green in 20 Easy Steps