Eight years ago I had never thought much about the word "sustainability."
"Sustainability" is a broad term that addresses three fundamental principles: economic strength, environmental stewardship, and social equity. Back then I really only understood two of those principles: I had turned my lifelong passion for nature into a personal mission to protect our environment, and my parents' relentless commitment to stretch a government paycheck as far as it could go meant I understood well the economics of doing more with less.
Sustainability for me simply meant saving money and saving the planet, and if I could do both at once, even better.
Since then I've come to realize that rather than arriving at the finish line when you've become a sustainability "expert," it often feels more like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, new information, new technology or new ways of thinking pop up as detours. It's a never-ending process of learning, a balancing act with lots of trial-and-error experimentation mixed in.
Ultimately what counts is your forward motion over time. That said, it's also important to reflect back once in awhile, and although some of the decisions I made in 2008 while building a house in the Midwest make me cringe now as a professional in the sustainability field, I feel the lessons I learned are valuable and worthwhile to share.
We lived in Northern California at the time, and had purchased six acres of pasture on a lake near family to build what we initially planned as a summer home. My job was flexible, and we felt it made more sense to invest in real estate there than to jump back into the unaffordable California housing market.
I had some pretty specific ideas about my dream house, so we needed to find a contractor who would accept IKEA cabinets with pull-out drawers for kitchen cabinets and bathrooms, unique plumbing fixtures and birch hardwood floors sourced from an outlet store. It was going to be a challenge building a house remotely with just a couple of onsite visits, so trust and communication were even more important than usual. There were a few more non-negotiable elements as well, and in hindsight I should have worked out the kinks on them before we signed the contract since some became negotiable as we tried to stay on budget.
After countless hours sifting through house plans online we found one our family could agree on and clicked "buy." It ended up as our first mistake. We researched builders, had in-depth conversations with two, narrowed that down to one, emailed the $600 plan and promptly found out building it was going to cost twice what we wanted to spend. Armed with new knowledge from the builder about rooflines and layout we went back to the drawing board for ideas, and a local architect he recommended then brought those to life. That failed plan was my first taste of humility in the process, representing a danger similar to diagnosing your ailments online instead of seeing a doctor. A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
My priority non-negotiable was geothermal. I understood its tax credits, and I didn't bother to research solar since it felt overwhelming and my perception was that it was too expensive. Fast forward eight years and the solar picture, especially with its increasingly more affordable house-size battery backups to handle outages, is much clearer.
I was enamored with this alternative heating and cooling technique, and argued back and forth with the contractor who was lobbying for a traditional high-efficiency gas furnace. My insistence on geothermal forced him to establish new subcontractor relationships and added an unfamiliar wrinkle to the building process. Contractors are inherently risk-averse for good reasons, but after a successful experience with our house, he became one of the biggest geothermal advocates in the state.
As excited as I was about being environmentally friendly using the ground's consistent temperature to heat and cool my house, I soon discovered the harsh reality that geothermal only works effectively until a certain point, between zero and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature the thermostat then shows a symbol as the backup electric strip heater kicks in, which is very energy inefficient. We did everything we could to avoid the backup system, often setting the heat at less than 65, saving on utility bills but making several frigid winter days all the more brutal.
In general, however, geothermal offers more positives than negatives. Less-obvious benefits include these three:
- Avoiding that crispy feeling from too-dry heated air and no electric shocks as you turn on electronics
- Not hearing the drone of a noisy air conditioner running outside on hot, sticky days
- Nearly non-existent maintenance.
I had researched tankless on-demand hot water and solar thermal water heaters, but the team explained that the geothermal "waste" heat could jumpstart our hot water. We ended up with two tanks for that reason; a cheaper electric preheated one connected to a second one that ran on natural gas only as needed. We made the investment to pay more up front for appliances, like the gas heater, because we knew they would cost less to operate, and save resources, over the years. Thanks to my job I now know the logic we used to make many of our decisions is described with the official phrase of "life-cycle cost analysis." I happen to think it's just the right way to make any decision.
Unfortunately radiant floor heating in the basement, another potential complementary geothermal option, didn't make the cut. It was a budget casualty and one of our biggest regrets; chilly, unfinished concrete floors make the whole room colder. We did splurge on a modern fireplace in the main living area, more art than functional, with blue gas flames erupting from clear crystals lining the unit's floor. Entertaining to watch, yes, but we later wished we would have installed a wood pellet stove in the basement to take over when it was too cold for geothermal instead.
I investigated LEDs for all the inset lighting but the technology just wasn't there yet; I remember them costing about $50 a bulb, which was laughable. Thankfully they pencil out much better now at around $10 each.
Other mistakes, or things I wish had known then:
- The vertical vinyl siding we chose for aesthetic reasons warped, and I now understand the significant environmental and occupational hazards of the chemicals used to produce it
- All wood or tile floors, with no carpet anywhere, was great for allergies but made the stairs much more dangerous for slips and falls
- I wish I would have known about foam light switch and outlet insulators that go behind the plates (extremely inexpensive but making a significant difference in sealing conditioned space) and motion-sensor light switches (perfect for kids who can't remember to flip the switch).
Things we did right, many of which are included on Greenlivingpedia's sustainable house design features checklist: www.greenlivingpedia.org/Sustainable_house_design_features_checklist
- The large screen porch, ceiling fans and cross-breeze made air conditioning necessary on only the hottest days
- Paying more for blown-in insulation, and installing significantly more than required by code in the attic
- Incorporating universal design elements, such zero-step entry from the garage, wide doorways and open layout on the first floor, and door levers instead of knobs
- Water efficiency was less of a priority since we had our own well, but it still takes energy to pump it; we chose Kohler Cimarron 1.28 gallon toilets and were very happy with their performance, and we brought our extremely low-water washer with us from California
- Low VOC paints
- Layering truckloads of compost in the yard before seeding after the topsoil was scraped off. Experts advise to "strive for 5" percent compost to absorb rainwater rather than causing run off; turf on poor soil is almost as impermeable as concrete
- After living there a few months we disconnected several downspouts to French drains to remedy severe erosion and capture stormwater onsite
- Landscaping with low-water/low-maintenance plants and leaving more than half of the six acres unmowed as a natural meadow; walking the mower-wide path with my kids to observe bugs and all the different plants is one of my favorite memories.
The architect's revised plan, two stories on top of a walk-out basement, took full advantage of our hillside lot facing the lake. Soaring windows in the two-story open great room offered gorgeous views to the north, a priority, but were buffeted by arctic winds and the space often felt cold even with energy-efficient windows. In our defense, the house was planned as a summer home, but that was another mistake. We tried to design for everything: summer views, retirement, the potential of my parents living downstairs, teenagers stuck inside thanks to bitter winters, large family gatherings, the list went on. We ended up with a beautiful, too-big house that wasn't quite right for any of it.
Thanks to knowledgeable friends in Raleigh I've now been introduced to the Passive House movement, using building science and systems to make it possible to heat a house with a hairdryer. (See www.phius.org.) Passive building techniques offer better indoor air quality and superior comfort — no more cold rooms on even the most wicked winter days, and resiliency to maintain a comfortable temperature even if the power goes out. Recent developments with modular systems (think Lego-like) make achieving net-zero energy more reasonable than ever before. (See www.buildsmartna.com.)
Looking back I wish there was an outside resource or advocate I could have used to "hold my hand" through the building process. With limited knowledge it was difficult to know where I could "push" or not and how much effort was required, and what it would really cost, vs. what the contractor told me. Now I know consulting a Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) certified professional would have been a great place to start, and might have helped us better think through how a smaller space could meet our needs. Maybe they could have also advised me NOT to plant the invasive spearmint in the front flowerbeds. Ah, the clarity of hindsight...
Question: What other lessons have you learned in the fields of renewable energy and sustainability?