Thursday, April 30, 2015

How a Home can Help the Planet

As companies and individuals become more aware of the severity of environmental problems, sustainable housing becomes an increasingly mainstream concept. Currently, the private building sector is responsible for about half of US energy consumption, and in 2010, it produced nearly half of the carbon emissions. Individual homes aren’t much better. Heating and cooling systems typically lose 20% of circulated air, the 90% of homes with dark colored roofs hold more heat, causing greater air conditioning use, and many individuals ignore simple options such as utilization of daylight or choosing energy efficient appliances. Luckily, innovations in carbon neutral and energy efficient housing are booming, and accessible solutions might soon be a widespread reality.

Architecture students are hungrier than ever for education on sustainable building. By participating in development projects, such as the one that created the Dynamic Augmented Living Environment (DALE), a micro home designed to adapt to and utilize the changing Southern California weather, students are paving the way for a greener future. Their product fits in perfectly with the expanding industry, and other creations like theirs are featured in the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a competition that displays the sustainable homes built by 20 different colleges. These innovations might even make their way into the big leagues and join the most prominent current designs at Ecobuild, a conference where over 800 companies and 60,000 guests attend debates, seminars, and showrooms that educate on the latest advancements in sustainable homes. Interest in “zero bill homes,” houses that incur no energy costs, is increasing as pollution and energy costs become more of a concern. Companies are realizing that there is little extra cost if green technologies are added during initial construction, and the reduction in bills, emissions, and wastefulness more than pays for it.

These builders understand the approach of sustainability, the idea that we need to “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This means that sustainable housing involves reduction of waste, increase of re-use and recycling, less maintenance, lower environmental impacts and costs, better reliability, and greater user satisfaction. Waste is not measured exclusively in terms of material, but relates to time, land use, and financial return. Action plans for optimal building consider re-use of existing materials, design for minimum waste, lean construction, minimizing energy use, what energy is in use, pollution, biodiversity, conservation of water resources, respect for people and local environments, and setting targets to measure progress.

With all of this in mind, architect Mike Reynolds created one of the best known eco-houses, the Earthship. Since the 1970’s, these homes have been constructed using old tires, bottles, stucco, and other recycled materials, coupled with sustainable water, waste, energy, and food systems to create completely off-grid and self-sufficient homes. Today, more than 2,000 Earthships exist across the world, and their 70% improvement in energy usage is welcome help for a struggling planet. These buildings utilize the unique climates of each region to build the most efficient homes possible, and costs range from the Simple Survival Model at a $25,000 to a luxurious $1.5 million mansion. Local regulations need to be considered when constructing these green houses, as certain building materials might not be accepted, and often times banks are unwilling to loan money. However, options exist to work within these conditions, and doing it part way is better than not doing it at all.

Even if you can’t live in an Earthship or other eco-home, there are a number of things that you can do to improve your impact. The EPA has a number of easy suggestions, such as utilizing the sun instead of turning on lights, sealing and insulating to prevent air loss, using efficient ENERGY STAR appliances, and making conversions to renewable sources for various utilities.  There’s always something a person can do, and ever little bit makes a difference. And who knows, maybe the future will be made of old tires, bottles, and dirt. 

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