Eco-friendly House

Consider this: mom, dad, 2 kids, + 1 dog live in a house (in the United States). What would you figure to be the square footage that they need? Would that change if they were building an “eco-friendly” house or would just the materials change?

The Burlington Free Press ran an article over the weekend about a Waitsfield, VT family who built their dream home, which they labeled eco-friendly. The specifics include: 5 bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, and about 3100 square feet of living space plus the garage and basement. The eco-friendly factors come in with the materials, generally all local : Vermont slate and marble, local timber, on site fieldstone used. And, of course, the mechanical systems are environmentally friendly: a geothermal heating system, solar panels in the yard to provide electricity, and a passive solar hot water collector, triple pane windows, energy star appliances, and LED bulbs.

Still, the house is 3,100 square feet. Isn’t that too big for a family of 4? But, is that a fair judgment? Should I separate green and size? Is there a fine line between reconciling large buildings and houses and making them green? I don’t want to imply that the Waitsfield family did a horrible thing, they should be commended for their efforts; but I think it brings up an important question of size and space and truly being eco-friendly. My scale for houses is a bit skewed because I grew up with 2 parents, 3 sisters, and multiple pets in a 990 square foot ranch house; we eventually finished part of the basement but that only increased the size to somewhere around 1400 sq ft. (That was awesome because I finally had my own room — which is what every teenage girl dreams about.) And now, as mentioned before, I live in a 350 sq ft. apartment with Vinny and our cats. Anyway…

Thank goodness people who are building homes, large and small,  are considering ways to go about reducing the environmental consequences and reliance on fossil fuels, but perhaps the article stands as a reminder that we still have a long way to until we’re successfully practicing what we preach? Perhaps this relates to LEED? What do you think – about all of this?

Buzzword: Sustainability

We all love to talk about sustainability, green building, environmentalism, recycling, hybrid cars, walkability, local businesses, and so much more. All of these are buzzwords in the media and when you can talk about them, you’re considered hip (in some circles) or at least on top of the latest news in the green generation. And while it’s easy to casually bring up one of the aforementioned topics in a conversation and to focus your passionate discussion on one or another, sustainability is about more than that, more than just one of those. It’s a complicated issue, but one that makes so much sense when considering our future, ours and generations after us.

Maybe everyone else already consciously grasped this, but I feel as though my understanding of the web of sustainability is improving by taking a Community Design through Sustainability class this semester. It’s a class offered through the Community Development and Applied Economics department, but it’s an elective for many so there are about half environmental studies (and related fields) students, a handful of us preservationists, and a few other departments scattered in there.  During the first or second class, I had a moment when I thought to myself, “Wow, I live in Vermont.” Those who have lived here longer than a few weeks talked about living machines, cow power, towns without cars, wind farms, and so many environmentally friendly aspects of development. I, on the other hand, like the trained preservationist that I am, spoke of walkability and diversity in stores and living spaces. Some things, such as living machines, I had never heard of.

In addition to readings on sustainability, ecological design, and other topics, we draw maps, design towns based on topography and what we think is vital, all in preparation for our big semester projects: working with actual sites in order to design their future uses in a “sustainable” way.  Sustainable, huh – what does that really mean? Well, that’s what I’m getting at… generally I think of it as environmentally related, and for environmentally related I think of nature and green roofs and such things. But, now I’m realizing that sustainable is the big picture. It involves historic preservation, green building, communities where people want to live and can support themselves, machines and homes that use less energy and respect the environment. With one aspect missing, sustainability is not complete. Constructing LEED certified gold standard buildings when you have perfectly sound historic structures sitting next to it is not sustainable; it’s a waste of energy and resources. Storm water must have a place to drain that will not hurt other water sources. Vegetation should be native, not imported, in order to survive and to represent the unique environment.

Like historic preservation, sustainability can be a lifestyle that stretches far beyond one community. It would be impossible for one town to be completely self sufficient these days, but perhaps thinking locally, regionally will be much more beneficial than thinking internationally for certain products.

Many of these points are things I’ve known, some are things I’ve learned, but it still seems like a new way of connecting everything. Perhaps it is paying more attention to the ecological factors in connection with the built environment.  There are so many overlaps between my preservation classes and my sustainability class. In both we talk or read about Jane Jacobs and about the early era of urban planning and town design and the theories behind them. When designing my own town with only the topography given to me, I could think about Jane Jacobs’ theories or the Garden City movement (which, I should add, are very different philosophies). At first I hit a wall for designing a town. Design a town – as in put buildings there? I normally think of towns with existing structures. It was difficult and completely different to the majority of my education so far. But, it’s a great way to step out of the preservation box, while successfully melding it with another field (it’s also further assurance of how connected preservation is to other fields).

What do you think?

Coincidentally, while all of this was on my mind, a friend (thanks, Ellen!) sent me this link to a book review for Green Metropolis by David Owen.  From what I gather, the gist of it is how living in New York City is actually a “green” existence. Owens writes about how sprawl is driven by people looking for a “green” place to live. His book is based on an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s how it begins:

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day. [David Owen, The New Yorker, 10.18.2004]

You expect him to say some little known “utopian” community, right?  Me too. And then he writes, “The utopian community was Manhattan.” I’m hooked. It looks like a great read and very relative to this sustainability buzzword.

Old? Green? Wasteful?

By now most preservationists and many more have probably read This Old Wasteful House, the April 5, 2009 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times written by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Perhaps I am out of the loop lately, but I’ve heard little discussion about the piece. What does everyone think about it, preservationists and non-preservationists?

Let’s take a look at the first and last paragraphs:

NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.

Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.

Good stuff, right? It’s the perfect combination of historic preservation and sustainability.  It seems very positive and encouraging for historic homes, as Moe explains that all houses can be just as energy efficient and green as new houses.  He writes that by improving these older homes, wages stay local, homeowners receive tax incentives, and overall the carbon emissions reduction is equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil (saved). 

One would imagine that because the messages of the first and last paragraphs place preservation in such a good light, that the body paragraphs would be just as encouraging. However, upon further reading, Richard Moe states outright that “older homes are particularly wasteful.”  What? Isn’t “wasteful” a word that the opponents of preservation throw at us all of the time? People are often convinced, whether justified or not, that older homes will always cost more money in terms of heating and cooling and upgrades and repairs.  But, does Moe mean “older” as in a few decades and not “historic” as in over 50 years old? A home built 20 years ago is entirely different than one built 90 years ago.  

To Moe’s credit, he does explain that older homes can easily catch up to being as green as the new homes and how it is actually cheaper to “go green”.  Still, while he is promoting the ease of it all, it seems to be too much of a slight towards older homes. Many people would rather have a new home with nothing to think about in terms of energy efficiency. 

On a similar line of thought, read EL Malvaney’s blog post, Green = Energy Efficient?, at Preservation in Mississippi, in response to Moe’s op-ed piece. Interpreting the piece in an insightful manner, he questions the depth and definition of “energy efficiency” while considering that being energy efficient is still consuming energy. Will anyone open a window rather than turn on the air-conditioning?  EL Malvaney also ponders the correlation between historic preservation and this new energy-efficiency/green fad: does being green mean that preservation standards are relaxed? Are preservationists wincing less at the multitudes of new developments if they are “green” building?  It’s a good piece to read and a good angle to consider, one that I had not looked at previously.

Overall, it’s a complicated matter – the balance between preservation and green building. Both going green and being a preservationist require a strong commitment and people who truly care about their natural and built environment.  It is a long process to prove to people that both are affordable, cost-effective measures.  While Moe had the best of intentions, this is probably not the piece that will change the minds of those against historic and/or older homes. It is fitting for those who understand, but I fear someone pulling “older homes are particularly wasteful” out of context.  All homes are wasteful if you neglect maintenance and choose to live with windows closed all year and lights on all day long. Perhaps, we preservationists should remember to highlight the benefits of historic homes (character, details, craftsmanship, established neighborhoods, etc.) while we are promoting the “green” factor.  Together they make a much stronger case for each other, preservation and environmentalism, than they would alone.