Green is just common sense

February 25, 2012

Environment, Home and Garden

The history of building environments for shelter is long, and the basic parameters for such structures have remained relatively unchanged over time — to provide protection from the elements and comfort for the inhabitants.

by Dana W. Ball — 

I am not terribly fond of the term “green” as a moniker for the most recent cultural phenomena — which could, more correctly, be described as a paradigm shift in the way we perceive and employ sustainable technologies, renewable materials and energy resources.

We previously attempted to adopt a green mindset, precipitated by the energy crisis in the ‘70s, without much success. What we are experiencing now is quite different, however. This new green movement is clearly morphing from being an alternative of choice into acceptance as a new standard, born out of necessity. Prior to the BP oil spill, this became evident as I noted that the new green movement is not a repeat of what we now consider was a fad among hippies and tree huggers. This time the issues are real, they are important and they possess a sense of urgency that merits a much more appropriate label: common sense.

Once considered a human attribute necessary for survival, common sense has seemingly become a rare commodity. It makes sense that we should explore energy forms that are infinite in supply and can be converted cleanly into the electricity that fuels our lives. It makes sense that we should assign a true value to the natural resources we take for granted every day — especially our own human resources. It makes sense that we should pursue lifestyles that promote a more social community and a healthier connection to the natural world.

Consider this: The history of building environments for shelter is long, and the basic parameters for such structures have remained relatively unchanged over time — to provide protection from the elements and comfort for the inhabitants. Common sense used to dictate the means by which we met these parameters. However, technology began to supplant this thoughtful, deliberate approach to the design and construction of built environments early in the 20th century with the inception of modern air-conditioning.

To be clear, I am a big fan of these mechanical systems that control the temperature and humidity of our living and work spaces. But in adapting such systems, we all but eliminated common sense from the design process. We abandoned control of our environment for expensive, dirty, inefficient technologies.

Today, it is imperative that we become more mindful of the site orientation of a building, so as to allow the sun to warm us during the coldest months and offer shade from its high, direct rays in the hottest months. It is reasonable and responsible to exploit the natural movement of air as a means of ventilating our interiors and maintaining healthy indoor air quality.

It is an extension of logic to leverage the consistent, constant and comfortable temperatures the earth offers just a few feet beneath us. These concepts have little to do with green, but everything to do with applying common sense when it comes to building and maintaining structures that offer shelter and comfort, efficiently and cleanly.

The absence of common sense in the design and construction of our built environments has left us with myriad self-contained boxes — which we call homes — that serve to isolate us from our neighbors and separate us from the natural world. In his book, Green Building A-Z, Jerry Yudelson claims, “In the year 2035, three-quarters of the built environments in the U.S. will be either new or renovated.”  A fair interpretation of this statement suggests that for any building — residential or commercial — to be competitive in a new common-sense marketplace, those buildings must meet a new set of structural parameters and consumer demands.

We need not bulldoze millions of homes and offices to replace them with structures that incorporate emerging technologies, such as tighter thermal barriers, energy efficiency, water reclamation, materials usage, indoor air quality, placement of mechanicals and ducts in conditioned spaces, photovoltaic or thermal solar usage and daylighting, just to name a few. We can retrofit many of these solutions easily and inexpensively.

It is estimated that our built environments account for 72 percent of all electrical use and 40 percent of energy use. By taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, we not only save money, but we also decrease CO2 emissions — 40 percent of which can be attributed to the construction and maintenance of residential and commercial structures.

Steps to efficiency

1. Have an energy audit performed on your home. This generally includes a pressure test, leakage test and thermal scan, in addition to a visual inspection and assessment of the attic insulation, HVAC equipment, windows, lights and appliances. It is a wise investment in that the payback period, depending on the condition of your home, can be relatively quick. Performing the recommended list of improvements that this audit generates will potentially yield the added bonus of improved indoor air quality.

2. Assess the insulation in your attic space. Ideally, insulation should be installed in the roof lid, not at the ceiling level. This approach is becoming the norm in new residential construction and affords the advantage of running the ducting in a conditioned space. This allows the AC unit to run more efficiently, as it is no longer pushing hot air through the system with the cool air it produces. A better-insulated home also demands less work from the AC unit.

3. Replace single pane windows. Low-energy, double pane, vinyl-clad windows are much more energy-efficient and also offer sound-deadening qualities.

Performing one or more of these upgrades can improve your home’s energy efficiency, increase indoor air quality, save money and add to the value of your home.

Really, it just makes sense.


Dana W. Ball is a custom home designer and licensed general contractor who specializes in sustainable, energy-efficient buildings., dana@artguydesign or 480-235-4532.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2010.

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