Whether you're starting from scratch or renovating, major construction offers you the chance to really make your home energy efficient and carbon friendly. Keep the following elements in mind when working towards a low-energy and climate-friendly home (and check out Green Building & Remodeling For Dummies, by Eric Corey Freed [Wiley] for a whole book's worth of information on this subject):
I Hire an eco-friendly architect. If you're planning to use an architect, look for one who's LEED accredited. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and is a system launched by the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets standards for buildings' energy efficiency and environmental stewardship.
I Install automated systems. Many new technologies help you to reduce your energy use. We rave about programmable thermostats in the section "Home, Carbon-Free Home," earlier in this chapter. Another system allows you to turn off every light in the house with the push of one button on your way out the door.
I Be sun-smart. Build the longest side of your house facing south (or north, if you're down under), and include well-insulated walls on the opposite side to capture and store heat in the winter when the sun is low in the sky. Having a lot of windows on the south side of your house helps, too. In the summer, this orientation actually helps keep your house cool because walls facing east and west are less exposed to the strong heat of the rising and setting sun. But for summer protection, you need a roof overhang on the south exposure, and the south windows need shades. (We talk about using the sun's energy to heat your home in Chapter 13.)
I Plant trees. Keep or plant as many trees as possible on your property. Trees transpire (release water into the atmosphere), which has a cooling effect, adding to the benefits of their shade.
i Landscape smartly. Manicured, green-carpet lawns are among the most wasteful practices of modern civilization. The water that is used to keep it growing and green, and the mowers that are used to cut it back down, both require a lot of energy. Consider alternatives, such as a clover lawn; it grows only an inch high and stays green all year. You can also reduce your lawn's energy consumption by relying on the rain or collecting rainwater from rain troughs on your roof.
If you want your lawn to be extra environmentally friendly, keep it trim with a push mower, rather than the electrical or gas-powered alternatives. You can also avoid using fertilizers on your lawn — the production of fertilizers releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas over 300 times as heat-trapping as carbon dioxide.
i Go underground. Build part of your house underground. Whether it's for a multi-use basement or the main floor, the ground can help moderate temperatures.
i Investigate alternative building materials. People are discovering new ways of building or going back to old ways that are far friendlier to the environment. Forests are one of the world's key carbon sinks, so instead of using wood to frame your house, think about insulated concrete forms (ICFs). They make a house 30 to 50 percent more energy efficient and save hundreds of trees. But if you're worried about the impact of concrete, which takes huge amounts of energy to produce, you might go even further and consider building with walls of straw bale or (in hot, dry climates) rammed earth.
i Lighten up on materials. Kitchen "must-haves" such as granite counter-tops come at a huge energy cost to quarry, cut, and haul. But newly fashionable concrete countertops might be even worse because concrete is an energy hog, taking lots of power to be made. Look instead for funky alternatives, such as recycled glass or sorghum-fiber laminate. Rather than using hardwood for floors, people are rediscovering old materials such as cork, linoleum, and natural-fiber carpeting, as well as cool new floor materials such as bamboo.
If you do use wood, ensure that it's Forest Stewardship Council certified, which means the forests are grown and harvested without soil damage or clear-cutting. (Refer to Chapter 14 for more about sustainable forestry practices.) And keep in mind that a veneer (thin layer) of hardwood over environmentally-friendly plywood is a much greener option than a solid piece.
i Recycle and reuse. Most home building materials are recyclable or reusable. When renovating, be sure to save salvageable materials. If you can't reuse them, you can often find collection programs in cities that take materials such as doors and windows. Building with recycled or reused materials prevents energy from being used to produce the same thing new from raw materials. You can even buy recycled paint now.
If your city has a Habitat for Humanity chapter, they probably run a salvaged materials resale store. One clever architect managed to build a fabulous little "scrap yard" house in Kansas for only $50,000, using all recycled and reused materials.
If you're really committed to building a home that isn't a drain on energy systems, you might want to consider building a zero-energy home — one that isn't just highly energy efficient, but produces energy to feed into the grid. The goal of these homes is to produce as much power as they use, or even more. Governments in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. are providing support for new techniques to create zero-energy homes, which are already a reality. One house built in Colorado by Habitat for Humanity has already met the zero-energy standard over a year of operation.
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