April 6, 2012
The problem; how to create a cost effective “green” home (or any other building) in the St. Louis area, and this includes renovating an existing building as well. This is ground that has been tread aplenty in recent years, and yet remains ambiguous to many home owners and professionals alike for some reason. I hope to simplify and clarify what seems to be an unnecessarily complicated and confusing topic, saving time and effort while hopefully helping to avoid predicable disappointments. As usual, there are caveats (i.e. “it depends”) that can complicate things again, but I think the overall strategy for accomplishing a cost effective “green” home is really pretty simple and straightforward, as it should be. Then again, I have a fairly practical view of the topic, not that I don’t love my trees. But if you are in the Show Me state, seems to make sense to me, to…well, show that it makes sense.
The first thing we need to do is clarify what it means to be “green”. This is an unclear and emotionally charged term, often meaning different things to different people. All the nuanced meanings are related conceptually, but are critically different when discussed and applied in reality.
Many professionals prefer “sustainable”; meeting immediate needs without jeopardizing a future ability to do so. I personal love this term, but it is a VERY high bar to truly accomplish, maybe more of an ideal than a reality. To truly be sustainable, a residence would not only need to be completely independent of any services (domestic water, sewer, non-renewable energy), it would need to give back in order to recoup losses used to construct the building.
Those more concerned with environment than return on investment (ROI) might prefer “ecological”; environmentally friendly in a “living building” sort of way. Look into the Living Building Challenge for more info on this, but prepare yourself for a college PHD-level exercise in research and calculations. This is just out of the realm of possibility for most people and businesses, but cheers to those that attempt it. We love you for you zeal and shall sing your praises to the heavens.
Those less concerned with the environment but are more focused on a quantifiable ROI prefer “high-performance”; basically meaning energy efficient. This is a great term, used more by engineers, builders, and product representatives that sell energy efficient systems. But because of the practical and simplistic nature of it, it is probably also the most befitting my approach. My only regret is its limitation in that it excludes environmental concerns beyond those directly related to energy consumption. To me, that misses the bigger picture of what it means to be “green”, and so I find it wanting.
I prefer to just say “smart”. It’s a better way of designing and building, with numerous benefits over conventional methods, both economic and environmental, and anybody can take this as far as they want to with more or less zeal. Who doesn’t want to build smart after all?! Every situation and client is unique with different wants and needs, opportunities and restrictions. Done right, it’s actually cheaper than conventional construction methods initially and performs better over the long haul to boot, regardless of location. And feel free to throw in as many of the environmentally beneficial products you feel are appropriate, and get a little warm and fuzzy along with the cost-balancing stuff.
In order to determine which variant of “green” is best for you, answer a simple question; is your priority economic or environmental? Most want a balance of the two of course, but only one can and always does prevail. I usually hear something like “we want to be as environmentally responsible as we can afford to be”, which to date has always translated to an economic priority. It is the very rare committed few that pursue “green” driven by environmental altruism, although God bless them and I hope to work with one some day.
Now, I’m begging you to please, please, please be honest with yourself. Your answer is the foundation of an entire design and construction process. Some call it “concept” or your “level of commitment”. Regardless, if it is not addressed truthfully, expect disappointment and frustration, and in all likelihood wasted time and money for all involved.
While I discuss both aspects in this series, there’s definitely an economic priority to my input as that seems to be the usual driving force behind any “green” project I’ve been involved with. Frankly it’s just less messy overall, more easily explained and understood, and filled with less ambiguity. Don’t feel guilty for not being primarily environmentally motivated, as we live in a real world with real limitations. Designing smart is still environmentally conscious, it just acknowledges and embraces the cost-benefit equation.
PART TWO (COMING SOON); THE PROGRAM
Prepare yourself by reading my blog on Designing Small is Designing Smart.