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Making a Difference in Green Building

As an indisputable “nation of shoppers” we all like to check out the latest item. And anyone in the press knows that this is the surest way to bring eyeballs to your magazine, newspaper, web site or other media. So it comes as no surprise that the very latest green/sustainable products and strategies take top billing in the green press. But with all due respect (after all, I’m a shopper too) I wonder if these cutting edge products will make the biggest difference in reducing carbon, pollution, saving energy, protecting habitat, etc. Frankly, I think not.

At the very core of North America’s unsustainable culture is a belief that consumerism is the solution for all woes.  But we now know that this approach has massive side-effects that are completely unsustainable – overflowing landfills, greenhouse gases, toxic spills, etc. The broad lip service currently given to all things “green” is further evidence that we are waking up to these consequences. And yet, change is slow.

As in all things, people with ample resources will be shopping at the top of the green shopping list. It will be stories about these well funded homes, automobiles and lifestyles that will make the covers of green media.  Which is great because it provides a widely publicized example for others to follow… presuming they are tuned into the green headlines. But sadly, the greatest portion of our population may still be unaware of what’s available.

As an architect, I’ve notice that when it comes to intentionally designed (certified) sustainable homes, the two smallest demographics get most of the attention. Both the privileged and the disenfranchised receive ample attention from the design community while the greatest number – the Middle Class – often come up short. At least that’s the way it was before the building recession (more on that later).

Many of the most enthralling sustainable products can’t really be justified until much less sensational measures have been put into action. Things like insulation, weather-stripping, recycling, conservation, service and maintenance will all produce bigger differences and shorter paybacks than geothermal, windmills or tracking photovoltaic arrays. Primarily this is because simple measures are relatively affordable and thus the greatest number of people can embrace them. If everyone in the central portion of the bell curve (see illus.) were to weather strip their homes and increase the insulation by R=4, it would save more energy and money than all the PV arrays installed during the same time period.

So that’s great. All we need to do is get the attention of that demographic majority owning the vast preponderance of homes. And here’s where the story takes an interesting twist. Before the sub-prime melt-down, that demographic was called the Middle Class. But these days there is mounting evidence that the Middle Class is being eliminated as the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  So now, due to foreclosures and other bank policies, the greatest demographic of home ownership is… the banks.

The red line indicating Mortgage Debt represents the amount of residential real estate currently owned by the banks.  Notice that the banks now own more of the residential pie than the homeowners (Home Equity) for the first time since the early 50’s.

If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s the increased legibility of who needs to be targeted for sustainable sensitivity training. If we can get the government to aim their admirable weatherization programs at the banks, the energy savings will be much larger and more quickly forthcoming. Foreclosed real estate is currently being sold like junk bonds. If it were weatherized and generally upgraded, it could be brought back on the market at a premium.  Perhaps this is an approach the administration might explore as it attempts to further stimulate various segments of our economy.

John Connell serves as Design Director at Connor Homes, a company specializing in the design and manufacture of early American-style homes, in a process Connor Homes refers to as ‘mill-built architecture’; allowing for the best of historical early American architecture, design aesthetic and details, coupled with the aforementioned benefits of factory built. John Connell is the Founder of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, Author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.

John Connell
John Connell is the Founder of Connor Homes, author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.
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2 thoughts on “Making a Difference in Green Building

  1. I heartily agree. I have been involved one way or other with sustainability for over 20 years, and with affordable and low/mod income housing (occupants!) for more than 15 years.
    The impact from low cost and simple measures would be huge.
    Part of this problem is the lack of implementing environemental (sustability) management systems like ISO 14000. The LEED system ignores altogether the importance of the organization. All it is interested in is stamping a label on the building. (Granted, the impact on energy is important, and the founders and operators have all good intentions.)
    This lack creates nothing but market driven and knee jerk reactions to sell something green to the target market.
    As you point out, the target is too often the wealthy, or at least those with sufficient disposable income to purchase the luxury of ‘green’.
    Excellent article. It should be distributed to those who teach and those who implement.

  2. Another aspect for consideration as the home building market begins to return, and one should not it has not gone to zero, is to implement across the board stricter standards for building energy efficiency and mandate a minimum level of on-site power generation be it solar PV, solar thermal, wind, or other renewable energy system.

    R-19 walls should be a thing of the past, so to R-30 attics. Even the traditional 2×4 construction technique should be considered a dinosaur and replaced with a combination of 2×6 or 2×8 sills, adobe/straw bale where practical, super insulation and weather-stripping, ultra low-e windows, and of course all ENERGY STAR(R) appliances.

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