Home About Katherine The Tips Media Contact
Building a House that Makes Sense for You
Ready to rethink?
Emotional Intelligence
Getting Started
Room by Room
The Big Picture
Home Building
Remodeling
Spotlight Homes
x
Frequently Asked Questions
Index of Columns
   
   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green & Greener


Green Building
Green Remodeling
Greening Your Interiors
 

Greening Your Exteriors
Home Energy Use
Sustainable Planet

“Green Building” and “Sustainability” are used interchangeably but rarely defined.

Both are shorthand ways of describing an approach to home building that puts the environment front stage center and emphasizes prudent use of the earth’s resources so that we can meet our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. 

In the last five years, green building has increasingly focused on home energy use because of its connection to global warming. Most American households use energy derived from coal, natural gas, and oil. When these fossil fuels are burned to produce energy, they also produce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming. Reducing home energy use reduces these greenhouse gas emissions.

 
Green Building
 

The Passive House: Built for Energy Savings

 

This four-square, Craftsman-styled house in a suburban, Washington, D.C., neighborhood stands out from the Cape Cods on the street, but otherwise looks like a conventionally built house. The house differs, however in a fundamental way: It is a Passive House and uses 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling, compared with the conventionally built ones that surround it. The added cost for this efficiency was only 6 to 8 percent.

 

Are Green-Certified Products the Best Choice? Not Always

 

Builders and architects known for their “greenness” say that while attributes such as recycled content are important and might lead them to consider a particular product, the presence or absence of a green certification rarely influences their selections. Durability, a good track record in the marketplace and familiarity mean more.

 

Build a Healthy House, Avoid Red List’s Dirty 15

 

Be pro-active about building a healthy house. Start with The Living Building Challenge. Based on the optimistic premise that “every single act of design and construction can make the world a better place,” it was developed by the International Living Future Institute and includes a Red List of 15 materials and chemicals to avoid.

 

Green Builder’s Innovation Is Good for Business

 

Doug Selby is a rarity among home builders — a man who constantly tries new products and new building techniques. Most builders are reluctant to try anything new, but Selby, who is one of the greenest home builders in Michigan, said that constantly pushing the envelope has helped him to expand his business in a state with one of the worst economies in the U.S.

 

Big House or Green House? Can You Have Both?

 

Can a big house be green? Yes, but a smaller house will always be greener because fewer resources were consumed in its construction and less energy is needed to heat and cool it.

 

Shipping Containers as Houses? Yes, They Pack Promise

 

The green home building community has overlooked an abundant source of reusable building material – international shipping containers. They’re widely available across the entire country, not just in major port cities. Though unconventional, these houses can meet the standards of any residential building code in the U.S. And, as Katherine discovered when visiting architect Adam Kalkin’s new home in Califon, N.J., a house built with containers is really cool!

 

Building With ‘Deconstruction’ in Mind

 

Economically and environmentally, it’s wise to plan for the end of a building’s useful life at the time it is designed and constructed. Choice of materials and construction techniques can make a big difference in how difficult it is to take apart an old building and re-use the salvage.

 

Deconstruction: Old House Salvage Builds New Home

 

Deconstructing an old house produces salvage framing lumber, and sometimes even finish materials, that can be used for building a new house on the same site. If abandoned houses in inner cities are deconstructed, benefits can include job creation; use of salvage by Habitat for Humanity; and cutting down on dumping at landfills.

 

Into the Engineered Woods: ‘Green’ and Outperforming the Real Thing

 

Home builders increasingly use engineered-wood products — lumber strands shaved off a log, coated with wax and resin, carefully layered, and then heated under pressure. Made with tree species previously left to rot in the forest, these products are stronger than new-growth lumber. They won't warp, crack, or shrink and swell with seasonal change. Also in column: Foundations and floor slabs get greener.

 

Home Price Versus Lifetime Cost

 

When the lifetime costs of homeownership are calculated, it’s more sensible to build a house with costlier materials that raise the sale price but reduce operating and replacement costs. Dollars should not be the only cost that is weighed. When the environmental cost of materials such as PVC are calculated, many homeowners might opt for more environmentally benign alternatives.

 

Building Green with Common Sense

 

"Use common sense to make sense."  It sounds like Ben Franklin, but the speaker is green-building consultant David Johnston, who often uses this aphorism as a shorthand way of explaining sustainable green-building principles and practices. Although these have been embraced by more and more home builders, there is still much confusion among the public as to what makes a house green.

 

Return to Top of Page

Green Remodeling
 

Home Energy Audit Leads to Simple Fixes, Savings

 

After years of exhorting readers to make their houses more energy efficient, it was time to take a hard look at my own. The first step was the energy audit. The second was implementing the recommendations. Though minor in extent, these took four weeks to complete instead of the promised two days and cost twice the original estimate. Still we are happy with the results.

 

Why Replacing Windows Isn’t Always a Good Call

 

Should you replace or refurbish your old wood windows? If you house is at least 40 years old, the wood in your windows may be old growth lumber, which is denser, stronger and more moisture resistant than any of the new growth wood used by today’s window manufacturers. Even if your wood windows are merely old, they may still be worth fixing up, preservationists advise.

 

Return to Top of Page

Greening Your Interiors
 

Countertops of Recycled Content, Choices Galore

 

In buying a countertop made of recycled content, it’s helpful to know that a company may focus on reducing landfill debris, or the environmental impact of the manufacturing process or tackle a tough recycling problem, as with Styrofoam.

 

Looming Trend: Recycled Carpets

 

If freight trucks fully loaded with all the worn carpeting removed from buildings in 2010 were placed end to end, the line would have been 1,238 miles long. Most of it went to landfills. But Shaw Industries is pioneering ways to recycle old carpet into new carpet or other recycled products, use it to generate electricity, and keep all of it out of a landfill.

 

Rolling Out Paint Recycling Programs

 

Whether it’s a new house or a remodel, five to 10 half-empty cans of latex paint will be stacked in a corner of the garage, left by painters in case the owners need to touch up. Across the U.S., this adds up to hundreds of millions of cans. Most of the paint could be reused, and a program to collect the cans and recycle the paint is up and running in Oregon and Minnesota.

 

Green & Gorgeous: Countertops From Crop, Wood Waste

 

What’s most important in choosing a kitchen countertop? After looks, consumers consider maintenance, cost and greenness. By this reckoning, natural materials like granite and man-made materials like Silestone and Corian have become enormously popular. But natural materials such as wood and crop wastes that have been recycled into something entirely new and different have been overlooked.

 

Remodel With Urban Timber (Think Globally, Chop Locally)

 

Homeowners in Ann Arbor, Michigan, turned their beloved backyard pine trees into countertops for their recently remodeled attic getaway. It gave their sadly diseased trees a second life and saved them from the usual fate of felled trees in settled areas — firewood or mulch. Using trees in this way could become the norm if more people knew about the possibility of reusing “urban timber.”

 

Step Up in Style With Reclaimed Wood Floors

 

Most green products look exactly like the conventional ones they are meant to replace. But occasionally, the green alternative can be more beautiful and exotic, none more so than in wood flooring products. When recycled poplar waste is turned into flooring, the results look like marble; bamboo scrap floors look like African ebony; and recycled palmwood is so unusual looking it could stump a forester.

 

O Ecotextiles: Oh So Comfy, Green Upholstery Fabrics

 

It’s almost impossible to find upholstery fabric that is soft to the touch, kind to the skin, and also benign to the environment, with no harmful side effects to the end user or to the people who manufacture the fabric and produce the raw materials. Only a few firms in the U.S. sell such fabrics. One is Seattle-based O Ecotextiles.

 

Turn Your Trees Into Floors, Furniture

This 8-foot-long, 56-inch-diameter elm stump could produce 700 to 800 square feet of flooring.  

With the help of tradespeople, you can recycle the trees cut to build your new house into flooring or furniture. First, you’ll need a sawyer to cut the trees into rough-cut boards. Then you’ll need the services of a kiln owner who can dry your wood. The boards will need additional millwork and then the last person in this labor chain can turn the boards into flooring.

 

Backyard Tree Could Be Your New Floor

An urban hardwood tree is "harvested" in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  

The annual volume of hardwood cut and trashed by homeowners and municipalities equals about two-thirds the volume cut by commercial loggers. Much of this urban timber is unusable, but with concerted effort, it can be recycled into flooring and furniture. A pilot project in Southeast Michigan is recycling some of the thousands of ash trees that have been removed to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle.

 

Return to Top of Page

Greening Your Exteriors
 

New Lawn at Dream House Can Be Nightmare

 

The soil that surrounds new houses in most production-built communities in the Washington, D.C., area, is of such poor quality that foresters and turf specialists call it “dead soil.” The “death” is attributable to the compaction method that most builders employ to stabilize the subsoil around the house. The cure not only improves the subsoil, it also reduces the amount of fertilizer in the runoff and the quality of water that eventually goes into the Chesapeake Bay.

 

Choosing Trees for Your New Yard

 

Once you move into your new house, selecting trees for a privacy screen may become a top priority because the neighbors are closer than you realized when you chose a lot on an empty street with no houses on it. In most new home communities now, the space between houses is only 10 to 20 feet.

 

Plant Living History in Your Yard

Pin oak tree on the grounds of Graceland  

When you plant a sapling in your backyard that was germinated from the seed of an historic tree, you have a personal connection to history. The saplings from more than 600 such trees are available through the Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Florida. Some of them are important because they are more than 1,000 years old but most were planted by a famous person or “witnessed” an important event

 

Return to Top of Page

Home Energy Use
 

What Color Is My Underwear? LEDs and CRI

 

The color of an object depends on the light illuminating it. As I discovered when I recently purchased underwear that appeared to be black in the store under not great fluorescent lighting, then navy in the same store under somewhat better fluorescents. When I got home and looked at my purchase under the light of a newly installed LED, I realized that the underwear is actually purple. What’s going on here?

 

LED Update: 2015 Buyer’s Guide

 

You should find the transition from the old incandescent 40-, 60-, 75- and 100-watt bulbs to their LED equivalents pretty seamless. Light given off by the new bulbs is so close to incandescent that you probably won’t even notice a difference. And you can mix brands because for a given wattage equivalency the amount and color of light produced will be the same brand to brand (whew). For specialty bulbs, such as Par 38s or BR30s that are designed for recessed ceiling “cans,” however, the brightness and amount of light produced can vary by manufacturer. Be prepared to experiment with different brands of specialty LEDs to find out which works best for you.

 

How ‘Smart Grid’ Can Help You Manage Electric Use

 

With smart-grid technology, a household receives real-time information about its electric use, online or via a digital-display dashboard. Homeowners find it easier to manage energy use, and the two-way communication system helps utilities run their business more efficiently.

 

‘Energy Use Pyramid’: Getting Biggest Bang for Your Energy Bucks

 

Austin architect Peter Pfeiffer’s clients were captivated by the romantic notion of tapping Mother Nature’s sun and wind to generate their own electricity, but solar photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines are still hugely expensive and rarely cost-effective. Wanting to help them understand the cost issues, Pfeiffer devised an “Energy Use Pyramid” based on another pyramid that most people know well – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Food Guide Pyramid”.

 

No Place Like Home for an Energy Audit

 

After years of telling readers that Americans can help reduce global warming by using less energy at home, it was time for me to learn how my own house could become more energy efficient. I focused on heating and cooling because together they are the biggest consumers of home energy and, as most houses are not heated or cooled efficiently, they offer the greatest potential for savings.

 

Older Homes As Energy Hogs? Facts and Fixes

 

Older houses lose energy as if they were sieves. Antiquated, non-existent or inadequate energy saving measures can send more than 50 percent of a household’s heating and cooling energy directly to the great outdoors. Most of this energy loss can be captured by plugging air leaks and adding insulation.  

 

'Limits to Growth' & the Passive House Strategy

 

Backup power strategies can provide a reassuring Plan B for eco-minded homeowners concerned about waning power supplies. Pros offer their approaches.

 

Return to Top of Page

Sustainable Planet
 

Win-Win: Why Dollar-Wise Home Purchase Is Best for Environment

 

If you can apply a hard-headed business perspective to a home purchase, you don’t need a deep understanding of environmental issues to make a decision that is more environmentally benign, according to Mathis Wackernagel. He devised the Ecological Footprint, a widely used metric for assessing the impact of human activities on the earth’s resources.

 

Why Most Builders Don’t Push ‘Save the Planet’ Message

 

Although home builders have the opportunity to make a huge impact on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, very few mention it in their sales pitches. They want to avoid debate about a subject that they sense the buying public rejects — and one that could affect their sales.

 

Parents’ Housing Choices Affect Environment Kids Inherit

 

When parents buy a house, they may sacrifice a lot to get a house in a good school district, even if it means buying a house that barely meets their space needs or involves a commute to work that is hugely inconvenient. But the environment that the kids will inherit one day can also be affected by the parents’ housing choices, and this aspect generally gets short shrift.

 

Eat Your Way to a Smaller Carbon Footprint

 

Americans consume nearly as many resources in feeding ourselves as we do in providing our shelter. Ways to cut down on use of “food-related energy” include eating food grown locally with non-fossil-fuel based, organic fertilizers. A calculator from the Global Footprint Network expresses the amount of resources an individual uses in numbers of planets. If everyone in the world lived like most Americans, it would take 5.2 planets to support our needs.

 

Stepping Up With a Smaller Eco Footprint

 

Offering a detailed explanation of “ecological footprint,” Katherine considers its implications for home buyers and communities, including the planned community of Sonoma Mountain Village in California, where the developer is determined to keep the eco footprint as small as possible. 

 

Return to Top of Page

 

 

 

Read the Blog
Recent Columns
Suggested Reading and Links
Katherine's Checklists
Email this web site to a friend
Site Info