green building/design

Saving energy saves money. Reducing your energy use will reduce your gas and electricity bills (which frees up funds for other, more meaningful things). It also benefits the environment and your health in a variety of ways. For example, using less electricity reduces power plant emissions from burning fossil fuels, which reduces air and water pollution, and that helps protect everyone’s health and our shared natural resources. It also reduces the emission of greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change.

This checklist outlines a number of ways that you can conserve energy at home (or at work), by changing your household (or workplace) products and practices related to Heating and Cooling, Appliances and Equipment, Lighting, etc. Most of these strategies are easy and low- or no-cost, and saving energy helps save you money down the road.

HEATING AND COOLING

  • Program your thermostat to provide less heating or cooling at night and during the daytime hours when your home/building is not occupied. If you don’t know how to change the settings on your programmable thermostat, read the manual or ask someone for assistance. (If you’d like to have an easy-to-program, energy-saving thermostat with an elegant design, take a look at the iPod-like Nest thermostat.)
  • On hot and sunny days, cover your windows by closing the shades, blinds, opaque curtains, or shutters; and turn off any lights that aren’t needed (especially any lamps that are using conventional incandescent bulbs, as they emit a surprising amount of heat). And if you live in an area that regularly has hot summers, consider adding shade trees, awnings, or overhangs (particularly outside of west-facing windows) and putting a light-colored roof on your home when it’s time to replace the roof.
  • Avoid or minimize your use of air conditioning, when possible. Air conditioners use a lot of energy, making them expensive to use. In warm weather, try using ceiling fans, floor fans, or a “whole house” attic fan (or in dry regions, an evaporative cooler) instead of AC. These options can often provide adequate cooling.
  • Follow the recommended maintenance procedures for your heating and cooling systems. Replace or clean air filters as specified in the owner’s manuals. Have your furnace or air conditioner serviced if it isn’t operating properly or efficiently.
  • Keep your heating/cooling vents dusted.
  • Keep furniture, curtains, and other objects away from heater/air conditioning outlets, to allow conditioned air to flow freely into the room.
  • Make sure your windows close properly. Fix any broken window panes, seals, or latches.
  • Don’t leave the heat or air conditioning on if you open a window.
  • Weatherize your doors and windows by using weather stripping or seals to minimize air leaks and drafts.
  • Make sure your home is well insulated. Insulate your hot water pipes and water heater, and add insulation (if needed) to your attic, walls, or basement.
  • Hire a home performance contractor to do a home energy audit; they will inspect your home and identify any inefficiencies and seal up air leaks. In many homes, fixing air leaks can save more energy and money than installing a high-efficiency furnace. (One very experienced company that offers these services in California is Advanced Home Energy, formerly called Recurve.) You can search here for a contractor near you who has been accredited by the Building Performance Institute. If you live in California, check out the information provided by Energy Upgrade California.
  • When purchasing a new furnace, air conditioner, ceiling fan, water heater, windows, or doors, choose products that have a high Energy Star efficiency rating. (For windows, at a minimum, make sure you choose double-paned glass.)

Please continue reading. The rest of this post includes tips on lighting, appliances, electronics, and more:

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May 29, 2013
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People all over the world are starting to see an increase in extreme and volatile weather, record-breaking “natural” disasters, shifting seasons and habitats, species losses, and dwindling resources. (These are all trends that climate scientists accurately predicted would occur as a result of high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.) This climatological and ecological instability is creating huge economic burdens and heart-breaking social disruption and dislocation, and climate projections show that the situation will almost certainly get worse.

As the costs and consequences of climate change become impossible to ignore, more people are recognizing the need to be more prepared for the challenges we’re likely to face in the short-term and the long-term (e.g., power outages, food and water shortages, or flooding from storms and sea level rise in some areas). A variety of initiatives are arising that aim to share ways of becoming more resilient—i.e., able to survive and thrive in the face of climate-related dangers. These efforts are occurring at the household, community, town, city, regional, and global levels.

Some initiatives are focused on the design of durable, climate-responsive, and disaster-resistant homes and buildings, including dwellings that can withstand hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, or that incorporate “passive” heating or natural cooling strategies so that they can remain livable when there is no power; later this year I will post a list of companies that design and manufacturer disaster-resistant homes. Other initiatives are focused on personal or local food security; or the decentralization of energy production into localized or on-site power generation; or restoring degraded or contaminated land and habitats; or creating self-sufficient rural homesteads, self-reliant communities, and/or strong local economies.

While many of these have been grassroots efforts, the importance of resilience as a key requirement for sustainability is also beginning to be understood at an institutional, policy-making level. For example, some major cities (e.g., San Francisco, New York, Seattle) and regions (e.g., the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative, in the northern part of the SF Bay Area) see the writing on the wall and are actively trying to figure out how to become more adaptive and make their systems and infrastructure more robust and secure to prepare for sea level rise, floods, droughts, and other inevitable climate change impacts.

These are some noteworthy resilience-related initiatives and information resources:

  • Resilience  (a program of the Post Carbon Institute)

RDI explains resilience well: “Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort. At various levels —individuals, households, communities, and regions — through resilience we can maintain livable conditions in the event of natural disasters, loss of power, or other interruptions in normally available services.  Relative to climate change, resilience involves adaptation to the wide range of regional and localized impacts that are expected with a warming planet: more intense storms, greater precipitation, coastal and valley flooding, longer and more severe droughts in some areas, wildfires, melting permafrost, warmer temperatures, and power outages.  Resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in response to the these vulnerabilities.”

The various actions that they suggest are organized into these 12 categories:

1.) Ensure that a home is safe in a storm. 2.) Build to resist or survive rain and flooding. 3.) Build super-insulated envelopes. 4.) Incorporate passive solar design in heating climates. 5.) Minimize cooling loads in cooling climates. 6.) Provide natural cooling. 7.) Maximize daylighting. 8.) Provide backup renewable energy systems. 9.) Plan for water shortages. 10.) Address fire resistance and durability. 11.) Consider resilience at the community scale. 12.) Support local food production.

  • Hunt Utilities Group (HUG): a resilient-homes research and development campus in Minnesota. (More info about them here.)
  • Mother Earth News, which focuses on modern homesteading, among other resilience-relevant topics

Related posts:  

 

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February 28, 2013
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You can find fresh, daily morsels of information and inspiration on The Green Spotlight’s Facebook Page. Anyone can view the page, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. But if you do have an account, we hope you’ll click on the Like button (if you haven’t already “Liked” the page).

Please visit the Page to get a sense of the wide variety of topics that it covers, and you are welcome to comment on the posts and share your own recommended links.

Here’s a sampling of topics that we’ve spotlighted on the page over the last month or so:

  • Mosaic’s successful solar crowdfunding platform
  • Hybrid Vehicle Scorecard
  • Global Green’s K-12 Green School Makeover grants
  • The ultra-green, newly built Bullitt Center in Seattle
  • Fossil Free: a divestment campaign for campus endowments
  • Farmigo.com: a virtual farmer’s market that delivers to workplaces, schools +
  • Webinar on community/neighborhood/bulk solar projects
  • How to opt out of receiving the printed Yellow Pages
  • New books: Clean Break; Carbon Zero; etc.
  • New films: You’ve Been Trumped; Promised Land; etc.
  • Organizations: 350.org, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, etc.
  • Cartoons, photos, graphics
  • Great quotations from Martin Luther King Jr., John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, Ross Gelbspan, Mary Oliver, etc.
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January 21, 2013
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More than a dozen of the Green Spotlight’s previous posts have referenced green products. Below is a list of many of those posts, which have covered everything from building- and home-related products to films, chocolates, and other types of goods. Many of the products mentioned in these posts would make good and useful gifts (for holidays, birthdays, etc.).

At the bottom of this post, I’ve also added links to some books for eco-minded readers.

Home/Building Products

Other Products

Books

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause

Or if you’re interested in books on green business, check out the book listing at the bottom of our Green Business post.

You can find a wide selection of books on sustainable living from Chelsea Green Publishing and from New Society Publishers.

And here are a bunch of other books on sustainability topics.

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November 26, 2012
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Generators are typically used to provide electricity during power outages (e.g., during storms, emergencies, and related disaster-relief operations) or in off-grid situations or areas where there is no access to a built-in power source (e.g., on construction sites, on camping trips, or at outdoor events—for concert stages, food booths, etc.). So, in a nutshell, they’re mostly used for temporary, portable/mobile, back-up, or remote power needs.

Conventional generators have a number of downsides. They require gasoline (or diesel fuel), which can be expensive—especially during emergencies, when there can also be gas shortages. The stinky emissions from gas-powered generators also contribute to air pollution and climate change, and they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning when placed inside a home or building, or too close to doors, windows, or vents on the outside of a building. (In fact, several people who were using generators due to Hurricane Sandy died from carbon monoxide poisoning.) Furthermore, gas generators are very loud.

Solar generators provide a smart, silent, safe, and clean alternative that uses renewable energy (no fuel = no emissions), and there are a number of products available to choose from these days. (Biodiesel or hybrid generators are other options to consider.)

Below is a list of the U.S.-based solar generator brands that I’ve looked into so far; this is not a comprehensive listing.  If you know of other brands of solar generators and would recommend them, please let us know in the Comments. Thanks!

SolManSmall-Scale, Compact Units

These solar generators are designed to provide a modest amount of electricity for temporary, emergency, or low-use power needs. The smallest units can easily charge gadgets and power lights, but do not have the capacity to run large, power-hungry equipment or appliances (e.g., refrigerators or heaters) for more than a short time. (For example, a 1500-watt unit can generally only run a small space heater for up to 2 hours or so at night, when the unit is not being recharged by the sun.) The average price among these compact options is somewhere around $2,500 – $4,000, though you can find some that are less expensive (note: the cheapest products often use panels or components that are made in China). The prices could change significantly in coming months and years, as the cost of solar panels continues to go down, and battery and photovoltaic technologies are evolving rapidly.

SolMan (from Sol Solutions, based in Northern California)

Yeti (from Goal Zero, based in Utah) [added 3/15]

Ready2Go (from E.A.R.T.H., based in Hawaii and Southern California)

SUNRNR (A.K.A. Sun Runner, based in Virginia)

Larger Systems

Some of these are intended for use on construction job sites or public works projects. Most are mounted on trailers that can be towed. While many of these generators are meant for commercial/industrial uses, some could also potentially be used to power an entire off-grid homestead.

Mobile Solar PowerEcos PowerCube (based in Florida)  [added 8/14]

Mobile Solar Power (based in Central California)

SolaRover (based in Colorado)

Pure Power Distribution (based in Southern California)

 

Some companies offer hybrid systems that allow for back-up generation using biodiesel, if solar power is not providing adequate energy for a user’s needs.

Please chime in with additional info and recommendations based on your own experience or knowledge of solar or biodiesel generators!

Related post: Resilience: Disaster-Resistant, Adaptive, and Restorative Design and Planning [Feb. 2013]

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November 12, 2012
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Conserving water is becoming increasingly important, and it has become a necessity in areas that are suffering from drought. According to the UN, by 2025 (in less than 15 years), 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions, as a result of water shortages from climate change and rising levels of water use due to a growing population.

Reducing your water use will not only lower your water bills and help prevent potential water shortages. It also reduces the strain on municipal water systems and infrastructure (e.g., sewer, water treatment and distribution), which helps reduce the energy, maintenance, and the associated taxes required to run and expand those systems. Using less water can also save you money on your energy bill, because electricity or gas is used to heat your water. Water conservation also leaves more water available for critical uses, such as drinking, growing food, and fighting fires; and it keeps more water in lakes, rivers, and streams for aquatic species.

These are some of the ways that you can reduce your household water use, both indoors and outdoors:

INDOORS:

  1. Replace your toilets, faucets, and showerheads with high-efficiency (WaterSense labeled) plumbing fixtures, or at least add aerators to your faucets, and if you have an old toilet, put a small water bottle (filled with water, with the cap on) into the toilet tank for displacement. Switching to high-effiiency fixtures results in significant water savings.
  2. Do not let faucets run longer than is necessary for your task. And when you turn a faucet off, make sure that it is turned all the way off.
  3. Try to take short showers, or don’t take a shower every day (if you aren’t really dirty—from work, exercise, recreation, etc.).
  4. When using a clothes washer or dishwasher, only wash fairly full loads (or select a light-load setting for small loads). If you’re buying a new washer, select a high-efficiency, water-saving model. Front-loading washing machines are typically more efficient than top-loading machines.
  5. Wash dirty dishes immediately or soak them before hand-washing, so that they can be washed off more easily and quickly (requiring less water).
  6. If a faucet is dripping or if your toilet is running (for too long after it has been flushed), have the leak fixed right away. A leaking toilet can waste more than 50 gallons of water each day, and a dripping faucet or showerhead can waste up to 1,000 gallons of water per week (according to ResourceVenture.org). Also check for washing machine or dishwasher leaks (usually found where the hose is connected to the machine or at the shut-off valve). Familiarize yourself with the water shut-offs behind your toilet, sinks, and washing machine, as well as the water shut-off for the entire house, so that you know how to turn off the water when needed.
  7. As the saying goes, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” There’s generally no need to flush a toilet after it’s only been peed in one time. Hold off on flushing until the toilet has been peed in 2-3 times or has been used for “doing #2.”
  8. Compare your water bills (or water meter readings) from month to month and from year to year, to monitor the results of your conservation efforts and to look for any sudden spikes in water use, which could be caused by leaks.

OUTDOORS (yard / lawn / garden):

  1. Water your yard/garden during the coolest and least windy time of the day (usually early morning) to avoid losing a lot of water via evaporation.
  2. When you add new plants, trees, or other vegetation, select drought-tolerant or native/adapted plants that require little, if any, irrigation. To get information on how to choose the best plants for your area, click here.
  3. Putting mulch (including raked leaves or wood chips) on your garden or landscaped areas can help the soil retain moisture longer.
  4. Turf grass typically requires much more water than groundcover or shrubs, so the less lawn area you have, the less irrigating you will need to do. If adding or reseeding grass areas, select a drought-tolerant grass variety or consider replacing the grass area with groundcover. As an added bonus, most types of groundcovers and some types of grasses will only grow a few inches tall, so they would rarely if ever need to be mowed.
  5. If you are installing an irrigation system, choose a high-efficiency irrigation system. Drip, micro, and bubbler irrigation systems are more efficient than spray or sprinkler irrigation, because they deliver water directly to plants’ roots, minimizing evaporative water loss.
  6. If you have an irrigation system or sprinklers, make sure that all spray or drip spouts are oriented in such a way that they are watering planted areas only and are not watering the sides of buildings, pathways or other paved areas. In addition to wasting water, allowing water to pool up on pavement can make it slippery to walk on an can degrade the pavement over time.
  7. Also, for irrigation systems, perform (or have an irrigation specialist perform) regular system checks and maintenance, to make sure there are no leaking heads, pipes, or valves. Make sure the irrigation system is not watering the lawn/yard/garden during (or immediately preceding or following) rainy days. Even on dry days, make sure the system is not over-watering the plants or over-saturating the soil. If the irrigation timer runs on a battery, make sure it is working and change the battery as needed; if the battery is dead, the system could allow non-stop watering (which would waste a lot of water). Re-program the system seasonally and as necessary to adjust to weather conditions. Winterize the system before the first frost of each year. If issues arise, consider hiring an irrigation professional to do an irrigation audit.
  8. Consider adding rainwater collection barrels/tanks at downspouts (or a bucket in your shower or yard, or a greywater system) for use in watering your yard/garden.
  9. Sweep your sidewalks and driveway (and other paved areas), rather than hosing them down.

At a broader level, two of the most effective ways to reduce water use (indirectly but significantly) are: to reduce your energy use (because the generation of electricity typically requires enormous amounts of water), and to reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat (because raising meat animals, especially corn-fed factory-farmed beef cows, requires enormous amounts of water) as well as dairy/milk (and also non-dairy soy milk, almond milk, and rice milk).

For more information on water conservation, visit these websites:

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August 30, 2012
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Below is a listing of companies that offer green dwellings in the form of modular, prefab/manufactured, compact and/or mobile structures. These days, there are many such options available that are not only green, but also beautiful, well-made, and often low-cost. Some of these structures are homes or cabins/cottages, while others can be used as an addition, a backyard studio, office, in-law unit/guest house, or some other type of “accessory dwelling unit.”

They come in a wide range of sizes, from teeny-tiny one-room spaces (e.g., 100 sq. ft.) and small units (see the Tiny/Compact Structures section below) to conventionally sized homes. They are also available in a wide variety of styles; some have traditional designs, while others have a very modern look. Some are available as plans and/or DIY kits, and others have designated builders. Many can be modified or customized.

Prefab (factory-built) homes have many benefits. They can be built more efficiently (e.g., less material waste), more quickly, with more precision and durability (i.e., higher quality), and they typically have more predictable costs (and often cost less) than site-built homes.

The levels of greenness vary among the following options, but all of them tout some green features.

This is not a comprehensive listing; there are many other companies that make similar types of green structures. I’ve provided links below to other directories that list additional options. If you know of another green modular, prefab, mobile, or small home designer or manufacturer that you would recommend, please share it in the Comments.

Note: The asterisk (*) shown after certain listings indicates that those companies seem to offer at least one low-cost/affordable option. Some of the other companies might also offer such options, but specific pricing isn’t available on all of the websites; in some cases, one must contact the company for pricing information.

Blu Homes (offices in CA, MA, and MI)

BlueSky MOD (based in Toronto, Canada)

Clayton i-house

Clever Homes (based in CA)

Deltec Homes (based in NC)

Eco-Infill (based in CO)

EcoMod Structures (based in WV) *

FabCab

IdeaBox (based in OR)

Jot House *

Lindal Cedar Homes (see Mod.Fab and Lindal Architects Collaborative; Lindal has an international network of dealers) *

Living Homes (based in CA)
C6 = their low-cost option*

Marmol Radziner Prefab (based in CA)

Method Homes (based in WA)

New Old Green Modular Home (from New World Home)

OHOME (Healthy Buildings Technology Group; based in CA)

OMD (Office of Mobile Design; based in CA)

Piece Homes (Davis Studio Architecture + Design; based in CA)

Rocio Romero LV series (based in MO) *

Stillwater Dwellings (based in WA) *

Studio 101 Designs (based in CA)

2morrow Studio (based in VT) *

weeHouses (Alchemy Architects, based in MN, with factories around the country) *

Xtreme Green Homes (based in NC, SC, and VA)

ZETA Communities (modular multi-family developments; based in CA)

For a listing of MANY other types of modular/manufactured homes (some of which have green features), see this compendium.

Books on green prefab homes:

Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home, by Sheri Koones

Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home, by Sheri Koones

Prefab Green, by Michelle Kaufmann

Prefab, by Allison Arieff


Tiny / Compact Structures  *
(some of which are mobile)

Many of the companies listed above offer one or two options for small dwellings, while the following companies specialize in small structures:

Ecopods (based in Ontario, Canada)

GreenPods (based in WA)

kitHAUS (based in CA)

L41 Home (based in BC, Canada)

Leaf House (based in the Yukon, Canada)

Little Green Buildings (made w/ SIPs; based in WA)

Little House on the Trailer (based in CA)

Modern-Shed (based in WA, with dealers in all states)

Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. (house plans and some pre-built homes; some are mobile)

Wee Cabins (based in MN)

weeHouses (Alchemy Architects, based in MN, with factories around the country)

YardPods (based in CA)

m-ch (Micro Compact Home; based in Germany)

For a listing of many other types of small homes (some of which have other green features), see this Tiny House Directory.

Resources on small homes:

Tiny House Blog

Small House Society

The Small House Book, by Jay Shafer

Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities, by Shay Salomon

And here’s a listing of other books on compact design.

 

* Low-cost/affordable option(s) available

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July 30, 2012
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In addition to writing posts for this blog (The Green Spotlight), I write articles and blog posts for MotherEarthNews.com and other publications, and I do writing and editing work for clients. I almost never mention my other work activities here on my blog, but it occurred to me that some readers might like to know a little about my other writings and my professional background.

I have been a published writer for more than two decades. I was a writer, reporter, and producer for public radio’s Living on Earth program for several years. More recently, I was a contributing author for the book Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing (2nd edition, edited by Global Green USA, published by Island Press). I wrote the chapter on Green Operations and Maintenance, as well as one of the case studies featured in the book.

I’ve written numerous articles and commentaries on green building and other environmental topics. My articles have been published by more than a dozen media outlets (e.g., magazines, newspapers, public radio, and online media), including:

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Natural Home magazine
  • Environmental Design + Construction magazine
  • Urban Land’s GreenTech magazine
  • Living on Earth radio program
  • GreenBuildingAdvisor.com
  • GreenHomeGuide.com
  • KQED.org, and
  • Environmental News Network (ENN.com)

I’ve also written and/or edited guides, manuals, newsletters, reports, website content, marketing materials, case studies, and other types of publications on behalf of companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. My clients have included: New Leaf Community Markets, the David Brower Center, Global Green USA, Environmental Defense Fund, Partnership for Sustainable Communities, Enterprise Community Partners, Simon & Associates Green Building Consultants, the National Building Museum, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Northern California Chapter, EduTracks, ICLEI, Industrial Economics, Lehrer Design, Compendia, the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, Ecobanca, and the Resource Renewal Institute.

Here’s a small selection of some of my writing work in recent years:

  • Case studies on a few of the campus projects and programs that received the 2010 and 2012 University of California/CSU/CCC Best Practices Award: UC Santa Cruz Campus’ Water Efficiency and Water Management Improvements; UC Irvine’s Medical Education Building; and CSU Sacramento’s American River Courtyard residence hall. Written on behalf of the UC Berkeley Green Building Research Center / Lehrer Design, 2011-2012
  • Green Operations & Maintenance Manual for the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority, along with a Healthy Home Guide for SMHA residents, December 2011
  • “Chemical cleaners can introduce poisons, health risks into the home,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2007

And the following are a few of my stories that were broadcast on public radio’s Living on Earth:

 

I invite you to visit my PUBLICATIONS page for a more comprehensive list of writings and broadcast pieces that I’ve written, edited, or produced.

For information about the editorial services that I offer, please visit my Writing and Editing page, and feel free to contact me with any questions.

-Miriam

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May 30, 2012
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Please take a look at The Green Spotlight’s Facebook Page to see our daily green blurbs and links. You can view the page even if you don’t have a Facebook account. But if you do have an account, we hope you’ll click on the Like button (if you haven’t already “Liked” the page).

Visit the Page to get a sense of the wide variety of topics that it covers, and feel free to comment on the posts or add your own.

Here’s a sampling of topics that we’ve spotlighted on the page over the last month or so:

  • One Planet Living principles
  • The Great Animal Orchestra, a new book by Bernie Krause
  • 2012 Cleantech Forum
  • Buckminster Fuller Challenge 2012 semi-finalists
  • The Future of Hope, a film about Iceland
  • Waking the Green Tiger, a film about China
  • Urban Roots, a film about Detroit
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility
  • Rural Renewable Energy Alliance
  • Good Jobs, Green Jobs regional conferences
  • Wastewater treatment technology that uses renewable energy
  • Evolve electric motorcycles and scooters
  • Better World Books
  • GMO food labeling
  • The growth of clean energy markets
  • The top B Corp businesses
  • TED talks (e.g. urban farming and enterprise in a school in the Bronx)
  • Quotations from Thomas Edison, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, etc.
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March 27, 2012
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