Green on a Budget
Because we are on a budget we are not able to put on the fancy environmental features notably solar panels (which take something like 20 years to pay back their installation) and certain green materials. However we are taking basic environmentally friendly actions that are less expensive, and probably more effective, than buying the newest “green” gadgets.
Even before the addition, we did restoration on our old house, and restoration (or reusing) is greener than building (or buying) new. We added insulation, added a fan to the roof to pump out hot air, and repaired termite damage.
The addition will be sleeker and more exciting than the older part of the house. We use passive solar design that takes advantage of our old friend the sun. A large, south-facing window with an overhang (reducing extreme summer sun) and skylights on the north (allowing natural lighting while reducing glare) will make for a bright, friendly space. As fall brings darkness earlier each day, I am gladdened that our new family room will have lots of natural sunlight, which has been shown to improve one’s disposition and fight winter blues.
Our windows and exteriors have additional green features. According to our architect, Doug Mader, AIA (Garrett Park, MD, 301-466-1378), “low-E coatings on your windows should be counted as green. This is one of the most widely available, cost-effective technologies that is often not employed when it should be. Also your windows will be double pane and this is green, reducing energy consumption.” The addition’s light-colored roof will also reflect heat, saving air conditioning costs. Actually, such a roof is a buffer (however slight) against global warming (similarly, but on a vastly larger scale, arctic ice reflects sun and fights global warming—its melting is leading to a feedback effect, increasing global warming).
Size matters. Our 624 foot house was simply too small for the two of us (plus an energetic cat). In Indiana, where rent was low, we had a sprawling apartment and came to realize that it encouraged wasted space and messiness. Adding 365 square feet to our current little house will thus result in the ideal size. Most of the addition is one large family room, giving the feeling of greatly enhanced space. Yet we still maintain a nice lawn and avoid covering over much of what nature has made (and humans have tended).
Other important green features are now becoming standard. These include much thicker insulation—the progressive environmental laws in Montgomery County, MD now mandate R38 roofing insulation, up from R13 25 years ago (Siegel). This is one law that is helpful to homeowners, as decreased energy costs will soon pay the cost of the insulation. Of course energy efficient appliances will greatly augment that, although we’d be going to these even without the addition. At this point I shouldn’t even have to mention CFL bulbs, which save 2/3 of lighting costs (eventually we’ll be going to even better LED lights, but the technology’s not quite there).
Where economical, we are using green and local products. The addition will have a wood floor with throw rugs, healthier and more natural than full carpeting. Bamboo might be environmentally preferable, but is more expensive and might not wear as well (although it’s supposed to be easier on the joints). Other parts of our house will use Marmoleum flooring, an environmentally friendly, non-toxic product. We’ll also be using paint that does not give off gasses that likely stoke my allergy problem (our local green store recommends American Pride).
One part of our house that won’t be so environmentally friendly is vinyl siding. I did a bit of research and, as long as it stays up for a long time-period and is then disposed of thoughtfully, this is not too environmentally unfriendly. Plus the combination of price and easy maintenance is hard to resist. Interior vinyl is a no-no, though, and gives off allergy-stimulating gasses.
I’ll admit we could have done a lot more research. For instance it’s better for the environment to go with local products (transportation means emitting greenhouse gases) but I didn’t look into these at all, instead going with best price. Hey, we have limited time and money. We’re doing the best we can with what we have. We like to joke that we're upgrading to a McCottage.
When the addition is complete I’ll put up some final photographs. In the meantime remember that being green generally means being smart and efficient and saving money in the long run, rather than spending money on trendy gadgets.
Ethan Goffman, Politics and Environment Correspondent:
Ethan's column, Environmental Connections, published on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdayof everymonth to Gather Essentials: Politics is a discussion ofenvironmentalmatters from local to global, covering transportation,smart growth,environmental justice, green buildings, climate change,energyindependence and other topics.
Ethan is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC
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