24 Feb 2008

Sustainability — My Self Assessment

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Sustainability is not new; it’s not different nor is it reinvented. It feels new because it receives top billing at building trade shows, home improvement magazines and do-it-yourself television programs. You could argue that publicity increased awareness, but true sustainability (not to be confused with the marketing hype) is identical in spirit and practice today as it was in early civilization. Sustainable meant providing for your basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) with the resources available. Most often, economics drove one’s sustainable lifestyle. The major difference today is sustainable living is a choice whereas it used to be the natural way.

There are checklists galore and more material than you can read describing sustainability. Organizations use these criteria to grade building projects, manufacturer’s use it to differentiate their product and counties may use it to award tax rebates.To put this in context, my home rates very good on the LEED checklist for site planning, passive design, day lighting and materials choice. But rather than use a modern translation, I’m using my own definition and checklist to grade my living choices and house construction based on what I think sustainability meant to a historical settler. To give my historical settler an identity, we’ll call him John and I’ll give John the voice to critique my home, choices and lifestyle.

John’s criteria is resource conservation, preservation, low-maintenance and fitness and he grades my home and lifestyle on how well it responds to the following.

  • conservation – how efficient does it use material and labor?
  • preservation – how does it interact with the natural environment?
  • maintenance – how much effort does it take to maintain?
  • fitness – how well does it accommodate lifestyle?

John’s a simple man so he avoids using metrics and complicated scoring tables. He grades based on logic and instinct.

  • conservation – The first thing John noticed is how wasteful my builder’s work was. Repeated tear outs and redo coupled with excessive fasteners means the installers wasted material and time — both precious resources in John’s era. John’s very disappointed in my builder’s lack of awareness and gives me an unsustainable grade for conservation.
  • preservation – John applauded my attempt to locate the home for minimal site disturbance and using the natural path for the drive. He was complementary of the home alignment which takes advantage of sun angles and relies on 95% daylighting – very sustainable, but John recognizes excessive windows increase the heating and cooling load which compromises energy efficiency. John also knows the builder trashed the site and destroyed natural areas. So the house is a mix of sustainable ideas poorly executed.
  • maintenance – The house is quite easy to clean, but requires more time to clean than my old house because it’s larger. The house also contains many different systems (septic, water softener, reverse osmosis water treatment, water tank, A/C) that require routine maintenance and cyclical replacement. Low maintenance landscape helps, but granite driveways show wear rapidly even under mild traffic. The house is 100% electric provided by a utility provider. John likes electricity because it burns clean, but prefers solar, wind or geothermal and truly appreciates alternative fuels such as biodiesel and hydrogen. John appreciates my low-maintenance attitude, but questions how reasonable it is to have so many parts requiring maintenance and replacement.
  • fitness – John appreciates the small house which provides only the basic living space, sleeping, eating, entertainment. He especially likes the swing spaces like the laundry and third bedroom-guest den because they are on-demand multi-use conversion spaces. He really likes the simplistic home flow because you enter and understand the whole home immediately, but he’s critical of my dishwasher placement because it does not allow efficient unloading. He knows a detached garage can improve indoor air quality, but John also knows cars don’t need a place to live so a garage is a waste in his eyes. He also believes a home >2,000 SF is excess. People have too much if they need more than 2,000 SF.

John made a list of sustainable home elements he observed in my home:

  • low-tech bathtubs in lieu of the high-energy spa tubs with extra motors and maintenance concerns
  • low-e2 glass to reduce heat gain, but still allows 20% UV to penetrate the building envelope
  • fiber cement siding, but the board and batten created many joints that need to be caulked and repainted
  • SIPs reduced material and improved energy efficiency, but the builder’s improper installation dispersed excess foam all over the site
  • dehumidification and smaller HVAC which relies on humidity control first and cooling only when needed for the hottest months
  • quartz counter tops are incredibly easy to clean, but owners should consider friendly cleansers
  • metal roof with LEED 2.0 certification is strong and sustainable as long as there’s no hail
  • stone cladding is long-lasting, but requires conscious detailing and arrived via truck (within 15 miles)
  • tile floor is virtually impervious and easy to clean, but we need slippers to assure comfort
  • natural fiber throw rugs are resilient, hypo-allergenic and attractive

John also made a list of unsustainable elements:

  • recycling is inconvenient because there is no curb-side program and compost beds attract undesirable pests
  • pocket doors and bi-fold doors in closets and bathrooms are not as low-maintenance as swing doors or no doors
  • stainless steel appliances do not clean as easily as enamel finish appliances
  • cabinet finish is poorly applied because the builder did not understand a simple glaze finish – too many coats, patchy and hard to clean. laminate is low maintenance
  • unestablished turf means the home site is dirty and occupants track in more dirt
  • commuting to work two hours every day wastes fossil fuels

No matter how well I scored on the LEED checklist, in John’s humble and honest opinion, he would probably say I erred on the side of convenience. I talked a big story, but I built a house that was too large with high maintenance items and I robbed more from the land than I contributed to it. I had good intentions, but John would probably fail my sustainable attempt. So are there levels of sustainable? Maybe the question is how sustainable are you willing to be at the expense of bad habits or how sustainable can you afford to be? Until a sustainable mindset is commonplace, there is a cost for living better.

About the Author

Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 29 years experience in design, construction observation and life.