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Being Green - Going Beyond Design

Hi Folks:  Been a little quiet here on the ‘Being Green‘ side of our blog for a while, but I wanted to take a moment to highlight a couple of articles I came across recently.  Actually, in starting this I remembered a somewhat similar post I had written, which as fate would have it, was written almost exactly a year ago.  That one was titled, “Being Green – Questions“.  Anyway, I digress…

The first article I wanted to mention is on the ‘’ site, and titled “Net-Zero Does Not Live by Design Alone: The Human Factor“.  From the article:

“If you build it, they will plug. They will plug in drip coffee makers, halogen lamps, personal DVD players, aquariums, space heaters, and maybe even hair dryers. They will leave computers, lights, and printers on all night. How many of them will it take to screw in incandescent light bulbs before we realize that net-zero is not just about design?”

It’s a good message, and one that needs to be carried by everyone, not just those with ‘LEED AP’ or similar at the end of their names.  Good design is critical, no question, but as highlighted in the previous paragraph, even good design can be undermined by improper use.  We need to go beyond just good design.  Another article I read a little while back addressed the issue of whether or not tankless water heaters are ‘better’ than the old-fashioned standard.  A ‘normal’ hot water heater is a large insulated metal tank with one or more heating elements and a thermostat.  When the temperature of the water in the tank drops to a certain level, the heating element(s) turn on and heat up the water, then shut off again at the set temperature.  The challenge with this is that the thermostat and the heating elements continue to cycle whether or not anyone is actually using any hot water.  A tankless system, by comparison, heats water only as it’s used.  That such a system saves energy is inherently obvious, but the challenge (as presented by the article) is that a traditional hot water heater only has so much hot water in the tank.  At that point one ‘runs out’ of hot water and must wait for it to heat again.  A tankless hot water heater (at least in theory) has no such restrictions, and so the caveat is that if using a tankless system translates into users taking longer showers, then no savings are realized.  LED lamps that are left on without purpose, computers that are neither put to ‘sleep’ nor turned off, parasitic loads (electronic devices that use energy even when turned off), leaky faucets and running toilets are all similar examples.

So what’s the answer?  I think it comes down to two main things: Awareness and education.  These two go hand in hand.  It’s not enough to tell people ‘what’ to do without instilling in them the reasons for ‘why’ it’s important that they do so.  It’s impossible to make people care – for the environment, for being ‘green’, or for anything, really, but I believe that if given the salient background information and instructions, put into the proper context, people will want to change.  We’re inundated every moment of every day with ‘bad news’ about the economy, the environment, politics, healthcare, etc. and with this overload of information it’s very easy to instill a sense of hopelessness.  People who feel that nothing they do will make a difference are far less likely to be inspired to do anything.  What serves as inspiration varies from person to person, but we all share some basic values.  It’s also important, I think, not to stress perfection too much, to give people small steps to begin with.  Once they start down that path, the possibilities are infinite!

The second article I mentioned is from the GREENGUARD Institute and is titled, “The inconvenient truth about going green: the environmental trade-off“.  It looks at another good question, and I posted a comment at the bottom of that article, which was:

It’s well known that nothing in Nature moves in straight lines, or with single effects… Therefore, from one perspective, everything is trade-offs. One such example is, “Is it better to purchase organic produce from thousands of miles away, or local, non-organic produce?” Both have their benefits and their costs. When designing a building, one must consider a variety of factors, and combine these elements into a structure that does it best to satisfy them all. That’s a good first step, but as evidenced by this article: Net-Zero Does Not Live by Design Alone: The Human Factor, it’s the day-to-day choices made by the building’s occupants that can really make a difference.

We can, however, follow some general guidelines such as those established by William McDonough et al when they created Cradle to Cradle – to design for the benefit of the children of all species for all time.  As the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

There’s a story (original author unknown, but appreciated) that goes something like this:

“One day a sparrow was flying through the forest when it started to snow.  It wasn’t a real storm or anything, just big flakes drifting down quietly.  The sparrow spotted a bluebird sitting on a branch, and since the bluebird was larger and more brightly coloured than the sparrow, the latter therefore thought the bluebird must be wiser as well.  After alighting beside the bluebird the sparrow turned and asked, “How much does a snowflake weigh?”  “Why, nothing more than nothing” came the reply.  “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” continued the sparrow, “the other day I was flying through the forest and it began to snow – just like it is today.  I landed on a branch in a fir tree and sat there a while, watching the snowflakes fall and accumulate on a branch on the tree opposite from me.  One by one they landed and stayed, and one by one I watched them, until all of a sudden one more snowflake – which you have just said weighs nothing more than nothing – landed on that branch, and just like that the branch broke off!”

Be a snowflake.


P.S. This looks like an intriguing idea: Solar Mosaic
P.S. II, the sequel: This article highlights two videos on the amount of energy required to recycle plastic bottles – which is still less than the energy used to form them from ‘virgin’ materials.

June 18 – There was one comment on this post (below), and when I started writing a reply to it I realized my reply was getting to be too long to be a comment. Therefore, I’ve added the text of the comment and my reply here:

“I’ve been told that I take long showers and I’ve never emptied my hot water tank. I don’t think that happens very often unless you have a larger family all wanting to take showers in the same hour. This particular point in the argument strikes me as being irrelevant. The real point, that I didn’t see discussed, and which would interest me is what the cost/benefit analysis is. If the cost of installing the continuous system is prohibitive, it’s just never going to become a viable option.”

Hi There, and thanks for dropping by our little corner of the ‘net! I agree with you; it would certainly take a lot of effort to use all of the hot water in, say a 50-gallon hot water tank for one shower. However, it seems you misunderstood the point I was trying to make, which was more esoteric than ‘physics’. The essence of the post was that while good design is an essential first step toward ‘being green’, even good design can easily be overturned by improper use. There’s no point in installing LED fixtures only to leave them on 24 hours a day, every day. The benefits of LEDs’ efficiency are cancelled out by inefficient use.

Now, everyone has a budget, no matter how limited or ‘unlimited’ it may be, and up-front costs are an important consideration in every new building or renovation project. There’s no point in considering a $15,000 geothermal system if the funds aren’t available to cover it. However, while I did a ‘Being Green – Cost/Benefit Analysis‘ post last year I tend to avoid presenting any kind of ‘cost/benefit analysis’ for a few reasons. First, while a cost/benefit analysis may sound like a simple idea, it isn’t. In my opinion it provides too limited a filter, and as a result leaves too much out. There are many different types of costs, and not all of them can be measured in strict economic terms.

Let’s say a manufacturer discovers that a component in one of its products has a defect, and a cost/ benefit analysis suggests that the costs associated with lawsuits arising from the continued use of this product will be less than the costs of recalling and replacing the defective part in every unit already on the market. Does that cost account for any injuries or deaths and the accompanying anguish created as a result of the defective unit? Does that cost account for the long-term damage to the company’s reputation and potential decline in future sales? Can pain be measured in dollars and cents? How about trust?

Even in strict economic terms, there are at least three types of costs. There are initial costs, there are life-cycle costs (maintenance, repairs, upgrades, etc.) and there are end-of-life costs. Solid hardwood flooring for example has a much higher up-front cost than PVC-based vinyl tile. However, properly maintained, a hardwood floor can be expected to last 50-60 years, possibly a century or more. In that time the tiles will have to be removed and replaced several times. Let’s add in the removal and replacement costs, as well as preparation, adhesive, etc. A steel roof has a higher initial cost than an asphalt shingle roof, but the former can be expected to last 2-3 times as long. At end of life the hardwood floor can be lifted, planed and reused. The steel roof can be removed and remade into new roofing panels or other steel products. The vinyl tile and the asphalt shingles go to landfill. There’s an economic cost for that too, and we haven’t begun to consider the environmental costs.

Zeftron’s 6ix Again nylon carpet fiber comes with a plan – send them your old commercial carpet and they’ll recycle it in the best way possible. Bullfrog Power is a plan whereby consumers pay a premium for their electricity and/or natural gas, and in exchange Bullfrog ensures that an equivalent amount of ‘green’ energy is added to the grid. It’s not as direct as erecting a wind turbine in one’s backyard, and from an economic perspective it means that those who choose to opt-in are in effect paying more than their neighbours for the same service. Where’s the benefit in that? The benefits come from knowing that they are involved in promoting and producing green energy, and for that ‘benefit’ they’re willing to pay the extra ‘cost’.

As I wrote in my blog post, in a way everything is trade-offs, but we can begin with some base decisions about what we are and are not willing to accept. Those general guidelines can provide a focus on which to make more decisions, more choices. Not everyone can afford the ‘greenest’ options, and often the ‘greenest’ options aren’t that easy to determine. But we can all make the best of the choices available to us. That’s how I see it anyway!

2 comments to Being Green – Going Beyond Design

  • pwiinholt

    I've been told that I take long showers and I've never emptied my hot water tank. I don't think that happens very often unless you have a larger family all wanting to take showers in the same hour. This particular point in the argument strikes me as being irrelevant. The real point, that I didn't see discussed, and which would interest me is what the cost/benefit analysis is. If the cost of installing the continuous system is prohibitive, it's just never going to become a viable option.

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