Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Home Improvement

In my last post I looked at the movement supporting the elderly remaining in their homes as they age. Last weekend the New York Times reported on modifying houses as necessary for that purpose (Making Home a Safer Place, Affordably). So far so good.

However, also from the Times, "California reports that it has reduced energy consumption in new houses and commercial buildings by 75 percent over the three decades that codes have been in effect there." (A New Enforcer in Buildings, the Energy Inspector ).

So, if we age in our existing homes, how much damage are we doing to the environment? People who have just paid off their 30-year mortgage on a house built in the late 70s (or worse, the 50s or 60s) are using, on the basis of the California claim, 4 times the energy they would in a new building. Assume they have two or three times the space they really need, as well, and the inefficiency numbers go higher. Of course, if they were to downsize and sell the house—to a young family, say, who might need the extra space, the building's energy inefficiency would not change.

Back on the plus side, the embedded energy in our existing buildings (the energy it took to harvest, manufacture, transport, and construct them) gives preserving them an advantage over abandonment or demolition (using more energy) and replacement with new construction (embedding more energy again).

So how can we weigh all of the capital and operating numbers to minimize carbon emissions while accomplishing other goals (aging in place, preservation of older architecture)? With all of the news of foreclosures and virtual ghost towns of housing developments, the Times also reports "Construction starts on single-family homes... increased 14 percent for the biggest rise since December 2004" (Housing Starts Rise an Unexpected 3.6%), is there a comparable surge in renovation coming out of the stimulus funding?

One approach at the grassroots level is reduction of household carbon footprint. First we can take actions that make older houses more energy efficient in their infrastructure (insulation, windows and doors, plugging leaks) and systems (methods of heating/cooling, lighting, hot water, appliances). These actions will not get us to the energy efficiency of new construction, but when embedded energy is considered, they can cut the difference down to pretty reasonable numbers.

Then we can take additional lifestyle actions that further reduce our footprints to the extent that the percentage differences between good new construction and upgraded existing buildings involve much lower absolute emission numbers. These include home energy practices (the way we use heating/cooling, lighting, hot water, appliances [including electronics]) and lifestyle practices (how we travel, eat, recycle, buy or collect energy).

All this can seem a pretty daunting individual agenda, which brings me to the final point of this post. The Newton Eco-Team Project, of which I am an organizer, is part of a multi-community initiative in Massachusetts to reduce the household carbon footprint by 25%. It combines global warming education, saving money through reduced energy consumption, and building community through working together and sharing ideas. Altogether home improvement. Our website, which will offer resources identified and/or developed by all of the communities involved, is just now being created, at It should be live by next week.


  1. Really nice post home improvement.
    i was looking for such post.
    thanks for the posting.

  2. Sam --

    Dealing with existing housing stock is perhaps one of the easiest "negawatt" opportunity out there technically and one of the harder ones socially. It's easy to know what to do, and even how to get it done.

    This summer, we got a rebate of 75% of the cost of insulating and air-sealing our 1920's era house in Newton offered by National Grid for residential gas heat customers -- we paid less than $500, after rebate, to get changes that will certainly save us perhaps $300 per year, perhaps more, in heating bills.

    I was able to convince a few of my neigbors to follow suit, but it took some work. And a few were not interested.

    So change is a little harder for those having different priorities, different interests, different opinions or just those who don't see the benefits of making changes.

    I used to think people just needed to be educated about issues and then they would just "do the right thing". Then, after writing about how to make changes, and why they were important for a number of years on my blog, I realized there's a lot more to making change happen.

    It's not really about "payback period" or ROI or anything like that -- it's a hard sell, even for something that pays back in a matter of months. To me, the issue is: change. People don't care for it :-)

    I managed to find good CFL bulbs for my mother, replacing the cheap 60W equivalent ones she had bought to try them out. They were not as bright as her old 100W bulbs, of low quality, and had a blue color cast. So she gave them up. Several years later (this summer) I bought and installed ten or so of the right brand, right wattage and for the right purposes. Now she's very happy. (And will certainly use and pay for far less electricity).

    Change isn't hard when there's someone who knows what you need to help you understand it and make good choices. I think people will even pay a little extra -- they know that conservation is the right thing to do, for the most part. But getting around to it is often the biggest sticking point.

    I am very optimistic about the Newton Eco Teams idea, and glad to live here so I can participate.

  3. I really enjoyed this post because i was seeking some tips for home improvements and after getting this post, quite satisfied.