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.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Give me those old time solutions

The news hits us daily with political compromises to critical efforts: diverting stimulus money from where it will actually be most effective (e.g. from urban infrastructure to rural roads), undercutting health care reform into minimal impact, eating away at the prospect for carbon emission reduction.

All the more welcome, then, news of a positive trend. The Boston Globe (may it survive its own crisis!) reports today about 'intentional communities' providing services to the elderly to allow them to stay in their own homes even as their abilities to live fully independently wane. The specific organization profiled—Newton at Home, in my own city—has some interesting explanations, references and links on their website.

The idea is to reverse the long-time erosion of supportive community. As we baby boomers cope with the needs of aging parents--or even aging selves--we do so in a world very different from that of our grandparents. Rather than having family living together, or down the street, or across town, many of us have our siblings dispersed across the country or even the globe. While some have neighbors or religious congregations to fill some needs, that is rarely enough. The continuum of care in a single-campus-based retirement home to nursing home complex is the high-intervention (and high-cost) approach. But intentional communities such as Newton at Home resist the need for relocation/dislocation by bringing together local resources through local efforts in an intriguing reinterpretation of old supportive patterns. Volunteers build and maintain a knowledge base of available services, advice, and activities.

We need national policy to set the right conditions, but it's on the local level, in the end, that the behaviors that make change happen. Consumer decisions (and individual entrepreneurial behavior, including Newton at Home's focus on local resources) will have much to do with ending the recession. Atul Gawande's much noted recent New Yorker article pinpointed the heart of the health care dilemma in the attitude of local providers (we need more of the low-key, low-intervention approach of my late father, the no-nonsense general practitioner). And it is sobering to note that the average American household has twice the carbon footprint of a German household, which in turn has almost twice the footprint of the average Swedish household. I get those facts from another local effort, Newton Eco-Teams, which is working on a 25% reduction of household carbon emissions through simple and cost-effective community organizing.

Responsibility and community. Conservatism we can believe in.