Building a Sustainable Future

Examining smart and environmentally friendly technologies and methods, such as biodiesel, green buildings, natural power, energy efficient appliances and many others that take a minimal toll on the environment, in order to inform and help make our future a sustainable one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Energy conservation around the home

When it comes to sustainability, there are two main concepts at play, much like any system in the universe. These concepts are in and out. While these terms, specifically, don't have much meaning when it comes to the idea of sustainability, we can extrapolate a bit on them to redefine sustainability in terms of them.

Simply put, in these terms, sustainability is making sure your inflow - what you use up, consume, take away - doesn't exceed your outgo - what you give back, replenish, reuse, produce. The idea is that if you're living sustainably, what you give back or reuse will be greater than what you use up, thus a pleasantly repetitive cycle of conservation and sustainability occurs.

While of course there are many ways to conserve, perhaps energy conservation is one of the most important, or most highly publicized these days. While there are some sources of energy that are harder to conserve one, electricity is one we often overlook because it seems unlimited (except for when a power outage hits!), easy to come by, and relatively effortless to produce as a commodity. However, taking some simple precautions to cut back on our electricity usage can save us money and energy over the long run.

Accordingly, here's a few straightforward tips on conserving electricity around the house:

- While they are a bit spendier, if you can afford to replace standard, older CRT monitors with newer flat-panel ones, you'll not only have more space on your desk but less strain on your pocketbook, as they take up 1/3 the electricity of conventional monitors.

- Another simple way to cut back on electricity is to examine the wattage/output of the lightbulbs you're using, and their placement around your home. Do you really need that 100 watt bulb? Or could you do with a 75 watt one? What about the lamps in your house - are they placed to give warmth and light in an efficient manner, or do you have "overlighting", and could actually do with getting rid of one or more lights in a certain room?

- Think conservation when it comes to the stove. Use an appropriate sized pan for what you're cooking (the smaller, the better), cover your pot when you need to boil water, and match the size of the pan you're using to an appropriate burner. You'll use less electricity and cook food faster and more completely.

- Think conservation again when it comes to heating and cooling your house. For this, think about the time you need it to be hot or cool. For instance, in the winter, try programming your thermostat to be cooler during the night, and then come on again a half hour before you get up. You'll save energy and still keep warm inside your bed.

In the summer, cool off your house at night by opening windows and letting fans circulate air once things begin to cool off, and then close windows and lower shades in the morning before the day starts warming up. You'll notice a significantly improved temperature inside your house by using both of these methods, and in turn, you'll pay less to heat or cool your place.

These are just a very few of all the possible ways to conserve energy around the home. If you set your mind to it, there's really very few things you cannot conserve on, with a little work or planning. So go ahead, find something that's being wasteful, and find a smarter way to do it. You'll thank yourself later on when you reap the financial rewards.

Categories: Conservation, Energy

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hydrogen and Alternative Fuels

Gasoline Pump
I woke up this morning and saw an intriguing article on energy and alternative fuels from consumer reports. Essentially, it contrasted conventional diesel, ethanol (E85) fuel, biodiesel fuel, and hydrogen/electric power to standard gasoline and their cost/benefits of each.

Of course, it will still be a while before the US on the whole makes a switch to anything other than gasoline, but fortunately, alternative fuels are in the works.

Though the goals of ultimate, 100% sustainability might differ from more practical goals of cost-effectiveness and widespread production/distribution and availability, most of the alternatives mentioned in the list are better off than fossil fuels, which are non-renewable, pollutant, limited in production and supply, and therefore as of right now, quite costly both to the consumer and the environment.

From the sustainability point of view, a hydrogen fuel substitute would be the ideal fuel alternative at this point in time. This, of course, is not to preclude the mention of other, yet un-tested alternatives, but rather evaluate the present options available. Little or no emissions make it a clean fuel, and it, as the article says, is the most abundant thing in the universe.

Unfortunately, as wikipedia states, there are a number of problems with hydrogen, such as production, transportation, storage, distribution and end use. Consumer reports puts it this way:

...More pressing is the problem of where to get the hydrogen and how to get it to the vehicle. While hydrogen is abundant, it's almost always bound up in minerals, hydrocarbons, or water. The cheapest way to obtain hydrogen gas is by extracting it from natural gas. But if one of the goals of moving to hydrogen cars is to get away from fossil fuels, then taking hydrogen from natural gas is self-defeating.

An alternative is taking electricity from a nonpolluting source like solar, wind, or hydro power and using it to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components. The problem here is that it takes more electricity to make the hydrogen than the hydrogen can generate in a fuel cell.

While I don't profess to be on the leading edge of science or fuel technologies in terms of chemistry and physics, it is my guess that, if possible, the company/group of people who discover a new non-volatile technology to overcome the present limitations of using hydrogen fuel would find major financial gain as a result.

But as I mentioned earlier, why limit ourselves just to hydrogen as the "ultimate solution"? While it does seem practical and abundant, is there not possibly another even more effective energy/fuel source for mobile vehicles? Of course, in a world (and universe) still more or less constrained by the law of entropy, nothing comes free, but certainly, this shouldn't (and likely won't) be an excuse not to continually look for/evaluate alternative fuel options.

While a low-to-zero cost energy alternative may seem like wishful thinking, remember too how odd the idea of "the internet" might have sounded to people 100, 500, or a thousand years ago. Ultimately, through constant design and innovation, fueled by the ideals of discovery, invention, and profit, we may one day discover a perfectly renewable, non-polluting, and cost-effective fuel source.

Categories: Fuels, Hydrogen
Pictures used with respect to Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 15, 2006

LEEDing with gold

While I just got done highlighting some of the latest LEED-certified structures, the news brings another into focus. This time, it's the courthouse plaza in Sioux Falls.

As the title states, the builders of this structure managed to went for a gold LEED certification rating, making it the first building in the region to do so. As previously implied, one of the interesting things about the LEED standard is that in a way it is an "open standard", allowing some freedom and flexibility as to how certain areas are implemented.

In the case of this building, builders were able to incorporate special airflow systems that minimized electricity use by cutting down on motors and fans. But perhaps one of the most unique features about this green building is its central geothermal heating system. In the lead architect's words:

"This has geothermal heat, so it goes down to wells, brings up water at 50-degrees, which saves on equipment and is a good payback and saver," Winkels said.

Additional LEED-certified features include a reflective roof, which will cut down on cooling costs by 50% or more during the summer, as well as re-use of the existing materials from the previous building. Hopefully, the innovations (and eventual savings cost on energy over the long run) will inspire other builders in the area to consider attaining a LEED certification with future building projects.

Categories: LEED, architecture

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Sustainability & Big Business

Environment vs. Economic Gain. For many years, people have, to some degree, seen the two opposed. A general perception is that running a large business in an environmentally friendly way (or at least a sustainable design) is too expensive and a financial setback to big business.

But maybe more big business should sit up and take interest in green - and not just the cashola. Architect William McDonough has a bit to say on sustainable designs in the corporate and economic sectors. A recent press release announcing his tour stop at Vanderbilt university says of him:

McDonough’s credits include building the first solar-heated house in Ireland in 1977 and designing the first “green office” in the United States for the Environmental Defense Fund in 1985. He was named Time magazine’s “Hero for the Planet” in 1999, but as The Washington Post noted, his “pro-growth, capitalist optimism has made McDonough palatable to business.” Ford Motor Company, IBM, Gap Inc. and Wal-Mart have invested millions in his manufacturing and headquarters designs while recouping millions more in compliance costs, environmental cleanup and worker productivity.

Later, the article mentiones that McDonough has made a commitment in architecture to using USGBC designs. It's great to see more and more builders, especially those influential at a corporate level commit to using sustainable architecture and designs that will save both the environment and the bottom line of larger companies who employ this sustainable design.

This news just barely precedes information from Wal-mart yesterday about the "Greening up" of their store with new sustainable lighting and energy savings up to 30%, as well as other sustainable designs to be implemented, as well as mentioning its new commitment to sustainable seafood marketing. Does Wal-Mart's new commitment to green make up for lack of commitment to its workers? That's another topic altogether.

On a closing thought, maybe builders in New Zealand should take note, as there appears to be a lack of expertise and knowledge about sustainable designs, though new homeowners find sustainable designs to be desirable.

Categories: Architecture, Big-Business

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sustainability on the farm?

Just in: How does wearing chicken feathers or rice straw sound? It may not be all tar-and-feathers like you think, as Physorg would have us believe:

Of Rice and Hen: Fashions from the Farm from

In the future, it might be perfectly normal to wear suits and dresses made of chicken feathers or rice straw. But don’t worry: These clothes won’t resemble fluffy plumage or hairy door mats. Scientists at the University of Nebraska –Lincoln plan to develop these agricultural waste products into conventional-looking fabrics as a way to reduce the use of petroleum-based synthetic fabrics.


Reading a little later through the article, it mentions that:

With millions of tons of chicken feathers and rice straw available worldwide each year, these agricultural wastes represent an abundant, cheap and renewable alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibers, Yang says.

The interesting thing though, is why are there millions of tons of chicken feathers available? My guess is that they come from factory farm slaughter of the birds. While of course many may come from laying hens, it's likely that chickens about to be slaughtered give up more feathers.

If these above assumptions are correct, or close, it may well be that the values of recycling the chicken feathers into garments outweigh the tremendous environmental costs of running the factory farms in general. Such an approach would be more sustainable, but still short of the potential which could be achieved by eliminating the factory farm altogether.

However, the idea of rice straw seems interesting, and possibly an alternative form of clothing or fabric that could be used around the world to create sustainable clothing solutions for more financially limited groups of people. Further,

Chicken feathers and rice straw also could become “green” fabrics used in carpets, automobiles, building materials and a host of other everyday applications — all at potentially less cost and with novel and sometimes superior properties than their synthetic counterparts, the researchers say.

This could result in a reduced environmental cost in terms of reduced chemical waste and biproducts from other methods which currently processes materials for carpets, automobiles, etc, which might lead to overall longer-term sustainability. As with many things, I suppose, time, and innovation will lead to more sustainable goods.

Categories: Factory-farms, Clothing,Farming

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

LEED Building Olympics: Platinum, Gold, Silver: Part 3

Previously, I took a look at the basic tenants of LEED certifications, and then a bit later I examined the building fundamentals a bit more in detail, seeing what builders and urban planners might work towards to help gain progress toward a platinum LEED certification.

This time around, I'd like to tour some of some buildings that have managed to attain a LEED certification to get an idea of what sorts of things the builders have done to implement LEED standards in their projects.

1. The Mattress Factory, and Cherry Parkes building, University of Washington, Tacoma.
LEED Certification: Silver
These 100-year old buildings showcase their LEED certification points in a number of ways:
- Water reduction achieved through use of ultra-low flow plumbing

- Over 58% of building materials were recycled

- Use of wall plantings to mitigate heating/cooling costs

- High performance glazing utilized to optimize energy efficiency

2. 8800 Page, Missouri
LEED Certification: Platinum
This amazing office building receieved the highest LEED Certification point score in the world: 60 points! The achievements by the building team were quite noteable, listing only a few here:

- Innovative Wastewater Technologies: A rainwater catchment system was designed to eliminate the need to use potable water for sewage conveyance. This system incorporates a cistern that captures rainwater from the garage roof; stores, filters and then uses it for sewage conveyance.

- Energy Recovery: An energy recovery system incorporated into the HVAC system extracts heat from the air without the need to re-circulate stale air. The building has operable windows: motor-controlled in the clerestory; manually operated on the first and second floors.

- Daylighting and Views: Research indicates visual exposure to the outdoors produces significant, quick recovery from stress. Virtually 100% of our employees have a direct view to the outdoors while seated at their workstation.

3. Engineering And Computational Sciences Building, Old Dominion University, Virginia
LEED Certification: Basic
This interesting, brand-new lab features a number of innovative LEED progressions, such as:
- No parking lots are being paved for the new building. The building integrates bicycle storage areas and alternative fuel recharging stations for futuristic vehicles.

- Native, drought-resistant plants and efficient drip irrigation will reduce the amount of water needed for landscaping. Efficient plumbing systems are expected to cut water use inside the building by 20 percent.

- Increased insulation, external sun-shading, windows that increase day-lighting and other innovations that increase the efficiency of mechanical systems should cut the building's energy demands by 20 percent.

4. Yesler Community Center, Seattle, Washington
LEED Certification: Silver
This community building showcases a number of different LEED methods, showing that sustainability can be a normal part of the public sector as well as the private one:
- 30% reduction in overall water use than a conventional building (achieved
through water efficient landscaping and efficient fixtures)

- Extensive shading on the south side to reduce summer solar gain

- Carbon Dioxide Monitoring

- Increased effectiveness of ventilation (operable windows that have been sized and
located using computer modeling)

Certainly, each of these facilities we've looked at today features an extensive number of LEED features in addition to those we've seen. Hopefully, as builders and residents alike see the monetary and sustainability advantages of building according to LEED standards, we will continue to see an increasing number of green buildings constructed over time, both from scratch and from "re-cycled" older buildings.

Categories: LEED, architecture

LEED Building Olympics: Platinum, Gold, Silver: Part 2.

Last time, I took some time to take a basic look at an overview of LEED certifications and the general method by which a builder or building can attain one. Today, I'd like to take a look at some of the different categories where builders can attain points towards LEED certifications to help everyone get a better idea of how easy it is to make a building more environmentally-friendly, and ultimately, sustainable. Note: The examples below for each category are certainly not exhaustive; for a complete list, head over here.

1. Sustainable Sites (14 points).
From the LEED perspective, this category refers to the basic sustainability of a site, such as how well erosion and runoff are controlled, the overall selection of the building site for the particular type of building that will be built, and so forth. Some of these principles would be very easy to follow for builders who wanted to do so.

2. Water Efficiency (5 points).
Points toward a LEED certificate can be gained here by using water efficiently to maintain the landscape and reducing its overall water usage by 50%, using new/innovative wastewater technologies to handle wastewater, reducing overall water usage, and others.

3. Energy & Atmosphere (17 points)
Some of the LEED certification points here are required, such as the basic building system's commission, minimum energy performance, and overall CFC reduction in the HVAC systems. Others, such as renewable energy and other energy/pollutant conservation measures can award extra points.

4. Materials & Resources (13 points)
Like the Energy & Atmosphere category, some of the LEED certification points in this category are required, such as recyclable management (storage/collection). Others, such as Building Reuse by maintaining 75% of existing structure shell(such as the Mattress Factory at the University of Washington) and construction waste management can help builders retain extra points toward the LEED Platinum certification.

5. Indoor Environmental Quality (15 points)
LEED Certification required points here include minimum Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) performance and Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) control/management. Extra points to help achieve certification: Ventilation effectiveness, low-emission construction materials, and others.

6. Innovation & Design process (5 points)
This final LEED Certification category is a place where builders and architects can realize and implement new and creative ways to make their buildings more sustainable and less environmentally impacting. This is good news for those who have a penchant for design and creativity, and should help spur such people on to more cost-effective, energy-efficient creative building practices. For those on the edge of a certification point boundary, these extra points could mean the difference between silver and gold, gold and platinum certifications.

As more and more builders realize and recognize the benefits, both financially and environmentally of building to the LEED standards, we will likely notice an improvement over time of overall environmental quality, both inside and outside. Here, we've had a chance to look at a few examples of the basic standards for LEED builders, and what things new builders and architects can aim for. Next time, we'll take a look at some specific LEED-certified buildings to find out how the LEED principles can be implemented in the real world.

Categories: LEED,architecture

Sunday, September 10, 2006

LEED Building Olympics: Platinum, Gold, Silver

Perhaps one of the most well-known concepts in sustainable architecture these days is LEED building certifications. But what does having or receiving a LEED certification mean, and how does a building receive one? Over the next few entries, I'd like to to dive into these questions and take a look at some companies and structures that are currently LEED-oriented.

For starters, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. According to the USGBC (US Green Building Council), the LEED building system is:

"...a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings."

So how does the LEED building certification system work? Let's take a quick look at the basics, and then I'll go into them in my next post.

Essentially, a LEED certification (Platinum, Gold, Silver, or "basic" certifications exist currently) can be granted to a green building based on the LEED Rating system, according to the number of points it receives in 5 categories:

· Sustainable Sites (14)
· Water Efficiency (5)
· Energy and Atmosphere (17)
· Materials and Resources (13)
· Indoor Environmental Quality (15)
· LEED Innovation Credits (5)
Total: 69 points possible.

Keep your eyes out for Part 2, where we will examine these LEED categories in detail.

Categories: LEED,architecture

Friday, September 08, 2006

A clothing Alternative.

Look out, leather and fur! Alternative Outfitters, major online (and recently storefront) vegan retailer is here to set the stage with new, cool animal-friendly, cruelty free fashion for the 21st century.

While Alternative Outfitters previously catered mainly to the female market, they are expanding their vegan offerings to include more males now as well, with guys' shoes, shirts, and more. Of course, for the ladies, they offer a fine range of normally hard-to-find vegan products, such as cosmetics, shoes, handbags, and even outerwear.

Given the extensive waste generated by leather proccessing facilities, a more glamorous vegan look/brand appeal is a welcome presence.

Additionally, more and more consumers are making the switch from animal cruelty-related products to more animal friendly/vegan ones, which create less chemical by-products and toxic effluent runoffs, adding to the long-term sustainability of these new, environmentally-conscious products.

Certainly, time will tell, with regard to the long-term appeal of vegan products, but you can bet Alternative Outfitters will be there with their satisfying selection of sustainable streetclothes.

Categories: Clothing, Vegan

Global Green USA's sustainable building competition

A Better, Sustainable New Orleans.

That's what Brad Pitt and the Global Green sustainability advocacy group have in mind. In a competition recently sponsored by Pitt and Global Green, architecture contestants competed for the chance to build a winning sustainable, green housing structure for families in New Orleans.

According to the press release,

If 50,000 homes were rebuilt according to the energy cost reduction goals in the competition, residents would save $38 million to $56 million EVERY year. Each sustainably designed home would also reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 11 tons per household per year, the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road.

The winning sustainable design, GREEN.O.LA Designed by Andrew Kotchen and Matthew Berman, Workshop/APD would help lower energy costs and put the savings right back into the families' pockets. This in turn would likely help the struggling local economy as consumers would have more money that didn't need to be spent on energy.

I have to say, I'm impressed by Brad's commitment to this sustainable idea. Publicity aside, it's a great way to help bring about recognition and substantiation for the idea of sustainability and green buildings in a world and time where so much money and materials (not to mention energy) go to waste in building many modern day dwellings.

Read more:

Official press release
Global Green

Categories: Architecture, Energy

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Make your own biodiesel!

As we all know, gasoline these days can get spendy. Some areas of the country are worse than others, but generally a fill-up isn't cheap on the pocketbook. Or for the environment, for that matter. As an alternative, many people are considering biodiesel as a fuel alternative for their diesel-driven cars.

While in some cases it could be difficult to find a biodiesel fuel station close to home, an alternative exists: making your own. is apparently now offering their Freedom Fueler station, where
you can make your own biodiesel.

Not only is biodiesel better for the environment, but it's cheaper too. According to the site, running on biodiesel grants you:

Usually more than $2.00/gallon in savings!

Granted, this might not be the right thing for everyone (particularly people with no place to put it) at the $2,395.00 price tag, but then again, it doesn't take too long these days to burn 2 grand in gas. Another way to offset the cost could be to go in on one with friends, and then run a biodiesel co-op, selling it to other local biodieselers at reduced prices. For those who want to see just how much they'd save, try their fuel savings calculator.

Categories: biodiesel, Alternative fuels

Recycling. Biodiesel/alternative fuels. Green buildings. Energy efficiency. Solar/wind power. Waste reduction. Organics.

What do all of these terms have in common? They're all ways to talk about sustainable living. Webster's dictionary defines "sustainable living" as:
"any lifestyle based on energy-saving and environmental responsibility".

Simply put, the idea of a sustainable future is one where buildings, businesses, individuals, and man-made systems are interdependent without being interfering. Presently, many systems are both - they depend on each other, but often to a parasitic extent, such that they 'use up' or 'bring down' the system they depend on in such a way that over time, the supporting resource may be damaged or even destroyed altogether.

As a result, in order to ensure a future that is better, cleaner, more healthy, and more sustainable for future generations, it is important that mankind today become aware of the implications of many of his presently wasteful and damaging systems and actions on future generations.

And that's where this blog begins - a simple chronicle of news items, building and living practices and advice, and discussion with regards to living cleanly, sustainably, and with the conscious desire to leave the world better than how we found it.