The search for a home
For anyone who wants to live a greener lifestyle, a home search invariably involves asking the question: Do I build a new green home or buy an existing one to green up myself? It's a difficult question with no easy answer. At the end of the day, it all depends — on the buyer, the home, the market, the land and the desired way of life.
The D.C. metro area is well established with relatively little room for new development. Consumers in search of new home developments that aren't condos will generally have to look toward Hyattsville or Bethesda on the Maryland side or Woodbridge (and beyond) on the Virginia side. Therefore, with such highly developed neighborhoods, it seems that the question of buying vs. building really shouldn't really come up. However, with the redevelopment of existing city space (such as the new "green" townhome development going up in Alexandria, Va., on the fringes of Old Town), the option of buying either new or existing housing is a real possibility for many would-be green homeowners. And so the quest begins: is it better to purchase a new home with healthier products from the framework up? Or is an existing home preferable, modifying existing systems to become more efficient?
There are several aspects to consider:
1) What land space is the home located on — recently converted cropland or existing urban space?
2) The distance of commuting to work, and subsequently the carbon footprint of daily travels.
3) What "green" renovations can be done, and are allowed, in the home and community?
There are many other points to consider when purchasing a home (budget being the largest), but of the greening aspects, these are perhaps some of the most important variables to consider.
Location, location, location
The conversion of cropland to residential use has been common for over half a century. The long and short of it is that the American "dream," the utopia of suburbia, was born in the same dirt where corn and pumpkins once grew. Large farm fields became clusters of brick homes, giving way to an increased quantity of paved roads, strip malls, and commute times. Hardly anyone these days admits that they want to add to urban sprawl, the living nightmare of unrestrained development. Ultimately, however, a significant percentage of the nicest new houses end up sitting on land that was most recently a cow pasture, so that's exactly what homeowners have bought in to.
It's difficult to tell any person, any American in particular, that the dream of living in a big, beautiful house with a nice green yard and a two-car garage is a fractured dream that should be left behind. No, this is America; where any person's desires, regardless of what they may be, can come true if they are willing to work hard for it. Such a belief, however, has led to unsustainable living choices, which many readers of this blog are already shifting away from.
So, what is a greenie to do? Honestly, the best thing to do is look at each home option very carefully. Loss of forestland to cropland, and subsequently cropland to residential or suburban development, is a serious issue with severe environmental consequences such as erosion, habitat destruction, watershed disruption/modification and so on. In most cases, therefore, though not all, the answer is to buy homes in existing developed space, whether it is an already-built home or a new home on an existing footprint, rather than intrude further on forest or cropland.
How much carbon does it take
All green homebuyers should be asking themselves what the carbon footprint is for their potential home in relation to other available options. For example, the new townhome development in Alexandria takes careful pride in calling itself a green building community. It's true that few would have wanted to live in the townhomes that once occupied the space, now demolished to make way for these new townhomes, as they were most likely substandard construction to begin with. It leads one to wonder, however, just how much carbon one new unit "costs." A brief list of possible carbon output sources: the bulldozers who converted that spot to a townhome 40 (or more) years ago, the trucks that shipped in all the initial building materials, and then the bulldozers to come in and raze it all again, and all the trucks that will carry all the new building materials. Don't forget to mention the carbon output accumulated in acquiring the raw materials that were transported and eventually converted into the final building materials and products. Then again, without a fresh start on that particular location, how else is an otherwise "undesirable" living area going to emerge, enticing people to come live there and keep them in the city limits?
Greening up an existing home may not be much better. Purchasing the materials required to make an existing home more efficient may initially be less than a brand-spankin' new townhouse, but the energy loss in most older homes experience is significant, sending energy (and money) out the door. Also, few older homes can truly become amazingly energy efficient without some significant work. The most traditional and non-intrusive means of improving efficiency of a home is by changing windows, upping the grade of attic insulation, replacing the weather-stripping of the exterior doors and replacing the doors themselves in some cases. Then comes the issue of whether an existing home should be expanded to meet today's living lifestyles, in which case, the bulldozers and trucks come on out again, but this time for only one home, rather than the 20 units built on the same block of a new development. Think of all the trips to the hardware store on top of that: insulation, tiles/flooring, lights, paint, tools, etc. Oh, and then the trips to city hall to file for permits and variance requests.
It may ultimately end up balancing out carbon-wise, which leaves the home search in more traditional terms — where, what style, number of rooms and distance to the nearest Metro. Research did not reveal any comprehensive studies on the subject or carbon impacts, therefore the comparison and results are mostly left to conjecture.
Does this make me a Yuppie?
Lucky for those in the capital region, the D.C. area offers plenty of both new home and existing home options in a small mile radius for home buyers. Building on or living in existing urban space reduces the urban sprawl effect and can keep one's commute from becoming completely ridiculous. (A drive from Arlington, Va., to Woodbridge, Va., on a typical afternoon can easily become a nearly two-hour endeavor. Two words: Holy moly.)
Most people, regardless of political alignment, would agree that less time on the road equals more time with family or work, whatever suits your fancy. Unfortunately, for most young, urban types, where to purchase a home normally boils down to budget. Many can't afford a nice, new townhome on the inner edge of Old Town, but there are still options within city limits popping up here and there, from renovated condo buildings to efficient townhomes. The existing home stock is also particularly plentiful now in post-tax credit months.
Yes, it has to be said ... it's not easy being green
The search for a home is hard enough. Adding concerns of carbon and ecosystem impact do not make things any easier. However, those questions should become a part of the traditional home-buying thought process. Trying to find ways to incorporate modern living standards with ancient living ideals is difficult, but it's worthwhile.
An interview with a recent homebuyer revealed that such issues did come up and were carefully considered during the entire home-buying process. The result? He purchased an existing home built nearly 60 years ago — made of brick and very energy inefficient, but close to public transport, which will enable the family to stay a one-car household. Overall, they are supremely happy with their purchase and can't wait to make it truly theirs. In the end, that is the ultimate goal of any home purchase process: to find a place to love and to love living in for many years to come.
What have your experiences been? Did you find a new home that you love and has allowed you to incorporate a greener lifestyle? Did you "green" an existing home structure? Please post your experiences in the comments section below.