The green design scene on MNN is usually covered (wonderfully, I might add,) by Matt Hickman, but I have slipped in a few that are more technical and look at different issues and trends. One of the things that troubles me is how confusing everything is; one of the things that depresses me is how little a difference we have actually made. Take these posts:
What the heck is a carbon positive house?
I wish the descriptive language we used was less obtuse, and that there weren't so many standards. Here's one that's used in Australia and Norway that I think is a lot better than the terminology we use in North America, but it still leaves me totally confused. (Read more: What the heck is a carbon positive house?) Then I followed it up with this:
What the heck is a net zero energy building?
Net-Zero is a term that is thrown around a lot, but it's totally confusing. It usually means that one tries to design a pretty good house and then put enough solar panels on the roof to balance the energy that is still needed. But I have joked that I can make my tent net-zero energy if I have enough money and land area for solar panels. (Read more: What the heck is a net zero energy building?) And the problem with all of these approaches is that they're not making much of a difference at all:
Getting nowhere fast: How having more stuff is eating up all the gains from being more efficient
In fact, we are building our houses a lot better than we used to, with mandated energy-efficiency standards, but we just keep using more energy per capita by having bigger houses, putting them further apart and filling them with more stuff. It's a difficult subject for all of us promoting energy-efficiency; you start to ask yourself, what’s the point? All of the savings are lost to house size, air conditioning and gadgets. (Read more: Getting nowhere fast: How having more stuff is eating up all the gains from being more efficient) I did another post on this theme when new data were released:
All our gains in energy efficiency have been wiped out by increases in house size
Houses get bigger when people get richer. (Photo: MNN Infographic)
With cheap energy, it's hard to get people excited about green building and greater energy efficiency. Clearly we have to think about it differently. "Ultimately, there are so many factors that have to be taken into account if we're going to make our society more energy efficient and reduce our carbon footprint, from urban density to energy efficiency to building size to embodied energy to durability to transportation intensity. No wonder people are frustrated and confused." (Read more: All our gains in energy efficiency have been wiped out by increases in house size) Really, we have to change the way we live:
Small fridges make good cities, healthier people
A great example is the fridge. They are dramatically more efficient than they were two decades ago; they are also getting dramatically bigger. It all contributes to a "a culture where we need bigger cars to carry it all, travel farther to the big box to save a few dollars, and fill that giant freezer with frozen prepared foods that have too much salt, sugar and fat." (Read more: Small fridges make good cities, healthier people) And we don't just need smaller fridges, we need smaller houses:
How to lighten your life by downsizing
I have practiced what I preached, and downsized into a fraction of the space that my wife and I used to live in. The house is still a 100-year-old energy sink, but the energy use per capita is a quarter of what it was, since so many more people live in it. We had to get rid of tons of stuff, losing the basement and the third-floor storage space, but have never been happier. "In the end, it is actually a wonderful feeling of lightness, as if these dead weights had been tying you down. A sense of freedom." (Read more: How to lighten your life by downsizing).
Why are we so reliant on air conditioning? (It's not just climate change, it's bad design)
I used to rage against air conditioning, trying to make the case that nobody needed it, that you could beat the heat by living like our grandparents did. I would preach the gospel of natural ventilation, shading, planting trees, living with the seasons. I also wasn't getting anywhere. The world has changed; people have moved south, the climate is hotter, and now that air conditioning exists, it's silly to tell people they have to be miserable. What we have to do now is design to minimize its use.
We need a balance between the old and the new, an understanding of how people lived before the thermostat age along with a real understanding of building science. To discover what we have to do to minimize our heating and air conditioning loads and maximize comfort, we have to design our homes right in the first place.
What’s the best way to heat your house?
I've never understood why American houses have forced-air ducted heating with noisy big pipes to carry noise and dust between rooms as well as heat. But I never liked radiant floors either, thinking they were expensive, slow to respond and as Alex Wilson called them, "a great heating option for a poorly designed house." But the more I learned this year, the more I came to like them. But ultimately, the best heating system is almost no heating system at all. (Read more: What’s the best way to heat your house?)
Is wellness the new green?
Forgive me for filling up this post with images of my own house renovation, but I learned a lot from doing instead of just writing. Throughout the job I was concerned not just about downsizing or energy efficiency, but also wellness. So I left the old brick exposed and used wood wherever possible, trying to add as little new material as I could and picking healthy ones when I had to. It's also the coming trend:
There's another side to the push on wellness: energy is cheap these days, and saving it was never a great sales pitch in the first place. Spending a pile of money on insulation to save a few bucks a year never was as attractive a proposition as a new granite counter, and it's even less so now with oil and gas sloshing around the country. Green concepts of sustainability and resilience were also hard sells in a country where discussions about climate are so politicized. But wellness — from Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow to the yoga boom — that’s big these days, in both red and blue states.
(Read more: Is wellness the new green?)
Really, a lot of radical changes in thinking in 2015, and I think 2016 will be bigger.