Though you probably haven’t convened your family members to hold a climate change summit in your living room, sometimes it can feel inordinately challenging to agree upon and make sustainable decisions at home. Ask anyone who has recently shopped for furnishings, upgraded appliances, or planned a build or remodel.
World leaders seem to face similar challenges in agreeing upon how to go about making more sustainable decisions. As 2015 came to an end, representatives from 195 countries gathered in Paris for the COP21 meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. They worked toward an agreement to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources and to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. At the same time, 2015 exceeded records for land and ocean surface temperatures and broke the 1C barrior above pre-industrial levels — thanks to a combination of human-induced warming and El Niño weather patterns.
Though the COP21 climate agreement is an important, symbolic step forward, it isn’t perfect, nor is it a panacea for the environmental and humanitarian crisis that is climate change. It’s a big, complex problem that requires big, complex solutions, which can be challenging to agree upon and challenging to enact on many levels. It also requires much smaller solutions, enacted by individuals in homes and backyards and neighborhoods around the globe.
Still, try typing “which is better for the environment” into your search bar and see how many auto-complete options Google supplies to finish your question. It’s a question that spans personal decisions about everything from transportation and grocery shopping to parenting and funerary decisions. And yes, even and especially, to the plethora of choices that come with building, buying, remodeling, and furnishing a home. The process of researching options, weighing pros and cons, and making careful, evidence-based decisions that are healthy, sustainable, and affordable for your home is often complicated and time-consuming. Fortunately, in the North Sound, there are many resources you can draw upon for expertise and advice, including designers, architects, builders, and contractors who specialize in implementing green building technologies.
21 Acres Demonstration Farm and Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville is a nonprofit enterprise that has developed a reputation as a “living laboratory” for integrating sustainable living practices. Its education center includes a farm market, cold storage for produce, a commercial kitchen, and space for classes and meetings.
Housed in a 12,000-square-foot building that was the first commercial building in a rural farm setting to earn a LEED Platinum certification in the U.S., 21 Acres demonstrates cutting-edge green building technologies to homeowners and industry professionals, including solar power, geo-thermal heat pumps and radiant flooring, a living roof, storm water management, low-flow fixtures, and composting toilets. Staff members are happy to give green building tours and discuss options with visitors.
“It’s a commercial building, but everything we do is motivated by a desire to educate,” said BrendaVanderloop, a communications consultant for 21 Acres. “We try to help visitors understand how commercial green building technologies can be scaled down for simple, residential use. We also try to make clear the connections between what we do here at 21 Acres and what you can do personally to make small changes, especially through food choices, water conservation, and energy efficiency.”
Melissa Sokolowsky, assistant facilities manager, said that many people understand they should eat organic, locally-grown food and practice water and energy conservation. But what they may not realize are the critical connections between the three systems.
“One thing I have discovered through working at 21 Acres is how closely related food, water, and energy are; they really affect each other,” Sokolowsky said. “It takes water and energy to grow and transport food. It takes a great deal of energy to pump and treat water. Energy usage releases greenhouse gases, which affects the climate, which in turn impacts our food supply, how and where we grow food.”
When you consider these connections, the consequences of small changes are amplified. “It can be really overwhelming,” she said. “You might think, ‘I can’t fix the world’s problems by recycling my newspaper.’ But every decision we make has far-reaching consequences, some which may not be obvious. Even small changes in our behaviors can make a big difference.”
Sokolowsky shared some small, simple changes to improve your home’s sustainability in these three areas: food, energy, and water. She also discussed green building technologies you can implement in your own home or remodel.
When purchasing, building, or remodeling a home, at the top of the list of considerations is a well equipped, inviting kitchen for preparing food and gathering with loved ones.
“For potential buyers, the kitchen is the room that can make or break the sale,” Kristen Hampshire wrote in an article for HGTV. “Generally speaking, you can spend between 6 and 10 percent of the total home value and get fair returns.”
Outfitting your kitchen with energy efficient appliances and water conserving fixtures can increase the value of your home, improve your kitchen’s function, and benefit the environment. At 21 Acres, every purchasing decision for the market kitchen — where food is prepared for sale and visitors gather for hands-on cooking classes — was carefully researched and discussed, from the countertop to food storage containers to cleaning products.
In addition to selecting sustainable, healthy materials and finishes, you should also look at the carbon footprint when purchasing household furnishings. “Choose items purchased from down the street or from a company based in America, rather than something imported from China,” Sokolowsky encouraged. “That would reduce carbon emissions quite a bit.”
Just as worthy of consideration is the food you choose to prepare. It’s beneficial to grow your own produce or purchase organic, locally grown food whenever possible, and to cook from scratch rather than relying on processed foods. It’s even better if you plan your meals around seasonable produce, preferably grown within a 300-mile radius. We are fortunate that in the North Sound it’s possible to eat locally grown, fresh food year-round. Still for many consumers, making decisions about food boils down to affordability, access, and convenience. You can save money by purchasing produce that’s both good for you and the environment at farmers markets, even if it’s not certified organic.
Sokolowsky says it pays to be on a first-name basis with your local farmers. “Farmers don’t necessarily have to be certified organic to grow pesticidefree or clean food,” she said. “The best way to really know what you’re eating is to know your farmer and talk with them about their growing practices.”
If you can’t buy only organic produce, try to avoid items on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. Reading product labels while you shop is a small habit that can help you make more informed decisions. In addition to information about growing practices, labels can also tell you where your food was produced. The typical American dinner plate contains food that has traveled an average of 1,500 miles.
It’s important to consider how much transportation and fossil fuels were required to bring it to you. It’s also important to design your kitchen in order to reduce food waste and dispose of it. When choosing your cabinets, pantry, and refrigerator, consider what features will help you to easily see and access ingredients. This will help you to purchase only what you need.
Also evaluate your interior design for practical, elegant solutions that make composting and recycling attractive and convenient. One of the leading causes of methane gas is food waste in landfills, where food can’t break down properly. And as far as greenhouse gases go, methane gas has a much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
Finally, as you consider your home’s landscaping, look for ways to grow your own vegetables. Skilled landscape architects and designers can help you incorporate attractive, beautiful edible gardens that complement your other soft and hard landscaping features.
We’re not used to thinking about it this way, but how you purchase, store, prepare, and serve your food, as well as how you clean the kitchen and dispose of food waste, impacts both water conservation and fossil fuel emissions.
Most of us know that it’s important to use water wisely because it’s a precious natural resource. But using water also impacts carbon emissions due to the large amounts of energy required to pump, treat, and heat water.
The simplest, most cost-effective step is to install low-flow fixtures in your kitchen and bathrooms. According to Sokolowsky, many water districts offer free low-flow showerheads and faucets. Also, consider installing a dual-flow toilet, gray water toilet, or compostable toilet system, like the one at 21 Acres, which uses about 95 percent less water than typical toilets.
In the kitchen, small changes during food preparation can help with water conservation. “You start to realize all the little things you do daily that make a difference,” Sokolowsky said.
For example, she said she uses a pot to catch water in the kitchen sink when rinsing vegetables, and then reuses that water to remove dirt from other vegetables before also giving them a quick rinse. This small change saves water that otherwise might have been left running. Keep in mind, the average faucet flows at 2 gallons per minute. When she’s finished, she tosses the water on her garden, which saves energy through reuse instead of sending it down the drain to a water treatment facility.
Here’s the best news about water conservation: it’s a popular misconception that washing dishes by hand is necessarily more efficient. In fact, hand washing tends to use more than three times the amount of water.
“A high efficiency dish washer uses 4-6 gallons per load, while washing dishes by hand can use up to 30 gallons of water,” Sokolowsky said, “So in this case the sustainable choice is easier and more convenient.”
At 21 Acres, human waste and wastewater is processed entirely on-site. Gray water processes through bio-digesting tanks and bio-filters, which recycles and filters water without using chemicals, disinfectants, ozone, or ultraviolet processes, before returning it to the environment.
The property design, hardscaping, and landscaping also contribute to water management, particularly by preventing rainfall from entering the storm drain system. Light colored pavers, instead of conventional paving methods like concrete or asphalt, both absorb heat and allow water to evaporate, filtrate, or drain into the Samammish River.
“It takes a lot of energy for sewer systems to process water,” Sokolowsky said. “Water is energy, when you think about it.”
This is one of those “which is better for the environment” questions. Is it better to use your old appliance until it kicks the bucket or to replace it with an energy efficient appliance?
Sokolowsky recommends that if you plan to upgrade your appliances, you should select energy efficient ones and off load your old appliances through recycling organizations rather than sending them to the landfill.
According to Sokolowsky older furnaces are about 80 percent efficient, while newer furnaces may operate at 95 percent efficient. “If you’re doing a huge remodel, you might consider swapping out your furnaces for a high efficiency model, which will use less energy and less natural gas.” And don’t forget to change your filter every three months, using re-useable filters, which will keep your furnace working efficiently and will make your air healthier.
Efforts to conserve energy at 21 Acres started with the building’s materials and envelope. Its primary material is concrete and insulated concrete form walls, which contain 90 percent recycled expanded polystyrene insulation, and allow for thermal mass, which offers optimal solar gain in winter and summer. Passive design means that 21 Acres has no mechanical cooling, which is a true feat for a building its size. Heat is drawn from the earth using ground source heat pumps and radiant flooring, which is the most efficient heat source in terms of energy input and output.
21 Acres also implements a sophisticated energy monitoring system, but a homeowner can do something similar by purchasing a programmable thermostat or one you can control remotely. On the roof, there are both solar panels that offset 15 percent of the building’s electrical consumption and a living roof that reduces heat island effect, absorbs carbon dioxide, and works as a filtration system for rainwater, which ultimately helps to recharge groundwater and prevent the energy draw of water treatment. Living roofs also preserve roof membranes by protecting them from sunlight and lowering the surface temperature. Not to mention, living roofs are attractive and offer a home to plants, animals, birds, and insects.
Choosing sustainable alternatives for heating, cooling, and air quality can lead to healthier, more affordable outcomes.
If anything, the climate change crisis has revealed how connected we all are, to each other and to the environment. Our food, water, and energy systems amplify the impact of small, everyday, individual actions.
When planning your home and remodel, it may be easy to feel paralyzed with indecision. But by making use of local experts, including the staff at the 21 Acres “living laboratory,” you can more easily identify the small changes that make a big difference, as well as the more substantial upgrades with promising pay offs, both for you and for the environment.