Sustainability and the Meltdown

gauges on industrial control panel

   Gizmo Green is the proposition that sustainability can be achieved with nothing more than better equipment and better materials. This is an illusion under any circumstances (see Problem 4 - The Gizmo Green Focus.) But the Gizmo Green has an additional problem today: the Meltdown.

   Think about it for a minute... what do we know about better equipment and better materials? They almost always cost more money. If they were less expensive, then the inferior stuff wouldn’t even exist because nobody would buy it. So Gizmo Green’s bread-and-butter of better equipment and better materials costs more money.

   The Gizmo Green is now smashing into the Meltdown as people make hard choices about what they’re going to spend on a new or renovated building, and it’s indicative of the ways that most Americans look at sustainability. I believe that when times are hard, people choose better, more durable stuff because they can’t afford to be replacing them all the time (see The Unburdening of America.) But because, by most accounts (this story is one of many,) people are shedding Gizmo Green measures from building budgets, it’s apparent that these things are perceived as “feel-good” sustainability measures rather than measures with benefits that will pay you back.

   This perception may not always be correct, because some Gizmo Green measures have fairly short payback periods. But people act on their perceptions... and clearly, many people who are building now see Gizmo Green as something they would feel good about, but which they cannot afford if they’re building right now. In other words, they see Gizmo Green as an unnecessary luxury right now.

   Gizmo Green is a part of the true sustainability of the Original Green, but it’s only a very small part. Many Original Green measures are accomplished by rearranging stuff that you’re going to build already, and other measures actually save you money. You can rearrange windows to enhance cross-ventilation in a room, for example. Or you can build a series of outdoor rooms around a home or other building. Properly designed (I’ll blog on this later,) outdoor rooms actually become part of the living space of the home that is usable much of the year. Great outdoor rooms can be built for $20 to $25 per square foot. When they reduce the amount of conditioned space needed in the house, you’re saving tens of thousands or more from the very beginning because even if you can only use outdoor rooms 1/2 to 2/3 of the time, that space costs only 1/4 to 1/8 the cost of interior space, so outdoor rooms are a far better deal than indoor rooms.

   And that’s only the beginning. Every square foot you don’t have to condition because it’s outdoors rather than indoors saves on utilities every month. And there’s a more subtle but even bigger saving, too... if the space is well-designed enough that it entices you outdoors often, then you become acclimated to the local environment and you need less full-body conditioning once you return indoors. If you haven’t lived in a home or worked in an office with great outdoor rooms, you likely don’t believe this because you’ve never experienced it. But trust me on this one... I live in Miami Beach, and we have a delightful side garden in which we spend a lot of time. Walk by my condo, and you’ll often see the windows open because we simply don’t run the A/C all that much. We’ve become acclimated. The savings that occur when we condition ourselves first and condition our buildings second actually account for the highest savings of all, because they allow us to turn the equipment off for a lot more of the day.


~ Steve Mouzon


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