Four Unexpected Green Game-Changers for Earth Day

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freaky sunset sky on Miami Beach just after a storm washed out to sea


   The best green measures are the ones almost nobody's talking about. If you're sick of hearing the same green building talk today on Earth Day, it could be because Gizmo Green is the only thing being discussed in most circles. Better equipment and better materials can never achieve sustainability for us because our consumption is increasing faster than the engineers can increase efficiency. Here are four unmentioned things that can do far more good than good engineering:


Drive Only on Special Occasions

4-story Italianate mixed-use building painted in celebratory fashion in Cincinnati, Ohio’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood

   The carbon footprint of your house isn't really meaningful until you achieve a good carbon footprint on all the things you do outside your house. Put another way, you could have a zero-energy house, but if you have to drive to work, drive to school, drive to shopping, drive to recreation, and drive to pretty much everything else as well, then you're not really achieving anything significant. So live near work to begin with, and then make sure you can walk to the grocery along paths with great walk appeal. If you can do these two things, then you can probably walk or bike to many other daily needs as well. And then what you do inside your home can be meaningfully green. Why would you want to spend a lot of money on green gizmos and then discover it's not meaningful?


Get People Outdoors

quiet dining courtyard swaddled in green in New Orleans’ French Quarter

   If you entice people outdoors into a great public realm or into a great series of garden rooms most days of the year, then the time they spend there helps condition them (whether they realize it or not) to the local environment so that when they return indoors, they may not need to turn the equipment on. If not, then they achieve a state I call "living in season," and it means that they can throw the windows open most days of the year. And when you do that, you discover that there is no piece of equipment so efficient as that which is off. There's nothing greener than being able to cut the equipment off for most of the year.


Go Drywall-Free

drywall-free design of living room wall in Eric Moser’s Coastal Living Idea House design in Habersham, South Carolina

   They call that boring white stuff we put on our walls "drywall" because so long as you keep it dry, you have a wall. But just as soon as it gets wet, it turns to messy mush. And even if it doesn't fall apart, it loves to host mold and mildew and make your family sick. This means that even if you get outdoors and want to live in season, you can't take a chance of leaving the windows open because if a summer thundershower pops up and blows rain in the window, you'll have lots of damage. We need to learn how to build durable and resilient buildings like our great-grandparents did so that the summer shower is no reason to call the insurance adjustor; you simply wipe down the walls that got wet and never give it a second thought.



Bigger isn't Better - Bigger is Worse - Smaller is Better

small cottage bathed in late evening light at the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   There should be no controversy here: if you build bigger, it simply can't be as good, but if you build better, it simply won't be as big. Spread $200,000 over 1,000 square feet and that's a $200/square foot house. Spread that same $200,000 over 2,000 square feet, and you've impoverished yourself to a $100/square foot house. But you can't just put people's lives in a vice… you must entice them by designing the smaller space so smartly that they choose it over the bigger, less intelligent design. And if they do, all sorts of good green things happen easily. To begin with, the space is a lot smaller, so it's easier to heat, cool, and light. But it's even easier because it's likely to be only one room deep in places, making daylighting and cross-ventilation no-brainers. It might even be more lovable as well. Embrace the luxury of small, and you'll be creating luxurious green as well.


   Those are my game-changers… what are yours? What are the greenest things you know that nobody's talking about?


   ~Steve Mouzon

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Legacy Comments


Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

It seems like the greenest things are the least talked-about. Here are four surprising green game-changers... stuff like building drywall-free construction. What are your unmentionables that people should be talking about?

Apr 22, 2013 7:00pm


Lloyd Alter · Contributor at Corporate Knights

they are not surprising at all...

Apr 22, 2013 7:14pm


Lloyd Alter · Contributor at Corporate Knights

Your section on drywall inspired me... http://www.treehugger.com/gre.../how-did-we-end-drywall.html

Apr 23, 2013 10:55am


Hazel Borys · Managing Principal at PlaceMakers

Love these points, Steve. However, I woke up to -5C this morning, and it's been cold for 6 months. Clearly your message morphs depending on the region. For me, it's about spending time outdoors to be able to turn the rads down a few degrees. Yesterday was the first day I ran on the sidewalks -- been running in the streets, waiting for the ice and snow to recede. 
My idea? Make sure you put the neighborhood equipment in the right place, so for however many months per year your windows can be open (5 to 6 here), that it'll be peaceful enough to open them. More on that in a piece I wrote a couple summers ago, pulling heavily from your ideas: http://www.placemakers.com/.../entice-dont-coerce-the.../.

Apr 23, 2013 11:10am


Kevin Hamak · Owner at Farmer K, LLC

I agree that the more time you spend outside the more acclimated you are to seasonal temperatures. The colder it gets the lower I keep my thermostat and vice versus in the summer. I am most uncomfortable when I go to other peoples homes and its way to warm in the winter or too cool in the summer. I have never understood how someone can be comfortable with 78 deg in the winter and 68 deg in the summer (especially here in NC when its 90-100 deg outside), let alone the wasted money and energy.

Apr 23, 2013 11:56am


Christian Wagley · Principal at Sustainable Town Concepts

I suggest that placing a building on an east-west axis is really important for energy efficiency and for the quality of light we receive indoors. I rescued my home from the wrecking ball and only had enough time to move it to a lot that runs north-south. In the winter when I want the sun I barely get any inside, and in the warmer months when I don't want it I get blitzed as it pours through windows in the morning and evening and I'm forced to use shadecloths and awnings. If my home had the right orientation I probably wouldn't even need supplemental heat here in North Florida. It would be great to see new neighborhoods with all lots oriented east-west and fully integrated into the grid. It would also make it easier to properly orient solar panels on the roof if one decides to go for a little gizmo green.

Apr 23, 2013 9:42pm


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