By Timothy A. Warren, PE, LEED AP BD+C

When is the last time someone told you to think small instead of big?

I can think of no recent examples. I usually go with conventional wisdom. For example, at some point in our lives, most of us have dreamed of having the big house full of amenities….visions of large spaces and storage with ample room for growth. However, the era of the Big House on the Hill is fading and becoming passé. With the cost of building materials and utilities ever on the rise, the smaller, sustainable home is quickly becoming the new trend.

I designed and built my home before the green building movement became so prevalent. Instead of dreaming of that big addition or finishing my basement, I now dream of designing a more modest, highly-sustainable home. Unfortunately, I think it may be just a dream as my wife cringes at the thought of packing up our belongings and going through that process again. I cringe at the thought, too, since the little seedlings I planted the first year have since grown into specimens that finally resemble trees. If you find yourself in a similar situation, but are committed to reducing your home’s carbon footprint, rest assured there are things you can do.

There are many magazines, television shows, books, and websites that suggest ideas for improving the efficiency of your home and reducing consumption of our natural resources. One of my favorites is Natural Home magazine. It offers common sense information on sustainable strategies and product data that range from “green” cleaning agents to solar photovoltaic panels. Every little bit helps. You don’t have to go all out and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wind turbine or geothermal HVAC system to make an impact. Start by thinking small. A number of small things can provide a big effect.

Here are some of my favorite examples of the small things you can do to improve your home’s indoor environment and water and energy efficiency.

Indoor Air Quality

  • Install a whole house fan to “purge” your home at night when outdoor air temperatures are cooler
  • Replace old carpeting with renewable wood finishes and washable area rugs.
  • Use low or no-VOC paints and stains
  • Make sure all exhaust and vents terminate outside and away from windows, doors, and intakes
  • Change your HVAC system air filter every month (provides energy savings as well)
  • Install a fresh air heat exchanger

Water Efficiency

  • Install rain barrels to collect rainwater from your downspouts. Use it to water your gardens or flowers
  • Install Energy Star appliances. Front-loaded washers use less water. Hang a clothes line in lieu of using the dryer
  • Install dual flush toilets that use a half flush for liquid waste and a full flush for solid waste
  • Use low-flow showerheads and faucets or faucets with automatic sensors
  • Keep a 5-gallon bucket in your bathroom to catch the water while you wait for it to warm up. Use it to water plants or flush the toilet

Energy Efficiency

  • Replace weather-stripping on exterior doors and windows and seal walls, ceilings, and floors
  • Replace old windows with Low E, insulated types
  • Insulate your hot water tank and supply piping or install an on-demand, tankless electric water heater
  • Increase your attic insulation thickness to provide a R-value of 38 (approximately 12” thick fiberglass batt or equivalent
  • Install solar blinds on south and west-facing windows to reflect summer light and solar transmittance or plant deciduous trees
  • Install a programmable thermostat for your HVAC system….and USE IT!
  • Replace ALL of your incandescent bulbs with CFLs and LEDs
  • Use power strips to turn off appliances when not in use to eliminate phantom power use
  • Install lighting dimmer switches or switches with motion detectors that will automatically turn lights off when the room is not being used
  • Install tubular skylights to reduce lighting power during the day

Not all of the above items are applicable to every home. Pick those that make sense for you. Not everyone is going to go out and buy new appliances; however, when an appliance such as your washer fails, remember to look at the front loader types as replacements. Or when your kid, dog, or cat has finally worn out that carpet, consider a hard surface as a replacement that will not harbor contaminants. Bottom line, you only have to think small to make a big impact.


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