Green your life at home, work & play

Passive Homes April 26, 2012

What is a passive home, and what does it have to do with environmental sustainability? A passive home or passivaus in German, is a house (any building can be passive with the correct planning) that is specifically made to be highly energy efficient, have a dramatically reduced carbon footprint, and a requirement of little to no extra energy for heating or cooling.

This idea began in the 90’s in Germany and quickly became more than just an idea. Two years after the two pioneers, Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, had the first conversation about this idea, they had already built a set of four row houses in Darmstadt, Germany with the help of Bott, Ridder and Westermeyer architectural firm. This first set of row houses surpassed any expectation at the time, with energy costs being 80% less than standard houses built the same year. This is also when the Passive House Institute was created, which has helped spread the concept.

Instead of relying on the energy grid for power, a passive house uses the sources of energy surrounding it, such as sunlight, body heat, wind-power, ground heat (geo-thermal) and even the energy released in everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning and using appliances to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. The defining equipment in any passive home is the mechanical ventilation system. Since these homes have to be airtight, they need to be able to let in fresh air for occupants and release old air containing noxious gases and CO2.

The building envelope in these structures is truly remarkable; the walls are filled with extra thick insulation to minimize any chance of thermal bridging (heat loss). The windows are infra-red reflecting, vacuum sealed, triple glazed, triple pained and finally pumped full of the noble (colorless) gas, argon. This gas is heavier than air and acts as a better insulation against heat from solar radiation. The awnings on these homes are built to take advantage of the lower sunlight in the winter, and the higher sunlight in the summer. In some cases, the homes are so energy efficient that they sell extra energy from solar panels to the city or county energy grid; in fact, they get paid to do this. One builder in Germany, Rolf Disch, has built a set of homes that earn, on average, $5,075 per year. Typical homes in this area of Germany spend $4,500 and up on energy. Such a saving can really make an impact on a homeowner’s annual income and yearly spending. The positive aspect of saving money is enough for most people but for the more environmental conscious, the reduction in their carbon footprint is almost indomitable.

In 2010, there were over 25,000 certified passive homes in Europe , but only 13 of these homes in the US. The vast majority of passive houses have been built in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia. However, in the last two years, the amount of passive homes in the US has nearly quadrupled, due to higher energy costs and the stimulus packages that have been made available for “green building” through the Obama administration. The International Passive House Institute also provides additional information, as the US branch of Passive House. We hope this trend continues, as the homes are more energy efficiency that Energy Star and LEED certified homes – though these, too, are a great step in the right direction.


Too Dry or Too Wet? January 13, 2012

Depending on the difference between the humidity of the outside and inside air, your house can either be too dry or too wet. In the winter time, outside cold air is drier than that in your house, which causes the air in your house to dry out. If your home is too dry, a humidifier can help, though you may need to weatherize your home to better seal it from outside air. However, most often a too wet home causes the most problems, such as mold and mildew growth, infestation by dust mites, cockroaches and bacteria, and structural damage. There are many causes of excess moisture, including leaky plumbing, a wet attic or basement, humidifiers, gutters, downspouts and drains, and of course flooding and sewer backups. Anything made out of wood, paper or cardboard in damp areas can also create mold growth, which can cause asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.  Maintaining appropriate moisture levels in your home is important to keep it healthy and green:

  • Find and fix all plumbing leaks (even small leaks can lead to mold growth)
  • Install and use exhaust fans in kitchen and bathrooms (especially when cooking or after showering)
  • Change the water in your humidifier once a day and clean weekly
  • Open windows or use fans to increase air circulation
  • Direct water away from your home’s foundation with landscaping and correctly situated downspouts
  • Repair all cracks and holes in walls
  • Keep gutters clear to prevent water buildup
  • Ensure that dryers have external exhaust fans

Just a quick walk around your home can save you thousands of dollars in repairs if you catch the problems early. For more tips on how to identify and fix moisture problems in your home, check out this article from Oregon State University.


Moving Towards Zero Waste November 7, 2011

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This mantra has been publicized tirelessly in recent years, emblazoned on hemp tote bags, organic cotton t-shirts, and reusable water bottles. While it has been moderately successful in raising public awareness about the waste stream, this slogan mainly targets consumers, and most of those consumers are just recycling. In reality, the man-made waste stream is a much larger issue. Consider the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Bigger than the Great Wall of China, the Fresh Kills Landfill was the largest man-made object on Earth and could be seen from space with the naked eye until reclamation began in 2009. Humans are the only existing species that produce non-biodegradable waste. More importantly, this waste is not only created at the consumer, end-of-product-life level. Raw material extraction, product and packaging design, manufacturing practices, sales and distribution, and government policy are all contributing factors.

This is where the concept of zero waste comes in. Zero waste practices seek to tackle our “throw away” attitude by emphasizing resource conservation, reduction in pollution, increased economic opportunity, and quality over quantity. Mimicking nature, zero waste initiatives promote a cyclical manner of resource use over a linear approach. Zero waste perspectives perceive waste as a resource going in the wrong direction. Many discarded materials or resources often viewed as “waste” can be used to make new products, effectively cutting infrastructure costs, creating new jobs and revenue opportunities, and encouraging innovation. Rather than targeting only consumers, zero waste efforts employ system wide principles, optimizing resource use and keeping producers, consumers, and policy makers accountable. The overall goal? To eliminate waste as much as possible. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of zero waste fundamentals and their existing counterparts:

  • Raw Material Supply: emphasize recycled material use, sustainable harvesting and non-toxic materials over exhaustion of virgin resources and piecemeal toxic material management
  • Product and Packaging Design: encourage waste minimization, durability, repairability, recyclability, and longer product lifespans over manufactured obsolescence in the interest of maximized sales
  • Manufacturing: reform operations to abate emissions, minimize resource use and account for end-of-life product management instead of skirting compliance costs
  • Sales and Distribution: instill an active sense of environmental responsibility in wholesalers and retailers and support regional distribution and sales rather than large-scale, mass distribution
  • Government Policy: promote and incentivize conservation industries, maintain accountability at the producer stage, and institutionalize efficient strategies to control environmental, economic and social impacts in place of subsidizing uneconomical virgin extraction industries and managing waste at the expense of taxpayers
  • Consumption: select products on basis of quality, price, and environmental impact and increase participation reuse/recycling programs instead of overconsumptive behaviors

Clearly, zero waste initiatives require a significant shift in societal awareness and dedication. Informing and educating the public is crucial to this process of surmounting existing barriers. In 2007, director Louis Fox, filmmaker Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios released a 20 minute documentary trying to do just that. Titled The Story of Stuff, the animated film takes a critical stance on excessive consumerism and the materials economy, explaining the impacts on environmental, economic and social health. Since its release, the documentary been translated into 15 languages and viewed in 228 different countries and territories.

Pick Up America is a more interactive, hands-on approach to raising awareness about reducing waste. In 2010, co-founders and University of Maryland alumni Davey Rogner and Jeff Chen and the rest of the PUA crew embarked on nation’s first coast-to-coast roadside litter pick up. From its starting point in Assateague Island, Maryland, PUA will span thirteen states in its journey to the San Francisco Bay area, picking up trash, coordinating volunteers, and educating communities about zero waste practices along the way. So far, the PUA team has collected 109,796 pounds of litter over 1,000 miles.

And what about implementation? Since the birth of the zero waste concept, numerous district councils and city divisions have adopted waste reduction and recycling strategies to enable a transition to a waste-free future. In 1998, the Opotiki District Council in New Zealand became the first local authority to endorse zero waste practices. Canada has also been a leader in blazing the zero waste trail, developing more sustainable methods of waste management and diversion in multiple municipalities spanning the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

To find out more about what “zero waste” really means, check out the following:


Austin Grocery Store Goes “Package-less” October 3, 2011

Picture yourself entering a major grocery store.  Look at the aisles of shelving.  On the shelves sit items in boxes, bags, jars, and cans.  The majority of product packaging is used just once before it is thrown away or hopefully recycled. According to Time, one-use packaging represents 40% of the U.S. waste stream.
Packaging Waste
In October Austin, Texas will welcome the zero-waste grocery store in.gredients.  The store will be America’s first packaging-free grocery making it a little easier for shoppers to reduce their own waste.  To play their role, shoppers will have to bring their own containers in which to take their groceries home.  The store will offer compostable containers for shoppers that forget to bring their own.  Visit in.gredients’ website for more details.

While package-free groceries are new to the U.S., a bulk food store named Unpackaged opened in London last year.  In order to sell items like dairy that require packaging, Unpackaged offers the products in returnable glass bottles.  The Unpackaged, website provides more information about their zero-packaging efforts.

Package-free groceries are setting out to show consumers that they can carry all of the products of a conventional grocery store (minus the junk food) without all the waste.


Canada: A leader in sustainability? August 5, 2011

Those tempted to think of Canada as “America’s Hat” may have to think again.  In fact, our neighbor to the north has some solid environmental credentials.

While Americans produce 1584 pounds of solid waste per capita per year, Canadians produce only 921 pounds.  Americans also use 100 gallons of water per day.  Canadians use slightly less at 87 gallons/day.

Incentives and Rebates
The Canadian government has an extensive system of rebates and incentives to encourage sustainability.  For instance, British Columbia subsidizes energy efficient vehicles, refrigerators, composters, furnaces, boilers, pumps, windows, toilets, and more. Click here  and here for more details and a list of programs.

Energy Policy
Canadians also rely on more sustainable energy sources.  Hydropower is in use across the country, comprising 58% of energy production nationwide and a full 92% of the energy in Quebec.  Hydro-Quebec, the province’s power company, also has pilot programs in wind power and methane recapture.  They even provide grants for home geothermal heat pumps.  And the price?  Quebec has some of the lowest electricity rates in North America.

Room For Improvement
The Oil Sands of Alberta – The oil reserves in Alberta may be crucial to Canada’s economy, but the product produces even more CO2 emissions than regular oil.
The Kyoto Protocol – Canada just isn’t going to make it here.  Their emissions have risen since 1990, not fallen.
Solar Power and Electric Vehicles – Cold and wet weather seriously interfere with these crucial technologies.


5th Annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit Wrap Up September 23, 2010

On September 22, 2010, The Alice Ferguson Foundation had the pleasure of hosting the 5th Annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit.  The Noral Group International, OpinionWorks, and Ruder Finn were the three notable firms giving information on action-oriented strategies to make citizens of the surrounding areas of the Potomac River aware of the ongoing trash issue while continuing to guide them in taking action.  The Noral Group had many approaches in engaging citizens on the issue of trash. The most intriguing approach was to target a person that litters and make them feel guilty about their actions. “The only thing that stands between trash and your loved one is you” is a slogan they had on one of their potential ads.  On the ad, there was a picture of an infant with trash behind him. This approach makes one guilty and guilt builds responsibility.

The keynote speaker of the event was Jeff Yeager, the Ultimate Cheapskate. Yeager has made many appearances on the NBC Today Show and there he was given the name “The Ultimate Cheapskate” due to his out of the ordinary habits and way of life of just simply saving. Mr. Yeager has run many nonprofit organizations and has written many books on how to save.  Yeager’s energy and comedy brought a lot of life into the business-oriented environment.  He gave many tips on how to save money bygoing green. These included : 1) Going green can save you money, give you a longer life, and preserve the environment.  2) Before you litter think twice. Where is it going and whom are you harming? 3) Lets keep or world healthy for all of those with us and that come after us.

And the EPA released a trash pollution diet for the Anacostia River. Here’s one last thought I’ll leave you with…

“I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security.  Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad.  Otherwise what is there to defend?”  ~Robert Redford, Yosemite National Park dedication, 1985


Interested in windows? September 7, 2010

The three purposes of a window in a temperate area are for ventilation, sunlight, and viewing.  The average cost per window for a replacement is between $300 and $700.  To replace all windows in a one-story, three-bedroom home with 10 windows can range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the cost per window.  To replace more windows in a two-story home with more windows can cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Find out how windows are rated to find out what suits you best.

Windows are rated by their U-factor and Solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC). A window’s U-factor is the rate at which it conducts non-solar heat flow, or how well a window prevents heat from escaping. This is measured in Btu/hr-ft2-ºF.  The lower the U-factor, the greater the insulation and more energy-efficient the window.  The SHGC is the fraction of solar radiation admitted through the window by being directly transmitted or absorbed, then released into the home as heat.  The lower the SHGC, the more efficient because of its less solar heat transmitted and greater shading ability.  A window with a high SHGC rating is collects solar heat gain during the winter effectively, and a low rating reduces cooling loads during the summer by blocking heat from the sun effectively.  The SHGC rating desired depends on the factors such as climate, orientation, and surrounding shading.

Visible Transmittance is also a measurable way to determine a good and bad window.  This measures the amount of light that comes through a window. The higher the VT, the more light is transmitted. This would be more desirable on the north side of a home for more passive solar heating, but not on the east or west sides.  Air Leakage is another rating that measures the air infiltration around a window, expressed in cfm/sq ft. The lower the air leakage, the better.

Windows are rated by the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), who also certifies and labels doors and skylights. This label provides a reliable way to determine window’s energy properties to compare products easily for your interests. Some windows are more energy efficient than other, such as double-pane, low-e and argon filled windows. Look for the Energy Star designation as a starting point, as well as the NFRC label to compare between windows. You may also qualify for a tax credit, so check first before making a purchase. Finally, use a window selection tool such as this one to determine which window is best for your geographic area and needs.


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