Sustainability is most commonly defined as meeting our present needs without damaging the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Or doing what we can continue to do indefinitely without negative consequences.
Governments, universities, businesses, and other large institutions have developed sustainability standards. What does it mean at home?
That question may have different answers depending on whether you plan to move or plan to stay where you are. Let’s begin with some of the broader issues.
Location, location, location
As I write this, the Carolinas are still in the early stages of recovery from Hurricane Florence. Some of those areas hadn’t yet recovered from Hurricane Matthew two years ago.
Parts of the country suffer frequent tornadoes, wildfires, or mudslides. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a safe world.
If we can’t all choose to stay away from areas prone to natural disasters, we can at least make choices to make catastrophic damage less likely. For example, don’t buy or rent a house in a flood plain. Stay away from unstable slopes.
Even a geographically stable area may not be a good place for a sustainable home. Over the last half century or so, more and more people worldwide have moved to cities. The population density of cities has certain advantages for sustainability, but too often Americans have avoided city centers.
A city neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean a “bad” neighborhood. And a suburban neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean a “safe” one. Many older urban neighborhoods were built around neighborhood shopping areas. People who live in such neighborhoods can walk to shops, restaurants, schools, and churches.
Developers haven’t provided walkable neighborhoods for decades. The automobile has proved a costly convenience. Not only can most of us not walk where we need to go, but our sprawling neighborhoods can make good public transportation prohibitively expensive. Large lots with lush, grass lawns require mowing and maintenance, which usually means gas mowers, lawn chemicals, and lots of water.
When choosing a neighborhood, consider walkability, useful public transit, and a short commute. Consider a small lawn a sustainable advantage.
Affordability of a sustainable home
If you buy a home, you must consider how much it costs to buy it and how much it costs to mortgage it. Or you might rent instead. But don’t stop there. How much does it cost to live there?
We have already glanced at the costs of commuting and lawn maintenance. Consider also how much it costs to heat and cool the house or apartment. A home that seems affordable can become prohibitively expensive if the furnace and air conditioner must work overtime.
Other affordability issues include potential health risks from mold, loose carpets and other risks of falling, or poor indoor air quality. This last point leads on to choices we make once we have decided where to live.
A sustainable home has clean air
I recently met a woman with a chronic lung condition that makes it hard for her to breathe. She says she never smoked in her life but complains that a neighbor’s cigarette smoke gets into her apartment.
Then she said she always cleans with bleach. I had to tell her that the bleach hurt her more than the second-hand smoke. If a cleaning product stinks, it’s trying to tell you it’s bad for your lungs. Chlorine bleach emits chlorine gas, a deadly poison.
Paints, varnishes, new carpeting, or new upholstery often contain volatile organic compounds. So they can also contribute to poor indoor air quality.
When bleach first became a popular household cleaning product about a hundred years ago, everyone lived in a drafty house. The drafts carried air pollutants out of the house. Modern sealed houses cost less to heat and cool, but indoor air does not circulate as much. Pollutants become trapped inside. Air pollution is now a more serious problem for indoor air than outdoor air in most places. Many choices you make affect the quality of the air in your home.
Conservation of resources
Waste not, want not. So goes a once popular saying. Except now our entire economy seems to depend on waste. If you want to live in a sustainable home, you have to be at least a little counter-cultural.
When you buy disposable products or products with a lot of packaging, you are buying trash and taking it home. Especially if you bring it home in a disposable bag.
At best, you have to take a lot of trash out to the curb every week. Our landfills are filling up. No one wants to live near one, so it’s hard to get approval to build new ones. At worst, trash winds up as litter on roadsides, and then some of it eventually makes its way into our oceans.
Several years ago, the federal government mandated phasing out incandescent light bulbs. People were up in arms about that. CFLs, the best substitute at the time didn’t provide very good light and had their own environmental problems. I hope by this time people realize that modern LED bulbs give better light and use less electricity than either incandescent bulbs or CFLs.
You can also save a bundle on electricity by controlling how much you spend on heating and air conditioning. Set the temperature as high as you can stand it in the summer and as low as you can stand it in the winter. A programmable thermostat can help.
And if you’re not using an electric device, turn it off. Sometimes, your devices continue to use electricity anyway. If it has an LED indicator light, or if it comes with a large cubic plug, you can save electricity by plugging it into a power strip and turning it on and off from there.
We also need to conserve water. Little habits like turning water off while we brush our teeth can save a lot of water and money over time. If you have a large yard, replacing a lot of grass with shrubbery can also reap big savings of money both on water and the gas you don’t use in your mower.
If you have a chance to design a new sustainable home, consider how to use “gray water.” Water from your bathtub or kitchen sink is good enough for flushing the toilet or watering the garden if your home is designed that way. It’s not common, but as long as we’re being counter-cultural . . . .
House air leaks: US EPA
Suburbia. Photo by David Shankbone. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Sources of other images unknown.