The Future of “Green” Remodeling

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with a reporter about “green” remodeling.  We concentrated on what homeowners can do today to make the most of their remodeling dollars to achieve greater energy efficiency, reduce water consumption, and create greater comfort in their homes.

Our conversation got me thinking about the mid- and longer-term future of “green” remodeling.   This article is partially  prediction and partially day-dreaming.

ON-SITE ENERGY PRODUCTION. The rapid development of new photovoltaic technology is truly exciting.  I think we’re still a few years away from it being truly practical and affordable for most residential remodeling projects.  However, there are two developments that I think will lead to practical application to existing homes:
Photovoltaic glazing and cladding material.  The roofs of existing housing stock are rarely oriented to capture optimum solar energy.  But every structure has a south facade.  When glazing and cladding materials on the south facade can capture sunlight and convert it to energy, we’ll start to see a real break-through in on-site energy production from the existing housing stock.

Solar Ivy - The Answer to Residential Energy Generation?
Solar Ivy – The Answer to Residential Energy Generation?

Innovative ideas such as Solar Ivy.  The image, above, is of “Solar Ivy” crawling across the south facade of a city brownstone.  It’s one of the truly exciting ideas I’ve read recently.  “Solar Ivy” is a grid of individual solar collectors – that appear almost like vines of ivy growing up the side of a building.  This technology is particularly appropriate to the scale of existing residences — it is added-on after the structure is complete and it has a scale that’s appropriate to existing residences.  I believe that I could even get it approved in the Historic Districts around Washington, DC where I often work.  Read more about Solar Ivy.

MICRO-REGION DISTRIBUTED ENERGY PRODUCTION. As truly renewable energy collection increases in efficiency and decreases in cost  – both wind and solar – businesses will be able to generate more energy than they use.  Since business peak usage is often the reverse of the residential peak usage times, we’ll have the potential of much finer grid optimization.  With office structures more often located close to residential communities, we’ll reduce the load on our transportation system while increasing the potential for efficient locally distributed energy production.

THE END OF THE LAWN WARS. Our suburbs – and too often our cities – have houses surrounded by lawns.  I’ve seen too many men succumb to the siren song of the perfect green lawn.  And what accompanies the green lawn is very high water usage plus the use of fertilizers and pesticides that pollute our rivers and lakes.  Higher water prices and regulatory changes designed to protect increasingly scarce potable water sources will hopefully put an end to the Lawn Wars as well as encourage pedal operated faucets, rain gardens, native plantings, and denser development.   All of these changes also reduce energy usage and our carbon footprint.  That’s the beauty of sustainable practices — you get a really big bang for your buck!

DENSER DEVELOPMENT.  Sprawl is the enemy of sustainable and green development.  I cringe when I see 5000 square foot second homes in rural settings achieve LEED or other “green” certification.  There is absolutely nothing green about a house of this sort.  It might have been built with technology that reduces huge energy and water consumption to more manageable levels but it is definitely NOT green.  Similarly, I am not outraged as some of my neighbors are when a single family home on a large lot close-in to a city is replace with 4 or 6 town-homes.  Instead I applaud the better use of our resources and the reduced load on our transportation systems.  That is not to say that I want the character of our existing close-in neighborhoods to change dramatically.  Indeed, it’s usually these close-in neighborhoods that have more modest homes on smaller lots.  And they have sidewalks and close-by shopping and services that encourage walking and discourage the use of cars and encourage a sense of community.

MODULAR REMODELING SYSTEMS. Prefab housing  is all the rage with many residential architects.  While the theory might be sound – that building in a factory reduces waste – it just doesn’t seem to save money.  I can stick-build an addition for less than I can purchase it as a prefab unit.  Plus, I get something more appropriate to the existing home.  But I do think that with rapid advances in building materials, we’ll start to see better applicability of modular systems to the existing housing stock.  For example, I think, that in the relatively near future, we’ll see spray foams that in addition to providing better insulation will improve structural integrity, stop rot, kill mold, and even form a usable interior cladding – replacing drywall.  We’ll see lighter-weight and stronger beam and other structural members that will enable us to completely open-up the interior of a building allowing for temporary walls – so that we can remodel a home as easily as we can reconfigure a commercial interior.  We’ll be able to preserve the character of the neighborhood and even historic exteriors while providing for a modular interior that costs much less to reconfigure for changing family needs..

TRANSPORTATION.  Energy-efficient and non-polluting transportation systems are critical to green building.  Our technology should already allow us to be able to walk a short distance from our door in the city or suburbs and then be transported quickly and efficiently to within blocks of our desired destination.  What’s stopping our advancement in this area – and I believe also in energy and building systems – is our entrenched industrial structures.  30 years ago I had a conversation with one of my brothers about the future of transportation.  If non-traditional transportation companies had been worrying the problem in the past 30 years we would be there now.  We need companies where innovation and problem solving are part of their DNA – companies like Apple or 3M or HP — to start working on solutions to our energy and transportation problems.  Detroit and traditional transportation companies have shown that they don’t have the answers.  We need to encourage the answers to come from elsewhere.  For one such idea, look at an Article in Metropolis by Paul Makovsky.

For additional stimulation, I also recommend another series in Metropolis for more reading about the near, mid and long-term future of technology.

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