So Why Build an Eco-friendly “Green” Home Anyway?
In the summer my wife and I teach a class together, called Excel 2, which is one small component of a larger, overall Excel Program (my wife is a high school Social Studies teacher).
Typically, Excel students come from first-generation immigrant families. They are college-bound students who have exhibited great potential, but who are in need of some encouragement, particularly in regards to taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses (huffington post). For most of our students, they will be the first ones in their family to attend college, so it is understandably an intimidating prospect in any number of ways.
The course itself is three weeks in the summer session, its focus on developing reading and writing skills by utilizing non-fiction reading assignments. We emphasize the importance of correct spelling, proper grammar usage, and attention to detail by requiring multiple revisions to several thesis paragraphs, which are themselves based mostly on college-level reading assignments.
You can imagine how well this goes over with incoming high school sophomores and juniors — especially in summer. We’ve tried to overcome this dilemma (how to motivate young high school students to tackle a course based on rigor when many of their friends are out enjoying summer break) by delving into topics they are intimately familiar with, but hopefully in ways they have not yet confronted.
As a whole, 50% of the students attending Palatine High School qualify for free and reduced lunch. Not surprisingly, then, the Excel students face some unique, if not daunting challenges, both in and out of the classroom. In addition to the normal stresses associated with being a teenager, many of them deal with balancing school work with long work hours at low-paying jobs (helping their families make ends meet), social pressures to stray down the wrong path (in any number of ways), and even (most heart-breaking of all) confronting what researchers term being food insecure — in plain English, not always knowing when or where they will get their next meal.
We present the class to the students as an opportunity to test themselves, to really see where they are, currently, in terms of a whole host of skills. The main goal of the Excel 2 program, therefore, is to really challenge their abilities, not just in terms of reading and writing skills, but also soft skills such as interpersonal communication, the importance of body language, time management, and self-discipline.
Essentially, we try to give them a college-level course experience, hoping it better prepares them for the eventual reality. In other words, we’d rather they struggle in high school with us than have it happen when away from home for the first time, off on their own, at college (atlantic) (newsweek) (washington post).
Here’s an example of our ever-changing syllabus: Excel 2 – 2015
As you can see from the reading assignments, we encourage our students to start asking questions about everyday things they may be taking for granted. We hope this sharpens critical thinking skills, but we also hope it encourages them to be more active participants in their lives, rather than just sleepwalking through their days as passive consumers.
Consequently, when it came time for us to find a new place to live, we saw it as a good opportunity to practice what we preach:
- What exactly do you want from a new house?
- If you’re going to buy a house (and you’re lucky enough to even contemplate doing so), what should it look like? A condo? A townhouse? Or a single-family residence?
- In which neighborhood are you going to buy?
- How many square feet do you want (or need)? How many bedrooms? Do you want (or need) a formal living room or dining room? Do you want (or need) a basement?
- What architectural style appeals to you?
- How are you going to furnish the interior?
- Should you care about indoor air quality (IAQ)? And if you do, how do you protect it or improve it?
- What do you want in your walls and attic for insulation? How much do you need?
- How much will utilities cost? Are there cost-effective ways to reduce those costs?
- Are renewables — solar, wind, or geothermal — worth considering? How long is the payback period?
- Do you want your house to be environmentally friendly — and what does that mean anyway?
Instead of moving into the typical, leaky, not very environmentally friendly suburban condo, townhome, or house (we were leaving behind the latter), we thought it would be more interesting to see just how “green” we could make our next house.
Because we wanted a yard to do plenty of landscaping and gardening, we narrowed the choices down to a single-family house. And, instead of tackling the challenges that come with a retrofit, we decided to try building new.
Much like hearing Jonathan Ive talk about an Apple keyboard, we appreciated the detail required to meet the certified Passive House standard. At the time (summer 2014), this seemed like the way to go.
After the experience we had with our original builder (2015), and then subsequently trying to learn as much as possible about the Passive House standard, in addition to discovering the Pretty Good House concept along the way, our house plans have evolved into a kind of 3-headed hybrid: Passive House science + Pretty Good House + Net Zero (Zero Net Energy: ZNE).
The goal of all three: dramatically reduce the energy consumption of our house as much as possible (especially our dependence on the energy grid). We also want to do a significant amount of planting and growing in our yard, mostly xeric plants that require little additional watering, in order to combine house and yard into an eco-friendly system of sorts.
Our last home (approx. 2800 sq. ft.) was a fairly typical suburban tract house. It had builder-grade windows and doors (most of which had to be replaced after just a few years), very little insulation in the walls (the switch for the back porch light would actually ice up when temperatures fell below 20° F), and it had a great deal of under-utilized space (e.g. a two-story foyer, a formal living room and dining room, and a fourth bedroom, all of which saw little use).
With our new home (just over 1500 sq. ft. of living space), we’re trying to turn all of this on its head so we end up with something we really want and will enjoy. To paraphrase Kevin McCloud: ‘maybe it’s better to have a little bit of something special than a lot of something mediocre’.
An oft-quoted statistic (1) suggests a significant amount of our greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to our structures (typically the figure is in the 40-50% range) — including residential, commercial, industrial, and governmental — so maybe change really does begin at home (SA) (greenbelt movement).
(1) According to a recent Fine Homebuilding article, “Better Than Average”, by Brian Pontolilo: “It’s not clear how much our homes contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions and to climate change. The most recent data available from the Department of Energy is from 2009-2010. Outdated as it is, this data indicates that residential buildings contribute around 20% of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. This includes fossil fuels used on-site (e.g. natural gas for cooking and heating) as well as electricity.” (September, 2016 issue, p. 64)
The title of this blog entry was lifted from a lyric in this Talking Heads song: