This fall, thousands of university freshmen will call a dorm room their new “Home Sweet Home.” For the newly minted undergrad, there are several ways to transform your new home base into a sustainable space. 

1. Buy a smart power strip.

Have you heard of “phantom loads” or “vampire power?” They refer to energy used by electronics that are plugged in, even when they’re turned off.

Smart power strips, also known as advanced power strips, help save energy by essentially shutting off the power supply to devices that aren’t in use. Check out this National Renewable Energy Laboratory infographic to learn more.

2. Clean green.

Many cleaning products are petroleum-based or contain chlorine and can negatively impact air quality, physical health and the environment.

When buying products, look for ones that are certified by a third party like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Green Seal. Also, consider making your own green cleaner.

3. Aim to buy local or used furnishings and decor.

Instead of transporting your belongings across the country, cut down your carbon footprint by purchasing gently used furnishings, decorations and appliances at thrift stores or yard sales near your campus. Sustainable Connections writes about why buying local is a great choice.

If you can't find what you're looking for at a secondhand shop, check out The Ultimate Green Store, which features eco-friendly dorm room furniture. Also, consider making your own decorations and furnishings. Babble has a great list of 25 easy DIY projects, including wall art and a rug headboard.

4. Buy reusable dishware.

Planning on eating in? Consider purchasing secondhand ceramic dishware, metal cutlery or cookware. Choosing reusable dishes and cups instead of single-use paper or plastic items helps reduce waste.

5. Replace your light bulbs.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) help save energy and have a much longer life span than traditional bulbs. Light up your future study nights by using CFLs or LEDs for your lamps.

6. Install potted plants.

Add a little green to your new digs with a plant, which is one of the easiest ways to filter out air pollutants. This Old House features several plants, including English Ivy and Snake Plants, that would make wonderful additions to any dorm room.

Looking for more green living tips while on campus? Indiana University Bloomington has a comprehensive checklist of ways students can live more sustainably. 

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This article was originally published on Houzz on May 7, 2014, as "The Passive House: What It Is and Why You Should Care," and is presented here with permission. Read the original article.

The term “passive” is getting thrown around almost as frequently as the word “green” these days. But what does it actually mean? And how does the all-encompassing adjective differ from the measurable standards of the capitalized Passive House?

I’ve mentioned before that the truth of green building is in the details. Here’s how to understand the vocabulary and the implied meanings in the world of passive design.

Photo by Hammer & Hand; original photo on Houzz.

Decoding What People Say

“This house was designed with passive solar principles” means the orientation of the house and the placement of windows have been used to gain heat through natural daylight. Perhaps shading for hot summers was also considered. These are the first and most fundamental steps toward reducing the energy consumption of a house.

“This house was designed to Passive House principles” means that the architect and builder, of their own accord, decided to pursue a set of measurable building standards that promote low-energy consumption. The term originated from Germany’s “Passivhaus.”

“This house is a certified Passive House” means that in addition to the house’s being designed and built to the Passive House standard, it has successfully undergone a certification process. Certification is managed by various entities all over the world. The original was the Passivhaus Institute in Germany, which is still widely regarded globally. It has many partner organizations throughout Europe. (For example, here in Italy, there is work being done to address Passive House standards for Mediterranean climates.)

The largest certifier in the U.S. is the Passive House Institute US, which has recently parted from the German organization to address North America separately, with regional climate-specific considerations.

So, what is the Passive House standard, anyway?

Contrary to the impression the word may give, passive homes are anything but lazy. A house designed to take advantage of the solar heat streaming through a window is actively saving energy. Taking it a step further, and into the realm of the Passive House building standard, a house can be designed to work hard in every season to maintain a comfortable and healthy indoor living environment, without consuming superfluous energy.

A home built to the Passive House standard is one that remains comfortable through all seasons without employing an active heating or cooling system.

Depending on your country and the localized standards, a project must meet maximum annual energy consumption limits to be considered. Historically, and still in Europe, this was 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter each year. The U.S. standard has since made changes to that limit in an attempt to address specific climate zones.

However, as an order of magnitude, we’re talking about 60 to 70 percent, sometimes even more, in energy savings relative to conventional buildings.

How can that be possible? Well, in a Passive House, all of the energy that would be needed to heat or cool the building is no longer needed.

Let me explain.

Photo by Wolfworks Inc.; original photo on Houzz.

We Passive House architects start out with a compact building shape. You’ll notice that most Passive Houses are essentially a box in form. We can then add visual intrigue by using unconditioned outdoor rooms and covered spaces to break up the facade. This compact box core, however, is essential and is the basis of any concept of efficiency.

In the winter, passive solar design takes as much heat as possible from the sun. This means orienting the house toward the sun’s path and making sure that the winter sun’s low angle is able to penetrate as much of the inside of the home as possible.

We add to that the heat that is created in the house just from people being there. (You’d be surprised at how much heat is generated from normal daily activities, like cooking, cleaning, using the computer and running all of the home appliances.)

We use mechanical ventilation to keep the air fresh, heating the incoming air with the exhaust air. And we use dehumidifiers to maintain healthy moisture levels and prevent mold.

In the summer, we take advantage of shading devices and the high summer sun angle. In this way, we can stop the sun from reaching windows, floors and walls, helping to keep them cool.

Then we make sure not to let heat pass through the building’s skin, by designing a sealed and insulated building envelope. 

Photo by Harding Construction & Sustainable Solutions; original photo on Houzz.

This photo shows rock-wool insulation. Unlike LEED®, the Passive House standard does not require that you use natural or recycled materials. Certification is based on energy performance alone.

Not only do the walls, slabs and roof need to be properly insulated, but so do all of the openings. High-quality windows are one of the biggest up-front expenses in a Passive House, but they contribute to a large portion of the energy savings.

We can insulate like crazy, but if we use subpar windows, all of the heat will exit through the glass. The building envelope, which is like its skin, is only as strong as its weakest point.

I often describe the building envelope as being like an inflated balloon. One hole in the balloon, and all the air will escape. It doesn’t matter how sturdy the rest of the balloon is. 

So not only do we want to have a consistently insulated building envelope, but we also want to avoid any air leakages where hot air can escape in the winter or enter in the summer.

One way the Passive House standard verifies the absence of air leakages is with the Blower Door Test, in which the entire house is closed up and air is pumped inside. A gauge, shown here, then measures the air-flow rate relative to the volume of the house.

Photo by Harding Construction & Sustainable Solutions; original photo on Houzz.

Tests like this, along with energy simulations, measure whether a home is built to the Passive House standard.

Whether or not a Passive House is valid without official certification is an ongoing discussion. Some professionals believe that certification is an added and redundant expense. Others say it adds transparency and verification to the whole process, keeping everyone accountable to goals. Some homeowners find it a necessary part of adding market value to their house. Others don’t see the point, especially if they are not intending to sell. 

Above all, it is vital that you trust your project team and understand the entire situation. The word “passive” is not trademarked, as LEED is, so make sure you understand the context in which it is being used.

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Due in part to recent television shows related to the trend, tiny homes are gaining visibility as a concept as well as traction in the marketplace. Although formal definitions don't exist, tiny homes are typically spaces of 100–500 square feet. They appeal to buyers who want to downsize, to minimize their environmental footprint or to spend more on travel or other lifestyle aspects instead of a large mortgage. 

Extra small, extra green

Tiny homes are naturally greener because of their size. They consume far fewer resources in their initial construction, and the environmental cost of living in a tiny home is correspondingly smaller—for example, the average tiny home uses only six light bulbs, whereas the average regular home uses 45, and heating and cooling consumption is a fraction of the typical load for an American home.

Environmentally sound elements of most regular-sized green homes can be built into your custom tiny home, limited only by your imagination and budget, but if you prefer a prefab home, there are models available with green features. As a recent article on TakePart shared, companies such as zeroHouse and EcoCapsule specialize in self-supporting structures that employ solar or wind power and rainwater-collection tanks.

Tiny homes with solar panels. Photo by Guillaume Dutilh @ Tiny House Giant Journey

Location matters

A challenge with going tiny is that the legal definition of such structures can be blurry. Building codes and zoning laws vary from state to state, so be sure to learn the definitions in your area for what constitutes a house or an RV and how to be in compliance with building, zoning and tax requirements. Washington, D.C., for example, recently loosened restrictions on what it terms "accessory dwelling units" on the properties of larger homes. California is currently the leader in friendliness to tiny house living, based on a recent ranking.

Cities are also looking into the feasibility of tiny homes in providing low-impact, affordable housing for all residents and combating homelessness. Fab City, a temporary green home installation in Amsterdam, focuses on moveable and energy-efficient units. In Austin, Texas, Community First has built a tiny-house village that provides a home for 250 of the city's chronically homeless.

It's possible that we're just at the beginning of a trend that, beyond its "cute" factor, has real potential for our increasingly crowded world. Tiny homes make sense ecologically, socially and financially. Maybe it's an option that could work for you.

Learn more

Freddie Mac announced yesterday their Multifamily Green Advantage program, a suite of offerings rewarding borrowers who improve their properties to save energy and water with discounted loan pricing. A major component of Green Advantage recognizes green-certified properties, such as LEED®, which makes them eligible for discounted loan pricing.

Tipping the scales for financing upgrades to multifamily housing toward sustainability, this new program from Freddie Mac has the potential to unleash large amounts of capital for green building improvements. This is very good news for green building.

Property owners who commit to reduce energy and water consumption by at least 15 percent can choose Green Up or Green Up Plus. In order to be eligible for better pricing, borrowers will need to complete a Green Assessment (a property analysis to identify energy and water savings opportunities). Properties that complete a Green Assessment are also eligible for 50–75 percent underwriting of projected energy savings.

Green Advantage builds on Freddie Mac’s already successful Green Rebate program. The Green Rebate program provides a reimbursement of up to $5,000 for new property loan borrowers who report an Energy Star Score. An Energy Star Score lets borrowers know how their multifamily property performs compared to similar properties throughout the U.S.  By tracking energy consumption, owners are able to identify and remediate energy weak points, enhancing affordability for tenants.

"Green Advantage is designed to give our industry a better way to make America's rental housing more resource-efficient," said David Leopold, vice president of multifamily affordable housing production at Freddie Mac. "One important reason why we developed Green Advantage is to give the multifamily industry a better way to help hard-working households manage their rent and utility costs."

"Freddie Mac Multifamily designed Green Advantage to help borrowers who see value in energy efficiency for their tenants, communities, businesses and the environment," said Peter Giles, vice president of multifamily production and sales at Freddie Mac. "By reducing project operating costs, Freddie Mac's Green Advantage can help borrowers increase a property's profitability, market value and appeal to tenants."

Congress established Freddie Mac in 1970 to provide liquidity, stability and affordability to the nation's residential mortgage markets by providing significant mortgage capital to lenders. Freddie Mac supports approximately one in four home borrowers and is one of the largest sources of financing for multifamily housing.

LEED buildings have been shown to have lower monthly energy and water costs, leaving more disposable income for families and creating healthier and more comfortable indoor environments for occupants. In a study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, LEED buildings were estimated to consume 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water and to have 19 percent lower maintenance costs, 27 percent higher occupant satisfaction and 34 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Learn more about Freddie Mac’s Multifamily Green Advantage

On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

  • This beginner's guide to renewable energy by Adam Kirk covers five types of renewable energy and how to determine which choices will be right for your home: solar cells, solar heating, wind power, geothermal heating and biomass heating.
  • Reynard Loki's recent article on Alternet reviews the numbers on how much waste Americans really produce: over four pounds of trash a day per person. Take a look at the overall and state-by-state details, and scroll down for tips on how to reduce your waste generation.

Graphic by Save on Energy

More tips about reducing your impact

Our modern appliances use a lot of energy, and washing machines and dryers are among the biggest culprits. But there are also plenty of ways to minimize that energy drain by using more efficient appliances, running them less often and making other lifestyle tweaks.

Install energy-efficient appliances

Getting an Energy Star washing machine can save not only energy, but water—up to 3,000 gallons a year, according to the organization. The machine design employs sensors and spray action to avoid filling the tub with water every time, regardless of load size.

Similarly, an Energy Star dryer uses sensors to shut off automatically when clothes are dry. If you use a clothes dryer, make sure you clean the lint filter after every load, and separate the heavy items, such as towels or blankets, from lighter ones to enhance the drying efficiency. You can also choose to run any dryer on a low-heat setting.

Do laundry less frequently

If you don't have an energy-efficient washer, plan your laundry days so that you can throw in enough clothes to fill the machine each time. This will prevent water waste. Plus, many clothes, such as blue jeans or sweaters, don't need to be washed as often as you may think—try switching to after every third wear.

Use the cold-water settings

Heating water for the laundry cycle just adds another layer of environmental impact to the process. Wash everything in cold water. Your clothes will get just as clean, and you will reduce energy consumption by about 90 percent.

Rethink your detergent

The phosphates present in many conventional detergents can end up in our waterways, where they affect marine ecosystems. Look for green detergents with labels that say "biodegradable" or "phosphate-free." You can also make your own detergent or fabric softener.

Line-dry your clothes

You probably already do this for some of your delicate clothes—why not for all of them? You can use drying racks indoors, or if you have yard space, string up a clothesline and let them dry in the fresh air. If you skip the dryer step altogether, you could be saving the yearly equivalent energy consumption of a refrigerator, clothes washer and dishwasher combined.


Find out your overall usage with a home energy audit

On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.


How to keep your lawn green sustainably

If you have a backyard garden, you know how great it can be to have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that you've grown yourself. But if you live in an urban environment, you may not have that much individual space. Did you know that community gardens—also known as urban farms—are popping up more and more in today's cities? 

Benefits of such a garden include providing healthy, fresh food options in low-income areas, teaching environmental stewardship to youth and creating a sense of community among neighbors as they work together to make the garden grow. In addition, gardens can help reduce the heat-island effect and rainwater runoff; attract butterflies, bees and birds to the area; and recycle organic materials through composting.

Different kinds of gardens work for different neighborhoods. You might organize plot gardens where each family is responsible for a different segment. On the other end, a cooperative or communal garden is one large space managed by all participants. Whatever kind you choose, you'll need to select a site, determine who will be involved and create a gardening work schedule. 

Encourage kids to get involved. Meeting neighbor families, working on a long-term project and learning about the intersection between cities and nature in a tangible way can be both educational and rewarding for them. It's also a great family activity!

A few youngsters enjoy the scene while helping out at a community garden in Denver. Used with permission by Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine. Photo credit: Denver Urban Gardens Staff, 2005.


Read our tips to green your home garden

This article was originally published on Houzz on May 27, 2016, as "How to Use Trees Inside," and is presented here with permission. Read the original article

Trees are nature’s perfect architecture. Besides being beautiful, they provide shade and shelter, and change with the seasons. Hanging out in treehouses in childhood was perhaps our way of getting close to these perfect living structures. Lucky for us, we can keep trees close to home even as grown-ups. It’s possible to bring trees indoors as integrated design elements, either by using existing mature trees or with new plantings. Here’s what to consider whichever way you choose.

Existing Trees

The first way of integrating trees into the design of the home is by designing new construction around existing mature trees. A licensed building architect is the professional who ultimately creates a tree-focused home design, but the architect may consult with a certified arborist, landscape architect or landscape contractor to ensure that the trees are healthy and not damaged during construction. Protecting existing trees and integrating them into the building of a new structure is a collaborative effort among the homeowner, architect, contractor and tree experts.

Photo by ANX/Aaron Neubert Architects; original photo on Houzz.

First, evaluate. Some species of trees are simply less sensitive, and more resilient to stresses and changes in their environments. One such tree is the California sycamore (Platanusracemosa), shown here as a mature specimen that has been partially enclosed by new construction. Whether or not a specific tree can be safely used this way is based on a number of factors. Trees suitable for integration into a building need to be evaluated by an expert. A certified arborist can analyze the tree’s existing health, age and current growing conditions to determine how likely the tree is to survive the construction process. An arborist will likely need to remain involved to monitor the tree’s health on a regular basis.

Utilize them for their artistic and cooling properties. Oftentimes a homeowner wants to go through the extra effort and expense to integrate an existing tree because there is something special about it. The tree could have an unusual character or form that would translate well in the home. Additionally, trees can provide substantial cost benefits. Travis Price of Travis Price Architects is experienced with integrating trees into residential buildings. He cites the value of trees for their cooling properties by saying, “Shade is the most cost-effective British thermal unit in the world.” Existing trees that are preserved and integrated into the architecture of the home can help with the summer cooling costs because the trees shade and cool the house.

Know exactly where the roots are. As with any construction near existing trees, it is important to protect the root zone from damage. A general rule of thumb considers the critical root zone as determined by the tree’s trunk diameter or by the drip line measured from the trunk to where the branches extend. However, this calculation is not precise enough when building close to an existing tree. Instead, air-spade technology can blow soil away to reveal where the major roots occur. Using that information, a precise mapping of the roots can inform the exact locations of deck and foundation pilings as well as other structures.

Protect the roots. It is critical that the roots are not damaged or disturbed during the home’s construction. Root injury resulting in tree mortality can occur when there is mechanical damage to the roots or when the soil surrounding the roots is compacted. In this photo, a platform foundation set on pilings allows for minimal site disturbance so that the tree roots are protected from harm.

Provide water. Constructing a home around existing mature trees typically results in decreased access to normal rainfall because of a new roof, foundation or other structural piece that redirects rain away from the roots of the tree. Here, the home floats above the ground on pilings, and the tree trunks are surrounded by glass with an opening to the sky. This doesn’t provide the roots underneath the platform with much access to rainfall. Instead, a timed irrigation system waters the roots under the home to ensure that adequate water reaches the trees.

New Trees 

Homes can be designed to have indoor planting areas for growing new trees inside. This essentially sets up a container condition because the soil is encapsulated by the building foundation. It can work beautifully so long as the tree receives the essentials: air, water, soil and sunlight. It’s also important to consider the tree’s growth habits, requirements and ongoing maintenance.

Provide enough soil. The challenge with planting trees inside is the limited soil volume. A tree grown inside is essentially akin to a container plant, even in the larger sizes. The weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) pictured below is a common indoor plant—and street tree in warm climates—that can live in a relatively small soil volume. This makes it an ideal indoor tree. Also, it’s evergreen and very low-maintenance.

Photo by Kuth/Ranieri Architects; original photo on Houzz.

Provide steady light. Trees will grow best when provided with bright light. The light can be indirect or diffused, but it should be consistent for the tree to grow and thrive. Consistency is important because regular bright light exposure will keep the tree from growing gangly and will produce consistent foliage. [Try] a fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) growing near a large and bright expanse of windows.

While not a tree, [a] clump of bamboo makes a pretty addition to a well-lit stairwell. The stones provide a nice finish on top of the soil.

Pick the right species. Trees that work well as long-lasting interior plants have a number of traits:

  • Interesting evergreen leaves: Pick a species that has showy or textured leaves that won’t drop all at once. The big leaves on fiddleleaf fig or Indian rubberplant (Ficus elastica) are good examples.
  • Small stature: Choose a tree that won’t outgrow its space by knowing its mature height and spread when grown in a container. For example, the weeping fig can reach massive height and spread but will have limited stature when grown in the confines of an indoor planting. Other trees that maintain a small size in a container include Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla).
  • Low maintenance: Stay away from trees that produce messy fruits, or need to be constantly fertilized or pruned. Of course, you also want to be mindful of plants that have poisonous parts and opt for nontoxic ones if you have kids or pets.

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On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.


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