Sustainability is a buzz word right now, and with very good reason.
While it relates to the global economy, society, and the environment, the best known and most quoted definition of sustainability refers to the necessity to fulfill and satisfy the needs of the present without affecting the conditions for future generations in an adverse way. Or, in other words, we need to consider the effect of any actions we take today on the future, so that future generations will be able to satisfy their needs in years, decades, and even centuries to come.
To enable sustainable development, we need to make long-term changes within our social and economic systems globally to reduce the consumption of resources to a sustainable level.
Key issues relate to:
- Production of materials, particularly those that generate toxic components and poisonous waste and/or denude the environment.
- Transportation that results in harmful carbon emissions, congestion on our roads, and health issues that are caused by smoke and polluted air.
- Energy generated by fossil fuels that have been directly linked to climate change globally.
- Water shortages resulting from growing usage combined with a limited supply of water.
Key Issues Relating to Sustainability and Our Homes
The construction industry is known to be a major culprit in terms of global carbon emissions. But we can’t simply blame builders, designers, architects, and the other professionals who work in the industry like plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers and expect them to rectify the situation. Every single person on the planet has to do their bit, although some will be able to do more than others.
The key issues we need to address in our homes relate primarily to materials, energy and water, and more specifically to elements like lighting, appliances, and products used for decorating and cleaning. Waste is another major issue, and we can all increase the sustainability of our homes by recycling as much as possible, both in terms of items we have used as well as items we need be it for a home improvement project or for decorating.
The first step is to identify and acknowledge what isn’t sustainable. For example:
- Energy, in the form of electricity and gas results in air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy is cleaner, but it has its own issues, including the fact that it creates dangerous radioactive waste. We use energy to build our homes and to run them while we live in them, and often our energy use is wasteful, which makes our homes unsustainable at least to some degree.
- Water is something we cannot live without, but the more water we use, the scarcer it will become. We have to be responsible about water usage as well as being proactive and employing strategies that will enable us to harvest clean rainwater and recycle the greywater that has been used in our washing machines, dishwashers, and our baths and showers. Additionally, when water is processed and transported these processes contribute to carbon emissions.
- Materials are vast and varied and the effect they can have on the environment is equally varied. For instance, if raw materials are not harvested in a sustainable manner this can lead to the depletion of resources. Production processes often lead to carbon emissions, particularly when they involve energy that relies on fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Materials can also affect the way different spaces within a home function, from thermal performance to durability and longevity.
So what do we do in these areas to make our homes sustainable?
Steps That Will Improve the Sustainability of Any Home
When building and renovating, the ideal is to ensure that the professionals you work with employ passive design principles and use energy-efficient materials and products.
Even if you aren’t able to immediately change the existing energy systems in your home, you can make an attempt to use less energy and do as much as you can to avoid using fossil fuels. Changing to renewable technologies like wind and solar power can make a profound difference. But even if this is not immediately possible, there are many energy-efficient products, including appliances and light bulbs, that will make an immediate difference.
Small things like changing to light-emitting diodes (LED) or compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs can make a huge difference in terms of energy efficiency, simply because they last so much longer. Appliances like washing machines, fridges, dishwashers and so on cost a lot more than light bulbs, but if you are replacing any of these be sure to choose models that meet ENERGY STAR or other certification standards.
If you are replacing building services for heating, ventilation, or cooling, work with professionals who can ensure energy efficiency is optimized. Look for a reputable firm that offers HVAC engineering services in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Toronto, or wherever you live. Also, ask them to assess the energy performance of your home to help improve sustainability and save money.
Water efficiency is another priority that can be relatively easily achieved by using water-saving fittings including low-flow showerheads and water-conserving flushing mechanisms. Also, opt for appliances that have been designed to save water.
Harvesting rainwater is remarkably simple, though you might need some help from a plumber to channel the water from the roof via downspouts to a water barrel and then direct it into the house for use flushing toilets, supplying washing machines and so on. Recycling greywater is a little more complicated because the water will need to be filtered and treated. A plumbing engineer or even an experienced plumber will be able to help.
When it comes to materials, it is essential to do what you can to reduce your consumption of materials in general, which will lead to a reduction in waste. Where possible, recycle and re-use materials, or give things away to people who can re-use or recycle what you don’t want or need.
Ultimately, the pathway to sustainability may have its challenges, but even small steps will get you there over time, and it will definitely be worth the effort.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.