Turn down the thermostat. Buy energy-saving appliances. Share your basement with a family of hungry (compost-producing) worms. All are good ways to make your home green(er). Some women have gone even further, and they’ve sought out the help of other women who make a living by being green: remodelers, architects, builders, electricians and suppliers who are ready and able to help women who want to turn their houses into home, green home. The experts we talked to all stressed that there are many ways to be green; it can be as dramatic as gutting your home or building from scratch, or as simple as making improvements bit by bit.
Green by design
Architect Mary Jane Heinen was spurred to action by the work of German-born economist E.F. Schumacher, who advocated human-scale technologies. A local group of admirers, including Heinen, two builders and an organic gardener, formed a discussion group, but they wanted to do more than talk. “We were intent on living out our values through our business,” Heinen said.
Thus was born Whole Builders, a woman-owned design-build cooperative that has completed hundreds of kitchen and bath remodels, expansions, additions, whole house remodels and new homes since 1979.
Heinen stressed that there’s more to “green” than meets the eye. Something might be produced in a “green” way-but come from farther away, thus consuming more resources to get here. “There are lots of variables to factor in,” Heinen said, adding with a laugh: “That’s what makes it fun, too.”
Also fun for Heinen is helping clients see that some of the “greenest” features are relatively inexpensive-like solar hot water, which requires only a couple of panels and a tank. Solar electric, by contrast, involves meeting a utility’s specifications and tying into its grid-steps that add costs. “But the beauty is that you can start with a small system and add to it over time,” she said. “You don’t have to do it all at once.”
Another local architect, Sarah Nettleton, focuses on “helping people find out what green means to them.
“A lot of people are overwhelmed and confused with all of the green this and green that,” she said. “The Internet has put us in information overload-but there’s not necessarily wisdom” mixed in among all that information.
Nettleton’s emphasis on simplicity stems from her rural New England childhood. “It was the old Yankee way of doing things simply and sustainably,” she said. “Now ‘green’ has gotten stylish, but it’s how I’ve always been.
“I can’t tell you how often clients come in wanting to build their dream home-including rooms for kids who’ll be leaving home in a couple years,” Nettleton said. “In America, the prevailing value system is ‘bigger is better,’ which doesn’t always lend itself to sustainability.”
Houses on the Parade of Homes, Nettleton noted, average 3,500 to 4,000 square feet. That means starting out with more materials to build the home, and using more energy to heat and power it.
Nettleton bucks “bigger is better” in the planning stages. She helps clients consider how rooms can serve multiple purposes over the life cycle of a home. For example, a breakfast nook can become a play area for a child; when she gets older, it becomes a breakfast nook again.
When people try on a “well-sized” home for size, Nettleton said, they’re pleasantly surprised. She cited a recent local tour of 29 architecturally designed homes that provided a contrast to the gigantism of the Parade: “The experience of standing in the space makes people think, ‘Hmm, 2,000 square feet feels big enough after all-we don’t need 4,000.'”
While building a 2,000-square-foot home sounds less expensive than building one that’s twice the size, there’s still the perception that “going green” is a luxury most people can’t afford. “I get asked all the time, ‘Is green expensive?'” Nettleton said. In response, she points to the “bigger picture”-how much does a home cost over time.
“A lot of ‘normal construction’ is poor quality-it has granite countertops, but low-quality windows and not much insulation,” she said. “Let’s readjust our binoculars and look at a different time horizon. After all,” she noted, “the root word of ‘thrifty’ is to ‘thrive.'”
When you think of a green home, a 1940s rambler isn’t likely what comes to mind. But the Minnetonka home of Vivian Lytle and her family is just about as green as you can get. They live in the Live Green, Live Smart Institute’s Sustainable House, a remodeled former rambler in Minnetonka that’s as deep green as a home can get-and it only took about a year and seven teams of 248 workers.
The Sustainable House snagged the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest certification score: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum. It was the first remodeled residence to do so, and as far as Lytle knows, remains the only one (most LEED Platinum buildings are new construction). The Sustainable House is also the world’s highest-rated home for the Energy Star and Minnesota GreenStar programs.
Getting to that point took plenty of work. The Lytles looked at many houses, using some of the same criteria most homebuyers use-proximity to school, work, health care, bus stops, bike paths-and others most of us might not think much about, for example, “the home sits up high, so I knew it would have good water drainage.”
Then, they gutted it.
“We took it all the way down to the frame,” Lytle said, installing new flooring and cabinets, triple-paned windows, double-flush toilets, and Energy Star appliances. Water from the sink and shower is captured, cleaned and recycled. They used very little carpeting, and non-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds like benzene and toluene) paint.
Wood was locally sourced; kitchen counters were salvaged from the torn-down rambler. Doorknobs came from the Re-Use Center, and the furniture (from California) is made from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC is a global organization that inspects areas where commercial wood is grown and certifies plantations or forests that meet its specifications.
Even mattress buying became a research project, with the goal of maximizing comfort while minimizing foam and additives. The result is not just a home that reduces one family’s carbon footprint-it’s a home that’s used to educate others about the changes they can make in their own homes. “We believe education is a key factor if you want change,” said Lytle, an educator by training and profession. Taking more modest steps to reduce energy consumption would have been helpful, but wouldn’t have inspired or challenged others. “There has been an unbelievable reaction [to the home],” she said. “It makes people think, ‘I can do that.'”
Now, all kinds of folks traipse through the Sustainable Home-students, real estate professionals, politicians, community groups. They do so not just to admire the beauty of a green home, but also to get ideas about improvements they can make to their own homes. Lytle stresses that there are many ways to be green. Individual budgets and priorities, of course, vary. As an example, Lytle said, “An 80-year-old gentleman called wanting to know the one thing he could do” to his house to make a real difference. He was thinking windows; Lytle talked with him about how to choose the right ones.
So where do you go to buy sustainable products to help you green your home? One local retailer is Natural Built Home in south Minneapolis, owned by Rachel Maloney. Maloney said she’s “always [been] passionate about the environment,” way back to the days when, as a child, she talked her parents into recycling.
She was stuck in freeway traffic one day when it hit her: the particular way in which she would change the world, one recycled kitchen countertop and double-flush toilet at a time. Though she had scant retail experience, Maloney decided to open the store she named Natural Built Home, which caters to both design/build professionals and homeowners.
“Working at REI was my only retail experience,” she said, “so it was a steep learning curve, figuring out what to sell and how to sell it.” Maloney’s current inventory includes recycled glass tiles; plywood made from sunflowers; recycled copper sinks; cork and bamboo flooring; “wood from the hood”-harvested from Minneapolis trees downed for carrying Dutch Elm disease-and more.
“Going green doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of green,” Maloney stressed. For example, she stocks a simple faucet aerator, which can significantly reduce water usage, for under $5. “And there’s no reason to buy toxic paints” given the affordable alternatives, she added.
Were there times she thought she was nuts for taking this plunge?
“There are still times I think that,” Maloney said with a laugh. She gave up a good job with a medical supply company to be a green-preneur. “This truly was started from scratch. But I love it, and I’m having a great time.”
Sometimes, no matter how much you learn about sustainable homes, it’s still hard to get your arms around the best decisions to make for your own. Sarah Nettleton summed up her philosophy: greening your home, she said, “about respecting the ‘we’ in making choices about the ‘me.'”
Green dream home
Mary Spear is building her green dream home on a bluff overlooking the Minnesota River near St. Peter. The 2,100-square-foot home will be sited at just the right angle to take full advantage of the sun. Rather than hardwood or carpet, it will have concrete floors to absorb and radiate heat in winter, and will be insulated “over and above” the usual standard. Awnings will shield the home from the high summer sun, cutting AC use. Most of the former cropland will become native grass prairie, requiring minimal watering and upkeep.
“Initially it was more out of passion; then it started getting more practical,” Spear said with a laugh. Last year, she attended Gustavus Adolphus’ annual Nobel Conference; the theme was global warming and the energy crisis “It was an absolute wake-up call about where we are, with not much time to correct it-if we still can.”
If that sounds dire, Spear also found hope in the conference’s message. Beyond laying out the problem, Spear said, “It gave me a sense that each individual can do something-and do it now, not later.” Her husband was on board. “We started plotting and scheming about what we could do [in building a green home],” Spear said.
She had Sarah Nettleton’s name in the back of her mind; she’d enjoyed the architect’s book (“The Simple Home: The Luxury of Enough”), and read about a St. Louis Park house Nettleton designed with green elements.
One of the reasons Spear opted to use an architect was to make the design “timeless,” she said. “It won’t become dated and have to be remodeled,” she said. “That’s something that might not come to mind when people think of making a home green, but it’s very important.”
Making her green home has been an educational experience for Spear, and not without frustration-chiefly around the windmill. She really wanted one, but found that the land wasn’t zoned for structures over 35 feet tall. Still, she didn’t want to give up without a reason she could understand.
“I’m trying to figure out why that is,” Spear said. “Is it out of concern for birds?”
Even before the height restriction arose, the local electric company made things tough. “They didn’t want us to use two meters-one for the windmill and one for the house,” Spear said. Some utilities will put meters on both the house and windmill, and then compare how much power your house used and how much the windmill produced. If you produce more than you use, they pay you.
“But this company wouldn’t put a meter on a windmill, so we’d have to run a wire from the windmill to the house and back again, which would be expensive,” Spear said. “There are so many hoops to jump through. It’s amazing how it can be made so difficult to do good.”
With her windmill dream seemingly off the table, Spear said, “We’ll probably wind up using solar thermal energy-and maybe down the road, we’ll add solar electric. You have to learn as you go, but it seems like things are falling into place now,” she said. They hope to break ground at the end of October.