Sensible Sustainable Design
We asked an Arizona energy and building expert – John Wesley Miller of Tucson – to suggest eight sensible ideas for making an existing house more sustainable.
As an award-winning builder and solar pioneer, Miller has been a national leader in energy conservation and green building ideas. He also champions the concept of "universal accessibility" – building homes that are creatively designed to be user-friendly and comfortable for all, from babies to seniors as well as disabled people, for a few examples.
He's especially well known for developing Armory Park del Sol, a community of 94 single-family homes inside a historic area in Tucson. The new houses blend historic pueblo-style design with state-of-the-art solar energy and building techniques. The homes have photovoltaic panels and solar water heaters that are unobtrusive at street level.
Here are eight ideas he suggested to us that you might use to make your own existing home more sustainable. The aim is to leave a lighter footprint on the earth and conserve natural resources.
Not all these ideas may be practical for you, but they may take you in a new direction with your home:
1 | Install a solar water heater
A solar device of this kind can help pay for itself by cutting utility bills, plus a solar water heater can also qualify for good rebates from the federal and state government as well as from some power companies. Meanwhile, solar panels to power electricity in a home will not qualify for much in the way of rebates any more, Miller noted.
2 | Install a solar electric system as well
Despite the changing picture on rebates, Miller is still a strong advocate for adding solar electricity to existing homes as well. "Solar electric technology has improved dramatically, and the panels have become much more efficient," he said.
3 | Install Insulation
If you live in a concrete block home that needs more insulation, he suggests wrapping it with high R-value rigid insulation – poly-iso-cyanurate (sometimes called "polyiso") - on the outside. Then you can apply stucco coating over the insulation. "That way you'll be sealing the coolness into your home in summer and warmth into your home in winter," Miller said.
4 | Install dual pane windows
If you have older, single pane windows, replace them with dual panes. "Most older houses have poorly performing windows," Miller said. "They should be replaced with dual pane windows – two panels of glass with gas between the panels for maximum efficiency."
However, he noted that owners of homes that are significantly older and have a strong historic value in Arizona should not make changes that might violate the standards set by cities and counties for remodeling. "If you neglect the standards, you might lose the historic tax credit for your home. So, check with the local historical society and city or county before changing your windows," he said.
5 | Install a new roof with more insulation
If you're installing a new roof, think about installing more new insulation, Miller suggests that rigid polyisocyanurate foam be installed before the new roofing is put on because of its high R-value. This is insulation that comes with a foil vapor barrier on the back and a white foil finish on the front.
6 | Install a rainwater harvesting system
Install your own rainwater harvesting system so that you can conserve water for irrigation. First of all, have rain gutters put on your house that will run water off the roof into a tank located in your yard. Keep the water tank positioned slightly above ground level so that water can later be easily removed from the tank into a hose by using gravity.
7 | Install programmable thermostats
Use programmable thermostats to monitor your heating and cooling system. "Some people find them too complex to use, but they can do amazing things," Miller said.
8 | Be sure you maintain the "sustainability" of the culture of your neighborhood if you remodel or build a new home.
"Lots of people think of the environment and financial impact when they think about sustainability," Miller said. "But they don't think about the cultural impact new buildings can have. For example, don't build an ultra-modern home in an historic neighborhood. Try to stay in concert with your neighbors' philosophy of life."
He also urged Arizona residents to save energy by running and walking more in addition to using public transportation as much as possible.
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