This page is about the issues that we are tackling in our attempt to make this home a truly sustainable building, and to fulfill the criteria of the Living Building Challenge.
So what are we dealing with here?
A truly sustainable building really means one that costs the planet nothing, absolutely nothing, during its construction, during its use, and during its removal. Given that we are building buildings to last for hundreds of years, that last one is not a significant issue for us. Its the first two that are important.
Starting with construction, what does this mean? It means:
- To use materials whose production causes no environmental pollution and uses no more energy than can be gathered from sustainable sources during the life cycle of that material and the land area originally occupied by that material.
- To use processes that cause no pollution.
- To produce no waste that isnt biodegradable.
Looking at use of the building, what does it mean? It means designing the building so that:
- It uses no more energy than can be gathered from renewable sources from the earth area it and its associated land occupies.
- It uses no more water than can be gathered from rainfall landing on its plot area, and discharges no contaminated water, and no water outside of its plot area.
- It produces no environmental pollution as a result its natural degradation, and wear and tear.
So how do we go about doing this with a renovation of a New York townhouse?
Firstly, we have an existing structure, some of which is compatible with the needs of the finished building, and some of which is not. That means we have to find a way to remove the things we dont want, without putting them all in a hole in the ground. What does this mean?
- We have to remove hazardous materials and process them to eliminate the hazard so that nobody in the future has to come along and do it for us.
- We have to remove and arrange for recycling all materials and items that can be reused in their current form.
- We have to remove and arrange for processing all items that cannot be used in their current form.
Secondly, we have a tall thin building that has a very small ground area in relationship to its habitable space. This means that we have to gather all our energy and water demands and process all our waste within the confines of the building. Click on the Water, Energy, and Waste links below to follow up on these in more detail.
Thirdly, we have to use materials in our reconstruction, that come from sustainable sources, cause no pollution in their production and use, and consume no more power than can be provided from sustainable sources. For more information on this, click on the Materials link below.
As stated above, we want to use no more energy than can be gathered from renewable sources, from the earth area that we occupy.
There are two parts to this issue: reducing our demand for energy, and gathering the energy we demand.
Taking the first part, what can we do?
- Insulate our building, so that we do not heat up in the summer, nor cool down in the winter. It is now possible, with a range of insulating materials, and the latest high efficiency windows and doors, to make our house a total heat trap in the winter, and dramatically reduce the need for cooling in the summer.
- Use high efficiency appliances, and design our use of those appliances to also dramatically reduce their demand for power.
- Install control systems and lighting systems so that our total demand for power tumbles to 30% of the hitherto level of demand.
Taking the second part, what might our options be?
- Solar – energy landing on us from the sun
- Wind – energy from air movement
- Geothermal – energy contained in the heat of the ground below us
- Biomass – burning fuel that can be generated by our land within the time it takes us to burn it.
As our building occupies nearly 90% of our land area, we cannot get our energy from item 4.
As we are in a central urban setting, with tower blocks around, we cannot get our energy from item 2.
As we are in a part of Manhattan where the bedrock is only 0.6M below us, we are not prepared to spend over $350,000 to drill a well deep enough to tap into the heat below us, so item 3 is out.
That leaves us with Father Sun. The technology of solar PV ( the process of turning sunlight into electricity) has come on in leaps and bounds, and is continuing to develop. By putting a solar canopy over the total extent of our roof, *we are able to generate enough electrical power to supply our building. In addition, the solar thermal system (turning sunlight into hot water), using Sundrum, increases the efficiency of the solar PV system, so we get a double benefit - all the hot water we need, provided by the sun, and more electricity too.
Given that we are connected to the city electricity supply, we can achieve our goal by feeding back into the grid during times of plenty, enough power to offset that which we use from it during times of dearth**. Technically, this is quite possible, even straight forward. All we need to do, is gather in the energy during times of plenty. Easy really!
* We will also have solar PV awnings over the south facing windows. These will both generate electricity, and screen out the direct summer sunshine that would otherwise increase our need for air conditioning in the summer. And... we are working on the external surface of the south facing rear wall will have a solar PV finish that will also generate electricity.
** During the life of this project the technology for battery storage has improved dramatically. We may decide to go for storing our excess production, to use later. Wait and see.
In order for humans to live sustainably on this planet, our buildings need to:
- use no more water than can be gathered from rainfall landing on the plot area
- discharge no contaminated water
- discharge no water outside of the plot area
In the case of urban housing, the 'plot areas' can be combined into a locality, but the same standards must apply to the locality
Unlike with the issue of power, we are dealing here with life, and living organisms, the survival of many of which conflicts with our own survival. But lets take it one step at a time:
We must collect all the water that lands on our properties, ensuring that none of it runs off into storm water drains, and store it for use. This raises a question: How long a drought period do we plan to store enough to supply all our needs?
Beside drinking and cooking, water is used for washing (ourselves, our clothes, and a few other things too), and for moving things about ( like those things we produce in the bathroom). Including drinking and cooking, in fact, including the whole of life on this planet, water is a carrier. Things are added to it and dissolve (or are suspended in it), they get moved to somewhere, and are taken out of it. Very few of those things react with the water and change it.
When we wash our clothes, we use the water to accept the particles and chemicals on the clothes that we dont want to be there, and the water carries them away. When we flush the toilet, we are essentially doing the same thing. The natural cycle of things, is that when one part of the system deposits its waste, that waste becomes the food of another part. When we discharge our waste, the sewage treatment plant uses organisms for whom our waste is their food. It also passes the water thru filtration, that simply allows the water thru, and stops anything that is bigger than water molecules. Most of us do not think about this circular process when washing our clothes, taking a shower, or using the toilet. For all of human history, we have not needed to think of it, because the amount and type of waste we produced was quite within natures capability of recycling. People collected water in reservoirs, used it, and flushed it away.
Now, we need to think about our usage of water as part of a circle, and we need to take responsibility for designing circles that can cope with our water use. And just as with money, the faster it gets passed around the circle, the more a given amount can achieve.
So why not design our homes, and all our buildings, so that the water they use is constantly recycled within? We dont need great reservoirs, that cause unaccounted damage to eco-systems, we dont risk polluting our rivers, we have no conflict with our neighbors need for water, and we can use our water without fear of running out.
This is our goal.
So what does this mean really?
It means we have to include in our buildings or our localities, space for the filtration and sanitization of our water. It means we have to have safety systems to ensure the water that comes back for re-use is safe to do so. It means we have to design pipework and associated systems to collect, store, process, test, store, and feed back into the loop. Is this difficult? No. Is it new? No. (putting it a different way, Has it been done many times before? Yes.) Does it have a major fear factor? YES!
And for us at Viridian Future, altho we cannot do as I would wish, we can at least push the boundary as far as we can in this situation.
In our case, we are maximizing the use of collected rainwater within what is allowed by the local regulations, and making provision for more extensive use, once the regulations catch up with reality.
This means we collect all the rain landing on our roof, we process it to drinkable quality and use it for flushing toilets, laundry, and irrigation, both external and internal (the living wall). We use low flush toilets and low flow faucets, so we discharge the lowest volume of water into the sewage system as possible.
Given that we are in a dense urban setting, it is not realistic to try processing our black water on site. We can only lobby to get the local authority to deal with it sustainably. The only other alternative is to refrain from adding water to our waste. This is a subject for another discussion.
For our home to have no destructive impact on our environment, we certainly cannot have any materials present that:
- have caused harm in their production
- cause harm during their use
- cause harm during as a result of their degradation
- cannot be recycled.
That is a high standard!
It immediately cuts out one of the most ubiquitous materials in common usage – PVC. It also excludes paints and other finishing materials from most common manufacturers. It sets limits on our source of timber, it has to be local, and it has to be sustainably managed, and it cannot be treated with chemicals that have any of the above effects, and any finishes we apply to it must be compatible with recycling when someone comes along and wants to refurbish our home. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to set out the parameters that will guide our choices. We will allow ourselves one get-out; manufactured products that include small amounts of non-compliant materials, for which there is no alternative currently available, so long as we advocate for their replacement with compliant materials.
Again, the question is, can we meet this standard? And can we meet this standard, consistently with our equal goal of making this home one of high standard of design, comfort, and luxury?
In nature, there is no such thing as waste. One creature leaves behind or expels what it doesnt want, and another creature or organism comes along and eats it. Even the carbon dioxide that is breathed out by animals is used by plants as their raw material. Its all a cycle.
Just as with water, we now need to take responsibility for designing the cycle, using systems that nature has already developed, to move that which we dont need, to become that which something else wants. And this isnt some romantic fuzzy idea relevant only to hippy types who wear flowers on their shirts. Nature surely will recycle our waste, it just might not do it in a way or to a time scale that sustains our existence.
Most of us are already separating out glass, metal, and paper from the other things, but until we have developed systems for separating all of the components of our waste at some centralized center, we need to separate them at the point of production. If we pour a pot of pepper corns into a pot of salt, it is much more difficult to separate them later. If we have plastic bags and food wrappers and we put them in the bin with our potato peelings, then who volunteers to separate them again? If we cannot use these items for their intended use again, then lets design systems for keeping them separate, from the moment we have finished using them.
So how can we design our homes to support us in keeping incompatible elements of our waste apart from each other?
We put ALL organic waste into the black water recycling system. That way it all produces valuable compost. Who needs expensive and environmentally damaging chemical fertilizers, when we could recycle all the nutrients our food needs from that very food.
We design into our kitchens and appropriate places in our homes, multipart containers, with the necessary compacting facility, so that we offer our city authorities refuse and sanitation departments, materials that have value for reuse and recycling.
We design into our homes, storage systems to support us in reusing items that can be reused, and holding reusable items that we cannot use or do not want, but that which could be passed on to others who do.
We design into our homes, storage systems to enable us to retain environmentally dangerous items (chemicals, electrical, electronic, and other items), until they can be collected for safe disposal.
If you have views on this or any of the subjects discussed, then please email us. We would be delighted to hear from you, and may adjust our goals accordingly. firstname.lastname@example.org