It wasn’t so long ago when a three-car garage or an intercom system over which teens could be heard buzzing their parents to ask a common question, was all the rage – even amongst “regular people.” Gone are those days (or at least gone are the days when status was largely determined by whether or not a home included such luxuries). Beginning around the time of Y2K and continuing on, trends driven by forces ranging from advancing technology – to economic necessity – to changes in social philosophy – have involved simplifying. There are oodles of ways in which less in the home-owning and home-buying club is the new more in 2012. Here are just a few:
Renovating vs. Buying New
To buy, build, or renovate… that is the question. In a struggling economy that has dramatically impacted the U.S. housing market, renovating an existing home has become the most realistic option for many. Renovating can mean reconfiguring existing space to better meet a family’s needs, adding an adjoined space to an already-existing home, or building a stand-alone dwelling near the existing home to increase functionality of land space. Not only can one of these options be more affordable and less of a hassle in most cases than buying new or building, renovating is also an eco-friendly move since otherwise-developed land can be preserved and building materials and other waste can be avoided or at least dramatically reduced.
If space isn’t an issue, renovating can also take the form of critical upgrades that help families save on heating and cooling and other costs. For example, with a little investment in some new insulation, efficiency windows and/or an upgraded HVAC system, a once-stubbornly-drafty, older home can become a cozy, heat-and-energy efficient space that quickly reimburses homeowners for their investment. Even newer homes can suffer leaks and other efficiency-related weaknesses caused by the normal wear-and-tear brought on by co-conspirators Father Time and Mother Nature. Also (gasp!) there are builders out there who are more concerned with their own bottom line than with energy-efficiency, and cheap building materials are not usually the most eco-sensible. Unfortunately, new homeowners don’t often find out about some of a home’s vulnerabilities until after the title is in hand and the mortgage company is smiling. Regardless of your situation, it’s a great idea to research your home’s needs, then have fun investing in tailored, energy-efficient upgrades and watching the savings begin! You can start with enjoying tax credits for a few simple improvements like adding skylights, storm windows or insulation; or, sealing doors or roofs to limit air infiltration. A separate tax credit applies for the installation of geothermal heat-pump systems.
Energy Monitoring Systems vs. Well-intended Guesswork
By now, most homeowners have converted older thermostats to programmable ones, and newer homes typically include them by default. Thanks to continuously advancing technology, however, even programmable thermostats are being replaced by residential energy monitoring systems (EMS). Homeowners can now take conscientious self-monitoring to a new level with this available technology. EMS devices are a system of computer-aided tools that allow homeowners to monitor, control, and optimize the performance of their own electrical systems by individual appliances. The idea is that if homeowners can choose the EMS that is right for them, and are able to hone in on usage patterns in real time, raised awareness will inspire them to modify their own patterns of energy consumption. They can do so, for example, down to the time they use certain appliances. Energy-saving gurus predict that in a few short years, we’ll all have our own energy monitoring systems. For now, however, it’s up to us to be proactive in making energy-saving adjustments in the way we live.
LED Lighting vs. Incandescent or CFL Lighting
Folk singer Arlo Guthrie pared it down pretty well when he pointed out, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” He’s right. Essentially, light is luminescence in that it serves the function of helping us see better than in its absence. In the dawn of the 21st century, however, as technology continues to afford us increasing options, the topic of light becomes a bit more complex – and in some exciting ways when it comes to energy efficiency. Despite their important place in history and their inviting, warm glow, incandescent bulbs are now pretty widely accepted as the least efficient of modern lighting options. Many have already turned to using compact fluorescents (CFLs) as an energy-conserving alternative to incandescent bulbs, despite the increased price tag. In 2012, however, the lesser known LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) are already replacing CFLs as the eco-friendly and energy-efficient lighting option of choice. Using approximately one-tenth the wattage of incandescent bulbs, and burning 40 times as long at approximately 50,000 hours, why haven’t LEDs become the no-brainer of choice for common folks? Likely because of their higher price tag.
The good news is, LED prices have already begun to decline, and despite being a bit pricier than either their incandescent or CFL cousins initially, over time energy savings with LEDs compared with both alternatives are staggering. Search for “LED savings calculator” to help you decide if making the switch this year is right for you.
Smaller Floor Plans vs. Bigger Floor Plans
Alas, renovating – for a number of reasons – may not be the answer for everyone. For those who have decided to build new in 2012, increased eco-awareness and trending patterns suggest people will be building smaller homes overall. The great news about that? In addition to other benefits, smaller floor plans equate to lower final bills for labor and materials as well as lower heating and cooling bills. Over time, savings derived from building and living smaller will mean big bucks for individual families – bucks that could surely be used in ways more appealing than on monthly checks to utility companies. That said, a big question for many remains, “But how small is small?” Just as there is no cookie-cutter family, or standard package of life circumstances, there is no set of “small house blueprints” to offer up, either. The Small House Society, a voice for the Small House Movement, eloquently explains how small is relative. “[The small house] movement includes movie stars who have proudly downsized into 3000 square feet, families of five happy in an arts and crafts bungalow, multifamily housing in a variety of forms, and more extreme examples, such as people on houseboats and in trailers with just a few hundred square feet around them.” Reps go on to explain that the small house movement promotes discussion about the psychological, economic and ecological impact excessive housing can take on our lives, and the choices some are making in response. For many, the appeal of downsizing to smaller, cozier floor plans involves more readily seeing and engaging with the “others” in their lives that are most important, and without sacrificing fundamental comfort or privacy.
Net Zero vs. Net… Less than Zero
If you haven’t already, there’s a good chance you’ll be hearing the phrase “net zero” soon. Most of us live in a “net negative” way, meaning we consume more energy than we produce, resulting in a less-than-zero net effect if you’re measuring energy consumption. The deficit is supplied by electric and other utility companies, and we pay for it. In contrast, a net-zero home produces as much or more energy than it consumes. The U.S. Department of Energy defines a net-zero home as using about sixty to seventy percent less energy than a conventional home, with the balance of its energy needs supplied by renewable technologies. The most common of these for residential homeowners include: solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, bioenergy and hydropower.
Even for über-green individuals and families, it might not seem realistic to convert a home to a net-zero dwelling overnight. However, green living in a net-zero kind of way is not as out-of-reach as one might think… it just requires a little research and planning. David Peabody with GreenHaus.org encourages folks to think about a net-zero house like paying for everything up-front. In other words, the energy costs normally paid on a monthly basis for the life of house are being paid up front during the building process.
Whether you’re opening up to the idea of decreasing your overall bills or simply doing your part to become a little more eco-conscious – or both! – get inspired. Tap into some of these and other green trends. Challenge yourself to making one, energy-conserving change a month in 2012 (even if that means changing twelve light bulbs to a more energy-efficient variety). You just might be surprised how even small changes can produce big results!