At the risk of sounding like a complete Grinch, I try to get out of getting a Christmas tree each year. This is not a debate I ever win, but I was able to convince Kim to try a live tree this time. By live I don’t mean that the tree was once live (instead of being plastic) but that the tree is live in a big pot in our living room right now (and will continue to stay alive after Christmas when we haul* it back outside and then bring it back inside again next December**).
I don’t think the Christmas tree industry is something to crusade against, but there are costs that go along with growing a bunch of tress, cutting them down, transporting them and then throwing them away after a few weeks. For instance, the use of pesticides damages the local environment as well as the people working on the tree farms. One benefit that can be cited is that the trees absorb carbon dioxide while they’re growing, but if you clear a forest to grow these trees you’re not gaining anything.
I also think the idea of having a live tree fits the spirit of the season better as well as fitting in better with the general idea of having a green home. If I can get a Christmas tree by going to my backyard and if can reuse that tree again for the next few years (we were warned that at some point the tree will get too big to move it) then that’s great.
* Haul is certainly the right word here. A live tree, with all of the dirt a live tree needs, is very heavy.
** Since we got the tree we’ve heard of a couple other people who have done this sort of thing as well, so it’s good to know I’m not totally alone on this.
We’ve been going to several open houses lately and I find that I’m more interested in the yard around a house than I am with what’s inside. When there’s a yard that’s covered over in concrete or a huge wood deck, I get excited about getting that house so I can rip things up to have a bit more green space. I don’t think fixing up your own land qualifies someone as a guerilla gardener (if that New York Times link doesn’t work anymore, check out the wikipedia article) but what you do with your own yard is still certainly an act of expression.
There are several fairly simple things that you can do with a yard that can be part of any green remodeling project that you do with a house. For instance, I just received a composter (provided at a discount by Alameda County) that will allow us to reduce the amount of trash we create and can be used to help fertilize plants without chemicals. You can put a barrel under your gutters to catch rain that you can use to water plants and you can also make your home more energy efficent by planting trees to block some of the sunlight that could overheat your house.
It’s also useful to think of that outside space as something other than a lawn. Instead of having a big expanse of grass, I’d like to grow something that doesn’t require tons of water and weekly mowing. If I can eat some stuff that grows there then that would be cool too (I now have seven fruit trees sitting in pots in our rental’s backyard just waiting for a more permanent backyard to be planted in).
Each of these things go a small way in making your house less reliant on water, fertilizer, food or electricty that is trucked (or piped or wired as the case may be) from far away.
Update: I recently came across a couple of other interesting pieces about lawns that are worth reading:
I just finished reading the ReGreen Residential Remodeling Guidelines. The document provides some case studies and numerous guidelines to follow when doing any work on an existing home (it’s a quick read if you just look at the case studies). I did pick up some useful information and helpful tips for any redesign we do on our eventual new home, but the most important thing I took away is that there are some things that are best left to professionals.
Many of the guidelines were simple and intuitive (like choosing low-VOC paints or selecting high-efficiency toilets) and I feel confident that I could do a reasonable job of taking care of these on my own. There were many other suggestions though (like assessing the vapor profile of new assemblies or using computer modeling to determine heating and cooling loads) that seem well outside the scope of a typical do-it-yourself type effort.
For something more complicated than painting walls in a new home, I think it makes sense to bring in a professional to help. This upfront cost can also pay for itself by improved planning and avoiding mistakes that have to be repaired later (and the quality of the work is likely going to be much higher than if I tried to include capillary breaks between all concrete and sill plates for the very first time on my own exterior foundation walls).
Not that a professional will necessarily be cheaper or hassle-free, but especially with green design issues there seem to be so many things to be aware of and experienced with that there’s no way I would want to devote the time and energy to doing this myself (even if I could reconfigure plumbing to distribute domestic hot water efficiently — which I can’t). My ego is intact though since I can create a lovely website of the redesign process when it’s finished :)
One of the first things that I’ve noticed when reading through the green home links I’ve collected is that many sustainable solutions involve trade-offs that need to be considered carefully. If something that increases the energy efficiency of your home also reduces your indoor air quality, is that something you want to use?
For instance, compact florescent bulbs are much more efficient than regular incandescent bulbs, but they contain mercury* that is released if the bulbs break (even if you never have an accident with a bulb at home the bulbs will certainly break in the landfill and there are very few recycling options for CFLs today).
There are many other examples of this type of tradeoff. Just to mention one more, bamboo flooring might be much more sustainable than traditional hardwood floors, but bamboo floors often contain formaldehyde glue that will outgas.
I came across one quote that I think summarizes things well: “green homes have three fundamental legs: energy efficiency, the conservation of resources and good indoor air quality.” There might not always be solutions that meet all three of these goals, but this does provide a good guide for helping make decisions. On the other hand, sometimes there are solutions (instead of CFLs, use LEDs instead).
* Some argue that CFLs are still better since they contain less than the amount of mercury emitted by coal-burning plants that are needed to power the less efficient incandescent bulbs, but if you’re building a house that runs on solar or wind power this argument doesn’t hold up anymore.
Over the last several years I’ve been bookmarking sites and articles that talk about building a green home or sustainable design. Now that it looks like we’ll buy a house in the not too distant future, I guess I need to go back through all this information and do something with it. I’ll post any interesting bits here, so stay tuned.