Living Greener: One Step at a Time
By George Freeman
Note: This article “Living Greener: One Step at a Time” first appeared as the cover story in the February/March 2011 issue. It focuses on several Springfield-Greene County area individuals and families who are learning the realities of living greener.
Jim and Terri Evans started living greener in 1976 when they started construction on their home north of Republic. (Lest you have forgotten, our Bicentennial Year, in fact). It took two years to complete while they lived on the second floor.
Sam and Stacey Butler started in 2010 – they got married last November.
Lenny Clark, an architect with Ozarkeology, is moving in another direction, reclaiming and reusing vintage barn lumber, some with their original ax marks showing.
Steve Mirowski looks at homes and businesses in a entirely different way, through the lens of a $10,000 infrared camera looking for heat loss and hot spots.
Between them, they are learning the realities of living greener. Sam is the owner of Sustainabuilt, a fledgling construction company emphasizing greener methods. But he juggles his own home improvements – one step at a time.
Butler, a Drury graduate in art and photography, chose to follow a slightly different path than his architect father, Geoff Butler, CEO of Butler-Rosenberry Architects.
“I liked the hands-on approach,” he says, after spending time in California working in construction, managing a photo lab, and finally realizing it was time to come home.
Butler’s step-by-step list is based on personal experience gained the hard way. Paint and solvent fumes give him migraines. Low VOC pain and water-based finishes don’t, and they’re safer for growing families.
“They might cost a dollar more a gallon, if that, but the prices for many green products are coming down as their popularity increases.
Jim and Teri Evans are retired teachers. Jim studied physics, taught science, worked on computers for the school district, and read everything he could on conserving energy and living wiser. He built his own solar array in the back yard behind the south-facing rear of his home.
“If I can help people by sitting down with them and telling them they can do it a step at a time, I’d love to do it.”
Terry Whaley and his wife took a far different challenge when they faced major repairs on their second car – more than seemed reasonable to invest in the aging vehicle. They sold the car and vowed to try getting along with one.
“Our goal was to go three months,” says Whaley. “That was four years ago.”
In that time, they’ve put thousands of dollars in savings and learned to share. Each one watches their schedule carefully.
Whaley is executive director of Ozarks Greenways, so he believes he is setting a credible example for his members. He came by his idea from a book by Chris Balish of Springfield, “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.”
Whaley writes, “I was so sold on the book, I have since bought 12 copies, and have three more on order, all of which have been given to friends in hopes that they become inspired to try going ‘car-free.’”
Steve Mirowski, owner of Advantage Infrared and Mirowski Inspections, looks at every client’s home or business through a camera can sense a hand print on the wall.
But he’s just like any other homeowner in that he realizes he can always do more.
Mirowski even has his own embarrassing story:
He climbed up in his own attic to add insulation to a “cold spot” that turned up on his camera from below. But unless the insulation is fitted tightly to the ceiling or wall, “it’s got to be in contact or it’s not doing its job.”
“It’s embarrassing because I added 20 inches of insulation up there.” He still has the cold spot.
Adding weather stripping, and making sure its tight, are on Mirowski’s short list at home.
He recalls a customer who spent $8,000 on new high-energy windows, but was still cold when he sat down in his recliner. Mirowski’s camera discovered that his problem was a $40 HVAC duct that had fallen from the vent in his crawl space so that heat from his furnace was being wasted. And, of course, he recommends spending the $175-$300 for an infrared analysis before you take any other step.
Sam Butler points to the tax incentives often in place that can recover some up front costs on your tax return. Energy Star windows and doors along can bring a $1,500 rebate.
He and Stacey are just like most young couples, making improvements one step and a time. They love to show visitors the difference between two bedrooms, one south-facing where they installed energy efficient vinyl-clad windows for $180 each.
The difference is the two windows is between shivering and feeling comfortable. The same goes for their bathroom, which has no need of a space heater.
They kept their existing kitchen cabinets, and used wheat board to fabricate the doors, partly because it was recycled, but also because it was formaldehyde free. When it came time to paint, they did it themselves using low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint.
In the attic, they added Ecobatt insulation for the same cost as fiberglass.
“It has no dye, zero VOC’s and is made from post-consumer recycled bottled glass,” says Butler. A $300 local rebate was appreciated.
Butler and Evans both point to the savings gained from a couple of simple steps.
“Adding new windows is only half the equation,” says Evans, a certified do-it-yourselfer. Adding spray insulation and caulking is crucial to gaining the full benefit of energy efficient windows, doors, and any other place where heat and cold can trade places.
A warning about your next contractor
“Getting subcontractors to follow green practices can be hard,” he cautions. Some just don’t want to bothered, and others don’t know what they don’t know.
If a contractor says green alternatives cost more, Butler warns he hasn’t done his homework. Some just don’t want to mess with low VOC paint because it may require an extra coat, and that may cost extra.
But in this economy, with so many alternatives to choose, Butler knows it’s good for his future.
“I grew up with chemical allergies and realize that using low VOC finishes, adhesives and materials is the way to go for children and for adults.”
Sam and Stacey Butler’s suggestions:
- Reuse counter tops. A kitchen counter top can make a great granite bathroom vanity.
- A used or vintage mirror with new glass can set off a bath or bedroom.
- Compost all non-painted drywall, cardboard and natural wood. It may not save you any money, but it’s the right thing to do.
- Shop for demo pieces and materials, especially if you intend to paint surfaces anyway.
- Donate old fixtures, toilets, sinks, cabinets, doors and other reusable items to Habitat for Humanity, and don’t hesitate to check out their ReStore for materials that you may want to use on a project
Tracing his commitment to OPEC’s embargo
Jim Evans traces his commitment to relative self-sufficiency to the oil embargoes of the 1970s.
“OPEC began to exert its economic and political strength,” he recalls. “In October 1973, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo “in response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military” during the Yom Kippur war. In 1974 I was commuting 60 miles per day, reading the newspaper every morning at breakfast, and forming my dream of building my own home.”
“My building site (north of Republic) had no coal, oil or gas, just wood, wind and sunshine. Self-sufficiency appealed to me so I designed an energy-efficient, solar/wood-heated, ventilation cooled home.
“This was not a single moment but rather slow convergences of my independent do-it-yourself nature and awareness of a fragile and dwindling global energy supply.”
“People who are thinking of moving should downsize and use the savings to enhance esthetic and environmental comforts. We are too often disappointed because we equate quantity with pleasure. A home needs to be a place we want to live, not a place we want to show.
These days Jim and Terri Evans still live a little bit on the grid, but not much. Passive solar heat provides water to a holding tank, and then to a ultra high-efficiency hot water tank. Though no longer in use, even their old fireplace, its “biomass” design stores heat and releases it slowly at night.
Evans’ list of suggestions:
- Start with efficiency ( insulation, reduce infiltration, lights, appliances, windows, doors, entry’s, etc),
- Work on exterior features (overhangs, roofing, crawl and attic space, and landscaping),
- Consider geothermal, biomass or other local energy resource supplemented heating, cooling, and ventilating,
- Install a solar hot water heater.
- Install Grid-connected photovoltaic array or a wind turbine.
And finally, this bit of advice from Evans:
“Serious do-it-yourselfers use their hands but tap into the vast resources available on the web, in print, and by networking with others. We are not interested in repeating mistakes or reinventing the wheel. My advice is to do lots of research, solicit advice and synthesize all the information into a plan that fits your personal skills and goals.”