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In the Spirit of Earth Day, Mary Dickinson Gives Us Some Tips

Mary Dickinson, Assoc. AIA, RID, LEED AP, is an interior designer and sustainable leader for Perkins+Will architecture firm. We asked her to share top tips on making homes greener in the spirit of Earth Day.

Last year, I had the pleasure to work on the Reisenbichler residence of Highland Park, one of the most sustainable homes in Dallas. One of the project goals included breaking the stigma that sustainability and luxury cannot be delivered in tandem. We did just that and attained Gold certification under LEED for Homes. The modern style of the residence reflects the emerging preference toward modern design, while using a large home proportion to fit into the context of the traditional neighborhood. This home, though 8,356 square feet, has an average electrical bill of $220 per month—up to an eighth of the cost of neighboring homes with standard construction. While a few sustainable strategies employed throughout the residence carried a premium, many of the “green” decisions did not, due to greater demand in the market that has driven down costs. Most of the time, it was just about making well-informed decisions. Jump for my top items that any homeowner can look to employ:

Saving on your power bill:

  • Reduce the amount of glazing on the exterior of your home. It should be no more than 10 percent in our region.
  • Replace old windows with those more efficient. Look for a high R value.
  • Look to repair any holes on your home’s exterior. Look at your door weatherproofing or mortar that has deteriorated.
  • Put your money where it counts. Invest in your home’s insulation. If you have a warm attic, you are not helping the surrounding environment of your home.  By lowering the temperature surrounding the home, including the attic, you’re reducing the temperature difference between exterior and interior.
  • Renewable power. Photovoltaic solar panel system technology is improving all the time. On the Reisenbichler residence, we used 40 panels, providing a 10.4 KW system, and there are many months where the panels provide more power than the home can consume.
  • For home lighting, most of us know that fluorescent is more efficient that incandescent.  However, if you install flood lights or art light that uses a metal halide or a mercury vapor bulb, your electricity bill can sky rocket with each bulb. Using one bulb eight hours a day can cost upwards of $50 per month.
  • Use, buy, and/or replace appliances with those that are Energy Star rated.
  • Do you know where your electricity use is being spent? Being educated is half the battle; smart thermostats can help.

Water savings:

  • In Texas, we are increasingly faced with water restrictions and the problem is only projected to get worse.  Some top things you can do to conserve water on the exterior of your home: install soaker hoses in flower beds; lower the amount of sod in your yard; plant trees to shade the home, which reduces the temperature at the ground level thus lowering the evaporation rate.
  • Lower your demand for water by planting native plants that require less water. Most nurseries can help with suggestions and most of these will be perennials, which will return each year.
  • Limit your non-penetrable surfaces surrounding your house to allow rainwater to filtrate into the ground. For example, instead of a paved driveway, install decomposed granite.
  • To conserve water in the home, look for low-flow fixtures available for the faucets, shower heads and toilets. Waterless hot water tanks save not only on water, but on electricity, since water doesn’t constantly need to be reheated.

Material selections and air quality:

  • When building or renovating a home, consider where your materials are coming from. Are they being shipped from overseas or Kansas?  Did your wood come from a well-managed forest? Or was the material refurbished or recycled?
  • When selecting materials, consider what they are made of. Do they off-gas? Generally, if they have a strong smell in the store or showroom, it will be much worse when installed in your home. This is especially bad for asthmatics.
  • When thinking about the health of occupants, it is important to consider what it is going to take to clean them when selecting materials? If harsh chemicals are the only thing that will keep that white tile “white,” it might not be the best selection for a home with children.
  • Keep your air filters clean and/or change on regular basis. Air trying to move through a dirty filter is like water try to move through a clogged drain—it is just going to require more electricity to do so.