The NW Green Home Tour: New Social Equity Projects

No matter at what scale you examine the impacts of Climate Change, the people with the least resources are impacted the most while contributing the least to the problems involved. It’s not hard to understand this dynamic. The more impoverished a person is, the more likely it will be that they live in a place with environmental challenges. Yet this aspect of ‘eco-friendliness,’ and sustainability often goes unaddressed by even the most conscientious of efforts to mitigate negative environmental impacts.  

This makes two of the new entries into the 2021 NW Green Home (Virtual) Tour exciting additions: Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project and the BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community (BIPOC STAHC)

Both of these great endeavors incorporate green and sustainable building practices, literal small footprints, and community building. Unlike most ‘green’ building projects, they also address inequities as they apply to sustainability.

Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project takes a highly creative approach to addressing the issue of houseless people. Not only do they design and build astonishingly clean and comfortable tiny homes using environmentally friendly materials and techniques, they locate these homes in the backyards of generous neighborhood residents. And they proactively seek the input of the entire neighborhood in doing so.

The actual small footprint of these homes automatically make their carbon footprint low. But it doesn’t stop there. If scaled up to a more ‘normal’ square footage, these homes would still maintain a small carbon footprint. And, on top of that, the project provides homes with all the amenities needed to help break a people out of the vicious cycle that, otherwise, keeps the houseless in their predicament.

Mighty Energy Solutions and Ducoterra are proud to have provided the infrared radiant heating systems for these wonderful tiny homes. And Mighty House Construction is also proud to sponsor this entry into the Green Home Tour. It is an honor to take a small part in this notable approach to the pernicious cycle of homelessness experienced by more and more people.

BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community (BIPOC STAHC) is taking a similar approach to a slightly different challenge. Seattle is losing artists in droves as housing becomes more expensive. And making art often requires spaces, equipment, and amenities that are also becoming less and less affordable. Most artists already face financial challenges by virtue of the difficult realities of art economics. This situation is made even more untenable when compounded by the social inequities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC.)

Some artists move into vulnerable neighborhoods – partly for the lower costs – and apply their creativity to the betterment of their community. But this tends to lead to gentrification as these neighborhoods get noticed for this creativity and ‘hipness.’ This is a disaster for the existing residents and, very often, the artists themselves as more privileged people move in and drive up property values up – along with the cost to live there.

So, in order to overcome this conundrum, BIPOC STAHC is working to build a non-gentrifiable community of tiny, eco-friendly homes in a healthy setting with access to a larger, shared set of amenity spaces. This will improve the living conditions, affordability, and provide the opportunity to build wealth for disenfranchised artists of, so far, low privilege. Going from renting a tiny, unaffordable apartment in a dirty, industrial part of town to owning an, albeit small, but clean and healthy home in a community of creative people is certainly a move in a better direction for everyone involved. And, since any city planner will tell you, diversity and the arts are significant factors in the health of a city, this project will be a boon to the city and the region as a whole.

We sincerely hope these types of solutions gain traction as we move into a cleaner, more sustainable way of life.

Please be sure to check out the 2021 NW Green Home (Virtual) Tour for all it has to offer. And do not miss the chance to learn more about these amazing Social Equity initiatives:

Facing Homelessness’ BLOCK Project:  Saturday, May 15 |  9 am – 11:30 am
BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community: Saturday, May 1 |  9 am – 11:30 am

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 5: Operational Emissions

The main thing people calculating the impacts of using a machine or device generally consider is operational emissions – the carbon (and other pollution emitted) when in use. As we have seen so far in this series, operational emissions are not the only factor in the sustainability of these things. But, given a durable application like heating your home, it does represent a significant portion of the equation.

Basically, the carbon emitted when using any machine depends on a few factors:

  • What form of energy does it use?
  • If that energy is electricity, how is it generated?
  • How efficiently does the machine put that energy to work?

As we move toward a decarbonized world, electricity is one of the best forms of energy for the point of use: electric vehicles, electric lights, electric ovens and stoves, and electric climate control, etc. Electricity is safe, clean, and highly controllable. There is no pilot light, no toxic and potentially explosive gas lines snaking all over town and into your home, and it can be switched on and off for any specific use and location. But how clean electricity is depends on how it is made.

The great news about electricity is that its sources can supply many applications and locations. So, even if the supply isn’t as clean as desired at the moment, as soon as it is made cleaner, everything that uses it instantly becomes cleaner. So, for example, when a coal-fired power plant is replaced by solar or wind power, every home and business powered by that source instantly goes from dirty power to clean power. And, even when electricity is generated by coal (since power stations are huge and super-efficient) it is far cleaner than, say, burning wood in a fireplace.

The final component in reducing carbon emissions is energy efficiency.  Energy efficiency simply means using less energy to do the same work. This is a critical part of the decarbonization and sustainability equation because requiring less power for the same amount of work is equivalent to generating more power. This not only increases the overall supply capacity. Machines that work less hard tend to last longer. And the more energy efficient machines that are put into service, the faster the supply of clean energy can take over the demand.

All of Mighty Energy‘s solutions are electric, highly controllable, and energy-efficient for their purpose.

 

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 4: Installation Impact

    When installing any important, durable system in your home, such as a heating solution, it is important to consider that there are environmental impacts associated with this as well.  The largest concern is, usually, the resulting waste products that have to be dealt with such as product packaging and construction waste. No matter what, whether you install a new or upgraded system for an entire home, or just need to get extra heat into those problematic ‘cold’ spot’ areas, some waste products will result. This may not be much from smaller projects – maybe some small bits of sheetrock and pieces of wire. Or it could involve larger quantities of old sheetrock, wiring, insulation, etc.

    First, it is important to note that sheetrock is recyclable. In some respect, the resulting recycled product is superior to brand-new. So, if you recycle the old sheetrock and use recycled sheetrock to replace it, you will likely save money and reduce the impact of this exchange. Old copper wiring that may no longer be safe and needs to be replaced can readily be recycled as well as it is in high demand. Fiberglass insulation is tougher in this respect. There aren’t a lot of options for recycling fiberglass and there is a good discussion of this you can find at Recycle Nation. Still, while there is likely at least some recycled glass in the fiberglass insulation in your home, recycling it when you are replacing it is, currently, not easy. Even disposing of it is more difficult than ordinary construction waste.

    This leads to another consideration when doing any project that may require replacing or adding insulation. When it comes time to recycle, at the end of its useful life, what you are installing, how hard will it be? Staying away from fiberglass would be good, although recycling this should become easier in time. However, while it is relatively inexpensive and effective, spray foam insulation should be avoided whenever possible – which is usually always. Why? Because not only is spray foam not recyclable, it basically encases everything in the walls with a toxic, unrecyclable mess, making the sheetrock, the framing, and even, in some cases, the wiring impracticable to separate – so it will all go into the landfill.

    As is becoming clear from this series of articles, every stage of getting products from raw or recycled material, through its lifespan, and either disposed of or recycled, there are environmental costs involved. And to increase sustainability means decreasing the impact as well as moving to a circular economy where most materials are not disposed of at the end of their life, but made into useful materials for new products.

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 3: Embodied Carbon

    Often, when we think about the energy we use, we  only consider the energy it takes to run our tools, appliances and devices. However, when examining the sustainability of a product, we need to also include all the energy that went into making and transporting it to where it will be used. This ‘built-in’ energy is called embodied energy. And the carbon emitted generating that embodied energy is the embodied carbon of the thing. Embodied carbon represents a specific type of environmental impact as it contributes to all the negative effects of Climate Change.

    In a globalized economy with its extremely complicated supply chains, the embodied carbon of a thing can rapidly become high regardless of the energy efficiency involved in using it. Often, garnering the raw materials, transporting them to be refined and made into component parts, and assembling the product itself happens in places where labor is cheap,  regulations are weak, and the distances involved to get the finished product to the end-user are great. All of these things tend to vastly increase something’s embodied carbon.

    For this reason, Mighty Energy Solutions only sells products where everything from the basic materials, to the component parts, to the end products are made in the United States. This means everything is manufactured under US regulations. They are transported shorter distances than products that may involve several overseas facilities, etc. This policy of US only supply and manufacture of our products means keeping jobs in the US, and the embodied carbon low – even for replacement and repair. As a result, yet another factor of sustainability is supported. 

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms | Part 2: Environmental Impacts

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 2: Environmental Impacts

    The products we use impact the environment at every stage: from manufacture to use to dealing with the ‘waste’ at the end of that usefulness.

    Manufacturing, in most cases, means extracting and harvesting raw materials followed by refining those resources so that they can be made into components that are assembled into useful products.  Extraction (mining, drilling, and fracking,) and harvesting (especially trees or crops grown using petro-based agriculture) are extremely harmful to the environment. Whole mountains have been torn down in South Africa to obtain diamonds, and in West Virginia to obtain coal. The Amazon and the Olympic rain forests have dwindled drastically in size, destroying natural habitat and watersheds in the process. There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi because of all the farming chemicals that drain out there. And, of course, energy is used throughout all of these processes including transport, waste products that need to be disposed of are generated, and carbon is emitted into the atmosphere.

    Now landfills, garages, and even the ocean, are full of ‘stuff’ that no longer has any productive purpose and, often, represents ongoing environmental damage. Repairing, recycling, reusing, and repurposing are all ways to reduce the impact of gathering materials to be made back into useful items, or to extend the life of these products. These approaches all help mitigate what are, often, the worst causes of negative environmental impacts in a product’s lifecycle. So, any products that are designed to have a long, efficient, useful life, be readily repaired, and/or easily recycled when that useful life is over can be said to be deliberately sustainable.

    Beyond being highly energy efficient during operation, Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels are made from only four basic component parts which are all sourced as close to the factory as possible. This greatly reduces the energy (and emissions) needed to transport them. They have a steel plate on the ceiling side, which is already a highly recycled material.  Aerogel, a high-tech insulation made from silica originally found in sandstone and other common rock, comes next and is non-toxic and completely recyclable. The heating element, (moving down from the ceiling-side,) is made from specialized wire which is, again, recyclable. And, finally, the whole thing is enclosed in a unibody (one-piece) aluminum box that closes in the sides and front (room-side) of the panel.

    So, not only do Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels have a lifetime warranty because they will last for decades of effective use, the materials to make them are not transported across oceans, they are energy efficient, and are easily recycled. And even the process of taking them apart and separating the materials for recycling couldn’t be simpler. When measured over time, the environmental impact of the panels is extremely low, and they represent a new and necessary approach to sustainability called cradle-to-cradle, which mimics natural cycles in how products are made and remade.

    (see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms)

     

    Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 1: Definition of Terms

    There are a lot of terms out there relating to technologies and techniques designed to help reduce the effects of climate change and environmental harm: green, ecofriendly, energy efficient, etc. They range from vague to specific. And there is the opportunity for some marketers to muddy the waters with what is known as ‘greenwashing’ – a practice that involves exaggeration or even false claims in order to cash in on people’s concerns about climate change. Even the term ‘climate change’ really ought to be ‘climate chaos’ or ‘climate catastrophe.’

    The overarching term ‘sustainability’ is also bandied about, usually in more serious circles, but it also can be vague in the way it is applied. So, I am writing a series of short articles to help clear it up and examine it in depth. I’ll start with an overview of the terms and concepts that sustainability encompasses.

    • Environmental Impact: Everything we use has an impact on the environment when it is produced, used, and dealt with after it is no longer useful. Even the energy of installing something can have environmental impacts. In fact, it’s possible to look at environmental impact as the other side of the coin. Lowering somethings environmental impact increases its sustainability.
    • Embodied Carbon: This is a specific form of environmental impact since everything we use requires energy before it is even in use – from garnering the raw materials to manufacture to all the transportation involved. This is called embodied energy. How much this carbon is released into the atmosphere making and using that energy is a thing’s embodied carbon. In some cases, this includes greenhouse gas emissions such as methane leaks from fracked natural gas, for example.
    • Installation Impact: When something is installed, it takes energy and can often result in waste products that have to be dealt with, energy to install such as all the equipment it takes to build a building, and even the energy it takes to get the installers to the site.

    • Operational Emissions: This is the amount of carbon and other pollutants released during the normal operation of something. The more energy efficient something is, the less energy it takes to operate it. The less pollution emitted when producing the energy in the first place, the less pollution is emitted per unit of energy. There are additional impacts involved as well. Even carbon-free hydroelectric power has environmental impacts associated with its production.
    • Durability and Reliability: Many times, we fail to consider that, since the environment does, over time, ‘repair’ itself, the longer something reliably works and remains in use, the lower its overall environmental impact. This includes how much energy it takes to maintain and repair something’s functionality. Repair trucks, new parts, etc. are all part of how reliability can contribute to something’s environmental impact over the lifespan of that thing.
    • Resilience: This is related to durability and reliability but includes how well something continues to operate, recovers, or otherwise remains useful after unforeseen disasters, changes in land-use, and upgrades in technology.
    • End-of-life Impacts: Once something is no longer useful, as all things become, it has to be dealt with. Perhaps it ends up in a landfill. Perhaps it is recycled, reused, or repurposed. Or, often more likely, it ends up in a landfill. And of those things that cannot be put back into use, there will be further impacts. Something that is biodegradable and is industrially composted is much more sustainable than something that contains toxins and has not further use.
    • Social Equity and Justice: Finally, it is critical to point out that the whole human carbon footprint must shrink, and this cannot happen if 

    Ultimately, sustainability refers to a large, complex, systemic picture that relates to effects of what we make and use on the environment over time, and that, in turn, is largely measured in something that nature does not, generally produce without our help: waste. In the subsequent articles in this series, I will explore each of these concepts in depth.