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LEED Process

Practical Sustainability: Change To Low Flow Shower Heads

One of my subscribers recently commented that she hoped I would post some practical tips for making an older home more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.  So today I’m launching the first of a monthly series I’m calling “Practical Sustainability” – things we all can (and should!) do on a limited budget.  This month’s column is all about showers - specifically, changing to low flow shower heads.

Our newly installed low flow shower head

Our newly installed low flow shower head

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), showers account for 17% of residential indoor water use.  If your shower heads were installed prior to 1994, their flow rate may be as high as 5 gallons per minute (gpm), or 2.5gpm if they were installed after 1994 (and nobody tampered with their flow restrictors).  Today’s water-saving low flow shower heads that have earned the EPA’s “WaterSense” label have a flow rate of no more than 2gpm.  If each member of your family of four takes an eight minute shower, you could save as much as 16 gallons of water PER DAY if you swap out your old 2.5gpm shower head for a WaterSense shower head.  That’s almost 6,000 gallons of water annually…

Now that I have your attention, what does this really mean in terms of your impact on the environment?  First, if you’re like me, you probably prefer a warm shower to a cold shower!  And that means you’re using energy to heat all of that water.  The EPA estimates that if every household in the US installed WaterSense low flow shower heads, we’d save $2.6 billion in energy costs for heating water alone.

And now think about where that wasted water comes from and where it goes after it heads down your drain.  If your water comes from a municipal source, the water was treated at a water treatment plant and then piped to your home.  By using less water for showers, you’ll reduce the size of your water bill and lower the stress on our treatment and sewer systems.  California and other western states are experiencing a severe drought this year – a continuation of the conditions that earned 2013 the dubious honor of being the “driest year in recorded history for many areas of California.” So, saving water isn’t only about the impact on our wallets – but it’s also about recognizing that water is a scarce resource that we need to conserve.

And yet…haven’t we all encountered a cheap plastic hotel shower head that barely provided enough pressure to rinse the shampoo off a bald person’s head?  And is THAT what we’re signing up for if we switch to WaterSense labeled shower heads?  I recently embarked on a very unscientific search for an answer. 

As it turns out, we had a leak a couple of months ago from our master shower into the apartment below us.  We had to demolish the shower in order to replace its leaky shower pan.  We had renovated our apartment about 10 years earlier and had installed – and were very happy with – 2.5gpm Speakman Anystream shower heads in all of our showers.  Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, our shower head started spraying water from the perimeter of its faceplate following the shower stall repair.  Since we need to select shower heads for the Sunset Green Home, I decided to look at this as an opportunity to “test drive” Speakman’s low flow 2.0gpm Anystream shower head (Sunset Green Home will earn one point under the LEED® for Homes rating system by installing shower heads whose average flow rate is 2.0gpm or less).

I’m an junkie (ever since I purchased their Amazon Prime service, which gives me free two-day shipping on nearly everything).  So I turned to Amazon, where I found the S-2252-E2 low flow shower head for $66.48 (a 34% discount from the list price…and as of the date of this article the price has fallen even further, so I'm about to purchase a second one for my children's bathroom).  It came with plumbers’ tape and took about 45 seconds to install.  All I needed was a set of pliers.

And while my trial of a single shower head certainly can’t claim to be representative of an entire product class, I’m happy to report that the low flow Speakman Anystream shower head delivers on its promise.  It provides a stream of water that handily rinsed the shampoo out of my long thick hair.  Did I notice that the water flow is lower than with my old shower head?  Yes.  But did I find it problematic?  Not at all.

So go ahead…change to low flow shower heads.  Do something for the environment that won’t break the bank.  And check back next month for another Practical Sustainability column!

Leave a comment and share which low flow shower head works for you!

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Deconstruction Part II: Time-Lapse Video - The Unmaking of a House

We have completely removed the old house from the site of the Sunset Green Home project. 

Nothing left but the cinder block foundation.

Nothing left but the cinder block foundation.

If you read our earlier blog post, you know that we used whole home deconstruction rather than traditional demolition.  For a typical 2,000 square foot house, demolition sends 127 tons of debris to the landfill.  Deconstruction salvages any reusable building materials and recycles as much as possible.  We’re still awaiting our diversion numbers, but we anticipate that we will have diverted at least 70% of the demolition waste away from the landfill – enough to earn a LEED point for the Sunset Green Home project.

I think of Deconstruction as a perfect example of the “Triple Bottom Line” – which expands the traditional bottom line focus on economic profit to include two additional dimensions – those of environmental benefits and human capital gains. 

  • In Deconstruction, the environmental benefit is obvious.  Deconstruction keeps the vast majority of a building’s materials out of our overstressed landfills. 
  • The economics can work out favorably as well.  Although Deconstruction costs about twice as much as traditional demolition, the salvaged materials are donated to non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity and Build It Green! NYC.   Tax deductibility of the in-kind donation can offset the added cost.  Having an independent third-party appraisal is critical, and you should check with your tax adviser before relying on any outside information (including what you read here…I am not a tax professional!).
  • Finally, Deconstruction builds human capital.  The process is labor intensive and, as such, provides jobs in green building trades. 
The finished product - an empty lot, graded and ready for construction.  Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch

The finished product - an empty lot, graded and ready for construction.  Photo courtesy of Chris Mensch

Deconstruction is not just for whole homes; it’s also a great way to remove kitchens and baths in a home that is slated for renovation.  The salvaged building materials will be given a second life when you’re finished with them!

I’m happy to speak with anyone who would like more information...just fill out the Contact Us form on and I’ll get back to you.

We’re very proud of our whole home deconstruction.  And while the house was coming down, we documented the process via time-lapse video, including interviews of the crew from Details who deconstructed the house!  Take a look at the “unmaking” of a house.  Enjoy!

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House Tours: A LEED® Gold House in Ski Country

What do you build when you’re a successful commercial real estate developer, you’re ready to build a home for your family, and it’s 2007 – a year when the LEED for Homes green building program is still in its pilot phase?  A LEED for Homes house, of course!

I had the good fortune of touring a “mountain modern” style home just outside Vail, CO this week.  Frank Navarro, the homeowner, explained that when they bought the building lot, he and his wife Allison knew they wanted to build a LEED certified home.  Frank is an architect-turned-sustainable developer, and couldn’t imagine building it any other way. 

Photo courtesy of Frank Navarro

Photo courtesy of Frank Navarro

Frank assembled a team that included a LEED accredited sustainability consultant, an architect who was well-versed in passive solar design, and a builder who, while not experienced with the LEED program, was nonetheless hungry to move his business in the direction of constructing sustainable homes.

What struck me when I entered the house was how quiet it is.  Frank explained that theirs was the first house in its area to use triple pane windows.  Their views of the mountains across a wide valley are exquisite and face south, so large walls of glass were a key design feature.  And triple pane glazing is how the team was able to achieve the insulating properties they needed.  The architect designed deep overhangs to shade the home from summer sun while permitting winter sunlight to enter and warm the house.

Photo taken from inside the home, through one of its large picture windows.

Photo taken from inside the home, through one of its large picture windows.

One of the things I like about the LEED for Homes program is its flexibility in how a project team can accrue points toward certification.  The Navarro home racked up points using sustainable finishes throughout.  Exterior cladding is “beetle kill” pine – a local, sustainable option.  The interior features low VOC cabinetry, plaster, paint and carpet – all of which earn points under the Materials and Resources category.  But most interesting are such details as the beautiful pressed sorghum grass composite bar countertop, local stone fireplace surround with granite banding, poured concrete flooring set in a sustainably harvested wood grid, and recycled glass and concrete bathroom countertops.

The house is extremely energy efficient, with a sizable solar PV array as well as a ground-mount solar thermal system that provides domestic hot water – taking advantage of the 300 days of sunshine that the area enjoys. 

Photo courtesy of Frank Navarro

Photo courtesy of Frank Navarro

When I asked if there were any elements he would have liked to include but didn’t, Frank mentioned rainwater harvesting – which was prohibited by local water rights laws.  Instead, the home uses Xeriscaping – a landscaping method that uses drought-tolerant native vegetation and requires little or no irrigation.

The home is large – 6,300 square feet – which meant that it needed to earn even more points for LEED certification than a comparable house of smaller size.  Nonetheless, the house earned LEED Gold certification, and with no compromise in function or aesthetics.

Frank has his sights on a LEED residential condominium development.  Doubtless, if it’s anything like the home he built for his family, it will be beautiful, functional and sustainable.

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LEED for Homes Says to Grow Green. We Agree!

A food garden – and a LEED point – for the Sunset Green Home.  That’s a point we wouldn’t consider leaving “on the table.”  According to the LEED for Homes green building program, the intent of the Food Garden credit is “to provide a functional and sustainable means of supporting the homeowner’s food needs.” LEED for Homes awards one point under the Innovation in Design credit category to projects that install a garden of at least 200 square feet. 

Sunset Green Home Raised Bed Garden.JPG

I’m an avid gardener.  And my garden has been organic since we built it shortly after purchasing our home.  We constructed several untreated cedar raised beds (see my earlier blog post to learn how to build your own) and began gardening right away.  My garden, with 12 distinct planting areas (four of which are occupied by perennial asparagus and strawberry crops), tops out at about 200 square feet of productive, easy-to-access raised planting beds. 

Sally Jean Cunningham’s Great Garden Companions has been my gardening bible since Day One – and I’ve given away countless copies of it to friends and family.  With beautiful photographs and useful graphics, Great Garden Companions offers a blueprint for setting up and managing a pesticide-free organic garden. 

What’s the secret?  Planting “neighborhoods” of vegetables, herbs and flowers that either attract beneficial insects or deter and confuse the more harmful insects (the herbs and flowers do double duty by crowding out unwanted weeds as well). Coupled with annual crop rotation (which was my “excuse” for adding more beds during my garden’s second year), the companion planting method has worked well for me. 

Sunset Green Home Garden.JPG

Until Hurricane Sandy walloped my garden, I was able to grow nearly all of the produce to feed my family of five from May until October – with an abundance of “extras” that I turn into pickles, chutneys, ketchup and sauce that we can eat through the winter. 

Sunset Green Home Garden - Cabbages and Herbs.JPG

We have asparagus, lettuce, spinach and radishes in May and June; peas and strawberries in early summer; onions, cucumbers and beans throughout the summer; carrots, tomatoes, squash and peppers in late summer…and so much more that I don’t have space to list! 

Sunset Green Home Garden Beets.JPG

We even eat nasturtiums and make chamomile tea from our companion flowers!

Sunset Green Home Garden Nasturtiums.JPG

No fossil fuels are burned to move the food from my garden to my kitchen.  And I know exactly what has gone into producing what we eat – sunshine, water, homemade compost and organic seeds!

That’s what the LEED green building program had in mind when it approved a credit for building a food garden.  And when we move our garden beds to higher ground once the Sunset Green Home is built, we plan to earn the food garden point!

Gardening is easy and healthful.  And you don’t need to build a LEED home to start a garden.  So what are you waiting for?  Find a sunny spot, build a garden bed, and grow local.  Happy gardening!

Leave a comment!  Tell us your best gardening story, or let us know about a special variety that you plant in your own garden...

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Deconstruction 101: It’s all in the Details

If breaking ground on the Sunset Green Home project is considered “getting out of the starting gate” then removing the house that was substantially damaged by Hurricane Sandy is akin to getting into the starting gate.  And we’re almost there…

Sunset Green Home Under Deconstruction.jpg

Today was Day Four of our Whole House Deconstruction effort, and the house is about halfway down.  So what is deconstruction and why are we doing it?  Deconstruction is NOT demolition.  A typical demolition job would take a fraction of the time that is required for deconstruction, and would cost about half as much.  But 100% of the house would be bulldozed and dumped into a landfill. 

By contrast, whole house deconstruction refers to the careful dismantling of a structure to preserve materials that can be reused elsewhere and to recycle materials that cannot be reused in their current form.  Deconstruction is done by hand.  Workers trained in deconstruction strip the inside of the house, salvaging any fixtures, fittings and materials that can be reused, and setting them aside to be donated to non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity or Build It Green! NYC.

Once the inside of the house has been disassembled, the house is taken apart shingle-by-shingle and stud-by-stud from the roof to the foundation.  Again, any materials that can be salvaged – such as windows and flooring – are carefully removed and earmarked for donation.  Whatever can’t be salvaged is taken by a waste hauler who is focused on recycling and is able to divert a significant portion of the waste away from the landfill.

Details Deconstruction Removing Sunset Green Home Windows.JPG

The Sunset Green home is being deconstructed by Details, a division of Humanim, a Baltimore-based non-profit organization whose mission includes workforce development programs.  Details teaches green building practices and provides entry level employment to members of its crews. 

Details Deconstruction Crew at Sunset Green Home.JPG

And in fulfilling its mission, Details keeps thousands of tons of waste from entering our nation’s over-stressed landfills (one estimate by the Deconstruction Institute, funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, estimates a 2,000 square foot house would, if demolished, generate 127 tons of debris). 

The Sunset Green Home project hopes to earn one point toward LEED certification by diverting over 70% of our demolition waste through the deconstruction process.

Our crew is hard at work deconstructing the house on the Sunset Green Home site.  Like I said, it's all in the Details...

Details Deconstruction Team at Sunset Green Home.JPG

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Preliminary Rating: We're Going for Platinum!

The Sunset Green Home project is registered under the LEED for Homes green building program, and we're going for Platinum!  If you're interested in learning more about the LEED process, read on...

15 months ago, Hurricane Sandy substantially damaged our home, which stood on the site where the Sunset Green Home will be built.  For the past several months, members of the project team have been working together to design the new house.  We’ve tapped into the expertise of our architect, landscape architect, builder, and other experts in sustainable building practices in what is termed an Integrated Project Planning approach. 

Team members: Architect, Bill Heine: LEED AP Homes, Kathryn Cannon; LEED Green Rater, Rich Manning; and Builder, Chris Mensch

Team members: Architect, Bill Heine: LEED AP Homes, Kathryn Cannon; LEED Green Rater, Rich Manning; and Builder, Chris Mensch

Earlier this month, at our second LEED Design Charrette meeting, the team met to focus on systems and infrastructure considerations, as a previous Design Charrette meeting had addressed site planning, building orientation and landscaping issues.

With most of our “big decisions” behind us, it was time to discuss our Preliminary Rating, or LEED certification level we would seek.  Conducting a Preliminary Rating is a prerequisite of the LEED for Homes green building program.  And it’s the first of three prerequisites in the Innovation in Design Process category.  A project that seeks LEED certification must satisfy 25 prerequisites, after which it may choose which of the 136 optional points it will aim to earn from eight major categories. 

Each project is different, which is why the LEED for Homes program provides a number of paths to certification.  Unlike other LEED rating systems, which have a fixed scale for certification, LEED for Homes makes a home size adjustment; larger homes must earn more points at each certification level than smaller homes.  Based on the Sunset Green Home project’s conditioned area of just under 3,600 square feet, we must earn 94 points for LEED Platinum certification.  It’s ambitious, but we’ve decided to go for it!

Check out our LEED points page, which we’ll update periodically as we finalize our strategies and point targets.

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Worthwhile Reading: Technology and Information Management for Low Carbon Building

As I launched my home construction project and began preparing for my LEED Green Associate exam, I read countless books and articles, attended trade shows, and met with as many green building professionals as I could.  Through networking, I was introduced to Frank and Roy Dalene, brothers and partners at Telemark Inc., a luxury custom home builder on Long Island.  Frank and Roy spent quite a bit of time with me, and gave me both information and encouragement.  Frank also directed me to an article he had written, which I found did a great job of bringing to life - through a single project example - many of the strategies I had been reading about.

HGA House under construction

HGA House under construction

In his article, Technology and Information Management for Low Carbon Building, which was published in the American Institute of Physics, Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy in July 2012, Frank Dalene describes the "how" of a LEED Platinum certified luxury custom home he built for a Long Island family, whose house had been damaged in a fire.  The project was sponsored by the Hamptons Green Alliance, a non-profit association of green building professionals, and was called the HGA House.   

Among other topics, the article covers:

  • How the home's energy consumption was reduced by 70% and its CO2 emissions by 40%
  • How its embodied greenhouse gas emissions were measured and managed, and how its carbon neutrality was certified
  • How the project achieved LEED Platinum certification

Although the article appeared in a peer-reviewed academic journal, it is highly readable and provides food for thought for anyone who is interested in building a sustainable, energy efficient home.  

Happy reading!

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