Monday, February 16, 2009

Sustainable Solutions

As more research and study continues on the environmental front, the larger solution to many problems we face is sustainability. In basic terms, sustainable products are items that have a long life and do not require replacement on a schedule. The definition can also be expanded to items, once used for a time period, which can be easily converted to another product or use, as communicated in Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart.

Residential construction has been through periods of very sustainable and very disposable construction practices. As a college student, I worked for a remodeler in Pittsburgh, PA for a summer. One of our projects was a 100 year old renovation and addition. The craftsmanship of the original home was phenomenal. While modern conveniences of air conditioning, kitchen appliances and bath upgrades had been added, the original structure stood on it own. Very little had been replaced, as the home had the original windows, exterior cladding, floors and plumbing fixtures throughout the home.

Today, builders continue to work towards more sustainable structures. Treated wood is used to prevent termite and rot issues. Better water intrusion prevention systems are employed as a best practice for construction. Unfortunately, some areas of the home still need some work, especially on entry-level homes. Many consumers are guilty of contributing to the problem when they say, “Oh, I’ll just replace that when I find what I like” or “ It will last until I can find something better”.

Below, I have broken down a list of the most common “disposable” products still installed by builders on a regular basis. Most of these have a viable alternative, relatively low in cost, yet more sustainable.

  • Toilet Seats – The standard seat installed by a builder is a molded wood, high gloss finish toilet seat. At first glance, the seat is fine. But two years later, even with a clean freak (my wife hates a dirty toilet), the seat is stained, the finish on the bottom is deteriorating and the only solution is to replace the seat. Cost to upgrade to a Kohler plastic seat is about $7/seat retail. A small price to pay for longevity.
  • Dishwashers – Builders are known for the cheapest dishwashers on the market. A standard entry line is loud, inefficient and requires additional rinsing and rewashing of dishes. For a small upgrade of $40-50, these inefficient models can be replaced by a more efficient, quieter model. Options are often offered, however builders should be encouraged to eliminate non-performing models for better units.
  • Carpet – As a general rule, the actual carpet in any home will have to be replaced at some point. However, on the low end, ensuring the right carpet is installed will provide long life to that particular carpet. Nylon 6, a polyester fiber used in some carpets, has endless recycling capabilities. This fiber, compared to others, can be recycled again and again without degrading the original material. Even on the low end, this fiber is affordable and can provide consumers the convenience of changing carpet as the needs of your family changes, without contributing to landfills.
  • Lighting – Another area where builders are prone to find the least expensive items which homeowners can replace later; I was guilty of this early in my career. As a consumer, you will find little success changing this trend in the near future. However, if you are planning to change out fixture upon occupancy, ask you builder to cap the fixture location instead of installing a disposable fixture. If overhead lighting will not be used, ask for a switched outlet for lamp lighting control. Also, request ENERGY STAR lighting options to replace standard fixtures.
As a general rule, Homebuilders are slow to change to the latest practices and technologies. The consumer mentality of “I’ll fix it later” needs to be changed to a request for alternatives. To change the trend from disposable to sustainable construction requires feedback to the builder so they know how to improve products and meet consumer demands for quality.

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