Where We Stand Now
Many of us live in houses and subdivisions that were built in an era when fossil fuel energy was thought to be plentiful, cheap and without serious impact. Buildings were often constructed without much consideration for energy use, and extending new infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer lines to former farm fields was viewed as progress.
Today we understand that unrestrained consumption of fossil fuel energy comes at a price to our household budgets, economy and environment. We understand that building more infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain may contribute to fiscal insolvency, and that the destruction of farmland detracts from our quality of life and undermines our ability to access fresh and healthy food.
We also understand that routinely driving long distances for everyday activities can take a toll on our pocketbooks, health and well-being, and consume precious time that could be spent more productively with our families, friends, or colleagues.
In conventional homes and neighborhoods, each household is individually responsible for procuring and paying for all the resources that its members use. We base our choices about the resources we consume on the economic constraints of everyday life. We pick and choose and make compromises, frequently sacrificing our quality of life and our environment in the interest of cost and time savings.
What if thoughtful design of our homes, our community, and our outdoor spaces could give us the flexibility we need to maximize the efficiency of our budgets while achieving optimal health for our families and our environments? Here we define some of the choices we make, their true impact, and how we can take steps towards the quality of life that we all want.
Over the last century our dependence on fossil fuels in the United States has steadily increased. The initial investment required to convert to renewable energies is the number one reason cited for continued conventional energy use. What many of us don’t realize is the profound inefficiency of our current system which wastes more energy than is actually used to do the work we need it for and results in emissions that will continue to cause major disruptions of our economy through increasingly damaging storms, droughts and wildfires. So the important question is, “Can we afford to continue using our current system?”
Houses such as those being built in the three model communities highlighted here are projected to use 80% less energy than other houses being built to today’s building code standards. For a marginal increase in construction costs along with some friendly coordination with neighbors, residents can anticipate decades of reduced energy expenditures while also reducing impacts to our climate and the severity of the resultant economic disruptions to our communities.
Both the building materials and design features of a conventional home can contribute to significant health issues. In conventional modern homes toxins such as chlorinated plastics, heavy metals, flame retardants, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) slowly and steadily release chemicals into our indoor environment and are absorbed through our skin, lungs and digestive system. These chemicals can have significant negative effects on our health in a number of ways, particularly for children and the elderly.
Fortunately, technologies exist to incorporate toxin-free high quality building materials, effective ventilation systems and ample natural lighting into our homes to support a high quality of life. We should not be victims of the very air we breathe within the sanctuary of our homes.
Energy use from all buildings in the U.S. is responsible for 40 percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Our buildings are under-insulated and poorly sealed causing conductive heat loss and significant air leakage. These building inefficiencies lead to an excessive use of fossil fuels for energy. How can we make our buildings more energy efficient?
Our excessive energy production and consumption can be mitigated with new ways of using existing technologies, new strategies, and an overall new philosophy about living more sensibly, in tightly knit communities situated in close proximity to where we work, play and shop.
The Root of the Problem
There is a growing awareness by planners and municipalities of the need to build more efficiently, with energy-conserving smaller homes on smaller plots of land, with nearby amenities such as schools, healthcare facilities and food stores.
Outmoded zoning laws, adopted during a time when we mistakenly believed that we had virtually unlimited resources, prevent the adoption of some of the most economically and environmentally sound neighborhood designs. Typical American zoning fails to achieve a balance of privacy and social opportunity, often erring on the side of privacy and, as a result, ensuring isolation and inefficiency.
In many of our cities and towns, existing zoning fails to foster neighborhoods with a sense of community. Many of us live in neighborhoods where we seldom interact with our neighbors. In a world with increasingly unpredictable climate conditions, resource scarcity, and dwindling government funding for services, we feel ineffectual and alone.
Welcome Home showcases a new model for neighborhood development that builds connections between people and promotes balance between people and the planet.