Week of 07/08/2007

Dear EarthTalk: How do I learn how to build an all-around "eco-home?" My wife and I have some land in Delaware and would like to build a state-of-the-art green home on the site.

—Zachary Jahnigen, Frankford, DE

There are many ideas as to what constitutes an "eco-home," depending upon how pure one wants to be. But certain common elements—such as energy efficiency, responsible materials sourcing and minimal landscape disruption—must be in place to meet most environmentalists" criteria. And with technologies improving and prices coming down, eco-homes are no longer the domain of the wealthy, as even a modest building can incorporate green features.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit network of practitioners of environmentally friendly construction, a green home "uses less energy, water and natural resources; creates less waste; and is healthier and more comfortable for the occupants." The organization is continuously updating its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, which help realtors, developers, architects and builders create high performance green buildings of every stripe.

USGBC recently launched a special set of benchmarks—LEED for Homes—devoted specifically to the design and construction of residential buildings. Builders or owners can evaluate every step of the home design and construction process according to standards set forth under these guidelines, which aim for sustainably sourced materials, lower energy and water usage, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and less exposure to mold and other indoor toxins. USGBC research indicates that the net cost of owning a LEED home is comparable to that of owning a conventional home. Since LEED for Homes was launched in 2005, more than 375 builders representing 6,000 homes across the U.S. have built according to its standards.

Other organizations also weigh-in on what constitutes an "eco-home." Juliet Cuming, of the Vermont-based nonprofit Earth Sweet Home Institute, lays out several criteria that anyone can use when planning the design and construction of an environmentally-friendly home: Does the home plan reduce energy and resources? Does it re-use existing resources? Are materials used recyclable or biodegradable once no longer usable? Is the home healthy to producers and occupants and also to the installers of the materials? Is the plan affordable and available? Will the resulting home be durable?

"The ideal eco-home would be built in a place where it will have as little negative impact as possible on the plants, wildlife and humans in the area," says Cuming. "The home will be sited and designed to take advantage of shade in the summer and sun in the winter." She adds that a true eco-home should be crafted out of materials derived from local sources.

Those looking to learn more about eco-homes have lots of information to wade through online and in print. A good place to start is Environmental Building News, a monthly newsletter on green design and construction published by Building Green, Inc. It features comprehensive, practical information on a wide range of topics—from renewable energy and recycled materials to land-use planning and indoor air quality.

CONTACTS: LEED for Homes; Earth Sweet Home Institute; Environmental Building News

Dear EarthTalk: I’m moving in eight weeks and am trying to find some "green guidance" for making my relocation as eco-friendly as possible. Any tips?

—Holly, Elizabethtown, PA

Moving may be inherently unfriendly to the environment given that carting stuff around means expending lots of fuel and emitting a lot of pollutants, but there are ways to "relocate responsibly." For starters, the less stuff we accumulate in the first place the less we have to pick up and move elsewhere—so fighting the pack-rat urge and minimizing trips to shopping malls in the first place are good prerequisites.

Beyond what may already be too late to undo, though, one can lessen their environmental footprint when moving by first giving away or selling any non-essential items. Neighborhood yard sales and giveaways are one way to go, while websites like Ebay, Craig’s List and Freecycle provide virtual ways to unload unwanted stuff. Books can be donated to local libraries, and most schools will be happy to make use of old computers. And Goodwill and other charities will gladly take old clothes for resale in thrift outlets.

While all that’s going on, the environmentally-conscious mover would also want to be hoarding bubble wrap, cardboard boxes, padded envelopes and other packing materials instead of going out and buying them new. Many liquor, grocery, hardware and other retail stores are happy to give away large cardboard boxes they no longer need and would have to otherwise discard or recycle. Calling around first will save the headache and the emissions of driving around to individual stores one-by-one to ask them.

As to the move itself, if you’re fortunate enough to be relocating within Orange County, Los Angeles one green option is to rent "RecoPack" moving boxes from Earth Friendly Moving. The company, which has plans to expand nationwide over the next five years, provides five different stackable sizes of durable moving cartons made from recycled plastic bottles. The rental cost is just a dollar per box per week—and the company’s biodiesel-powered trucks will drop-off and pick-up the boxes before and after the move.

Not in southern California? Rent-a-Crate, which has 13 U.S. locations coast to coast, also rents re-usable (though not recycled) plastic moving crates that they"ll deliver to and pick up from any location. The company works extensively in the office relocation business, too, and rents other reusable accessories such as dollies for rolling heavy crates and crates for delicate items like computers and even medical x-ray films.

And remember, there is more to moving green than just moving. Use only eco-friendly cleaning products when scrubbing down the old place. If you live in the Washington, DC or Baltimore, MD area, a crew from Green Clean will send a professional crew that uses only nontoxic, biodegradable cleaners. Otherwise, health food stores all carry green cleaners that you can use yourself or instruct the hired help to use.

A tip from the Care2 "Green Moving Guide": File a temporary change of address with your post office rather than a permanent one to cut down on junk mail at the new place. The U.S. Postal Service sells lists of permanent address changes to direct marketers, but doesn’t bother doing so with temporary addresses.

CONTACTS: Rent-a-Crate, 800-427-2832; Earth Friendly Moving; Green Clean; Care2 Green Moving Guide