The answer in all cases is to insure a decent, secure, healthy life for all species on this planet.
As consumers, we are frequently confronted with lifestyle decisions that can impact our environment.
There are choices in this life that can make a big difference in what the quality of life will be for those who follow us.
Going with the flow of our culture is hard to avoid, and unfortunately the flow is not in the right direction for evolving a sustainable future.
One of the most momentous choices that any of us will make is the kind of house we live in.
A sustainable building can be defined as any building that is sited, designed, constructed, operated, and maintained for the health and well-being of the occupants, while minimizing impact on the environment.
Sustainable building practices offer an opportunity to create environmentally sound and resource-efficient buildings by using an integrated approach to design. Sustainable buildings promote resource conservation by including design features, such as: energy efficiency, use of renewable energy, and encouragement of water conservation.
By promoting resource conservation, sustainable building design creates healthy and comfortable environments, reduces operation and maintenance costs, considers environmental impacts of building construction and retrofit, and concentrates on waste minimization.
Sustainable building design also addresses such issues as historical preservation and access to public transportation and other community infrastructure systems. The entire life cycle of the building and its components is considered, as well as economic concerns, environmental impact and over-all performance.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a globally recognized sustainability achievement symbol. It is the most widely used green building rating system and is available for new construction and remodels. LEED provides parameters for building efficient, healthy buildings with cost-saving methods.
The benefits of LEED Certification include:
certification requires third party inspection and testing, which provides objective quality assurance above and beyond the mandatory building inspections.
Reduced energy and water usage
Lower operating costs
Less construction waste
More durable buildings
Supports the local economy
Greater resale value
Improved indoor air quality
New Mexico’s Sustainable Building Tax Credit will return up to $13,000 in tax credits for a residential building that earns LEED Platinum Certification.
It is becoming easier for individuals with modest incomes to have their homes remodeled or built to green standards.
Radiant Heating and Cooling can also be called hydronic heating and cooling because it uses water as the heat transfer medium instead of air. It can be called radiant because the majority of heating and cooling transfer in a home is actually through infrared radiation.
To illustrate why it is better to heat or cool with water imagine that you have 2 similar cups in front of you. One of the cups has air at 72 Degrees F and the other cup has water at the same temperature. If you accidentally burn your finger, which cup would you put it into? Correct, the cup with water in it, because water holds 3,500 time as much heat as an equal volume of air. This superior heat holding ability allows much more efficient transfer or storage of heat with water, uses relatively small diameter tubing, and its operation is virtually silent. Heat transfer with air requires 20 times as much power, requires much larger ducts, and is often noisy. A typical hydronic tube has a cross section of less than ½ square inch while a typical forced air duct is 200 square inches. Below is an aerial picture of the hydronic tubing in the floor of a 5,000 square foot building. The heating required in this building is distributed by a pump that uses less than 45 watts!
Radiant (Hydronic) Heating and Cooling System
So what does this mean for the comfort and economy of a building?
In contrast to forced air heating, it is more comfortable, silent, draft free, clean, allows zone controlling of conditioned areas, and is much more energy efficient.
The main disadvantage of radiant heating is that it has usually been assumed that a separate system of ductwork would be required for cooling. With the availability of modern materials and technology this is no longer true. Duct work is not required for cooling but in some climates may be needed for humidity control.
Hydronic Radiant Cooling
We have an amazing new adaptation of a very old technology that is just perfect for cooling buildings in the arid Southwest climate. It provides such superior comfort and performance as to be difficult to describe.
_Up to 80% energy savings
-A greater comfort range.
-Operates in almost total silence.
-No adverse humidity effects.
-Greater Design Freedom.
-Almost no visible components.
-Easy Zone control.
-No Mold concerns.
-Great environmental benefits.
The term for it is hydronic radiant panel cooling, because it uses water instead of air to transport heat and, and it is accurate to call it radiant cooling, because the majority of the heat is removed from the building through radiant transfer from the occupants and other building loads to panels inherent and integral to the building, either the ceiling, walls, or floor.
We are accustomed to using fan forced air almost exclusively in the US for cooling, radiant is much more common in Europe. The Bank of England, built in the 19th century had radiant cooling. Water can carry 3500 times as much heat as an equal volume of air, with the energy cost for transport of heating and cooling 20 times as great in an air system as in a hydronic system.
If you have ever experienced the benefits of radiant heating versus forced air heating, then you have some idea of the difference between radiant cooling versus forced air-cooling. In a large building with conventional air-conditioning, 20% of the occupants are uncomfortable at any one time. You can understand why radiant cooling has become so popular in superior quality construction in Europe.
With radiant cooling you can take free cooling from the desert night skies and store it in the thermal mass of the building, providing dependable, super efficient temperature control. Animals, native to the desert, store the cool of the desert night in their burrows. By taking advantage of the thermal mass inherent in buildings and cooling them between sunset and sunrise we can act like natives instead of fighting entropy and struggling to cool ourselves by pumping heat out of the building at the hottest part of the day. Almost all buildings in the Southwest are built with concrete floors than can be readily used for heat, or cool storage. Thermal mass for cooling works even better than it does for heating, as in solar design, because, while you may sometimes have days without sunshine, you never have nights without darkness.
The total amount of cooling will depend on the dew point outside and the temperature of the water going to the cooler. In some buildings and climates there will be a need for supplemental refrigerative cooling, but the same thermal storage strategy will provide considerable energy savings. The energy costs for the operation of the systems described above is only about 10-30% of that of a conventional refrigeration system and with proper design provides similar energy savings in most climates.
Benefits to the local and global climate are very large. Besides using so much more electricity, refrigerated air conditioning heats and dries the immediate environment. For example, the current summer temperature in Phoenix is 20 degrees higher than it was historically, and most of that change has come about since the introduction of refrigerative air-conditioning to the area. Refrigerative air-conditioning pumps heat from the inside of a building to the outside, plus the waste heat. The fans alone account for about 30% of that waste heat generated. A hydronic system only uses 1/20th as much power for the same function. Compared to a conventional AC system, a hydronic radiant cooling system can save 114 gallons of water, reduce local heating by 683,000 BTU, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 338 lbs a day for a typical size house in the Las Cruces area.
In areas that are more favorable, where there is no need for dehumidification or supplemental cooling the payback period is minimal, and the savings impressive, but the most important aspect may be the superior quality of the interior environment.
There are many aspects to building an affordable home. The most obvious is just simply the initial cost. The initial cost is going to be the most obvious factor in the monthly mortgage payments and is the most easily evaluated, but what are some of the other considerations? Let’s look at Location, Design, Execution, Operation, and Resale.
As a real estate agents say, “Location, location, location.” This aspect is going to determine the value of the home and any future improvements. A good location will improve the initial value of the home, the cost effectiveness of future improvements and will determine many other aspects in the livability and long term return on investment (ROI). A higher initial cost for the location can be quickly recouped by the effects it will have on subsequent investments. A poor location will reduce the value of all initial and future expenditures. It can also affect transportation costs, school quality, and insurance costs. The most important effect of a location will be on the eventual equity or resale value.
Design. Construction cost per square foot, maintenance, resale value, and operating costs will be very strongly influenced by design. The trend today is towards ostentatiousness instead of good design. In particular home designs that have lots of exterior corners and exaggerated elevations have an adverse effect. They cost more in every aspect of initial construction and will cost more to operate and maintain. Good design that will retain value involves simplicity and aesthetic choices derived from dividing simple masses into usable areas rather than joining lots of little spaces into a building plan. Initial design is not the place to save costs, but higher design costs don’t insure good design.
Execution. “The devil is in the details” is a motto to live by during construction. There are hundreds of decisions to make during the construction of a house. They will affect how well a home looks, feels, it’s operating and maintenance costs, and even how much cleaning it will require. A common mistake is to expect the builder to make all the right decisions. Another is to expect the building inspector to catch any mistakes. Diligence and legwork by the owners are essential. Independent third party inspection should be considered, such as required by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification. New Mexico has a unique Sustainable Building Tax Credit that will offset the costs of certification, and meeting the requirements of this tax credit will help insure air quality, energy efficiency, durability and other criteria. Certification should also increase resale value. Other tax incentives to consider include Solar Tax Credits and Solar Sales Tax Exemption.
Operation will have recurring costs that should be considered as one of the most important criteria. An obvious example is energy costs. The amount of the home mortgage payments will usually be fixed for a long period while energy costs have risen 4-5% annually for the last 40 years. What was initially considered a reasonable energy cost will increase over the long term while expenditures are in after tax dollars without any return. In contrast, initial expenditures for energy efficiency will appreciate when energy costs go up and also with the increase in building costs, and share the tax advantages of a mortgage. There are energy efficient mortgages that essentially trade a higher initial cost for lower operating costs, allowing more equity to be retained.
Resale should be the uppermost criterion in all home ownership decisions and will be determined by paying attention to all of the above.
A more sustainable building is a better investment for many reasons. It will cost less to own and operate while having better resale value.
New Mexico has a Sustainable Building Tax Credit. This unique and underused credit will return up to $13,000 in tax credits for a residential building that earns Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification. LEED certification requires designing and building to higher standards for several building attributes including Indoor Air Quality, Energy Consumption, Site usage, and Durability. It requires third party inspection and testing which provides an objective quality assurance for the owner, while reducing building operating and maintenance costs and improving a buildings re-sale value.
There is a 26% Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit (in 2020) that will help pay for solar thermal or solar electric systems and may include the heating system. These systems can be included in the buildings long term financing which is low now and has great tax advantages.
There is an exemption to the Gross Receipts Tax for solar investments.
These tax breaks are money the government provides for you to improve the environment and promote energy independence. They also reduce a buildings operating cost and improve your equity value. A good illustration of this can be made with energy costs. If a conventional building has current annual energy costs of $1,800 a year and energy costs continue to increase 5% annually, by the end of a 20 year mortgage that annual cost will have increased to over $5,000 a year and will have required over $68,000 in energy costs. An important point is that these costs are in after tax dollars and represents money down the drain and a reduced equity position.
In contrast, the investment for energy efficiency can be financed with the tax sheltered mortgage and government subsidies, which results in am improved equity position that will improve with building appreciation and the increase of energy costs.
Additionally, in our experience, our sustainable homes have have re-sold very quickly, even during economic downturns.
Making a positive contribution to the global and local environment with sustainability should be seen as a civic duty. It is important to ourselves and to future generations, and there is no more important place to do that then in the homes we build or modify. A commitment to sustainable building may be the most important decision we can make, and will leave an enduring testimony for the owners.
Sustainability requires making good decisions about many aspects of our built environment. These decisions involve indoor air quality, lighting, comfort, and acoustics. Sustainable buildings have proved to have higher rental values, increased occupancy rates, and improved occupant productivity.
A sustainable building should incorporate timeless superior aesthetics. How can it be enduring if it is unpleasant to look at or live in?