People often ask me, “What does it cost to build green?” My usual answer is that it depends on why you’re doing it. If you really want to lighten your load on the planet, and an energy-efficient home is just one of the changes you’re willing to make to truly reduce your impact, then it will likely cost the same or less than a “conventional” home. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a way to maintain a “business as usual” affluent western lifestyle, but with smaller energy bills and a lighter conscience, then it’s likely going to cost substantially more than a regular home.
As a designer, I’ve tried to make sustainability the cornerstone of my practice, though not always without resistance. There’s a prevalent myth that sustainability is too expensive for us to achieve individually or as a society. But I maintain that greening up your home is only really expensive if your other consumption habits remain unchanged. Shelter represents just a fraction of our overall greenhouse impact, and a green-built home won’t compensate for all of the other wasteful stuff that we’ve been taught to think of as “the good life”.
Notwithstanding the poverty that people suffer in our midst, we remain an affluent society in this part of the globe. And it’s been demonstrated that affluence has a measurable negative impact on the environment. In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren came up with the “IPAT equation”: environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. This is observable here at home, but also in nations such as China and India, where a new, rapidly-growing consumer class has adopted western standards of consumption.
Studies show that in the “developed” world, affluent people often support the IDEA of sustainability, but are hesitant to buy sustainable goods. A single value isn’t enough, apparently, to sell a product or brand – in a sense, what we buy reflects who we are. And new consumers in other parts of the globe aren’t likely to change their consumption patterns until we change ours. To do that, we’ll need to get past the idea that sustainability is necessarily expensive.
The more seriously and holistically we set out to reduce our environmental impact, the more affordable it becomes. Reducing expensive consumption habits can allow us to work less. Buying high quality, locally produced goods reduces energy and repair costs and maintains the economic health of the community. By conserving natural resources, we avoid the more expensive impacts of climate change – for example, the drought conditions that force communities to purchase water. By having just what we really need, and occupying just enough space to contain it, we can ensure that everyone gets to enjoy a good quality of life. This is within reach – so what’s stopping us?
Photo of a luxury “eco-mansion” (accessed online at http://www.corvallisadvocate.com/2013/0307-oxymoron-of-the-ecomansion/)