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At Home in the Zone

Sustainability doesn’t have to mean monasticism and darkness—with this zone-by-zone guide to the domestic world you know best, going green can be both more efficient and fun.

Conglomerate home illustration

Life was much harder when humans lived in caves. Consider a typical Sunday dinner: First we’d have to go out and whack a mammoth; then we’d have to invent a wheel to schlep the mammoth back to the cave; then we’d have to collect sticks and dung and figure out a way for the whole mess to catch fire.

If all went well, we’d finally be able to fry up a chop or two before night fell and the jackals attacked.1 We can’t know for sure, but I imagine all this work made us grumpy.

Fast-forward a few millennia. We’re still around (a little taller, a bit less furry), and we still get cold and hungry, but times have changed. Now, if we’re cold we turn a knob on the wall and warm air blows out. If we’re hungry we order food and a delivery human shuttles it to our door with her blue Pontiac LeMans. While effortlessly obtained warm air and Buffalo chicken pizzas might mark progress of a sort, our pursuit of the easy life has created some serious environmental problems that have the potential to make us pine for the days of cave dwellers and mammoths.

We can do better. Luckily, evolution has seen to it that humans have the ability to define and solve problems, should we choose to do so. By decommissioning our modern-day caves as energy-sucking pleasure boxes and recommissioning them as efficient instruments of shelter, we can more directly control their impact on our communities and on the planet. With an understanding of the issues at stake, we must use our opposable thumbs and sizable brains to retool our homes—and redesign our behavior within them.

Although some of the steps we can take are small and highly implementable, others are much greater. Some require the purchase of nifty gadgets and others require relatively intensive, nonglamorous behavioral changes. If we really want to make a difference, the challenge is to design2 an effective, personalized strategy—one that balances our desire to live sustainably with a desire to live comfortably.

We’ll begin by taking a look at “whole house” ideas that can quickly reduce our resource usage across the board, then we’ll zero in on more localized home zones.

  1. Admittedly, my understanding of prehistoric life comes solely from The Flintstones and a hazily remembered story from a 1973 issue of Highlights magazine.
  2. Yes, design. We’re going to use that word a lot in this discussion.

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    The Whole House Zone

    By conceptually dividing your home into zones, you can analyze each of its functions in turn. From there, you can develop strategies to understand how you actually live inside these zones—–and what it takes to improve their performance. That said, there are a number of fundamental whole-house strategies that apply to every zone in the home. These are the biggies: Implement them and you’ll reduce your energy usage (and your energy bills) dramatically.

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    The Food Zone

    Fine-tuning your cooking and dining areas pays off in more ways than just saving resources. As in other functional zones, their success starts with awareness: Where exactly does your food come from? Where exactly does your trash go after you haul it to the curb? Playing an active role in your family’s food cycle can be eye-opening, and it often helps spark an interest in improving other house zones.

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    The Living Zone

    Let’s talk design for a minute. It’s important to remember that potential modifications to your home must be carefully considered before you implement them. If you blindly follow the prescriptions of a well-meaning energy wonk without understanding the experiential implications of his suggestions, you could wind up with a perfectly energy-efficient house that’s perfectly uninspiring. Know this: Sustainable design doesn’t have to suck.1

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    The Sleeping Zone

    Sleep on this: You probably spend more time in your bedroom than any other home zone, so it’s important to get it right.1 Reducing your resource consumption here requires a close look at how you use the space—–night and day.2 Your goal is to balance energy efficiency with flexibility of experience.

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    The Bathroom Zone

    Reducing your water usage is easy, and it doesn’t mean you have to brush your teeth with a pinecone or weep with remorse every time you flush the can. As is the case with all resource usage, responsibility starts with understanding how much of something is actually needed to get the job done. Until you take that step, you’re basing your behavior on assumptions and habits you learned as a kid.1

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    The Yard Zone

    The space outside your walls should be as thoughtfully considered as the space within. Aside from contributing to pleasant, functioning outdoor space, well-placed landscaping can protect your house from solar gain in the summer while letting it inside during the winter.

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    The Human Zone

    The final home zone recognizes the importance of our behavior. Living responsibly extends beyond our physical spaces into our daily actions. We must design1 the way we live as carefully as we design our rain gardens and ground-source heat pumps. In the end, we must fine-tune ourselves to become active participants in the operation of our homes.

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