the real cost of sustainability

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is, what is the real cost of sustainability.  Is it “affordable”?  Can it be achieved on a “budget”?  The quick answer is yes, anything can be done affordably and on a budget.  But this requires a great deal of 1) research and 2) lots and lots of weekends spent in DIY hell.

So, let’s assume for a second that you don’t have thumbs and can not under any circumstances work even the simplest of household tools.  You have to rely solely on contractors who sell and/or install/maintain sustainable products.  Let me also clarify, we’re talking about the residential market here. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re buying an existing home that you want to retrofit, or constructing a new home that will incorporate sustainable systems into the design, the same issues will apply.

And what are these issues?  What are the systems that are available, commercially, to the average homeowner not making over $200,000 per year (you know, RICH people)?

Solar panels (photovoltaic module/panel): according to wikipedia, are defined as a packaged interconnected assembly of solar cells, also known as photovoltaic cells. The solar panel can be used as a component of a larger photovoltaic system to generate and supply electricity in commercial and residential applications.  For a typical single family home you’re going to need between 800 and 1200 kwh of electricity to power your home (assuming a 1200 sf residence).  To have a system purchased and installed you’re looking at between $25,000 and $42,000 depending on manufacturer and the specific conditions of your site.  At the low end, that’s a car; at the high end it’s half a house (in today’s market at least).  Let’s say your average monthly bill is $200/month or $2400/year.  It will take between 10 and 18 years for the system to repay itself and that’s assuming it functions at ideal capacity and doesn’t require extensive maintenance or replacement/upgrade.

(editor’s note: I am not trying to discourage the adoption of sustainable technologies in the residential market – though it sure does seem that way – the facts simply are the facts)

Tankless Water Heaters: Very efficient and reliable (especially gas powered), but again, expensive.  The difference between a typical 40 gallon electric water heater and a whole house tankless system is approx. $300 for electric and $1200+ for tankless.  While a typical tank type water heater will last between 5 and 10 years, they do use more electricity.  But then, the cost/benefit is not, in my opinion, enough to justify the expense.

Low flow toilets, shower heads and faucets: This one is kind of a no brainer.  They will cost a little more, but typically are designed better (i.e. sexier) and obviously require less water to do the job.  Hey, why not.

Rain water collection: Again, a no brainer.  Systems cost next to nothing, aside from the pump and filter, and can be installed by an average DIY’er.  Systems allow you to offset your water usage for things like washing clothing, washing dishes, taking showers and flushing toilets.  Think of it as having a supplemental well on your property.

So where does this leave us?  Obviously there are sustainable practices to fit any budget from the small to the not so small (that costs HOW MUCH??!!) and everything in between.  There are low tech and high tech ways to live sustainably.  While many “off the grid” options may not be quite as economical as they could be, I encourage everyone, especially homeowners, to seek out ways in which they can reduce, or eliminate, their on-grid energy and water consumption. This isn’t just about reducing our energy bills, although that is important.  It’s about being good stewards and making as little of an ecological impact on our surroundings as we can.

Below are some sites for more information.

Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Historic Homeworks

US Dept. of Interior – Preservation Briefs

How Stuff Works

Consumer Reports – Tankless WH


Lighter Footstep


About Jeremiah

Birth: April 6 - Upstate New York Education: Savannah College of Art and Design Bachelor of Fine Art - 2003 Masters of Architecture - 2003 Member AIA National since 2004 Member AIA Florida since 2004 Member AIA Jacksonville since 2004 Member Emerging Design Professionals Jacksonville since 2006 Emerging Design Professional President 2009-2010 View all posts by Jeremiah

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