Residential remodeling for a "Peak Oil" world
means looking to maximize energy and water efficiency

One symptom of a "Peak Oil" world is ever increasing gasoline prices posted at all gas stations which people will notice with ever greater alarm. But few people realize that energy costs and use in buildings such as homes and apartments takes as much money if not more than in autos; put another way U.S. buildings produce roughly half of global greenhouse-gas emissions every year. Since natural gas and electricity meters tend to be hidden in dusty corners, with indecipherable read-outs few people in the USA simply know when they are using a little or a lot of power. Another aspect of "peak" (which is affecting many western states, such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah) is an ever growing population that is facing water shortages.

Because many people might only associate energy and water conservation with new construction using alternative building materials such as hay bales (aka a hippy home), thought it might be helpful to share some real world conservation ideas done on a 1920's era rental property (near downtown San Diego) that saves energy, water and thus $$$. Using current remodeling technology and without any call to action, such as media campaigns to conserve electricity or water, tenants cut overall energy and water consumption by about 60+%, which in the long-run means more profit$ since all utilities including WiFi are included in the rent. By looking at the big picture and designing accordingly this decreases the environmental footprint of all the tenants in the building.

Remodel of 1920's California Spanish Revival apartmant building, that incorporates xeriscaping principles along with edible landscaping ideas

After this 1920's apartment building was torn down to the studs and rebuilt "literally" from the ground on up, this rental is now very energy and water efficient.

Starting out with the "charm and allure" of 1920's Spanish architecture, each apartment was slightly reconfigured to be an "egronomic and pragmatic" open studio (FYI the units use to be tiny and poorly laid out one bedroom units). So after some old fashion hard work, the property still retains its old school "charm and allure" but now the units have updated layouts that are energy efficient and thus environmentally friendly.

One step toward making the building being environmentally friendly is the choice of lighting. For example to save energy and illuminate the second floor hallway solar tubes were installed with the optional "Light Kit" which makes it possible to have an energy saving LED hallway light at night which also lets in natural sunlight during the day...

Interesting facts and statistics: If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, the USA would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars. To lessen your environmental footprint, unplug electronics, battery chargers for cell phones and other equipment when not in use; taken together, these small items can use as much power as your refrigerator.

With all the up grades, the building now uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 60+% less energy over all as compared to the original state, because the structure is now insulated, has dual pane windows, has energy star appliances, and lighted throughout with LED lighting.

Unencumbered by conventional social norms which too often are driven by advertising, the KISS design philosophy was selected instead of following the latest kitchen and bath design fashion fad(s). In other words all design selections were based on the idea things should be pragmatic, economical and durable.

Look at the pictures and notice there are NO granite countertops and/or stainless steel kitchen appliances, the reason being they didn't pass the cost/benefit analysis.

In years to come I'm sure that granite countertops and/or stainless steel kitchen appliances will be associated with the kitchen fashion fad trends of the subprime era, just like some variant of green color paint was used in many 60's and early 70's kitchens, and a 1950's era kitchen might be associated with red formica counter tops and steel cabinets. Besides the faddish aspect, installing granite countertops and stainless steel kitchen appliances akin to putting makeup on pig. Got that idea long ago and it was reinforced from watching various TV news segments about the number of foreclosed properties, ya know ones where a TV reporter was going thru a few properties with a real estate agent and in most places featured, they all had granite countertops and stainless steel kitchen appliances.

Crunching the numbers, granite countertops and "designer" stainless steel appliances in rentals made no financial sense! So to create a timeless kitchen space, a tried an true finish of laminated wood floors and basic ceramic tile was selected. The numbers indicated that money which could have spent on bling such as granite and stainless, would be better spent custom building solid 3/4" plywood cabinets thru out; in place of purchasing junk from Home Depot like so called custom designer cabinets built out of MDF.

Essentially all design decisions were driven the investment goal to find the lowest overall cost per unit time (per unit user), of the capital depreciation life of 27.5 years. Too often business as usual means people only looks at the up front costs, and pretty much discounted or ignored the long term risks (IMHO this was the basic mentality of people who got caught up in the subprime mania).

Now that the basic solid infrastructure is done on this property, the only major thing to add on this property is solar panels on the roof for net metering. But as it stands, California laws IMHO are pretty fucked up WRT net metering for a rental property, so that will have to wait.

Landscaping and water use in a "Peak Oil" world
means implementing pragmatic water conservation designs

Interesting facts and statistics: NASA estimates there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn. According to the Professional Lawn Care Association of America there are about 53 million households in America with lawns, which cover over 30 million acres of area in the United States; to put that into perspective that's a lawn the size of Pennsylvania. Every year to mow an area that large takes 300 million gallons of gas and 1 billion hours of labor. Few people think about it, but the fact is it takes energy to move water. For example, in California about 20% of the total electrical power generated is used by water utilities for pumping, treatment, end use, and wastewater reuse. So reducing water consumption is yet another way to save energy!

Scientific literature indicates drought(s) will become more sever in the western part of the United States and seriously impact the San Diego area. When one considers that landscaping accounts for about 50 percent if not more of residential water usage, and that in San Diego we have had below average rain fall for the last two years (the winters of 2006 and 2007), I'm pretty sure that water officials will be forced to consider restricts on watering of lawns in the future.

The argument for water restrictions is pretty straight forward; it takes a minimum of 40 inches of annual rain fall to keep a lawn looking lush, BUT the San Diego historical average is only about 10" of rain fall a year (and with climate change its projected that rainfall on average in the years ahead will decrease). Winter of 2006 recorded rainfall in San Diego was just under 3", the winter of 2007 recorded rainfall in San Diego was just about 7" of annual rainfall. In years past San Diego was able to import water from the Colorado river basin, but because the western United States has been in drought conditions since about 1999 in effect we have been spending water at an unsustainable rate, much akin to how subprime borrowers were consuming at an unsustainable rate. With subprime loans we have seen how reckless financial decisions can cause the financial system to crash; by consuming more water than is sustainable, the inevitable result is damage to environment and the economy. One other thing, just like the subprime loan crisis came as a surprise to many, the drought in the western states will be just as rude an awakening (but to those who have been looking at the issue of either subprime loans or drought, harmful symptoms could be avoided if the problem was recognized by the masses early in the cycle).

So to address big problems of drought, environmental quality issues and help boost curb appeal, in place of unimaginative water wasteful turf landscaping, low-water use or xeriscaping principles along with edible landscaping ideas were used in the early California Mission garden, inspired landscape design.

front yard fruit and vegetable gardening is possible with circular terraced garden planters, at the center is a calamondin tree, the outter ring is a strawberry bed

The traditional water wasteful front yard lawn is replaced by a potted garden of sorts. Edible landscaping (including citrus trees, strawberries plants and borage) were planted in terraced planters which add a degree of aesthetics and minimize water use.

By thinking outside the box, it is possible to design front yard landscaping that provides organic produce and creates a mini eco system, which supports beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators. By comparison, a tradition front yard landscape consisting mostly of a monoculture turf lawn, from a biological aspect is akin to old shag carpeting which is installed outside, and does nothing for beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators. Looking at a majority of front yard landscapes which contain some form of lawn, I think the term "nonperforming asset" which is a term often used by bankers and accountants, is an appropriate description.

Using selective hardscaping and pragmatic landscaping elements can reduces water usage by 80% or more over all...

Another benefit of using permeable hardscaping, elements in a landscape design, is it prevents run off when it does rain here in San Diego and eliminates on going maintenance costs such as needing to mow, weed, fertilize and water a lawn. Overall I've calculated that my landscape design uses 80% less water (with respect to an equal area of the suburban wet dream of a green lawn), yet still manages to enhance the property aesthetics, which potentially increases the property value.

Turning now to the environmental question; it has been well documented that lawns in San Diego that use pesticides and fertilizers contribute to the destruction of many aquatic habitats. So by eliminating lawn landscaping, you will be doing your part to prevent crap from ending up in our bay and ocean! BTW isn't it ironic that its called "fertilizer" when the stuff is on your lawn or sold at the garden department, but "shit" or some other variant, is the name we use when its in places where we don't want it?

The other environmental benefit of a landscape design which does not include a lawn is, that it does NOT produce lawn clippings on a weekly basis and put out by the curb to be taken away by the local sanitation department. You may not be aware of it but so called green waste in a landfill produces methane (which is another kind of greenhouse gas).

One of the defining mantras of the environmental movement has been "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle." As you can see from the pictures this design REDUCES water usage by a dramatic amount; but what you cannot see is how the plant matter was tilled back into the soil for compositing, which is natures way of RECYCLING.

Reviving The Victory Garden: a st francis's garden with watermelon ground cover, a terraced strawberry patch, and a citrus tree

One year later (September 2008): A statue of St. Francis (who is the patron saint of nature and the environment) stands watch over the front yard which is now an edible estate. To mimic the traditional color scheme of a resource intensive lawn, I've added a watermelon patch that now covers part of the area with verdant vegetation (next year I'll try planting watermelon earlier in the season so the whole area will be covered with vines by labor day). Euphorbia Milii (aka Crown of Thorns Plant) is used as landscape elements because it is low maintenance and adds colorful red flowers.

During World War I and World War II, the United States government asked its citizens to plant gardens in order to support the war effort. Millions of people planted gardens. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort - not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty.

Growing food in a garden is not a new idea, during the first and second world wars there were many so called "Victory gardens" in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. These gardens were also considered a civil "morale booster" in that a family or community gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labour and rewarded by the produce grown.

FYI other ways this investment property was able to achieve dramatically lower water consumption was by installing ultra low flush toilets, and installing a water efficient front loading washer which replaced an old top loader in the common laundry area.

Bottom line figures indicate that water conservation using the new landscaping design and modern plumbing fixtures has reduced water consumption in the neighborhood of 60+% over all, when compared to the original state of the building.

Closing thoughts

This apartment building is a working example of an "investment" that meets the triple bottom line criteria. This is because this piece of real estate is being operated as a conservative long term "financial" investment that is designed to be environmentally friendly, and serves a diverse set of tenants who add to the social fabric of the neighborhood.

The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) concept refers to an expanded set of criteria for measuring success

Sustainability in general is the capacity to maintain a certain process or state indefinitely; that concept within an economic, environmental and social framework.

It might worth reminding people with "conservation" basically it's all about living by the old adage "A dollar saved, is a dollar earned" and I can't find any downsides to this approach of investment. Hope this little bit of show and tell inspires ya to look at energy and water conservation as a great thing that leaves more $$$ in your pocket and saves the environment for future generations.

home page button