Building Green for All

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Tompkins Weekly 3-13-19

By Jean Rightmire

In an ideal world, housing should be producing energy rather than consuming it. Call it “green,” “energy conserving,” “energy efficient,” or “sustainable,” any home should be healthy, be easily maintained, cause little or no pollution, and be affordable for all families and individuals to attain. While this is far from the reality we live in currently, it’s never too late to start.

Even small steps can make a significant impact. Given that we each have a personal responsibility to be changemakers, locally, Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties (TCHabitat), is leading the way to build energy efficient, safe, healthy and energy sustainable homes for low- to moderate-income families.

So, what does ‘sustainable housing’ really mean? What is a sustainable home? According to Habitat for Humanity International, “Sustainable” or “green,” building means designing and constructing houses that are efficient and durable, that use fewer resources, are healthy to live in and are affordable.” TCHabitat builds sustainable homes using construction standards that focus on water and energy efficiency, safety and health, and materials conservation. 

At TCHabitat we build sustainably focused homes to take better care of the environment, our homeowners, and our volunteers. Our goals are to reduce the home’s monthly and life cycle costs and increase efficiency and durability, using earth and human-friendly products all while providing healthy environments. In 2018 TCHabitat successfully completed two sustainable focused homes in the city of Ithaca. Located on Third Street, these homes utilized such earth and human-friendly products such as low VOC paint, solar panels, highly energy efficient heat pumps, energy efficient lighting, Energy Star appliances, and water-based urethane. Additionally, the build also used high energy Argon gas windows and all insulation was at or surpassed New York State code. This build and those in the future are LEED compliant. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), is a green building certification program used worldwide.

To the non-builder, it can be easy to get overwhelmed at the multiple building materials, practices, and technologies that make homes more efficient and longer-lasting while improving the quality and comfort for its inhabitants. According to experts in the field, to make your dwelling ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’, you should focus on improving your living environment with these four main areas:

  • Indoor Air Quality – This includes using materials free of volatile organic compounds (referred to as VOCs) that easily become vapors or gases. Along with carbon, they contain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, sulfur or nitrogen. Consumers should select materials like low VOC paint, carpets and cabinetry (which normally uses formaldehyde); embrace optimal mechanical ventilation systems and choose high-quality air filters.
  • Water Use – This includes implementing low-flow shower, toilet and taps, and rainwater harvesting for landscaping purposes. Understanding water usage trends and choosing appliances that are water efficient, like front-loading washing machines that use less water than top loading machines
  • Building Material – This includes minimizing the amount of waste in the construction process and recycling what remains, choosing recycled-content building materials (like insulation made from shredded denim, hemp or sheep’s wool; Eco rock drywall; concrete aggregates; or reclaimed wood). Selecting renewable products (such as harvested lumber, cork, linoleum, and natural fiber carpets) and choosing materials which have extended life spans (for example, metal for roofing and stone for flooring or walls).
  • Energy Efficiency – Most importantly, a green home starts by being well-designed, well-insulated, and well-positioned on its site to operate as much as possible using passive heating and cooling (‘passive’ referring to anything that reduces energy consumption without the use of energy during the home’s existence). For example, a home with 60 percent of its windows facing south (passive solar) may have its heating requirements reduced by as much as 25 percent for virtually no cost. Installing components like low e-coating argon gas windows, operable skylights, solar panels, hot water on demand and heat recovery air exchange systems are other ways to save energy.

TCHabitat also reuses building materials and home products. By that it means, when high-quality, efficient, very slightly used or new products are donated to TCHabitat, we incorporate them, as applicable, into the new homes we are building. In 2019-2020, TCHabitat is taking on a new endeavor with a recently purchased property on Slaterville Road in the town of Dryden. This property has one 19th century home currently on it that we will be fully rehabilitating, and enough land to build two more new homes. Habitat families are working families who stay long term in their homes. They utilize all the sustainable features built into their homes to further the goals of TCHabitat to be a leader in sustainable building, living, and housing.

If you would like to get involved with TCHabitat or make a donation please visit our webpage at

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