Architect Peter Pfeiffer has no patience for "eco bling."
That’s his term for the proliferation in the marketplace of pricey devices that promise consumers a greener "footprint" for their homes. Yes, he says, these goodies might have energy-savings potential, but many of them require dipping deep into one’s wallet and could take years to pay for themselves.
For homeowners who are building or doing major remodeling, he suggests, instead, that good design and planning can go a long way toward controlling energy consumption.
Pfeiffer is a prominent architect in Austin, Texas, a city that has become known as the "green homebuilding capital of America" for its conservation-minded building code and a widespread environmental consciousness.
His resume suggests that he knows a thing or two about the topic. In 2006, for instance, he was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects for his commitment to mainstreaming green building in North America.
The National Association of Home Builders honored him as its Green Advocate of the Year in 2003. In 2006, Residential Architect magazine cited him as one of the 10 most influential residential architects of the past decade.
But he eschews archi-speak.
"You just don’t waste stuff, that’s what green building is all about," said Pfeiffer, who recently addressed the annual conference of the National Association of Real Estate Editors in Austin.
He said his long involvement with conservation-minded building has convinced him that well-meaning homeowners make it harder (and more expensive) than it has to be. His own approach to green building, he said, is "very pragmatic."
Grand strokes can be intimidating, he said. And too expensive.
"People should spend cash on basics like insulation and thermostats," he said.
Five things Pfeiffer says consumers ought to know about "going green":
1. In new kitchens, go light on the countertops — there will be an immediate payback, he said.
"Light-colored countertops do a lot to save the environment," he said. They reflect light upward, thus reducing lighting costs for the room. Simple as that, he said.
2. Zone your heating and cooling systems, he said. "The bottom line in green building is, ‘don’t use power,’ " he said. "The next level is to use power efficiently."
And in a two-story home, consumers tend to spend their days downstairs, their nights upstairs: It’s wasteful to heat and cool the whole house to the same levels simultaneously.
3. Pfeiffer knows that solar panels and tankless water heaters are widely touted for their resource-conserving abilities, but he’s not particularly a fan. One problem, he said, is initial investment for both can be significant, with a years-long payback period.
Years ago, he installed the panels on his own home, and estimates that though they cut about $35 a month from his electrical bill, they will have a 32-year payback.
He also complained of climbing a ladder periodically to keep the panels clean.
"They call them active solar panels," he said. "That’s because you’ll actively participate in maintaining them."
4. A simple design element that was commonly used in the first half of the 20th century has fallen out of favor and needs to make a comeback, Pfeiffer said. He’s a fan of deep roof overhangs.
"It’s a non-sexy idea, I know," Pfeiffer said. But the roof overhangs, extending a couple of feet beyond the exterior walls, will shade the windows, plus they will help extend the lifespan of the average paint job by protecting it from the elements. And contrary to popular notions, they don’t make houses seem darker.
5. Want to breathe better? On that front, Pfeiffer also challenges long-accepted notions about where we should store our cars.
Don’t make your garage a part of your house, he said: You’re just inviting automotive exhaust indoors.
"Detaching the garage is one of the most important things you can do if you care about your respiratory health," he said.
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.