Blogs > Sara Gutterman > December 2013

Better Than Net Zero



Today is the grand opening of Green Builder Media’s latest demonstration project, the VISION House® Tucson. For the uninitiated, the VISION House Series is a collection of incredibly advanced, high performance, truly sustainable homes that we build around the country. Each project is unique and provides us with the extraordinary opportunity to work with and learn from innovative builders, designers, contractors, manufacturers, community members, elected officials, and other partners who are all passionate about sustainable living.

Over the years, we have unveiled a wide range of projects—single and multi-family, new and retrofit—in markets across the US. Some of my favorite projects include the ReVISION House Vegas, where we took a sadly neglected mid-century modern home and, much to the neighborhood’s elation, renovated it so that was both stunningly beautiful and beyond net zero (the HERS rating was negative 2), and the VISION House Los Angeles, which was a breathtaking contemporary net zero energy home that blended indoor and outdoor living in the most elegant way, perfectly integrating relaxed California living with the most advanced technologies available on the market.

Like its predecessors, the VISION House Tucson is remarkable. The home has a sense of place, blending beautifully into the surrounding community. The historical neighborhood, Armory Park del Sol, has been deemed the ‘Greenest Neighborhood in America’ by the Department of Energy and recently won AARP’s ‘Most Livable Community’ award based on its sustainability, walkability, and access to downtown Tucson. Once a rail yard, the urban infill community has been thoughtfully planned and meticulously redeveloped by green building pioneer John Wesley Miller.

Miller designed all of the homes in Armory Park del Sol to aesthetically fit into the historical community. But don’t be misled by their traditional Southwestern style adobe exteriors—the homes are net zero energy, boasting photovoltaics, solar thermal, sophisticated masonry thermal mass building envelope systems, and super efficient insulation, glazing, lighting, and mechanical systems. These homes use approximately half of the water of an average American house, employing low flow fixtures, water harvesting and filtration systems, and desert-friendly xeric landscaping.

Beyond its undeniably appropriate façade, the VISION House Tucson showcases vanguard products and systems. The home’s exterior features Boral’s concrete tile roof, bricks, and permeable pavers. Since the home uses approximately 5.5 KW of energy much of the time, a 7.2 KW grid-tied solar array, provided by Hanwha Solar and it’s solar leasing partner One Roof Energy enables the home to ‘net meter’, or sell energy back to the utility.

A combination of Rheem’s net-zero air and water system, JM’s high performance insulation, MI Windows and Doors' super efficient MI EnergyCore windows, and Whirlpool’s Energy Star appliances contribute to a jaw-dropping HERS rating of negative 17 (meaning the home will be a significant energy producer.)

Schneider Electric’s Wiser home management system monitors the home’s energy use, allowing the owner to remotely control the system from a tablet or phone.

An assortment of Panasonic’s WhisperGreen ventilation fans in conjunction with a newly released version of Beam’s central vacuum system promise impeccable indoor air quality.

Kohler’s low flow faucets, toilets, showerheads and fixtures add high style and water efficiency to any home. The VISION House Tucson’s elegance is punctuated by Vetrazzo’s recycled glass countertops and Crossville’s recycled tile (used for flooring and wall accents), giving the house a timeless beauty.

A Viking sprinkler system provided the National Fire Protection Association mitigates fire risk.

And I simply couldn’t end this piece without mentioning the garage, which feels more like the Bat Cave than a simply place to park vehicles, with its incredible Gladiator storage solutions and Schneider Electric EV charging station.

The attention that the home is receiving from the community is as exceptional as the products and systems themselves. At today’s grand opening, we’re expecting to see Congressman Barber, Mayor Rothschild, Senator Farley, several Deans from the University of Arizona, city council members, other elected officials, and a diverse group of professionals and homeowners, which proves that projects like the VISION House Tucson are not only redefining the face of the building industry, but also changing the world around us.

A special thanks to John Wesley Miller and his remarkable team for bringing the VISION House Tucson to life, as well as our generous sponsors who make the VISION House Series possible. It has been a true honor to work with everyone on the project team. I look forward to our next VISION adventure!

Interested in visiting the VISION House Tucson? It will be open to the public for 90 days.

Posted: 12/19/2013 9:25:17 AM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

True Cost Economy



Sustainability advocates throughout the U.S. agree that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an insufficient measurement for our economy, as it does not accurately reflect the cost of negative externalities associated with goods and services. By valuing volume over quality, performance, and sustainability, we’ve created a faulty metric that ignores externalities such as basic environmental services (clean air, fresh water, productive soil) and factors that determine our quality of life (sense of purpose, healthy bodies and ecosystems, and vibrant community interaction), resulting in a skewed assessment of our balance sheet.

In an effort to measure the true prosperity of countries across the globe, the Legatum Institute developed the 2013 Prosperity Index, which ranks countries based on 8 main categories (economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, and social capital), using 89 metrics including affluence, productivity, happiness, and sustainability.

The index places importance on dynamic economies with ample opportunity for entrepreneurial activity, low costs for business start ups, close communities with high levels of trust, and quality governance. The Scandinavian countries—Norway (1), Sweden (4), Denmark (6), and Finland (8)—stole the show. Switzerland (2), Canada (3), and New Zealand (5) rounded out the top 5. The U.S. came in 11th.

Perhaps more interesting than Legatum’s ‘Top 10’ list was the accompanying ‘To Watch’ list, in which countries with emerging economies like Bangdesh, Indonesia, South Korea, Uruguay, and Senegal joined countries with exploding economies like Germany, Sweden, and Slovakia. Together, these countries are predicted to influence “a new economic world order”.

Fortunately, a recent report by GlobeScan shows that climate change awareness and low-carbon behavior is surging in many of the emerging economies listed in Legatum’s report.

In many of these emerging economies, “aspirational consumers”, who comprise the quickly growing, upwardly mobile middle class (46% of Chinese consumers and 42% of Indian consumers), are leapfrogging the U.S. and other developed markets by circumventing the need for costly and cumbersome energy, water, and sewage infrastructure and gravitating straight towards green, high performance products, ranging from solar to waterless toilets to super efficient appliances. For example, between 2009 and 2013, the purchases of energy efficient light bulbs increased by 20% in China, 13% in Mexico, and 11% in India (in contrast, purchase levels decreased over that same time by 19%in the UK and 18% in the US.)

“All this should be heartening to climate activists, green entrepreneurs and brands with a mission,” says Doug Miller, founder of Globescan. “It indicates that serious amounts of yuans and rupees are being and will be spent in the right direction, even if dollars and pounds are not just now. It also confirms that behavior follows concern, which is promising given the recent resurgence of climate concern (and environmental concerns generally) in Europe and North America. Brands and green entrepreneurs with low-carbon solutions for consumers will get earlier traction in emerging markets in the foreseeable future, so they should focus their attention there.”

Responding to market demand and the revenue potential associated with emerging markets, corporations across the globe are developing simple, resource efficient, environmentally appropriate solutions for these markets. Kohler, as one example, is testing toilet solutions that can be used in locations that don’t have access to ample water sources or municipal sewage systems. GE developed a stripped down version of its ECG system for clinics in rural India who didn’t have the funds or technical expertise to purchase or operate the sophisticated (and expensive) hospital version. Siemens has crafted an entire strategy to respond to emerging economies called SMART, which means simple, maintenance-friendly, affordable, reliable and timely to market.

If the emerging economies on Legatum’s ‘To Watch’ list, coupled with innovative manufacturers, can succeed in making sustainability not just a desirable outcome but an intelligent choice, then we could be further down the pathway of reaching our goals than we think. After all, we don’t need more debate over which political party has a moral right to own the sky or which rich counties will pay for changing climate repercussions. Rather, what we need right now more than anything is a global mind shift that swiftly and effectively ushers in a sustainable future—a cultural tipping point that is driven by masses of everyday people around the world making choices not necessarily because they’re sustainable, but because they simply make good sense.

How can we facilitate that gloabl mind shift? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 12/12/2013 11:51:41 AM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

Seduction of More



As the economy continues to rebound, businesses in our industry seem to be shifting their focus away from cost-cutting, cautiousness, and risk adversity, and turning it towards forward-thinking innovation, disruptive technologies, and new business models.

I’m observing a newfound openness to broad-based change, which had not been present during the past few financially stressful (and arguably less creative) years. I’ve recently heard executives from large building product manufacturers say things like ‘We’re ready for a radical overhaul of internal processes,’ and ‘Our entire product line is ripe for transformation, given today’s green and tech savvy world.’

But there is an elephant in the room. Our economy has been designed to benefit the ‘Seduction of More’ (more money, more stuff, more hours at work so that we can make more money to buy more stuff), where more stuff equals growth. While we’re swimming in incredible, technologically advanced solutions for faster, cheaper, and newer, those solutions are addressing the wrong questions.

We’re stuck in a bad dream of our own making—we’re quickly ascending the ladder of innovation, but we’re finally waking up to the realization that this ladder is against the wrong wall.

Faulty metrics are partly to blame. Cost per square foot doesn’t adequately reflect the quality of a home. Miles per gallon doesn’t fully incorporate a vehicle’s real value. Similarly, the metric that we’ve assigned to our economy, gross domestic product (GDP), only recognizes growth in the form of more stuff, ignoring the very fundamentals of our existence (access to clean air and fresh water) and the things that most readily impact our quality of life (sense of purpose, healthy bodies and ecosystems, and vibrant community interaction).

Despite what economists would have us believe, more isn’t always better. More installed renewable energy systems? That’s better. More healthy kids who aren’t allergic to the toxins in their homes? That’s also better. More people around the world who have access to clean water, and therefore have even a remote chance at living a halfway decent life? Definitely better. More incentives for alternative approaches and beyond-the-box thinking? Absolutely better.

More gas guzzling cars on the road generating carbon dioxide? Not better. More coal-fired power plants belching toxic clouds? Certainly not better. More people and animals sick from disease spread by contaminated water, food, and air? I’ll say no more.

At the end of the day, aren’t we looking for a better chance to survive—and thrive—on, and in conjunction with, this planet? If that’s the case, then how do we change the rules of the game so that rather than rewarding the Seduction of More, we’re encouraging meaningful solutions that address today’s key issues—healthier, higher quality, and more sustainable—based on the realities of our resource restrained world? How do we create game changing solutions, as opposed to simply developing new ways of playing the old game?

Fortunately, game changing solutions are all around us, begetting further innovation. For example, intelligent systems that are not just reactive (responding to external programming), but are proactive (automatically eliminating unnecessary resource use) are contributing to huge efficiencies. Novel approaches to material reuse, recycling, and disposal are making a significant impact on our waste stream. And collaborative consumption—the sharing economy—is helping to reduce the Seduction of More by offering people access to things (cars, beds, and all kinds of products) they don’t need to own or can’t afford to buy outright.

Frugal innovation has become the trendy name for creating simple, creative solutions from limited resources that address today’s market realities. As innovative entrepreneurs, inventors, and companies face a future constrained by economic, environmental, and social pressures, they’re realizing that complicated, expensive solutions are obsolete, and that their biggest opportunity resides in flexible, intuitive solutions are that solve real problems at “radically affordable” prices.

So, as we embark on this exciting journey of transformation, let’s make sure that we’re asking the right questions and developing solutions that focus on better, not more. Let’s make our efforts mean something.

What do you think the next step is on the road to better? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 12/5/2013 11:23:09 AM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

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