Design for Living
Rich Reis, of Silver Spring, Maryland, is a member of the Washington Ethical Society and of the group’s Earth Ethics Committee. An animal advocate, an avid cyclist and sailor, and a conservation engineer, Reis is also a pretty handy model of that famous piece of advice to all activists: Think globally, act locally.
While much of the debate on energy policy focuses on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and waves, Reis insists that we should be reducing our needs for energy in the first place: “Negawatts—negative watts—are the most significant source of energy out there.”
Negawatts are wasted energy, Reis explains; and in the immediate sense, conservation has much more impact than conversion. Heading off waste saves money even as it reduces carbon emissions.
But can residential or commercial conservation efforts really make a difference in mitigating global warming? Many believe government regulations are the only way to slow climate change. Rich Reis doesn’t agree.
“Individuals can make a difference,” Reis says. “Think of littering. Not littering is doing a small part to make a better world. Emitting CO2 is like littering; it’s putting something in the environment that doesn’t belong there.”
So Reis, through his business, Conservation Engineering (www.conservationengineering.com), works to make residential and commercial buildings more energy-efficient. Both homes and businesses can save money this way, but Reis finds that most clients are genuinely concerned about the environmental impact.
Homeowners should begin with an energy audit, which, Reis says, will show patterns, so that residents know where and when they use the most energy. Many utility companies offer free home-energy audits or have energy-saving tips online.
An audit may, for instance, recommend changing light bulbs to compact fluorescents. Compact fluorescent light bulbs can last up to 10,000 hours — ten times longer than incandescent bulbs— and they are four times as efficient. An up-and-coming technology, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can last up to 100,000 hours and are more efficient than fluorescent bulbs, but it will be a few years before they are available for home use.
Residents can also use motion sensors to turn lights on and off, install better insulation, and make their windows more efficient. While retrofitting one’s home to be more energy efficient is a good idea, Reis points out that it would be better to build more energy-efficient homes in the first place .
For it is not always efficient to throw out the old and bring in the new. Reis talks of “embedded” or “embodied” energy — that is, energy required to produce and deliver a product, before it’s ever used. “Because energy is required to produce any new thing,” Reis says, “keeping and driving an old car might be more efficient than getting a new Prius.”
In some ways, responding to climate change will mean returning to traditional knowledge.
“Before we had air conditioning,” says Reis, “we designed buildings to be comfortable, with a good overhang and good ventilation. But in the era of cheap energy, we thought we could overcome nature. We were less concerned about energy-efficient design.”
So we moved away from sensible architecture. “We want to over design things. Look at the simplicity of the pueblos, with their thick walls, which are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”
Reis continues: “We need to design in a way to reduce the need for air conditioning and reduce the size of houses.”
The Environmental Design of Everyday Life
Rich Reis’s lifestyle reflects his environmental concerns. He easily combines his passions for environment-friendly modes of transportation such as biking and sailing small boats with vegetarianism.
Reis advises reducing energy use by avoiding driving and using mass transit, bicycling, walking and telecommuting instead. He also uses alternative energy, buying wind energy from his local utility and using solar to heat home hot water.
Reis’s vegetarianism stems from both ethical and environmental concerns about animal agribusiness. “I know that animals that are exploited for food and leather lead horrible
lives and die horrible deaths,” he says. “But there are also tremendous inefficiencies in feeding animals to ultimately harvest their meat.”
“Raising animals for food causes a lot of pollution, ” Rich adds.
An active member of the Washington Ethical Society (WES), he combines his knowledge and expertise in conservation with his commitment to WES by implementing several energy-efficiency strategies at the WES building. (According to the American Ethical Union, the umbrella organization of U.S. ethical societies, “Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.”)
The many energy-saving changes Reis has applied at WES included replacing the air conditioning with a system that doesn’t use refrigerants that could deplete ozone, which protects us from ultraviolet radiation; changing incandescent light bulbs in exit signs to more efficient LED lights; and upgrading to a vastly more efficient gas water heater.
Reis clearly sees his individual personal passions as part of a whole. “I am part of several movements — vegetarian, environmental, bicycling, sailing, ethical culture— that should be related,” he said. “Yet there is little or no overlap; often there is conflict and disagreement. I recall a Vegetarian Society of DC restaurant visit where people at my table were discussing which SUV to buy.” Reis would like to see WES take strong positions on vegetarianism and animal rights.
Despite the challenges of global warming and energy conservation, Reis remains optimistic about slowing or reversing climate disruption to preserve the biocommunity.
“It's empowering to work toward that end,” he said. “I believe that pessimists are nearly always correct in a self-fulfilling way, whereas optimists are much more successful.”
- To learn how to conduct your own home energy audit, visit http://www.energyguide.com. To find a conservation engineer in your area, see http://www.natresnet.org/directory/rater_directory.asp#Search.
- Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21 st Century (2006), at 165-166.
- Ibid, at 160.
- “Embodied Energy,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_energy).
- American Ethical Union Web site ( http://www.aeu.org).