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Square Feat: Sustainable Shoes

While we're on the subject of affordable housing, let's talk about sustainable design, for the two walk hand in hand. But...

While we're on the subject of affordable housing, let's talk about sustainable design, for the two walk hand in hand. But first, let's talk about American cheese.

Most would agree that American cheese, like toothpaste or tennis balls, is an affordable commodity. When we talk about affordable American cheese slices, we are talking about the relatively small amount of dollars required to acquire them at the American cheese store. The same holds true at the tennis ball store, and at the toothpaste store: the lower the price, the more affordable they are. Makes sense, right?

Of course it makes sense. And the same concept holds true with housing: The lower the initial price tag, the more affordable the house is. Right?

Enh-ah unh-ah! as we say in Kansas City, our pointer-fingers raised provocatively. Before you blindly tweet in the affirmative, take pause, for I have deceived you. Determining initial construction cost is only the first of many steps on the journey to a cool and affordable life in your cool and affordable house. If you really want to get to the bottom of affordability, you must keep walking, past the well-marked boundary of initial cost into the money-smelling terrain of longer-term operational costs. What you discover on this leg of the journey might very well cause you to backtrack a bit and reconsider your initial design decisions, because the efficiency (and ongoing affordability) of your house's operation is a product of its construction.

With a basic understanding of how houses operate, you can make informed decisions regarding longer-term costs associated with the materials and systems you select. So, if it's your desire to proceed boldly on the affordable journey we've been outlining, then put on your earth clogs (or other appropriately sustainable shoes) and walk with me.

Twelve Steps to Operational Affordability and Sustainability

Step 1: Use the most durable materials you can afford. This has been discussed in previous entries. Haven't read them? Why not read them now? I'll wait here. Or, for a quick summary: Don't confuse the word "affordable" with the word "cheap."

Step 2: Seek the Energy Star label. Use your eyes to view the efficiency rating of the appliances and HVAC units that will go into your house. Next, transfer the images you see to your brain, and use appropriate thoughts to help you understand that in the long run, cheap, low-efficiency units will extract significantly more money from your wallet than less-cheap Energy Star rated units.

Step 3: Go low-flow. By selecting readily available, low-flow plumbing fixtures and by adding off-the-shelf components like aerators and filters, you can easily reduce your water usage (and monthly bill) by 20 percent.

Step 4: Exteriorize. Exterior square feet are far less expensive to build and operate than interior square feet. Your affordable house should include habitable space outside, fitted out with smartly placed landscape elements to provide privacy and shade-and subsequent song birds, butterflies, and rainbows.

Step 5: Plant a garden. Plant edible plants, and eat them. Use the money you save to pay your water bill, or to buy delicious, easy-melting American cheese.

Step 6: Go Bronson. Plants don't like sissy-water that comes from pipes. They are tough, like Charles Bronson. They want raw sky juice. Include rain barrels and rain gardens in your house design, and stay away from weak, non-native, water-junky plants like turf grass.

Step 7: Use free air. Understand where the breezes come from in your area, and design accordingly. Talk to old people about this; they know this stuff. Use windows, porches, and fans to get the air flowing. You might need to adapt your strategy from month to month, as the weather changes. Do that: your house is like a big swiss army knife, and you need to figure out how to use it.

Step 8: Drink good coffee. A thermos wisely uses basic thermal principles to keep the coffee the right temperature. Your house does the same thing, sort of. When it's too hot or cold or humid to naturally ventilate, you're going to have to condition the air. That's the deal, so drink good coffee, buy a good thermos, and insulate your house to the highest level possible to keep all that expensive air the right temperature.

Step 9: Seal thy cracks. Pumping bucks to run your HVAC system more often to make up for leaky walls counteracts the effectiveness of your insulation, and is the single most unsatisfying way to spend money on planet earth. Use a breathable housewrap, and spray-foam insulation (an excellent crack-sealer) if you can afford it.

Step 10: Buy a calendar. Circle a couple days on it-one each at the beginning of the heating and cooling season. Take a few hours each year on those days to track cyclical repairs on your house. Proactively spend money on your house to keep it shipshape and efficient. Remember: Spending money wisely is fun. Making timely repairs increases your houses effectiveness and helps to maintain your investment. Deferring maintenance into the future is for carbon-footprint-tracking chumps.

Step 11: Buy a sweater. Wear it when it gets cold, and turn the thermostat down. When it gets hot, take the sweater off. When it gets real hot, walk around in your underwear. Do everything in your power to shift the boundaries of your comfort perception. Similar to the tough-ass plants described in Step 6, Bronson up and get on with your life.

Step 12: Buy a Mirror. Look at yourself in it. You are good looking, and you are in charge of your own actions. Realize you have the power to quit living like a resource-sucking hyper-mammal. Realize that you can raise your self-awareness, modify your behavior, and to live more affordably as a result. Give yourself a hug.

So that's it. Twelve easy steps, and you're on your way to thoughtful, long-term affordability. Combined with your previously acquired wisdom regarding the (small) size of your (future affordable) house, and the importance of quality materials, you should find yourself squarely on the right path.

Godspeed, my friend.

Guest writer Dan Maginn is a principal with El Dorado Inc., an architecture firm in Kansas City, Missouri. This is the last in a four-part series titled "Square Feat," which explored the myths and realities surrounding affordable housing. Read the previous entries here.

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