A lot of the really groundbreaking stuff going on in green building happens behind the walls, so of course you might never notice it.
The building industry is notoriously slow to change, but when the global recession hit a few years ago, smart builders carved a green niche to save their companies. Eco-friendly construction tends to continue, even when times are relatively bad, motivated by the idea of saving money on energy, water, and so on.
What's really changed in the past couple of decades? Here's my short list of some of the best and brightest ideas, and why they matter:
LED Lighting. Finally, we can stop cursing our compact fluorescent lamps. Unlike fluorescent lamps, which rarely live up to their promised of 10,000 hour lifespans, contain enough mercury to classify as hazardous waste and make your complexion look like undead zombie flesh, LED bulbs do it all. They' use a fraction of the energy of a CFL, come in dimmable versions that change color warmly, last up to 50,000 hours, and don't contain mercury. Win, win, win. Another new entry into this category are LED replacement lamps for fluorescent fixtures. This is a major upgrade in terms of both performance and sustainability. The common 4-ft. lamps in fluorescent lamps contain hazardous mercury, and we all know they don't last as long as they should. A comparable LED replacement lamp uses half the power, comes on instantly, and could last 50,000 hours, compared to about 8,000 hours for CFLs.
Dual-Flush Toilets. A simple either-or button push on most new toilets keeps half the water of a normal flush from going down the drain. At a time when freshwater supplies are getting scarce—especially out West—the dual-flush toilet changed the rules. The only way to get much MORE water frugal will be a switch to bidets, like the Europeans, but I doubt that will happen until Scarlett Johannson says it's the only sexy way to cleanse.
Super-Quiet Bath Fans. Remember the roar of the old bathroom fan. You only used it when you REALLY needed to examine the latest zit in the bathroom mirror. A lot of the best new fans, notably the Panasonic line are so quiet, however, that you don't even know they're running. They're silently keeping your bathroom ceiling and walls dry enough to prevent mold and rot.
Smart Thermostats. There's a reason Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest, a company that makes "learning" thermostats and smoke detectors. The future lies that way--in what some call the Internet of Things. It's a future where your thermostat compensates for your lazy attitude toward conserving energy, and adjusts temperatures for you, simply by observing the way you live. It may sound creepy, but when you save 20-30% on your heating or cooling bill, you may be willing to forgive the digital intrusion. And Nest is by no means the only game in town any more. You can find similar "smart" thermostats from each of the following companies (click links to check them out):
Catalytic Wood Stoves. Wood stoves cost little to operate, and burn renewable fuel-but the old models are TERRIBLE polluters, linked to asthma and a host of other repiratory complaints. Fortunately, new, catalytic models have a double-burn system that reduces particulates by 70 percent. They also burn 1/3 less wood than models made before 1990. Spend a little extra for a new model, and avoid serious health risks.
Got another green innovation in mind? Leave a comment and we'll look into your product/idea.—Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief