Building green

By Melanie Danke

Melanie Danke talked with Melissa Rappaport Schifman, founder of Green Intention LLC and the Editor-in-Chief/Sustainability Thought Leader for Rappaport Schifman’s book, “Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth and Soul,” details the experience of building her family’s LEED-certified home. Loaded with information on green building options, this practical guide helps homeowners make building or remodeling choices that align with their environmental values.

Q: MN350 is specifically a climate-focused group, and I know folks don’t necessarily jump to buildings and homes when they think about their carbon emissions. But it’s huge, right?

Melissa Rappaport Schifman (MRS): It is. Earlier this year, I saw Bruce Nilles of the Rocky Mountain Institute speak about clean energy. He said, “I’ve spent the past 15 years working to shut down coal plants, and it never occurred to me that my biggest carbon footprint is my own house.” 

I thought, “Well, if it didn’t occur to that guy, it’s not occurring to most people.” That was very eye-opening to me because I’ve been working in green building and have known about the impact buildings have for a long time. The built environment has such a big impact on carbon emissions, as well as our health, our well-being, and our wallets.

Q: We recently replaced our gas furnace and I didn’t think twice about it. Two months later, I joined a solar garden. So now I’m locked into natural gas when I could have chosen electric, which would now be powered, indirectly, by solar. That’s one of the things I really liked about your book: While it’s too late to change my decision on the gas furnace, the book lists other ways I can mitigate that choice. 

Melissa Rappaport Schifman. Image:

MRS: We have an electric-powered ground source heat pump, and a back-up boiler, which is gas-powered—as well as a gas dryer and gas stove. Ten years ago, the electric grid was powered primarily by coal. So natural gas was the better choice then. Now [the grid] has gotten cleaner and cleaner, and it has the potential to be run without any fossil fuels. So, we need to electrify everything, and we need to do that NOW. There are so many things like this that will not only benefit the climate and our planet, but that will also benefit homeowners—by saving you money and being less harmful to your health.

Q: I think people can come at it from so many different directions. And it’s all ultimately the same goal. 

MRS: You will benefit. You don’t need to believe in climate change, you don’t need to care about the environment (which is baffling to me), but this will benefit your own home and your own health, so it makes sense to do it. 

When we are talking specifically about how you can make a difference in your home regarding climate change, energy efficiency is half of the equation. You want to first reduce the energy required to operate your home. And then electrifying your boiler, water heater, gas dryer, stove—the four major appliances—is the other half. So when it comes time to replace any of those, go electric! I haven’t replaced mine yet, though I’m working on it.

Q: Yes, we are always weighing keeping the old, less-efficient thing against the environmental cost involved with making a new product. So throwing away something that still works, when you know that next year we’ll need a new one…

MRS: Right. It’s hard. The only one I argue for is replacing old light bulbs with LEDs. They aren’t going to be your biggest impact, because lighting isn’t your biggest power consumer—that would be your HVAC (heating, ventilating, air conditioning). But it’s by far your best financial payback. A lot of people will wait until their light bulbs burn out. I say, if it’s going to start saving you money now, why wait? You’re saving energy and money, so get rid of your old incandescent bulbs ASAP.

Q: I really enjoyed reading your book, and I was amazed by how easily you presented such dense information. Can I call it a breezy read? It’s so interesting.

MRS: Well, thank you. That was really my intention. I didn’t find guide books out there that were honest about the pros and cons, or the real costs and benefits (of sustainable building.) I felt that the first-person narrative was the only way I could do it. I talk about what we considered, what I wish we would have done differently, what I liked and I didn’t like. And I felt that made it more accessible. I’m not writing a boring textbook that no one wants to read.

Q: But you had to read those!

MRS: That was the thing. I read them all and felt like I still didn’t know how to prioritize this stuff. It was pretty overwhelming, and at some point we just had to make certain decisions and move on because there are so many choices to make when you’re building new. 

Q: It seemed like the insulation was a hard one. 

MRS: Yeah, the insulation was a really tough one. The spray foam stuff is just not a great product. Once it’s sprayed, it does a really good job for the house, but I don’t know if I would do it again. I don’t like introducing that toxic material and having the workers exposed to it. 

Q: That’s a cost we never seem to take into account: the workers who are exposed to this stuff all the time.

MRS: I talked to the owner, and he said he doesn’t spray insulation anymore because he has a respiratory issue from it—and I’m thinking he’s maybe 28. I thought, “Oh, God, are we doing this?” 

Q: It’s nice that you are bringing your knowledge and experience to a place where people can benefit from it. 

MRS: Exactly. You don’t have to sacrifice, you don’t have to pay more. There’s a lot of things you can do where you are actually saving money. I come from a finance background, so that’s what I bring to the table. 

Q: With your Dollar and Sense charts, it’s all distilled down logically so when I do say, “Oops, I put in a gas furnace, but what else can I do?” there are answers. It’s going to encourage people to take a lot more positive steps.

MRS: I’m hoping that any homeowner will read the book and get good information out of it, whether or not they are building or remodeling. A lot of my friends who only bought the book because they know me, but didn’t think that this was going to apply to them, were surprised. They’ve told me, “I’m already doing things differently because of your book,” and that was my point of making it accessible, of translating LEED and best practices, and making it honest… and not judging.

Q: Speaking about water usage inside the house, I’m the kind of mom who did the math from your book, and now I just stand outside the bathroom door while my kids take a shower…

MRS: Timing the minutes?

Q: Yup. I’m like, “Two and a half gallons every minute!” And it’s so funny; my son could be a 40-minute shower dude, but now he feels guilty and he’ll get out. For me, environmental behaviors are totally hit or miss with my kids, but how about yours? Are they learning a lot about sustainability? Is it becoming a habit?

MRS: Yeah, a lot of it is. I mean, I still get an eye roll while they groan, “Sustainability”?

Q: One of my daughters just came home with a plastic vibrating toothbrush and I thought, “Have I taught you nothing?”

MRS: Yeah, there are always little battles at home. We have a compost pail by the sink and my family hates it, mostly because it smells. I’m constantly taking things out of the garbage and putting them in the compost bin and saying, “Guys, don’t put it in the garbage! Please.”

Q: Right. Do Mom a solid! I’m glad your kids are learning.

MRS: They do like taking long showers. And water is still so inexpensive per gallon, so there’s not much incentive to change behaviors. But in India… cities of 4 million people are just flat out of water. Here it’s so cheap, but why waste it?

Q: It’s part of the mindset, right? We have it now. Let’s not just be instilling the habit of wasting anything. 

MRS: Exactly. It’s a value. 

Q: Even though I know more about where we are, which is terrifying, at the same time, by acting with deliberateness, acting with intention, I feel better. 

MRS: Yes. We have that power. That’s what it is: empowering individuals to make better choices for themselves and our planet that provides us with clean air, food, and water.

Melanie Danke is a writer and mother living in Minneapolis. When life allows, she likes to run long distances, if only to answer the question, “Is a 50 mile trail run easier than raising five teenagers?” Yes. The answer is yes.