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Engineering Department Head Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City
When thinking of what “sustainability” means, you have to be
able to relate it to your own circumstances. Each of us is going to
have our own definition, but somewhere at the core will be the
understanding that we have to live within our means.
The classic definition of sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is important to keep this idea in the forefront of your mind when you try to develop an understanding of sustainability.
For those who have kids: What will their future look like? Will they be able to meet their own needs within the world in which we will leave them? And will that world and their lives be as good as we have it now?
As an engineering department head at Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City, I have the opportunity to help foster the development and understanding my students have of what a more sustainable path would look like.
Students in the renewable and sustainable energy program are discovering one of the most important fields for the next century. It allows for an understanding of onsite power generation — both photovoltaic and wind energy — and at the core of the program is the importance of energy efficiency within our built environment.
The idea is to look at the whole picture by treating the home as a system, not just a grouping of different products and materials. The fact is that unless we are able to reduce the amount of energy used in every aspect of our lives, we will always be looking for the next magic bullet; we must use our energy more wisely.
Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit, and should be where our focus is drawn as we start down the path toward a more sustainable future. Currently, the building systems, products and the knowledge needed to drastically increase the efficiency of both new construction and retrofit projects are available, but often are underutilized.
There is also a wide range of green-building programs, which can guide builders and owners through the green-building process. When built correctly, the programs produce projects that use less energy, are better for the environment and its occupants, and are more able to deal with the issue of the ever-increasing cost of energy.
The problem is that often, in terms of importance, energy efficiency does not rank high in the overall significance of the project. We have to change the misconception about where the value of a home lies; the materials that make up the wall systems are just as important as the finishes that are used in the master bathroom.
We should understand where our money is best spent: upgrading the insulation quality of the home or the efficiency of the heating ventilation and air-condition systems before we upgrade kitchen appliances. We are better off investing in meaningful elements of the home – elements that are able to provide cost savings throughout the life of the building, not just elements that increase the overall look of the project.
The past markets changed only when they were forced, either by regulation or the increase of energy cost. This reactionary response is wrong; we need to make changes that are needed because of the fact they are needed.
We must look at increasing the amount of insulation in our walls, attics and under the slab. We should be using mechanical systems that have a higher efficiency than what is now commonly used; geothermal systems should be the industry standard. High-efficiency lighting and appliances and smarter water heating, such as tankless gas water heaters, heat pump water heaters or solar thermal.
We have to build homes that are tighter and built to decrease the amount of unwanted air-invitation, and then control the amount of fresh air ventilation with energy recovery ventilators. We need to start designing homes that take advantage of natural systems and not just looking to see how many square feet we are able to get.
Think about quality first and not just quantity.
The issues out there are great, and the amount of work needed to be done is daunting. But we can change; we can create buildings and structures that are as efficient as they are beautiful, and that are able to meet the needs of the inhabitants without sacrificing the values of sustainability. We need to take a long look at the path we are on and think about where it might lead. The changes needed are not easy, but they are necessary.