Green Me Up, JJ

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Dear JJ:

My wife and I are tearing down our leaky '50s beach cottage, and we want to replace it with a tri-level state-of-the-art model energy-efficient green house. The design is for 8500 ft2, but our son says that if we want to save energy, we can't build a house that large.

Is there a maximum size for a green house? What do you think?

Malibu, CA

Dear Jared:

Great question!--and such a common dilemma for Greenies.

The answer is complicated, as usual--but basically, there are two basic methods for how to maximize energy savings when you build a new green house or green up your old one. And the answer to your question depends on which method you choose.

You can try to use as little total energy as possible. Or you can use as much total energy as you want to, but you just save as much energy as possible while you're using it.

Each method has its pros and cons.

The obvious advantage to the first approach--to use as little energy as possible--is that you'll probably use as little energy as possible. The chief drawback, however, is that asking how much energy you need to use can make the decision process for your new green home exceptionally subjective and confusing.

How many square feet does your family need? Does each child need a separate bathroom? How many TVs do you need--in the living areas and bedrooms, but also in the bathrooms, guest houses, pool houses, and doghouses.

Take such questions to an extreme, and you're out of Malibu and in a tepee next to the freeway. Take this method far enough, at least, and your model green house is out of the Thursday Home section in the New York Times.

The second approach, on the other hand--to save as as much energy as you can while you use as much energy as you want to--offers several significant advantages. To begin with, the decisions you have to make are comparatively simple and straightforward. You don't have to ask how many TVs you need (or whether your dog can get by without a DVR). You just have to figure out which Energy Star brand of TV or DVR to purchase, and then you can buy as many as you would ideally like to have. In fact, if you buy 16 TVs instead of 4, you can actually save up to 4 times as much energy.

In other words, with this method, the more energy you use, the more you can save. Which is why the Greenies with larger houses tend to prefer this approach.

Another advantage to this second approach is that it's just a lot more positive. You save a lot of energy. You don't not use a lot of energy. You're doing something. You're not not doing something. Which makes it a lot more tangible and rewarding.

It's a lot less satisfying--and a lot harder to see the real difference you're making--when you say, "Here's the 3000 square feet I decided not to build" than to say, "Here's the solar-powered, bamboo-paneled screening room with smart windows, recessed LED lighting, and a remote-controlled thermostat."

And the disadvantages? Well, with a beach house, it's always important to remember that if you only use it 20-25 days a year, then you might not be able to use as much energy, and therefore save as much energy, as you can with your main residence. And more generally, of course, you may or may not actually use less total energy than you did in your previous or unrenovated house--especially since you have to pay off the energy costs of the construction.

And finally, remember that this second method does tend to work better if you can afford to have a larger house. Since you need to use a lot of energy to save a lot of energy--you'll have to buy energy-saving green appliances, for example, and smart up your windows--this second method tends to be less rewarding for folks without significant financial resources.

Unfortunately, if you don't have the resources to use significant quantities of energy to begin with, you won't be able to make much of an impact by reducing your total energy use, either--so you just won't be able to contribute very significantly, for example, to the efforts to stop climate change.

In JJ's opinion, we all need to give a lot more thought generally to how absolutely everyone in our society can contribute equally to saving the planet.

That's grist for future columns, though. Good luck with the contest!

Green Me Up, JJ is an occasional advice column. You can e-mail JJ with your burning questions about how to act and think environmentally smart in our complicated 21st-century world.

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