Address Environmental Justice in marginalized communities, with specific focus on lead exposure in children and how the Climate crisis will tax those with less resources first, and hardest.
In 2017, we are concentrating our efforts on raising awareness about the chronic lead problem in North Minneapolis, and to steering people to resources for remedying this problem.
In 2016, we renovated a historic condemned house, making in nearly carbon-neutral, as well as free of lead, asbestos and radon. We plan to renovate or build more safe high-performance homes in the future, after we have located an optimal project.
Pollution is one of many burdens faced by people who live in lower-income communities. These multiple burdens compound and intersect, laying the heavy weight of injustice on children not born into the white middle-class in America. Pollution comes from industries and garbage incinerators located close to where these children live. It comes from poorly maintained older homes full of lead paint, asbestos pipes, and basements that leak radon. North Minneapolis has the highest rate of asthma hospitalization in the state of Minnesota. It also has higher rates of lead exposure than Flint, MI. Pollution also comes from the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is bringing us more extreme and less predictable weather.
When children are struggling to breathe, and when their brain development is impeded by toxins, getting an education is a monumental task. When their basements are flooding, and mold is growing in the walls of their home, a stable home life becomes unreachable.
Pollution is also mostly an invisible burden. While the oppression of being brutalized by a police officer is immediately apparent, and while foreclosure and homelessness are easily recognized, most toxins and carbon emissions cannot be seen or even smelled.
How we started our first project:
Twelve years ago, I did my first kitchen remodel in the city of Minneapolis, six months after moving here from Omaha. I worked on it every day, and I had no other projects at the time. 80% of the installation work was completed by me personally.
The project took five months.
Last year, during the spring and summer, I completed three kitchen remodel projects. I also completed two full bathroom renovations at the same time. Each project overlapped with others. All three kitchens were functional within 10 weeks— one was functional in 9 weeks. The work was completely finished, with permits closed on all three projects, by 13 weeks (two were closed out in 12 weeks). Approximately 65% of the work was completed by me personally, including all the finish and detail work.
There were no FIVE THINGS I did differently that allowed me to complete the same sized project in 60% of the time.
There were 35 THINGS. Or maybe more accurately, 35 sets of details.
In locating Best Practices, in my view, it is just as important to find what NOT to do as it is to determine what to DO. When it comes to revamping existing houses, particularly the pre-WWII houses that dominate Minneapolis’ housing stock, the do’s and don’t’s can only be found through the trial-and-error process of completing renovations.
In terms of technology, the innovation is done. We have the tools to reduce the load of a building and then partner that structure with renewable energy so it becomes a solution to our Climate problem. Better products will come along, for sure. Graduated improvements to the available technologies will continue.
What is needed most, at this point, is to find ways to incorporate these technologies in the most cost-effective manner.
Older homes generate the most emissions. Older homes are the trickiest to transform.
Sometimes, sadly, tearing the house down and starting over is the best option. But sometimes it’s a waste of resources, an unwise economically bloated move. Most of time, saving the house carries the moral weight.
Minneapolis is ideally suited for this work. Reducing the load in a climate as harsh as ours, reducing it to the point that the furnace can be eliminated, is quite a challenge here. In terms of energy-efficiency, the Twin Cities is New York, New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
A lean viable model for achieving carbon neutrality in existing older houses here in Minnesota sets a formidable example to the rest of the country. It also helps raise the bar for new homes, and all new buildings. I love what California is doing in leading the way on renewable energy and carbon reduction. But getting to zero in California is grade school, and getting to zero in Minnesota is grad school.
INCREMENTAL vs WHOLISTIC
Energy efficiency practices– home energy audits, appliance upgrades, etc.– are useful and valuable ways to “move the needle” toward carbon reduction. But I feel it’s very important that people understand that incremental improvements will not solve the problem.
Michael Anschel, one of the MN builders who developed the Greenstar program, now argues that a homeowner should “boost the attic insulation, spray foam the rim joist, install a high-efficiency furnace … and then walk away.” Going beyond these incremental steps risks doing more harm than good– mold issues, trapping radon, creating rot that shortens a home’s lifespan. I agree with Michael. Except that walking away means dooming civilization. As Elon Musk puts it, leaving Climate Change unaddressed will result in “more displacement and death than all the wars in human history combined”.
Minneapolis’ Climate Action Plan calls for a 15% reduction in emissions by 2015 (Got there in 2012! hooray), 30% by 2030, and 80% or more by 2050. I’d prefer it was 100% by 2050. If we are still using fossil fuels by mid-century, our climate will be a roller coaster. But it’s still a good goal.
We reached 15% by grabbing the low hanging fruit like weather-stripping doors and changing incandescent bulbs to LED. We might hit 30% by continuing this work while society shifts toward electric cars and the grid grows its renewable portfolio. Natural gas as a “bridge fuel” might also help, but ultimately it is a bridge to nowhere.
But if we want to get past even 50%, we have to build differently. In 2006, nationally, buildings contributed 39% of greenhouse gas emissions. Now that number is 42-43%, depending on the source. MN building code creates a reasonably energy-efficient house that does at least take a wholistic approach, which results in a sturdy safe house. However, a Passive House requires 1/5th of the heating/cooling load of a house built to existing code. Meanwhile, houses built more than 70 years ago can use 4 times the heat/cool load of a code built structure. This means the swing between what we are capable of and what happens in some pre-WWII houses is 20 times. In other words, a Passive House can require only 5% of the energy of older existing homes.
Most importantly, Passive Houses do not need furnaces. This is the true line in the sand.
In 2012, Tim Eian, local architect and the upper midwest’s Passive House expert, completed the first EnerPHit (Passive House retrofit) in a cold climate in the world, proving it can be done. The next step is to make houses such as these the new normal.
As long as buildings are still using fossil fuels, they remain part of the problem and not part of the solution. The only way to eliminate the furnace is to take a wholistic approach to improving building performance. It would be very helpful if this was publicly understood.