The Green Building Pyramid

Mary SimonBack in my former career in high-tech product development, I sat in long technical meetings. To stay focused (and to entertain myself), I’d listen, collect jargon, and see how many buzzwords, acronyms, and worn-out metaphors I could write down. Jargon’s really pretty useful as shorthand for team communications. And even certain worn-out metaphors are useful. For example, a favorite metaphor of mine is “pick the low-hanging fruit,” meaning, first go after the things that are easy, cost the least, and are most productive. Another thing I was quick to grab onto was any good conceptual model or diagram that explained how all the pieces fit together. It was my job to explain complicated stuff to people, and so if I couldn’t find a good conceptual model, I’d get busy drawing one on the white board.

Let me show you a conceptual model Wayne and I use to talk with our clients: the green building pyramid. We didn’t create this model. Look around and you can find several different versions. We made our own simplified version. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and it’s useful for explaining how all the pieces fit together. And listen, if the term “green building” makes you cringe because it’s so overused, then call it the high-performance, healthy, durable home pyramid.

The pyramid answers the question: Where do I put my money and effort to get the best payback? You start at the bottom – there’s your low-hanging fruit – and first do the things that are easiest, cost the least, and are most productive. If you’re building a new home, you can take advantage of all the elements in the pyramid, within your budget. If you’re remodeling, you do the ones you can.

Our simple version of the green building pyramid

First things first. In general, the things at the bottom give you the biggest bang for your buck. The higher you go on the pyramid for even more energy savings and benefits, the greater the cost and complexity.

Want to remodel and lower your energy bills? The pyramid shows how to spend wisely. Why replace the windows if the rest of the house leaks? Start by plugging up the leaky house. Seal the air conditioning ducts. Invest in efficient lighting and appliances. Install better insulation. Then, if your budget allows, it makes sense to upgrade the air conditioner, buy a better water heater, and replace the windows.

Building a new home? Lucky you. You have the opportunity to do everything right. You can design for green upfront, beginning with site layout, the way you orient the house on the property, and proper passive solar design. Some people are tempted to start with the sexy stuff – the solar panels, the geothermal system. Sure, those are great if your aim is a net-zero energy home. But you still have to start with the un-sexy stuff at the bottom and work your way up -- because it’s not just one thing, it’s everything that makes a green, energy-efficient home work. Make sure the foundational pieces are in place so that you get the best payback for your investment.

Hope this helps to stir your thinking. Every box in this conceptual model is rich with information and worthy of long discussion. We’ve covered a few in past blog posts. We’ll cover more in future posts. Let us know if you have any questions or suggestions.

-- Mary


Want to see other versions of the pyramid? Google “green building pyramid” or “energy efficiency pyramid.” See especially the Green Building Pyramid published by Green Builder Magazine. I also like Minnesota Power’s Pyramid of Conservation.