The journey to building a sustainable home

Building a sustainable home. | Photo by Melissa Rappaport Schifman

Building a sustainable home seems like a daunting task, especially if you do not have any professional experience in architecture, engineering or sustainable design. With a little guidance and perseverance, though, the eco-friendly home of your dreams is attainable.

Melissa Rappaport Schifman, sustainability consultant and author of “Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth and Soul.”  | Photo by Belen Fleming – Belu | Photography

Melissa Rappaport Schifman is a sustainability consultant and author of “Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth and Soul.”

“Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth and Soul” by Melissa Rappaport Schifman. | Photo by Paul Crosby

In her book, she chronicles her journey building a LEED-certified home over the course of several years in Minneapolis. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification program for environmentally-friendly buildings, including office parks, federal buildings and residential homes.

Schifman talked to us about the things she wishes she had known years ago, her tips for making your home a little more sustainable today and her experience building a sustainable home from the ground up.

Hello Homestead: Why did you decide to build a LEED-certified home? 

Melissa Rappaport Schifman: When we bought our first house, it had so much mold in it that we had to start over. I wanted a home that would save money and tread more lightly on the planet. This was [around] 2007, and the LEED for Homes rating system had just come out. I was intrigued: could we LEED certify our home? What would be the costs and benefits? I also wanted to work in the green building industry, so what better way than to try it out? 

HH: What were the greatest challenges of going through this process?

MRS: I was frustrated with how difficult it was to go the extra mile to ensure the house was more energy-efficient, more water-efficient, healthier and more durable than [the] basic building code required. The choices were overwhelming. It was hard to prioritize.

It was also a big learning curve to truly understand the more “sustainable” choice compared to the “standard” or conventional alternative. We needed to examine the upfront costs, the ongoing costs or savings, as well as any difference in quality or functionality. 

Installing a sink aerator. | Photo by Melissa Rappaport Schifman

HH: Why did you decide to write a book about your journey?

MRS: I wrote the book because I wanted to solve a problem I recognized when we built our own home. There are plenty of “green building” guidebooks out there — I had read almost all of them — but I found them to be overwhelming, sometimes preachy, and they didn’t tell you the real story. What does a more sustainable home really mean? How hard is it? What are the ongoing maintenance costs? I have the benefit of hindsight. I can say honestly, “Here’s what I wish we would have done differently.”

I felt that the LEED rating system was not accessible to the average homeowner, so I also wanted to translate what can be technical jargon into something that is more approachable—a $25 narrative instead of a $249 reference manual. 

HH: How did you choose what information is most essential for homeowners looking to build more sustainable homes? 

MRS: Part of it was dictated by the fact that the LEED rating system had 18 prerequisites, so those were the most important. But once I came up with my framework of “Health, Wealth, and Soul,” the strategies that fit underneath each of them came together nicely. 

Other than diet and exercise, your home has a significant effect on your health and wellbeing, so it just made sense to me to prioritize your health. The wealth section was pretty straightforward. Since I have done the analyses for our own house and other clients, I found clear areas where you can prioritize your investments, and you will save money, year after year. The remaining three pieces that do not have an immediate effect on your health or your wealth fit well under “Soul.”

Flush-out windows on Melissa Rappaport Schifman’s LEED-certified home. | Photo by Melissa Rappaport Schifman

HH: What tips would you give a homeowner looking to green their home a little bit today?

MRS: I have a few favorite tips for things you can do today:

  • Switch all light bulbs to LEDs—don’t wait for them to burn out to replace them. LED lights are the best financial return, paying for themselves usually within a few months. 
  • Install low-flow faucet aerators in all of your bathrooms. You will save money on both your water bill and your energy bill because you’ll use less hot water. They are easy to install yourself with just a wrench, and you won’t notice the difference.
  • If you have a drafty home, grab a box of those small foam socket sealers and place them behind your outlets and switch plates. You’ll save on your energy bills and have a more comfortable home and you only need a screwdriver. 
  • Plan your garden for next year: if you have a big grass yard, can you take a portion of it and transform it into a wildflower garden of native and adaptive perennials? You will save on maintenance, energy from mowing and water from irrigating. Your garden will benefit the bees and butterflies and add color and beauty to your yard.

HH: What are the best investments a homeowner can make to have a more sustainable home?

MRS: The answer depends on your values. If you value your health, I recommend investing in a water filtration system for bathing and go the extra mile to filter your drinking water. In my book, I prioritize clean drinking water as the number one most important thing for our family’s health, as we drink it, use it in coffee and tea, soups [and more]. A filtering system also saves money produces a lot less waste compared to bottled water. 

If you’re concerned about climate change, then make your home as energy efficient as it can be—and you will save money at the same time. Anything you can do up front to have a tight building envelope to hold in or keep out the heat will be the best investment, particularly in more extreme climates. That usually means more insulation, sealing cracks, and triple-pane windows—but start with an energy audit, including a blower-door test, to know what’s best for your own house. 

HH: Now that your LEED-certified home is up and running, what are the greatest joys of having a sustainable home?

MRS: My favorite thing is the clean filtered drinking water at each of our faucets. After that, I love living in a home that is light and airy and is connected to the outdoors. Our outdoor green roof and “urban meadow” of wildflowers also bring me joy. But owning a home is never maintenance-free, so there are some not-so-joyful parts as well!

Green roof office at Melissa Rappaport Schifman’s home. | Photo by Paul Crosby

HH: Are there any continuing challenges of having a sustainable home?

MRS: Many of the challenges are on the maintenance side. Once you start introducing higher-tech appliances, with sensors and valves that make your HVAC more efficient, the systems become more complex, and that means more components can fail. 

HH: What do you hope for the future of your home and others like it?

MRS: For my own home, we’ve already invested in efficiency; now I’m trying to electrify it. Once I learned about all-electric homes, it’s hard to believe we continue to bring gas lines into our homes—for health and safety reasons alone! We need to stop burning fossil fuels, and as the electrical grid becomes cleaner and cleaner, electrification of our buildings is the future. That means switching out our natural gas boiler, stove and dryer. 

At a broader level, I hope that we can start to view homes and buildings as not just sustainable, but restorative. Rather than just consume energy [and] water and produce waste, buildings can actually produce more energy than they consume, absorb more stormwater than they create and produce no waste if appropriately planned. 

There’s so much resistance to going green—people think it costs too much, or you have to sacrifice beauty or comfort, or that it’s a political statement. We need to shift our paradigm: a more sustainable home benefits you, and it also helps our planet. I genuinely think that every action makes a difference, and I believe that change begins at home. 

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

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