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Lauren Erica Davis, Sustainable Living Apartments, 5/7/2012

I. Problem

Humans live in a world with limited resources, and the more humans there are, the fewer resources there are per person. In the West there is a high standard of living which consumes resources at a high rate. If all people lived at western standards then the resources would not last long, and even though few people live with such high standards of living, if they continue the resources will be used up eventually.

Our main sources of fuel for energy are fossil fuels which are burnt to release the energy stored within, and in the process carbon dioxide and other pollutants are released into the atmosphere. These pollutants have many documented effects. Some of these effects are health related for humans, such as respiratory problems which arise from breathing harmful gasses and pollutants. Other side effects include changing ecosystems in which humans and many other species live. Humans have shown an amazing capacity for survival, and so likely we will be able to adapt to changing conditions, but many other species are not so lucky and extinction rates are alarming.

Human are strange animals who want not only to live, but to have. There seems to be no limit to our lust for wasteful commodities, most of which end up in landfills at some point. Other less discerningly discarded items end up polluting rivers and oceans, destroying habitats and killing animals that ingest them. Other pollutants such as fertilizer washed off lawns and crop fields cause anoxic dead spots in the ocean where nothing can live.

In arid regions, such as New Mexico, Water is scarce yet it is consumed by humans at an alarming rate, for many uses such as for drinking, showering, watering crops and livestock, washing cars, dishes and clothes. Some of this consumption is absolutely necessary for survival, but most of it is not. The human problem has always been that we are aware of what we need to survive, but we are also aware that great luxury is possible for societies that are ingenuous enough to cultivate more than just the bare minimum. In our lust for luxury we have began systematically destroying our environment.

Pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, habitat destruction, and many other environmental issues have come to the forefront of American politics in recent years. It is clear that if we do not change our habits and way of living, then there will be major environmental changes, resulting in severe consequences for humans and all other life on Earth.

Many partial solutions have been offered to combat this very difficult problem. Everything about modern American life causes pollution or destruction of some aspect of our environment, but convincing people to give up modern conveniences is a battle lost before it has begun. Giving up the technology that mankind has spent centuries innovating is not a solution that people will adopt. The answer to our problems is not to revert back to ancient ways, but to adapt modern ways to use less and waste less. The tragedy of modern life is that so much of the waste is unnecessary! But in order to waste less, time and money is required, and people simply don't care enough to invest now to solve problems that may or may not arise in the future. Humans see problems now and will spend time and money to alleviate their discomfort, but climate change and environmental destruction do not pose an immediate threat to most people's comfort and livelihood, so why change ingrained habits to solve future problems which a lot of people do not believe will arise anyway?

Therefore if there will be a solution to this problem, it has to come in a form that incurs little cost or inconvenience. The solution must be simple, and it must be incorporated into the daily lives of average people.

Americans, on average, discard 6 lbs of garbage per person per day. This amounts to 2,200 lbs per year, and over the course of a lifetime to around 72 tons of refuse that ends up in a landfill. Sadly 93% of this waste is reusable.

About 23% of garbage is organic food waste which can easily be composted and converted into nutrient rich soil that can be used to fertilize gardens and crop fields. But instead of composting we send our nutrient rich food waste to landfills where they are broken down in anoxic conditions by anaerobic bacteria which produce a lot of methane and other greenhouse gasses. Composting in aerobic conditions, however produces little to no harmful byproducts. However, composting is not available in most cities, and takes time and effort for individuals to compost, and few people are willing to bother with it.

An additional 70% of garbage can be recycled. Most cities have curbside recycling services available, but many people find that sorting their garbage from recycling is too time consuming, and so sadly, do not bother to recycle either.

On average Americans use 30 kWhs of electricity per person everyday. This amounts to 11,000 kWhs per year. Most electricity in America comes from coal power plants. Coal power is the greatest source of human generated CO2 emissions. Burning coal for power also releases radiation and other harmful compounds into the environment. Around 100 g of CO2 is released into the air per kWh of electricity produced. So the average American contributes around 7 lbs of CO2 per day, and 2,500 lbs per year just in electricity if their electricity source is coal power.

Another major source of waste is excessive water consumption. Water is a necessity for life, but a majority of water usage is not necessary. The average American uses between 60-90 gallons of water per person per day, which amounts to 20,000-30,000 gallons per year. In some places where there is a large quantity of usable water, this usage is not immediately concerning, but in places like New Mexico where water is limited and finite resource, water conservation is critical.

II. My Solution

Most people spend a majority of their time in their homes, therefore I have chosen to concentrate my project on housing innovations. I have designed an apartment building which is designed to simplify waste reduction, making it a part of people daily lives without being time and energy consuming. With simple design innovations it is possible to minimize the effort people need to put into conservation, making it a simple thoughtless part of their daily lives.


The central feature of the building (see attached floor plans) is the garbage chute in the center of the building. Each apartment will have three different chutes: one for composting, one for recycling and one for garbage. In this way sorting and disposing of garbage is a simple process which takes virtually no thought or energy.

From the kitchen, the waste will fall to compartmentalized bins in the basement from which they can be taken down a corridor out of the building. The trash and recycling will be collected in the usual manner. The compostable material will then be taken to an on site composting facility where it will be left to decompose.

Composting does take some manpower to keep it turned and supplied with oxygen. There are two options here, depending on the type of tenants the builders are aiming to rent apartments to. The first option is to hire a person to tend the compost and gardens. This option is ideal if tenants have more money and are willing to pay a more for rent.

The second option is to sell the building as a housing coop where tenants are each responsible to donate time and energy to tending to compost and caring for the gardens. This option would reduce costs, and also would give tenants an opportunity to be outside and tending to their garden. This option would also give tenants some control over what goes into the garden, would build community and make tenants feel that they had some emotional investment in the property.

By simplifying composting and recycling, thousands of pounds of garbage can be kept out of landfills each year.


All electricity in the building will be supplied by solar energy. Solar panels will be placed on the roof of the top floor and on the roofs of the covered car park adjoining the building. Solar power is expensive so in order to make a solar system possible financially energy usage must be reduced as much as possible. American's use, on average 30 kWhs per day, but electricity consumption can be greatly reduced simply by using energy star appliances, windows and lighting. Energy star appliances use anywhere from 15 to 75% less energy than regular appliances (see Table 1). In this way energy usage can be cut nearly in half.

Table 1: Energy savings using energy star products
  Energy star
% energy
usage in
usage in
energy star
usage in
yearly saving
Lights 75% 12% 114.96 28.74 86.22 1120.86
Appliances 50% 13% 124.54 62.27 62.27 809.51
Water heater 50% 14% 134.12 67.06 67.06 871.78
Cooling 14% 17% 162.86 140.1 22.76 295.88
Heating 20% 29% 277.88 222.3 5.58 72.54
Windows 30% (savings
on heating
and cooling)
    -108.72 108.72 3252.69
Total     814.36 411.75 352.61 6423.26
Cost (.094$/kWh)     $76.65 $38.76 $37.89  
U.S. Energy Information Administration

If each tenant used an average of 411.75kWhs of electricity per day then 1508 ft2 of solar panels would be required. A system of this size would cost approximately $250,000.00, but would save tenants around $1000.00 per year. Assuming an average of 10 tenants then the solar system would pay for itself in 25 years.

The cost of the solar system could also be greatly reduced by applying for government grants and tax incentives. Applying for government grants can reduce the cost of the solar system by up to 50%. The solar power system will also be hooked up to the grid so that any excess electricity that is produced will go onto the grid, generating a profit.

Using energy star appliances, windows and lights to reduce energy usage, and solar power to provide power will greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the building, saving 25,000 lbs of carbon from being pumped into the atmosphere every year (assuming an average of 10 tenants in the building).

Water Conservation

In New Mexico water is the most limited and valuable resource, yet water consumption is still high, and experts warn that we could run out of water in the foreseeable future. Most of the water consumption comes from agriculture and livestock, but a large portion of water consumption happens in the home. Water conservation can be simple. Simply by installing water saving appliances and water fixtures gallons of water can be saved without any alteration to people's habits. Table 2 shows a breakdown of the sources of water consumption and the amount of water that could be saved by installing water saving appliances and water fixtures.

Table 2: Water Consumption
Source Gallons per Capita Gallons per Capita (with
Water saving appliances)
Water saved
Showers 11.6* 8.8* 2.8
Clothes Washers 15.0* 10.0* 5.0
Dishwashers 1.0 0.7 0.3
Toilets 18.5 8.2 10.3
Baths 1.2* 1.2* 0
Leaks 9.5* 4.0* 5.5
Faucets 10.9* 10.8* .1
Other Domestic Uses 1.6 1.6 0
Total 69.3 gallons 45.3 gallons 24 gallons
35% savings
Amount that can
be recycled
  34.8 gallons=
76.8% can be reused!

By installing water saving appliances and water fixtures in the apartment building, water consumption can be reduced by 35%. If each tenant saves on average 24 gallons per day, with an average of 10 tenants in the building, then over 860,000 gallons of water will be saved over the course of 10 years.

A majority of water that is used can be reused. By installing a greywater recycling system in the building, nearly 80% of the water used can be re-purposed. Greywater systems can be installed which will filter and purify water enough, that it can be reused in the home, however these systems are very costly. Cheaper systems with simple carbon or gravel filters can be installed which filter water enough, that it can be used to water gardens via underground gravel irrigation ditches. A layer of gravel is put down under garden, and then water is directed from the building to underground channels where it will irrigate plants.

There are legal and safety issues involved with greywater usage. First greywater cannot be stored above ground because of safety concerns. Greywater does have bacterial contamination and can pose a risk to humans if they come into direct contact with it, therefore the water must be directed underground. Greywater cannot be used in areas where the water table is too close to the surface because of the risk of contaminating drinking water. So the site that the apartment is built on must be chosen carefully.

Government regulations also stipulate that only 250 gallons per day can be used to water gardens for safety purposes. Greywater systems must be connected to the sewer system so that if there are problems with the system the water can be diverted into the sewer to prevent contamination. And finally no black water can be used in residential greywater systems. Black water is any water that has come into contact with fecal matter, so no toilet water can be used for irrigation and must be sent to the sewer.

New Mexico greywater laws are as follows:

  1. You can use greywater for landscapes only
  2. Every greywater distribution system must provide for overflow into the sewer
  3. Greywater storage tanks must be covered
  4. Systems must not be sited in floodways
  5. Greywater must be stored at least five feet above the ground water table
  6. Pipes must be clearly identified
  7. Greywater must not run out of a homeowner's property
  8. Contact with people or domestic pets must be minimized
  9. Ponding of greywater is prohibited
  10. Spraying of greywater is prohibited
  11. Greywater must not be discharged to a watercourse
  12. Use of greywater must comply with local ordinances, and
  13. No more than 250 gallons of greywater can be used in a given day

(Safe Use of Household Greywater, NMSU)

In order to use greywater for watering a garden certain chemicals cannot be put down the drain or the health of the plants will be compromised. Compounds that should be avoided include:

(Landcaster, 2012)

All tenants must agree not to use any of these compounds which may seem difficult, but many companies make soaps specifically for greywater systems, one company is called Oasis designs. They make a range of soaps, detergents and cleaning products that are compatible with greywater systems and which will not poison plants. There are other companies as well so tenants can chose cleaning products that work for them. Using greywater compatible products will make it easier for tenants to avoid the compounds listed above.


Gardens satisfy the aesthetic longings that people have, and also give an important link with nature that people need. In New Mexico public gardens are scarce because it is so arid, and the water necessary for watering them is prohibitive. But using recycled water for irrigation will ensure that there is no wastage involved.

Laws state that only 250 gallons of water can be used per day. 250 gallons will water a 2,500 ft2 garden if water intensive plants are used, or possibly larger if drought resistant plants are used in some areas.

The garden will be designed as a backyard wildlife habitat. In order for a garden to be certified as a backyard wildlife habitat it must meet four criteria: 1. there must be food for wildlife, 2. there must be water for wildlife, 3. there must be shelter for wildlife, 4. there must be places for wildlife to raise their young.

Having a backyard wildlife habitat will draw insects and small animals to the garden, which will not only be good for the animals, but will give tenants an important tie to nature in their backyard. Human interactions with nature have been linked with improved physical and mental health (Maller et al., 2006). In cities natural habitats are scarce, so it is important to provide natural spaces with growing and living things for people to interact with. Having a garden wildlife space adjoining the apartment, will give tenants a rare opportunity to connect with nature.

Only compost will be used to fertilize the garden which will repel harmful insects ensuring that no harmful insecticides will be needed or used. Also the absences of chemical fertilizers will be good for all animals and insects living in the garden, and will ensure that no waterways are polluted with fertilizer run off.

Rooftop garden space will also be available for tenants. The main purpose for rooftop gardens will be for tenants to grow food, if they want to. Rooftop space will give all tenants outdoor space of their own which is rare in apartment style living spaces. Rooftop gardens cannot be watered with recycled water due to health concerns. A rainwater catchment system will be installed to water rooftop spaces, but in the case that there is not enough rainwater, white water will have to be used for watering plants grown on the roof.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is a major consequence of modern life. A majority of what humans do causes air pollution, but new innovations have made it possible to make the air cleaner without changing people's lifestyles. Photo catalytic materials have recently become available that use solar energy and chemical compounds to convert harmful gasses into inert compound. Photo catalytic paints and concrete are available which contain titanium dioxide (TiO2) which converts nitrogen oxides (NOx) into nitric acid which is then neutralized by calcium carbonate (CaCO3), producing calcium nitrate and negligible amounts of CO2 and water. Other pollutants such as sulfur dioxides (SOx) are neutralized in by the same process. All end products are water soluble and are washed away by rain making exterior surfaces self cleaning. Tests have shown that 50-80% of harmful gasses are neutralized by photo catalytic paints and concretes, making air around the painted surfaces much cleaner and healthier. By using photo catalytic paint and concrete the air quality and respiratory health of tenants can be greatly improved.

The photo catalytic effects of the paint never wears off as the TiO2 is a catalyst and is constantly regenerated, but after 5 years the CaCO3 is exhausted, so the acids produced are no longer neutralized. Therefore, it is advisable to repaint every 5 years.

Ground Floor Business Space

The ground floor of the building will have space for 5 small businesses. These spaces will be available for rent to small businesses that meet certain criteria. The businesses must be:

  1. Sell natural, handmade products
  2. Sell primarily fair trade goods
  3. Sell locally grown, organic produce
  4. Be a not for profit, charitable organization
  5. Must be non exploitative and pay all employees a living wage.

Accepting only businesses that use ethical and responsible business practices, will fit with the purpose of the building; to provide space for people to live and work that eliminates as much waste as possible, and contributes positively to the health of people and the planet.

Future Direction

This building will likely never be built, but many of the simple alterations that I have applied to this building can be applied to any residence. Conservation does not have to be a huge life altering burden, though changing habits is the most effective way to conserve.

This project has shown me that there are so many ways to protect my health and the planet, that I had not been aware of before. I don't intend to continue with this project in the future, but I do intend to implement many of these innovations in my own life now, and in any future home I may own. Composting, recycling, energy and water saving appliances, solar energy and greywater recycling systems are all easy ways to conserve precious resources. They require an investment in the beginning, but the pay out is considerably grater in the end, when you consider the benefits of protecting the environment from unnecessary consumption and waste. Most Americans have the resources available to pay for innovations such as these. We are privileged and ought to be responsible with our privileges and not ruin our planet for those that come after us. Simple changes can make a big difference, and this ought to be our priority!

Works Cited

A tool for companies and office activities: the "Carbon Inventory" of ADEME. Manicore. Web. April 22, 2012.

Frequently Asked Questions: How Much Electricity does the Average Ameircan Home Use? US Energy Information Association. Web. March 3, 2012.

Garbage: How Can My Community Reduce Waste. Annenberg Learner. Web. May 1, 2012.

Garden for Wildlife: Making Wildlife Habitat at Home: Create a Wildlife Certified Habitat. National Wildlife Federation. Web. May 7, 2012.

Landcaster, Brad. Soaps and Detergent Info. Harvesting Rainwater for Drylands and Beyond. Web. April 24, 2012.

Maller, Cecily, Townsend, Mardie, Pryor, Anita, Brown, Peter, St Leger, Lawrence. Healthy nature healthy people: 'contact with nature' as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promot. Int., (March 2006) 21 (1): 45-54.

New Mexico Incentives for Energy Efficiency. Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Web. May 3, 2012.

Photo Catalytic Paint for Interior and Exterior Applications. Enterprise Europe. Web. May 7, 2012.

Safe Use of Household Greywater: M-106. New Mexico State University. Web. April 2, 2012.

U.S. Department of Treasury - Renewable Energy Grants. Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Web. May 3, 2012.

Water Use Statistics. American Water Works Association. Web. May 3, 2012.