EcoManor, Laura Turner Seydel’s super efficient house in Atlanta, Georgia, showcases green technologies and design. Turner Seydel tells Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood that others, too, can take steps to save energy, water and, ultimately, money, by making small and big changes to their homes.
GELLERMAN: Much of the southern United States is sweltering under a code purple. That’s the EPA’s most severe air quality category. Even healthy people are advised to stay indoors, but there are problems with that. Weatherizing your homes can help keep you cool, but as we just heard in Jeff Young’s story, there are pitfalls to that.
Another way to go is to build a super efficient home from the ground up. Sure, it’s expensive and many of us can’t afford it, but the payback can be quick, as Laura Turner Seydel learned when she built Eco Manor in Atlanta. It was the first Gold LEED residence in the American southeast. The design won a gold seal of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council. Laura Turner Seydel chairs the Captain Planet Foundation, which supports environmental programs in schools, and she recently spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: Laura, your house, which you call Eco Manor, has all sorts of green building and energy efficiency features. Why did you decide to build a LEED certified home?
SEYDEL: Well, it was an evolution of our ethic. We started out learning about the environment and its challenges in a hands-on kind of way. When we were young we picked up bottles and cans and turned it in for a bottle deposit. If we got cold we would put on a sweater, we just didn’t run to the thermostat and turn it up. We didn’t waste anything, you know, my parents and grandparents were raised during the Great Depression and it was really an issue of morality, I mean, you didn’t waste food, you didn’t waste money, you didn’t waste resources.
So my husband and I really were very committed, both of us, to lightening our pollution footprint and limiting our use of resources, and building an eco-friendly house was just part of that evolution. And we wanted to take the house and make it a model for others.
CURWOOD: And you and your family not only live in Eco Manor but your home is actually kind of a blueprint, an educational tool for builders, architects, landscapers, homeowners to promote green building practices I gather.
SEYDEL: When we started, there wasn’t a blueprint, so we wanted to share as much of what we did with the community and beyond as possible. We just opened our home, basically, to get as much information out to the public.
CURWOOD: You’re in Atlanta. It’s hot there in the summer! What efficiencies does your Eco Manor have that helps you deal with all that southern summer heat?
SEYDEL: Well, let me tell you, it’s hot and it’s getting hotter. We’ve had the warmest spring on record. 48 states in the U.S. are in the same boat as Georgia with the hottest spring on record. But needless to say, we have programmable thermostats, which is something that anybody can do for an investment of 25 dollars. You can actually save about ten to 25 percent on your electric bill. Just make sure that you turn up the thermostat a couple of degrees, don’t keep it in the sixties and low seventies—that is a big energy suck. Make sure you close your curtains during the day to keep the heat out, plant trees close to your house that will help shade your house. We use geothermal which is a lot more efficient than kind of conventional ways to heat and cool your house.
CURWOOD: And geothermal’s kind of guilt-free, right, because you gotta run the system all the time for it to really be efficient, right?
SEYDEL: That’s right, and geothermal is just really a looped-in system, a series of wells where water runs through and it cools to the temperature of the earth, which is a constant temperature of about 58 degrees. So it’s much more efficient to heat and cool your air coming off that temperature than, you know, the extremes of a cold winter or a very hot summer. So it is much more energy efficient. Also, you know, a great thing for people to do, and a lot of local utilities will come out to your house and do an energy audit, which to me is like low-hanging fruit, because then you know where you’re losing your energy efficiency, and you can choose to spend your money to have the biggest impact.
CURWOOD: Now what did you do to save on your water bill?
SEYDEL: Some of the things that we did, other people can do too. And I know that there are incentives pretty much nation-wide and rebates given to upgrade your toilet, to make sure that you’re using a low-flow toilet. And if you change out your toilets from the seven gallon old-fashioned toilets, and get upgraded to the one-to-two gallon per flush toilets, you can save between 25 and 40 thousand gallons a year.
Also, low-flow showerheads have a very fast payback, and you can get them as cheap as like ten bucks and pay yourself back in less than a week, really. So you know there are simple and easy things you can do. Washing machines, which is the second largest use of fresh water, obviously, in your house, you can save up to seven thousand gallons a year, by going to an EnergyStar model, so that’s something that is advisable.
CURWOOD: And what are some other ways to save water? They might cost a little more than changing out a toilet or a showerhead, but you can get pretty big results.
SEYDEL: If you’re doing some major landscaping or you’re building a house, you may want to consider putting a cistern underground that can store rainwater, that you can use for irrigation, you know, in the hot months of summer. You can also, very inexpensively, get rain barrels, and store the rainwater and water your potted plants or your garden with that.
CURWOOD: Laura, you built this house, what, five years ago? I’m wondering if there are any lessons that you have learned, anything that you wished you had done differently based on what you now know today or your experience?
SEYDEL: Well, I went and invested in all these lightbulbs that are the compact fluorescent, and if I could do it again I would have wanted to spend a little bit more, or it’s not even probably a little bit more when the technology was first introduced, it was probably a lot more, but the LED bulbs, you know they don’t have any mercury in them so you don’t have to be as careful about breakage or disposal. So that would have been one thing.
And then I wish that they had had the No-VOC paints. We ended up using Low-VOC paints, which were really the only paints on the market, but they were considerably better, much better, than the conventional paints that you know, were full of toxins.
CURWOOD: And what about outside your home? Anything you do different about your yard now?
SEYDEL: You know, we started a river keeper program about 20 years ago, and one of the biggest contributors to pollution in our precious Chattahoochee River happens to be runoff from chemicals that people use on their lawns. And we decided to be 100 percent chemical-free. Of course not everybody’s gonna want to do that, but we’ve got amazing organic raised beds where we raise our vegetables and fruits and we just got a beehive, I’m so excited about it. We have lots of clover intermingled with our grass, so the bees--I just have all these bees that love the clover and they’re making great honey for us. And we have chickens, too, and we feed them organic feed and they give us eggs in return. We really enjoy our landscape, we’re going for a sustainable sites initiative certification and hope to be the first residence in the country to achieve this certification and it’s the precursor of LEED for landscapes.
CURWOOD: Laura Turner Seydel owns Eco Manor in Atlanta. She’s the chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation, which brings environmental programs to schools. Thank you so much, Laura, for joining us today.
SEYDEL: Thank you, Steve!
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.
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