Melissa Rappaport Schifman didn’t just dabble in green features when building her Minneapolis home across from Cedar Lake. Her goal was the ultimate stamp of environmental approval: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. And then she wrote a 216-page book about her personal experience.
“Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth and Soul” (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99) details Schifman’s green building decisions step by step, and how the Schifman family abode became the 11th LEED-certified home in Minneapolis in 2011.
Schifman, a sustainability consultant with a University of Chicago MBA, grew up in Deephaven, moved away, then came back in 2000 to raise a family, “like many of us do,” she said.
She lives with her husband, Jim, and their two daughters in a cube-shaped home designed by architect David Salmela, which was completed in 2009.
Then Schifman started a blog to help her complete the time-consuming task of certification. “The blog posts were the seedlings to the book,” she said.
Most homeowners won’t go to the LEED extreme, like she did. But her book is still a valuable resource for learning how to lower your energy consumption and costs, conserve water and create a healthy living environment.
“Green and sustainable choices make sense in your own home,” said Schifman. “Pick something that speaks to you, that matches your values, and start there.”
We chatted with Schifman about clean air quality, faucet aerators and how a wildflower garden can nourish the soul:
Q: Why are you passionate about making your home — and daily life — eco-conscious?
A: The planet will be there, but it’s the Earth’s ability to support human life that’s in jeopardy. When growing up, I had this Jewish value instilled in me — “tikkun olam” — a Hebrew phrase for repairing the world.
When I lived in Phoenix, I experienced the pervasiveness of the sun and everyone turning on the A/C, and there were no solar panels. I would hike up Camelback Mountain, and there were unhealthy air-quality alerts. We’ve created an environment where we can’t even play outside. Why are we doing this?
Q: Why build a sustainable home? It’s more complex and can be more costly.
A: We can control what we do in our own home. If we follow the LEED rating system, we wouldn’t sacrifice beauty and comfort, and it’s better for the planet and healthier for your family. I have a financial background, and I was intrigued in investing upfront in green features that would save money and resources over time. Finding that win-win was exciting.
Q: Why did you want to write about your experience?
A: The voice of the homeowner was missing in other books. I wanted to share my knowledge, translate and simplify all the green technical jargon and help set up a framework to match your values and your priorities — healthy air, conserving water and being more energy-efficient. I wanted to make the LEED rating system more accessible to the average homeowner. What are the costs, benefits — and does it work in our climate?
Q: Why are health, wealth and soul your three reasons to build a green home?
A: Your home can have a huge effect on your health. Think about water quality and a filtration system. Ask questions about materials that off-gas and produce VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that can give you respiratory illnesses and affect clean air. Learn more about mold preventions and contaminant control.
Wealth [refers to] decreasing the cost of monthly utility bills, water efficiency, LED lights, and a durable home lasts longer — saving you time and money. The book explains how to use solar panels to produce energy. We have to stop burning fossil fuels.
The soul piece is that you just feel better about producing less waste. Transforming some of your lawn into a beautiful wildflower garden that attracts bees and butterflies is soul-nourishing. Live where you can walk places, close to public transportation, a park and bike trails to enjoy the outdoors.
Q: What’s a favorite green feature?
A: Our green roof over the entry hall and garage. It does so many things. It’s planted with drought-tolerant sedum, it absorbs stormwater runoff, provides extra insulation and extends the life of the roof.
Q: Is the perception that building a sustainable home costs more true?
A: It’s a myth we need to dispel. Some features cost more, and some don’t. Low-VOC paints, dual-flush toilets and CRI Green Label carpets don’t cost more. It’s also a myth that you have to sacrifice convenience and comfort — like strong water pressure in the shower. We have geothermal heat, and our home is super-comfortable.
Q: You could have just built an eco-friendly home. Why did you choose to go through the arduous process of getting it LEED-certified?
A: It was a challenge to see if I could do it. I wanted to understand the rating system — was it going to be the wave of the future? Plus you get a qualified third-party rater — not your builder or architect — who inspects your house and verifies it’s being built to LEED standards. It’s a quality-control measure that’s worth it.
Q: What are some low-cost ways to conserve water?
A: Dual-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads. I did a video [on her website and YouTube] on how to install a faucet aerator. It’s under $10, and you can retrofit it to your bathroom faucet.
Q: What are some smart features that cost more upfront but are totally worth it over time?
A: LED lighting costs more but uses so much less energy and lasts longer. Triple-paned windows are a bigger investment but add insulation and lower your energy bills. We’ve had issues with our solar electric energy panels. But I’m glad they’re producing free electricity from the sun year after year.
Q: What green feature will give the Schifmans the most energy cost savings over time?
A: Our geothermal system cost 30 percent more than a traditional heating-and-cooling system — with an estimated payback of seven years.
Q: One chapter in your book recounts the worst green decisions you made. Why was planting a native prairie a bust?
A: It takes a few years to get established, you can’t tell grasses from weeds, and it takes a ton of time to weed. It looked like a neglected lawn, and we got a citation from the city to mow it down. We converted it to a wildflower garden that attracts pollinators. It’s a lot prettier and easier to manage.
Q: Do you think green features like spray-foam insulation, solar panels and low-VOC paints will become standard in new construction and remodeling?
A: The green building movement is growing rapidly because it makes sense for a healthy home and pocketbook. I’ve seen it change over the past 10 years — homeowners are much more knowledgeable. I hope someday there’s no such thing as sustainable design — just design.