The Power of Home
A conversation with housing finance industry expert and author Anna DeSimone
So how was the pie? Confession I don't like pie—really I don't like pie crust—the filling I'm all for, as long as it doesn't touch the crust. But in all seriousness, I hope your Thanksgiving was lovely, whatever you ate and however you spent it.
I was walking around my parents’ neighborhood on Thursday afternoon and the light and laughter spilling out of the homes I passed made me smile. The holidays are about home—as much a place as it is a feeling. It's what so many of us missed last year. That feeling of walking into your best friend's kitchen and opening a bottle of wine on Thanksgiving eve while you're baking. The way your parents' house sounds full of chatter, laughter and the occasional argument over how much butter should be in potatoes. Getting up early the following day determined to have a slice of leftover rum cake with morning coffee only to realize the plate wasn't back quite far enough on the counter and the dogs had a midnight snack. Our homes are the setting for so many moments that become the stars of our memories.
They can also be climate crisis superheroes. Homes and commercial buildings account for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Hopefully, governments will eventually phase out fossil fuels, making it seamless for consumers to buy clean energy to power their homes directly from the already existing grid. Right now, though, consumers can and are taking the lead on using their homes as tools to do something about climate change. I first connected with housing finance industry expert and author Anna DeSimone when I wrote a story on agrihoods, planned communities centered around farms. Her newest book, Live in a Home That Pays You Back, is all about energy-efficient homes. I spoke with her recently about her new book, tools for making your home more energy-efficient, including things you can do with kids of all ages and more.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Bridget: What are some trends you're seeing in energy-efficient homes?
Anna: Many people want to do something to help the environment. The most popular is, of course, solar energy. It can be expensive, and you don't always know what the payback will be because you don't always know how many hours of sunlight there will be. One of my favorite pieces of advice to give consumers is that instead of putting all of your cash into solar panels, lease them. Leasing is great because the leasing provider takes care of the repairs and maintenance, And then you can take that cash and build a better indoor air quality system, or put a better roof on your house, redo your kitchen. So I love that concept, but you can't sell or trade the energy and get cash.
And that's one of the other things we're seeing is net metering and selling solar energy or renewable energy certificates, which can put thousands of dollars of cash into a homeowner's pocket, but that is governed by state law.
In the last five years in the United States, approximately 2,000 legislative bills were passed by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. So every state has a policy for environmental energy. Some of the things you'll see are that the state of Connecticut or New Hampshire will say condominium associations cannot prohibit their residents and unit owners from having solar panels. However, the condominium association may restrict the aesthetics of where those panels are placed. And so the first thing that people need to find out if they're looking at wind power, hydroelectric or solar energy is what is the local government's policy.
Geothermal is also becoming a wonderful option, especially for new home buyers. The best opportunity yet, I think, is called the net-zero ready home because you're not paying for the geothermal or the solar panels the house is pre-wired to accommodate the renewable system.
Bridget: What about those of us with existing homes, what are some things that people should know about their homes but might not?
Anna: I love historic houses. I grew up in a 100- year-old house, but you can take a 100-year-old house and make it completely energy-efficient and net-zero or near net-zero, depending on what you do to the house. It's not the age of the house. It's really your thermal enclosure, the amount of insulation you have in a home, the airtightness, and the efficient use of the fuel you're using and the types of fuel and electricity.
Another thing I think many Americans don't realize is that their home heating system and their construction are giving off toxic emissions. And so my number one feature about the energy-efficient home is that it has better indoor air quality and sustainable materials are non-toxic. We know about carbon monoxide. We know about lead paint, the obvious toxins, but I think consumers need to learn about the dozens, and dozens of pollutants and smaller unknown toxins that exist in the way homes were built.
Bridget: What was the inspiration for your new book, Live in a Home That Pays You Back?
Anna: The book focuses on energy-efficient homes, specifically net-zero homes and I cover both Canada and the United States. I did that because not only do my grandchildren live in Canada, and they inspire me, but I saw that a lot of geothermal and solar energy programs being developed were treated as North American residential solutions.
I came up with the title because homes are getting so expensive all over the country, and I thought people need to get the most out of their houses. I transformed that into getting some payback and decided to make the most important form of payback to help the environment.
Bridget: What are some resources for people looking to make their houses more energy-efficient?
Anna: There are 2,000 rebates and incentives between Canada and the United States, and I list them all in my directory. There are home energy assessments and energy scores such as HERS and Energuide and certification programs such as net-zero, passive house, zero carbon and zero energy-ready.
Bridget: One of the parts of your book I found so valuable was the whole house efficiency section. Do you think getting kids involved in whole house efficiency is important?
Anna: Thanks to technology, there are so many renewable energy options such as smaller wind power that can pump water, chicken coops that can host solar panels, projects that you can involve the whole family in. It's a great way to demonstrate to children of all ages that there are things we can do to help the environment, and it also gives kids a feeling of self-reliance and accomplishment when they see the projects and help build them.
Bridget: What are some ways parents and child caregivers can teach kids about clean energy?
Anna: Solar birdbaths in your yard will amaze toddlers by how solar energy works, and then with older kids, you can build a rain barrel to converse water that comes down from the gutters and use it to water a vegetable garden. Then you can buy parts or even kits at a hardware store and build a windmill, and you can make that windmill power a pump to make water flow from the rain barrel.
Bridget: What's giving you hope for the future right now?
Anna: Renewable energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and it's creating healthier cities and healthier communities. That is very hopeful.
Until next time,
Published: The Enduring Magic of Children's Gardens for Good Housekeeping.
Reading: I arrived home from 10 days on Hilton Head Island to a big stack of books ready to pick up at my local library. I just finished Liane Moriarty's Apples Never Fall and Megan Goldin's The Night Swim, the latter of which I read in less than 24 hours as it was just that good. This essay in Romper from Steph Auteri is basically my parenting philosophy.
Working: On a story on low-income kids and food allergies for Parents and for The Day Magazine, a piece on preparing kids mentally and physically for college. Plus, I guess I should rake some leaves.