Monday, April 6, 2020

Down-to-Earth Advice for Going Green

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, we celebrate ecologically mindful design, from sustainably sourced woods to solar panels and bioswales. Specifically, we talk with LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) interior designer and architect Diane Hancock, who shares her knowledge and examples of her work. If you’re interested in employing green energy in your home, we also provide some pointers about tax credits.

Balanced with nature, this home is LEED Platinum certified, with solar panel and geothermal wells. Photo by Jeff Aisen

Why did you choose the path to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified? Did you sense it was a sound business decision, or did you have a more personal or social motivation for gravitating to green design?

I chose to seek my certification for a personal belief that there is a better way to design. Growing up building houses with my father, I was aware that the amount of material being discarded would be enough to build another structure. It concerned me how much of the building material used to build a home is waste.


A home you designed in Bloomfield Hills was only the second residence in Michigan at the time to receive the LEED Platinum rating (the highest) from the U.S. Green Building Council. Could you briefly describe some of the home’s attributes that contributed to that stellar rating?

To qualify for such a rating is more than just using green technology like solar and geothermal and energy-efficient lighting. It was in the entire design process of the home, down to the last detail.

Some people think you can’t have an elegant home with being so green, but that’s not true. In this home nothing was wasted, from how it was oriented on the lot to using indigenous grasses and plants. We used sustainably grown and harvested teak wood floors, geothermal wells, and solar panels. Even the wallpaper detail in the skylight well was designed so no material was wasted. What was left over from the floor was used in the ceiling. It’s not only a beautiful detail but it helps acoustically.

It’s not enough to know that you’re designing green, but that where you’re sourcing your material from is also ecologically conscious.

Sustainably harvested teak was used in this project, and window treatments are automated to capitalize on solar energy.

In addition to being an interior designer, you are also an architect. How does your training in architecture enhance your understanding of green design?

It was most helpful mathematically because I think in terms of scale and pattern.

For example, most carpet comes in 12’ width. Typically with a home that’s already been designed, a lot of bedrooms are 12’9” wide. So instead of selecting a 12’ wide carpet with a waste of at least 80 square feet, you can source carpeting that is 13’ wide and end up with only 14 square feet of waste, costing you less in landfill and material cost.

Doing it right the first time will result in a long-lasting, easily maintained green environment.


It appears the interest in green design has been on the uptick lately. What do attribute that to?

Each economy offers its challenges and opportunities. Ten years ago I felt it was based more on a savings cost, as fuel prices were rising. Now I feel it’s more an environmental awareness of doing things better – not only for ourselves but for the environment.

In this loft, the floors are bamboo, the fire feature is an eco-fuel, and walls have low-VOC paint with a stencil pattern.

Have the costs of green investments – for example, solar panels – become more affordable over the years?

Yes, the cost of building a green home has come down. If I proposed a solar panel or Insta-hot Water Tank 15 years ago, I was limited to not only just a few clients who would be interested back then, but also by suppliers and installers. That is no longer the case.


What tips would you offer people who want to make their homes more eco-friendly without spending a great deal of money?

One easy way is to contact Consumers Energy. They offer a lot of information and many rebates and programs to homeowners – coupons for replacing energy-efficient bulbs, water conservation, and new HVAC systems. For home furnishings, I recommend not buying what I call disposable furniture, where the quality is inferior and needs to be replaced more often. It’s similar to flooring: if you purchase an engineered wood floor that has a thin-wear layer you’ll be unable to repair the floor and need to replace it in a few years. If you selected an engineered wood floor with a good thick-wear layer, you’ll be able to repair the floor and refinish it up to three times – the same as a solid real wood floor. The expense to replace an inferior floor is not just in the cost of replacing that product but the amount of landfill, the inconvenience, and cost of removing the floor and reinstallation.

It’s similar to the food labeling industry. If you can’t pronounce or understand the ingredients, it’s highly processed and probably not good for you or the environment.


When you install some energy-saving improvements, you’re not only helping the environment, but you may be eligible for a credit. Here are the top residential renewable energy products eligible for green energy tax credits:

  1. Solar-electric and solar water-heating property – Solar water heaters and solar panels use the carbon-free power of the sun to heat water or generate electricity. The federal solar tax credit, aka the investment tax credit (ITC), currently allows you to deduct 26 percent of the cost of installing a solar energy system from your federal taxes. Even better, there is no maximum credit for systems placed in service after 2008. Here is the information from the U.S. Department of Energy on eligible tax credits for both residential and commercial solar panel systems.
  2. Small wind-energy property – A wind turbine collects kinetic energy from the wind and converts it to electricity that is compatible with a home's electrical system. These systems must generate no more than 100 kilowatts of electricity for residential use.
  3. Geothermal heat pumps – Geothermal heat pumps, also known as ground-source heat pumps, can heat, cool, and even supply hot water to a home by transferring heat to or from the ground. Because they use the Earth's natural heat, they are among the most efficient and comfortable heating and cooling technologies currently available.
  4. Fuel cell property – Homeowners can claim the above credits equal to 26% of equipment and installation costs through 2020, then 22% through 2021. These credits expire on December 31, 2021. For more information, please visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency or the Energy Star websites.