Better Air, Indoors and Out

Clean air, whether it’s what you breathe inside or out, keeps us healthy, active and happy. Your community can maintain and expand its tree canopy, increase energy efficiency measures and program services, and convert its fleet to ZEVs (zero-emission vehicles). You can also do similar things inside your home and in your backyard. Here, we’ll discuss measures that require you to utilize your green thumb. If you’re not especially gifted in this area, don’t fret! I’ll outline some expert tips.

Inside Your Home
NASA released a Clean Air Study in 1989 that determined which indoor plants best removed toxins, reducing “sick building syndrome”. The list of these plants were originally researched to determine how best to keep the air in space stations clean, but it is usefully in homes as well. NASA recommends keeping one plant for every 100 square feet of living or office space.

**Important for pet owners: make sure to note the last column in this chart!**
Plant, removes:benzene[2]formaldehyde[2][5]trichloroethylene[2]xyleneandtoluene[6]ammonia[6]Toxic to dogs, cats [8]
Chinese evergreen(Aglaonema modestum)Yes[5][18]Yes[5][18]NoNoNotoxic [19]
Variegated snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata'Laurentii')Yes[5]Yes[2]Yes[5]YesNotoxic [22]
Aloe vera (Aloe vera)Yes[32]Yes[1]NoNoNotoxic [33]
Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis "Janet Craig")Yes[1]Yes[1]Yes[1]NoNotoxic [34]
Warneckei (Dracaena deremensis "Warneckei")Yes[1]Yes[1]Yes[1]NoNotoxic [34]
English ivy (Hedera helix)YesYes[5]YesYesNotoxic [12]
Devil's ivy, Money plant (Epipremnum aureum)YesYes[2]NoYesNotoxic [15]
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum'Mauna Loa')YesYes[5]YesYesYestoxic [16]
Red-edged dracaena(Dracaena marginata)YesYes[2]YesYesNotoxic [24]
Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana')YesYes[2]YesNoNotoxic [24]
Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)YesYes[5]YesNoNonon-toxic [27]
Florist's chrysanthemum(Chrysanthemum morifolium)YesYes[2][5]YesYesYestoxic [28]
Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)NoYes[5]NoYesNonon-toxic [9]
Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens)NoYes[5]NoYesNonon-toxic [10]
Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata 'Bostoniensis')NoYes[5]NoYesNonon-toxic [11]
Kimberly queen fern(Nephrolepis obliterata)NoYes[5]NoYesNonon-toxic[citation needed]
Lilyturf (Liriope spicata)NoYesNoYesYesnon-toxic [13]
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)NoYes[2]NoYesNonon-toxic [14]
Flamingo lily (Anthurium andraeanum)NoYesNoYesYestoxic [17]
Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)NoYes[2][5]NoYesNonon-toxic [20]
Broadleaf lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)NoYesNoYesYesnon-toxic [21]
Heartleaf philodendron(Philodendron cordatum)NoYes[2]NoNoNotoxic [23]
Selloum philodendron
(Philodendron bipinnatifidum)
NoYes[2]NoNoNotoxic[citation needed]
Elephant ear philodendron(Philodendron domesticum)NoYes[2]NoNoNotoxic[citation needed]
Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)[25]NoYes[5]NoYesNotoxic [26]
Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)NoYes[5]NoNoNotoxic [29]
Dendrobium orchids(Dendrobium spp.)NoNoNoYesNonon-toxic[citation needed]
Dumb canes (Dieffenbachiaspp.)NoNoNoYesNotoxic [30]
King of hearts (Homalomena wallisii)NoNoNoYesNotoxic
Moth orchids (Phalaenopsisspp.)NoNoNoYesNonon-toxic [31]
Banana (Musa Oriana)NoYes[1]NoNoNonon-toxic [35]
Chart from: 

Tips for keeping your houseplants alive:
  • Sunlight, sunlight, sunlight. A south-facing window is best for houseplants because the plants will get the brightest and longest stream of natural light. If you don’t have a south-facing window, put your plants wherever they will get as much natural light as possible in your home or office.
  • Water, but not too much. I water my plants every 3 days. This allows the water to seep all the way through the soil and soak it, but not keep it constantly drenched. If you water too much, your plant can become susceptible to root rot and you’ll likely lose your plant quickly. Make sure your plants are in pots with drainage holes at the bottom (like this or this); these types of pots will help get rid of excess liquid.
  • Only fertilize if necessary. Your houseplants should not need fertilization unless they’ve been in the same pot for a long time. You can add a fertilizer spike if your plant is a little wilted, but if you’re really worried about it, take your plant to a local nursery. They will be your expert in this field!
  • Recognize when there’s a problem.
  • See how plants can transform a space?
    Photo Source: HouseBeautiful
    • If you water too much, if your plant tilts a lot and/or if there’s a rotten smell coming from your plant, it could have root rot. Dry out the soil and, if necessary, cut off rotting parts of the roots before replanting.
    • If your plant is leaning towards the sun a little, keep rotating it. Your plant wants as much natural light as it can get! So as long as the lean isn’t extreme, a rotation every few weeks is good.
    • A plant with yellow leaves is another sign of overwatering.
    • A plant losing its leaves usually means its not getting enough sunlight.
    • Use filtered water on your plants as often as possible. Minerals can build up in the soil and cause a white dust to form on your plant. This won’t cause you to lose your plant, but filtered water will minimize this. If you do see buildup or dust on your plant, gently wipe it off with a damp rag; this will allow the leaves to breathe more easily and thrive.

In Your Yard
I’ve written about the importance of maintaining tree canopies before, but this drought seems to complicate the issue. Not to worry! There are plenty of drought resistant plants and trees out there and there are plenty of wonderful guides to help you do this!

Go to this great event!
Photo Source: USGBC-CC
In addition, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Central California (CC) chapter is hosting a Resilient Landscaping: TransformationStrategies and Tools workshop on October 27th in Sanger. It is open to anyone who wants to “save water in style” and, since the workshop will be hosted by the Belmont Nursery, you can pick up some plants for your home, office or yard while you’re there! Plus if you're a USGBC member, you'll save $25! Register HERE.

I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity and spread the word to your community and community leaders! As more residents, business leaders and public agencies invest some time in resilient landscaping, the community will see more water and cost savings. Furthermore, since the plants will get just the amount of water they need and not more (since there’s no more to be had!) the landscape will thrive and help the community look and feel more alive and healthy!

Now that you are equipped with all of this information and the chance to attend a great informational event, how many of you will add plants to your home and transform your yard? What are you favorite indoor and drought-resistant outdoor plants?

"Sping into LEED" showcasing LEED certified buildings in the Central Valley

USGBC-CC is hosting a local LEED project showcase and celebration of green building design. Keynote speaker Darius Assemi and other leaders from the green building industry will provide an overview over the benefits of green building design and LEED certification. Local LEED certified projects will be highlighted and awarded. “The evolution of peoples’ mindsets about what green buildings actually entail is evidenced by the number of certified and registered LEED projects throughout our communities.”, said Michelle Musson, President USGBC Central California Chapter: “There are no limitations as to who can benefit from these sustainable buildings, as they affect our air, energy, water, work, and personal and play environments.”

When? Thursday, February 28th 2013 5:00pm-9:00pm

Where? The Tower at Riverpark
A Lance Kashian Building with pending LEED Certification
205 East River Park Circle, Fresno, CA 93720

Sign up?

Who? The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is a 501c3 nonprofit organization committed to a prosperous and sustainable future through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings. The USGBC Central California Chapter (USGBC-CC) was formed in 2005 to cultivate a healthy and flourishing environment for a more sustainable Valley.

The USGBC’s mission is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life. USGBC-CC represents seven counties in the San Joaquin Valley and works towards its mission through its LEED green building certification program that encourages and enables green buildings and communities.

Contact: 800-788-9013 or

Trend to slash high-rise electric bills sweeps industry

King Kong immortalized the Empire State Building -- more than once.

And while its status as the biggest and tallest has been eclipsed a number of times since Pres. Herbert Hoover turned on the lights May 1, 1931, the iconic skyscraper continues to lead the nation. However, now it's gaining fame as perhaps the best known energy efficient high-rise.

Others have followed, drawn by the prospect of saving money in a turbulent economy through relatively simple and cost-effective upgrades that can pay off in a matter of years. The U.S. Green Building Council says green commercial building retrofits actually exceeded new construction some months in 2011.

"Deep energy savings (30 percent to 40 percent) can be mined from existing buildings," says a July 2011 study by Vancouver, Wash.-based New Buildings Institute.

Energy Star fast tracks

A barometer of the trend has been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of cities with the most buildings qualifying for Energy Star status. Energy Star certified buildings use an average of 35 percent less energy and are responsible for 35 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than typical buildings. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, while commercial buildings make up half that.

Sitting atop the list for 2011 and the fourth year in a row is Los Angeles. It's followed by Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. New York is No. 6. The rankings are less interesting than the number of additional buildings making it on the list each year.

For instance, LA shows 659 buildings qualifying, a whopping 152 percent increase from 2008, the first year the list appeared. Yet, New York, which didn't even make the top 10 on that inaugural list, increased its Energy Star rated buildings by about 226 percent with 261 buildings in 2011.

The EPA estimates the nearly 16,500 Energy Star certified buildings across the country save about $2.3 billion in energy costs.

"More and more organizations are discovering the value of Energy Star as they work to cut costs and reduce their energy use," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement.

Empire leading by example

Back in 2008, the owners of the 102-story Empire State Building decided to add $13 million to a planned $93 million capital budget for remodeling. The move included 6,514 new super-efficient R7 windows, a rebuilt high-performing chiller, building automation and controls to maximize efficiencies, tenant energy management programs and other measures to be implemented.

Consulting, design and construction involved some heavy hitters, including Clinton Climate Initiative, Johnson Controls Inc., Jones Lang LaSalle, NYSERDA and the Rocky Mountain Institute. The project is expected to save 38 percent of the building's energy and $4.4 million annually, according to building officials.

Owners of the building say they did it for three reasons: to prove the economic viability of whole-building energy efficiency retrofits, to create a model for the industry and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"My wife and I have a very deep commitment to sustainability. It’s our belief that sustainable practices in everything are critical to our future," Tony Malkin, who owns the Empire State Building, tells Molly Miller of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Top 10 green buildings

Blogger Prakash T compiled a list of what he considers the top 10 green skyscrapers in the world. They range from the angular Hearst Tower in New York and the Swiss cheese inspired COR Tower in Miami to Fusionopolis in Singapore, which boasts its own ecosystem, and the strangest looking shopping mall ever, the Vulcano Buono in Italy.

Of the COR Tower, which he lists No. 1, he says: "The green features that make it one of the world’s greatest eco-towers are the wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, recycled glass tile flooring, solar hot water generation, bamboo lined hallways, and energy star appliances."

The Urban Cactus in Rotterdam, Netherlands, which comes in at No. 2 on Prakash T's list, looks like a stack of irregular levels, each boasting a garden terrace.

Cost competitive

The difference between green renovation and standard upgrade is a matter of cost. But the differential isn't as big as it would appear. Prakash says it can be just 5 percent more. USGBC's LEED program, which certifies levels of efficiency in buildings, requires upgrades that can tack 7 percent to 10 percent more onto the cost, depending on the level. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

In the United States, buildings account for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, 30 percent of waste output (136 million tons annually) and 12 percent of potable water consumption.

There is a benefit to all this activity. In a story by Cam Burns of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Chris Allen, sales and production manager at Glenwood-based Climate Control Co., a heating, ventilation and air conditioning services company, says the energy efficiency thing works for him. "If we hadn't gotten into energy efficiency, I don't know that we'd be 34 employees at this point,” he says. “It's been kind of a savior for us. Now it is everywhere.”

Blogger John Brian Shannon sums up the situation faced by many of us: "Our choices are laid out before us just like at the shoe store -- all we have to do is choose!"

UC Merced sets the sustainable bar way, way up

The newest campus in the University of California system is quietly becoming a sustainable model and developing a reputation as a center for world-class research.

The University of California, Merced just had its seventh building certified gold by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program.

Its long-range plan, which embraces economic, social and environmental sustainability in campus facilities, was named to the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment Top 10 Green Projects program.

And physics professor Sayantani Ghosh, along with Richard Inman, Georgiy Shcherbatyuk, Dmitri Medvedko and Ajay Gopinathan recently won recogntion of their research in renewable energy in the clean energy press.

Renewable research leader

Zachary Shahan of explains the research breakthrough as an effort "to redesign luminescent solar concentrators in order to make them more efficient at sending sunlight to solar cells."

Efficiency is the key to commercial viability in the renewable energy game. Keeping up with lower priced fossil fuels is the ultimate goal. Ghosh explains in Shahan's article that his team tweaked the traditional flat design for concentrators and made them hollow cylinders. Should the technology prove itself in cost and efficiency boosting, many, many more will hear about UC Merced.

The concentrator project is just one of a number of top-notch research programs that involve renewable energy at the San Joaquin Valley institution. Open just since Sept. 5, 2005, UC Merced is the 10th campus in the University of California system and calls itself "the first American research university of the 21st century."

"We’re attempting to set new standards for energy efficiency and environmental stewardship,” says Thomas Lollini, campus architect and an associate vice chancellor, in a statement, referring to the buildings on campus. However, the campus has embraced sustainability on multiple fronts.

Green building movement

The U.S. Green Building Council reports that LEED certified projects are pushing 1.9 billion square feet nationally. The designation was set up in 2000 to provide independent, third-party verification of cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.

In the United States, buildings account for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, 30 percent of waste output (136 million tons annually) and 12 percent of potable water consumption.

Any dent in that is a big deal.

Effort already a decade old

Richard Cummings, principal planner at UC Merced, says the green building movement on his campus began in 2002, when founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey established the goal of the campus meeting LEED silver for all buildings. What ended up happening is that all buildings but one ended up LEED gold, he says.

"As a result, our new 2009 master plan requires that all new buildings meet LEED Gold at a minimum and that the campus be zero net energy, zero waste and zero net emissions by 2020," Cummings says, adding that the campus also uses an internal, more-rigorous-than-LEED, benchmarking approach to energy efficient buildings.

The buildings certified LEED gold on the campus include the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library, Classroom Office Building, Science and Engineering 1, Sierra Terraces Dormitory, Joseph Gallo Recreation Center and the Central Plant. The Valley Terraces Dormitory is certified LEED silver.

Going for gold

Buildings expected to achieve gold certification include the Dining Expansion, the Early Childhood Education Center, Housing 3 and Social Science and Management Building. Building pursuing certification are Housing 4, Student Activity and Athletic Center, Science and Engineering Building 2 and the Student Services Building.

"UC Merced's commitment to LEED Gold combined with its aggressive energy saving design standards enables the campus to reduce energy costs by approximately $1 million per year when compared to typical university buildings in California," Cummings says.

"In addition, UC Merced's state of the art buildings are supplemented by a campus solar array that routinely produces half of campus electricity when the sun is shining and 1/6th of annual electricity needs."

Newest green building

Construction of the Logistical Support/Safety Facility, the seventh building certified gold, featured a number of sustainability-related achievements. About 77 percent of construction waste did not go to landfills but was ground up for reuse by farmers and nurseries.

Water use in the facility was reduced by 48 percent via the installation of waterless or low-flow urinals, lavatories and sinks. And 24 percent of the materials used in construction were made from recycled content.

All of those factors contributed to the high LEED ranking, officials say.

“This is a profound example of taking the long view of the built environment, setting out an early plan, identifying benchmarks, designing and building a campus, seeing if you are meeting your benchmarks, and continuous improvement until hopefully you reach the goals of zero energy and zero waste for 10,000 students in 2020,” wrote one juror who contributed to the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment ruling that put the campus on its Top 10 list.

“It’s an astonishing ambition, and they are on track.”

Energy efficient construction gains ground and saves money

My Uncle Dave Wakefield lives in Anchorage, Alaska in a tiny house built when efficiency meant minimal construction cost and square footage.

The house, which he's lived in the past two decades, has changed little since its construction sometime before or during World War II. It has 2-by-4 walls, low ceilings, tiny rooms and a draftiness consistent with old homes built by homeowners who used whatever was lying around. In this case it probably meant surplus wood from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

When I called Dave recently, he expressed happiness that the winter temperature had finally risen. "The high was 4 degrees today, and it feels almost tropical," he said.

Turning up the heat

Tropical is relative. Dave said deep cold slammed them hard the week before.

Dave keeps the furnace cranked. But because so much of the heat leaks through the attic, walls and windows, massive icicles form, looking like clear, pristine stalactites. Hardly energy efficient.

Ironically, his house is green.

Building goes green

Construction methods certainly have changed since Dave's house was built. In fact, better windows and thicker walls are the norm. The move to energy efficiency can be seen in the latest from the U.S. Green Building Council, which released its 2011 list of top 10 states for LEED-certified commercial and institutional green buildings per capita. The list is based on the U.S. 2010 Census.

Alaska didn't make the cut, and Dave's house certainly didn't help.

However, the little house on Third Avenue across from the site of the old Native Hospital does provide an example of the importance of using techniques to improve efficiency in the nation's homes, commercial structures and institutional buildings.

Efforts grow to improve construction

Buildings consume about 40 percent of the overall energy and 70 percent of the electricity in the United States, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Many efforts, including the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system, are under way to reduce that and in the process lower production of greenhouse gases.

At the top USGBC's list is Washington, D.C., which completed about 19 million square feet of LEED-certified space for a whopping 31 square feet per person in 2011. Colorado takes the No. 2 spot with 2.74 square feet per person, followed by Illinois, Virginia and Washington state.

California stands at No. 8 in the per capita ranking but scored first with total square footage at about 71.6 million. New York was second in overall square footage with 36.5 million.

People matter most

"Looking past the bricks and mortar, people are at the heart of what buildings are all about," said Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of USGBC, in a statement. "Examining the per capita value of LEED square footage in these states allows us to focus on what matters most -- the human element of green buildings."

LEED certification, one of a number of ratings systems, measures site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality."

LEED and other efforts -- such as the net-zero, whole house and passive house movements -- promote construction and retrofit practices that save long-term operational costs. Frequently, the measures can be paid off quickly and even then only add marginally to the overall cost of construction or remodel.

Reducing energy consumption

An NREL report, "Zero Energy Buildings," says "energy consumption in the commercial building sector will continue to increase until buildings can be designed to produce enough energy to offset the growing energy demand of these buildings."

Awareness of the value of energy and other efficiencies is gaining recognition. Corporations are embracing sustainability, consumers have begun to recognize the importance of using technology to manage their electricity use and utilities across the country are finding ways to help stakeholders use less so they can delay adding generating capacity.

Passive house

In northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History recently completed a passive house for its Climate Change exhibit. The 2,500-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath home "assembles some of the world’s greenest technological advancements and packages it in a super-insulated shell," writes Marc Lefkowitz for GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which is the center for sustainability at the museum.

The house, one of the first in the region, is so well insulated, so weather tight and so efficient that it will need no furnace.

Going net zero

Although few buildings can claim net-zero energy consumption status, more are on the horizon. A study from Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says the net-zero world market, currently measured at a relatively small $225 million, is "set to explode," growing to $1.3 trillion by 2035.

The chief cause cited is the European Union's introduction of net-zero building codes at the end of the decade. Pike says the EU's commercial and residential construction will account for about 90 percent of the total.

The North American market, meanwhile, would grow incrementally, researchers predict.

Home batteries

Of course, everything depends on energy prices, political climate and consumer mood. Katie Fehrenbacher of writes that Japanese consumer electronics giant Kyocera is working to package its solar collectors and energy management systems with lithium ion home battery systems from developer Nichicon Corp.

Fehrenbacher writes: "Kyocera says there’s been a growing demand for Japanese homes to be able to generate and store their own power following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters last year."

Who knew that smart phones would take as much computing capability as they have? Who seriously predicted clean energy getting as far technologically as it has and preparing to challenge fossil fuels on their own terms. So why should we not allow the possibility for energy independent homes?

Solar Decathlon housing

In fall 2013, 20 teams that know all about the subject will unleash their creativity. They hail from colleges and universities across the country and will unveil the next generation of technological advancements, building and design techniques and energy efficiencies for home building in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

The site for the biennial event will be on the West Coast this time around, at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Since 2002, it's been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Teams have two years to build solar-powered, energy-efficient homes that are supposed to "combine affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the Solar Decathlon will "unleash the ingenuity, creativity, and drive from these talented students to demonstrate new ideas for how families and businesses can reduce energy use and save money with clean energy products and efficient building design."

WaterShed winner

In 2011, the the University of Maryland won with its WaterShed entry. The home had a "split butterfly roofline" that managed storm water, filtered pollutants from greywater and minimized water use. Solar, tight construction and efficient mechanical systems reduced energy use.

I'd love to unleash such a team on my Uncle Dave's house. Actually, the best idea would involve an excavator and a dump truck and building fresh. Dave lives on a fixed income and pinches pennies to get by. Reduce his heating costs by 90 percent and he'd feel rich.

And he'd no longer have icicles that could kill a wandering moose.