People who protect the environment dream of comfort and new technologies integrated into their houses without damaging the planet. For experts, this utopia is doable, but they caution that the authentic "green house" goes beyond installing saving light bulbs or solar panels. They deem it necessary to identify what is pertinent to the case and accept that many times it is rather a question of common sense, understanding traditional technologies, and rational use of materials
Some of the structures that could lead to a more sustainable society include both a well-insulated soil cabin or hut, and an innovating and sophisticated house generating the energy it needs and using it efficiently.
Silvia Soonets, an architect and professor of Architectonic Design at Simon Bolivar University, feels that defining "eco-friendly housing" is not easy, as several factors affect construction sustainability: impact on the environment, building materials, used technologies, and conscious use by its dwellers.
The architect points out that "each of those factors is important and each of them is present, to a greater or lesser extent, in current constructions that intend to deserve the term of environmentally friendly."
Initiatives have arisen throughout the world in the construction sector aimed at reducing the environmental impact.
For instance, the US Green Building Council developed the Green Building Certification System, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
The British Research Institute developed the BREEAM method (BRE, Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). Organizations and governments have adopted those certification systems for environmental buildings as guidelines to evaluate "green" constructions.
There are fully sustainable and almost automatic proposals like the German House and others that use alternative renewable energy sources generated from daylight using solar panels or photovoltaic cells, where the water -including rain water- is recycled and reused by storing it in underground deposits; also, sewage water is treated and used for the irrigation of gardens.
Beyond aesthetic considerations and the materials that make up such constructions, they incorporate systems that ensure energy efficiency inside the house such as solar panels or gas heaters, saving light bulbs or lamps, thermal isolation, urinaries without water, water-saving toilets, timed faucets and moderate flow showers. They also incorporate electrical power saving household appliances.
The domestic brain
Anywhere in the world, the trend toward eco-friendly housing is aimed "not only at including environmentally friendly, less energy-consuming appliances, but also at efficiently using them." That is how engineer Carlos Urdaneta, director of Smarthouse, a company engaged in the installation of smart systems in Venezuela, phrases it. Energy management, safety, well-being and communication in houses can be automated with such appliances.
In such "smart houses" the operation of certain devices or services can be programmed according to habit and consumption patterns of users in order to increase efficiency regarding the rational use of lighting, irrigation control or heat and air conditioning adjustment.
Urdaneta notes that having fully "green" housing in Venezuela entails a high investment because the cost of energy in the country is very low, that is, such investment will hardly be reflected as true savings in the short term. However, he is positive that 50% energy saving can be achieved through the rational use of domestic systems.
"Being environmentally friendly does not mean continuing to live the way we have done it until now, without modifying our habits but spending less because the technology is more efficient." That is the way town planning architect Glocalstudio, Béla Kunckel puts it.
He explains that very valuable initiatives exist but we need to change our model as individuals and society.
Kunckel clarifies that true ecological awareness is not enough to use less energy. He ascertains that in order to give energy its fair value it is necessary to understand where things come from, how they are produced, how much energy do they use, and how they are consumed.
In the meantime, the architect suggests using certain recommendations of the LEED rules that do not imply great changes, and provide sustainable benefits such as cooling systems that use shade and natural ventilation.
It is also advisable to use materials that transpire, meaning that leave air and humidity go through without affecting the environment, as well as to incorporate a "green roof" or green areas that capitalize on local resources by using grass, bushes, or resilient plants.
It is also important to have the least possible amount of closed spaces built with concrete or hard materials such as ceramic or tiles, which do not permeate water that could feed underground water if it were well channeled.
At the time of building or remodeling, the challenge of decision-makers is to "identify what is pertinent to the case and accept that many times it is rather a question of common sense, understanding of traditional technologies, and implementation of passive measures for solar protection or rational use of common materials, instead of the use of state-of-the-art technologies that may, however, be an invaluable tool," said Silvia Soonets, professor and expert in the field.
Translated by Mercedes Alonso
Cristian Fonseca, a businessman in La Candelaria district downtown Caracas, was doing the accounts in his small shop office on Sunday December 21, 2008. The Christmas shopping season kept him working late hours into the night. It was around 11 p.m. and his phone rang. A friend broke the bad news to him over the telephone.