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Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith are doing everything they can at home to be kinder to the planet. They use solar panels as fuel, tend a massive vegetable garden, capture rain water for irrigation and make their own fertilizer by composting.

Much of their motivation is health focused, since they both work in the Texas Medical Center; Kris as a health care administrator and Cabanillas as an endocronology oncologist.

When they built their home in 2018, energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint was their guiding principle, but the way they live in it is full of thoughtful details about taking care of their little patch of the planet.

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Earlier this month, Hines announced it would take all of its buildings worldwide to an operational net zero carbon footprint by 2040. Net zero might be impossible for homeowners not used to calculating the complexities of how products are made or how their energy needs are fulfilled, but there are plenty of things they can do to tread more lightly.

For Cabanillas and Griffith, the list is long. Their solar array includes eight storage batteries in their garage and 24 solar panels on the south and west-facing parts of their home’s roof. As evidence of its impact, their electric bill ranged from $105 to $115 a month last summer. Their previous house — similar in size to their current 4,000 square-foot home on the same lot — was built in 1938, and had a monthly electric bill of $600 to $800.

Batteries store energy from the solar panels on the roof of the home of Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith.

Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Kenny Marks built his Southampton home in 2017 to be energy efficient, with high-quality windows and doors, insulation with a high thermal rating and 50 solar panels on his roof. Electric bills average $500 a month for his 5,500-square-foot home and swimming pool, dramatically lower than the $1,200 to $1,400 per month for his previous house in another neighborhood.

His motivation was the same as Cabanillas’ and Griffith’s — he was interested in helping the environment, and lower electric bills are a very nice bonus.

‘It all adds up’

Architect Kathleen Reardon of RD Architecture designed the Houston’s first LEED-certified home using principles that have guided her career: creating a tight envelope with good insulation and windows and an efficient HVAC system. For those new to the green building world, LEED is a global certification program that promotes sustainability and a healthier environment by rating residential and commercial construction on materials used, waste, transportation and indoor air quality. 

“What I tell my clients is that many decisions in the design process can have a sustainable component to it. Let’s talk about them as we go,” said Reardon.

A longtime proponent of solar power, Reardon acknowledged its tougher to convince the mainstream to spend money on it. “We’re raising awareness, again, in a different kind of way to capture more people’s attention and say, ‘here’s the problem. We’re putting more CO2 into atmosphere than our planet can handle. The best way to help is reduce power consumption,'” she said.

For homeowners who can’t spring for expensive solar panels, shifting to LED light bulbs should be a no-brainer, Reardon said. A fixture that used to use a 100-watt incandescent light will run just as bright with an 18-watt LED bulb, meaning that the old incandescent bulb will use up to five times more energy. Since LED bulbs are cooler to the touch, they’ll put off less heat in your home, too.

Kris Griffith pours cider he brews in the brew shed behind the home he shares with Maria Cabanillas. They built the bar with reclaimed wood from the home that once stood on the property.

Kris Griffith pours cider he brews in the brew shed behind the home he shares with Maria Cabanillas. They built the bar with reclaimed wood from the home that once stood on the property.

Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Other simple moves include buying clothes made of natural fibers and using them longer or donating them when you’re done with them. Even eating less beef helps, since a single cow in a single year can belch about 220 pounds of methane, a substance shorter lived than carbon dioxide but much more potent in the atmosphere. 

Note to steak or dairy lovers: California researchers believe that feeding cattle a little bit of seaweed can reduce their methane emissions by 60 percent. 

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“It’s such a big world, and when we want something we think ‘How is this one little thing going to make a difference?’ The challenge is getting everyone on board collectively to make one change, then another change and if everybody could do that, it would all add up,” Reardon said. 

A long view

For Scott Frankel, co-president of Frankel Building Group with his brother Kevin, environmentally conscious home construction is about taking the long view — creating homes they hope will still be standing a century from now instead of the kind that get demolished to make way for another. Some 15 years ago, the brothers started thinking about the environment and more eco-friendly building materials they could use. Now many of the homes they build are LEED certified.

“My brother and I started to look at this, and we started to figure out, if you want to talk about your carbon footprint, you have to think about your daily output as a consumer,” Frankel said. “You are tearing down so many trees and using so much gas. The sheer amount of impact you have in building a house is massive, so the most important thing you can do is do it once. Acknowledge Mother Nature and respect her on the front end, and build houses that survive and thrive.”

The Frankels choose eco-friendly and energy-efficient materials across the board. One example is polyurethane spray foam insulation — the kind that makes your home as well insulated as a Yeti cooler. It’s more expensive than other methods, but will lower your energy bill and help your air conditioning system last longer, Scott Frankel said.

“It’s a holistic approach to sustainable construction. That’s how we have less of an impact on the carbon footprint,” he said. “I don’t want to see trucks tear down a Frankel house. That would crush my soul.”

He said most homeowners ask about them about solar panels, but few are willing to take on the cost, which can be as high as the price tag of a fairly nice car and take 15 to 20 years to recover through lower energy bills. There’s good news, though: a 2019 Zillow study showed that solar panels can add 4 percent to the value of a home.

One way of reducing the cost of solar panels is to join a co-op such as Solar United Neighbors, where neighbors combine to buy panels in bulk to save money for everyone. 

Newer products

Frankel and contractor Rob Hellyer, owner of Premier Remodeling and a past president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, both said that while solar panels might be an obvious choice for generating clean energy, more attention should be paid to simpler things such as windows, doors and insulation to keep your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Hellyer noted a recent story published by zeroenergyproject.org, that pointed out that 75 million American homes, all built at least 30 years ago — are dependent on fossil fuels for energy, making green remodeling potentially a $3 trillion market in the next decade.

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Few of Hellyer’s clients ask for eco-friendly products, but all of them appreciate products that are more durable – and that alone is a factor in taking care of the planet. He cited engineered lumber as an essential part of remodeling, and engineered wood floors have surged in popularity. Products such as OSB — oriented strand board, made of wafers of wood that otherwise would be burned or thrown away — are great alternatives to plywood and keep wood debris out of landfills.

A small, energy efficient mini-split AC unit cools Griffith's backyard brew shed.

A small, energy efficient mini-split AC unit cools Griffith’s backyard brew shed.

Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Hellyer, who lives in a 100-year-old building in the Heights that began its life as a pharmacy, notes that a lot of older homes in the Houston area are under insulated. Many that suffered frozen pipes in the February 2021 freeze might have fared better if they’d had more insulation.

Even the simpler fiberglass batts that you roll out in your attic or between 2×4’s in your walls improve energy efficiency. (Hellyer used these in his own home.) Just pay attention to their thermal — or R — rating, getting a 13-23 R rating for walls and 30, 38 or 49 for the attic.

Tankless water heaters are gaining traction in home construction and remodeling because they produce an instant, endless supply of hot water. The most efficient models are gas-fueled, so they contribute to your carbon footprint, and the electric ones take a big electric circuit and can be more expensive to install, so while they may fill a need, they’re not so friendly to the planet. 

Lifestyle and choices

For Cabanillas and Griffith, their efforts are part of their lifestyle. They grow most of their vegetables in a garden that spans much of their backyard, giving extras to family, friends and co-workers. Composting provides dirt and high-grade fertilizer, and their rain tanks hold 1,350 gallons of water that irrigate the plants. Griffith mows the drought-tolerant zoysia grass in the front yard with an electric mower. 

Peanuts grow in the garden of Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Houston. The garden is irrigated with rain water that is collected into large tanks from the roof of the house.
Peanuts grow in the garden of Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Houston. The garden is irrigated with rain water that is collected into large tanks from the roof of the house.
Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Peppers grow in the garden of Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Houston. The garden is irrigated with rain water that is collected into large tanks from the roof of the house.
Peppers grow in the garden of Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Houston. The garden is irrigated with rain water that is collected into large tanks from the roof of the house.
Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith irrigate their garden with rain collected into tanks from their roof, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Houston.

Already they’re planning their next round of crops; broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and potatoes will get started in August, followed by onions, English peas and carrots in September. Cabanillas’ sister lives six doors down and has chickens and beehives so she provides them with eggs and honey whenever they need it.

Your carbon footprint extends beyond your electric bill and the gasoline you use for driving. While those might account for a lot of pollution, there are plenty of things people can do in their daily lives and at home.

Plant trees: Trees clean the air of carbon dioxide and can shade your home from sun. To reduce summer air conditioning costs, plant shade trees on the east, west and northwest sides of your home.

Walk or bicycle: Every mile you walk or bicycle instead of driving saves one pound of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Tires: Something as simple as proper tire inflation can improve gas mileage. Every gallon of gas not used keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air.

Recycling: On average, recycling household waste can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Composting: Maria Cabanillas and Kris Griffith have a composting bin outside their home. She saves appropriate food scraps in a bag in the freezer and adds them to the bin every couple of weeks. The dirt/fertilizer that comes from it is used every time they plant new seedlings or other plants. 

Light bulbs: LED light bulbs are up to 5 times more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. They’re also cooler to the touch, so they won’t add as much heat in your home.

Windows: Leaky windows can be responsible for up to 30 percent of residential heat/AC energy use. You should caulk or weatherstrip existing windows, replace them with more energy efficient windows or add film to block the sun.

Window treatments: In hot summer months, 76 percent of sunlight that falls on standard double-pane windows enters to become heat, according to energy.gov. Draperies with a blackout backing, blinds and other window treatments can help prevent the heat of the day from coming in. 

Sources: Arborday.org; energy.gov


“It’s hard for people who have an existing house to go back and put this stuff in,” Maria said. “You can get solar, sure, it’s just a little harder. Our house was built with the intent of having solar and rain barrels and less of a carbon footprint.” 

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