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Sustainable living has very little to do with shiny new stuff. Think about that reusable shopping bag you bring to the grocery store or that curbside find you upcycled.
But if you’re ready to push the sustainable envelope, listen up. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite simple, gratifying, and perhaps extreme green living ideas. Are some of these too extreme for you? Tell us!
1. Homemade houses that don’t knock wood
The Swiss Family Robinson had the right idea. Not only do treehouses give you a room with a great view, but when built correctly, they’re a responsible form of green housing.
In Costa Rica, Mateo and Erica Hogan saved a slice of land from deforestation by building a residential treetop community, Finca Bellavista, on 600-plus acres of secondary rainforest and reclaimed pasture. In this treehouse village, mass transit is a network of zip lines.
Amenities include a community center, carbon neutral electricity, gardens managed by staff crews, and grocery delivery.
People live in treehouses here in the U.S., too.
Michael Garnier helped pioneer the craft of modern treehome construction. His Garnier Limb fastener, a special steel bolt, provides a strong foundation for contemporary tree abodes. Garnier claims that’s why his home is more earth-friendly: He’s not shortening trees’ lives by cutting their roots, which is what happens when you dig a foundation for a conventional home.
His 1,800-square-foot home is supported by his fastener and seven healthy trees.
Tip: You can learn more about treehouse building at one of Garnier’s workshops.
All you need is mortar and a woodpile: Prefer to keep your feet on the ground? Cordwood masonry may be for you. It’s a green and sustainable building method that uses short logs stacked with mortar. The logs used are often scrap from sawmills, fence makers, and furniture makers; these short pieces of wood don’t have much use other than firewood. Cordwood builders even use old telephone poles or driftwood.
The naturally thick walls reduce the amount of energy needed to heat or cool them.
Earthwood is one of the most famous cordwood homes in America. It’s also a mom-and-pop business run by Rob and Jaki Roy, who offer workshops and educational materials on how to build cordwood homes and other structures, such as saunas.
What makes the homes even more special are the personal touches, like found glass and bottles, that you can incorporate into the design.
Tip: DIY workshops are available all over the country. Google “cordwood classes” to find some near you.
2. Countrified city life
Penthouse views and farm livin’? Yup, it’s happening at the new Via Verde affordable housing complex in NYC’s South Bronx.
Designed to provide its residents with a healthy green lifestyle, the building includes solar panels, an apple orchard, and rooftop gardens, where tenants grow fruits and veggies. Plus, everyone can adore a gorgeous city view when they visit Via Verde’s penthouse community room and terrace.
Bees and the city:If gardening isn’t your thing, how about beekeeping?
Honey farming has big buzz in New York City since it was legalized two years ago. There are an estimated 200 registered hives with the NYC Department of Health; and an estimated 200-plus apiarists are working without a license.
Urban Beekeeping: NYC from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.
It doesn’t take a lot of room to raise bees. A small garden, a rooftop, or even a balcony is suitable for an apiary. One family even keeps their bees in their living room. Now that’s extreme.
Plus, honeybees are good for the environment. They pollinate about one-third of the crops we eat, and right now some scientists believe bees are at risk of becoming extinct because of pesticides.
Just remember: If you work with bees, wear protective gear. They can swarm if they’re underfed or their hive grows too large.
Tip: Meet locals in your area interested in urban and suburban community gardening, beekeeping, and other sustainable green habitats by checking out MeetUp’s Community Garden page.
3. Junk is new again
We all love new gadgets, but tossing useful appliances should be a crime — and it is if you live across the pond. The European Union has rules that keep working and easily fixable appliances out of landfills. Instead they’re sold as affordable second-hand goods.
But what about the stuff that can’t be repaired?
Product designer Gaspard Tiné-Berès is exploring electronic trash as a business model. He turns badly damaged household appliances into brand-new ones like coffeemakers and toasters.
Waste not, want not: Sure, turning trash to cash is a great business idea, but what practical tricks you can use right now to save money?
For starters, you can store potatoes, onions, and garlic in hanging pantyhose to keep them fresher longer. And the elastic on men’s underwear can keep your kitchen garbage bag in place. I bet you can’t guess how an empty wine box can make your next flight more comfy. Curious? Watch this video:
Tip: Did you know there’s one major appliance you might be able to live without? Check out this site to see how you can store some fresh foods without a fridge.
4. The incredible shrinking house
Edit, edit, edit is the mantra for green living. To get a tiny taste of living with less, imagine life in this tiny space — a one-square-meter portable home:
Lean green spaces: Less is more in gardens, too. IKEA, the Swedish retailer, has created a tiny greenhouse that allows everyone, even space-starved urban apartment dwellers like me, to create a tiny edible garden in my kitchen.
5. Borrowing is the new buying
Homes with children are filled with joy — and lots of clutter. Get your adult space back, save lots of money, and keep your kids engaged by joining a toy-rental site like Toyconomy.com or babyplays.com. The selection is vast and the companies say they sanitize every toy before it ships.
Rentals for grown-ups: Sometimes adults need to borrow a few toys like a drill, vacuum cleaner, or a margarita machine. Or perhaps you want to rent stuff so you can make a few bucks. At Snapgoods, you can do both. No worries if something gets broken or misplaced. Snapgoods will repair or replace rented goods.
Tip: Like stuff, skills can be shared, too. Skillshare offers an affordable solution to learn or teach specialized skills that improve the quality of our lives.
The Future Belongs to the Curious from Skillshare on Vimeo.
If you’d rather have someone use their home repair skills to help you, then barter for services.
Sure, living sustainably takes a little elbow grease — but that’s why being resourceful feels so satisfying.
Would you try any of these sustainable ideas or are they too extreme? What gratifying green practices have you tried?
Deirdre Sullivan is an NYC-based writer who's obsessed with maximizing every inch of her urban dwelling. She's a former fashionista who has worked for Lucky Magazine and InStyle. She recently traded her high heels and Fashion Week pass for a drill and bandsaw.
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