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Sustainability at Home: Small Changes Form New Habits

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With the COVID-19 outbreak, many of us are spending more time at home. I know that looks different for each person, but for me that means working from home alongside my husband, while co-parenting our 9-month old and trying to keep up with daily tasks. As a project architect in EUA’s healthcare studio and a member of the sustainability committee, one of my duties is to implement high performance, sustainable design into our projects, but my passion for sustainability doesn’t stop at the office.

Much of the news right now is overwhelming so I have tried to implement simple actions in our daily lives to create a serene, comfortable environment at home. In the current climate of the world, making intentional changes to be more sustainable has had many benefits and improvements to our routine and the environment. Here are five sustainable habits that I am hopeful will improve your daily routines as we continue to spend more time at home: 

Improving my Indoor Environment

Have you heard the statistic that we spend 90% of our time indoors? I’m guessing you have, and social distancing has made you even more aware. On the commercial building side, there has been an effort through programs such as the WELL Building Standard to improve the indoor environment at our places of work, but I haven't focused much on improving the indoor environment in my home. Now that I spend much more time at home, I’ve taken a few steps to elevate my home environment. When sleeping, I try to eliminate all light sources, to the point that I’ve been known to cover electronics that emit light with black electrical tape. However, one of the first things I do when I wake up each morning is open the curtains to let the light in. Studies have shown that daylight positively impacts your mood and productivity which is one of the concepts of the WELL Building Standard

Another big impact on our health is the quality of the air we breathe. If you haven't changed your air filter lately, now would be a great time to switch it out. Luckily, our smart thermostat not only tells us the ideal setting for energy usage, but also notifies us when to change our filter. If you haven't upgraded your thermostat, Focus on Energy (for Wisconsin residents) offers discounts on smart thermostats. And with the warmer weather approaching, resist turning on the AC and instead open the windows and let the fresh air inside.

Lastly, studies show that plants can improve your productivity and concentration. I recently did some plant redecorating to make sure there is at least one plant in each room of the house. I also successfully (fingers crossed) propagated and transplanted three new pothos to increase the number of plants.

Action Item: Open the windows and propagate a plant.

Being social (from a distance)

We need community and interaction. Although we are currently subject to physical distancing, maintaining social interactions is important for our health and well-being. During the past weeks, I’ve had more interactions with family and friends, especially those that live in other states. My husband's siblings are spread out across three states from Massachusetts to Washington and it wasn't until the pandemic that we started having weekly video chats, including celebrating our niece and nephew’s birthday from afar. I’m hopeful when the physical distancing ends that we keep up the virtual interaction with our family and friends who live farther away.

At EUA we have made great efforts to keep engaging with each other and our clients by using technology and creativity. In addition to weekly firmwide meetings, we also have multiple fifteen-minute touch points with our healthcare studio to share schedules, projects and stories from home, including guest appearances from some of our budding architects and furry companions. Every Thursday, the office also hosts a Sketch Club for employees and families, with a new subject each week. In fact, if you need a new activity, check out EUA’s coloring book! How have you been using technology to stay engaged with your colleagues?

Action Item: Schedule a virtual game night.

Buying Less

I find myself making endless lists, for groceries mostly, but also for household items, books, garden tools, etc. Normally, I would click ‘check-out’ and see those items at my doorstep in two days. In the current atmosphere, I find myself stalling to place my order as I wait to see if there's anything else I need. I’ve noticed that when I come back to my cart after a day or 2, I delete half of the items as I realize I don’t need most of it. This has resulted in less buying overall which not only saves us money, but also eliminates waste. I believe many of us have grown to expect free, fast shipping on everything, but that results in additional transportation emissions. The list making has also meant any trips outside of the house get bundled together which reduces our driving emissions as well. I know I don’t miss the extra errands!

Action item: Take a pause before hitting purchase.

Supporting Local

Buying less means I can focus more on the quality of goods. When I do need groceries (or let’s be honest, beer), I've been trying to buy more items from local businesses and restaurants. A couple of my Milwaukee favorites have been Braise Restaurant (though I'm hesitant to give away my egg source) and The Glass Pantry, a new bulk food store that opened amidst the pandemic. Both businesses source their goods from local producers and farmers. I've also bought almost all adult beverages from local sources as most breweries are offering online ordering with contact-less pick-up. What are your favorite local spots for fresh food?

Action item: Find a local source for your favorite consumables.

Reducing Waste

Has anyone else found themselves saving every last morsel of leftovers or using your cilantro stems? I'm raising both hands. Not surprisingly, when you have less food in the house, you tend to use what you have and use all of it, which results in less food waste. I keep multiple gallon Ziploc bags in my freezer; I usually have one full of vegetables and another for mushroom stems and when they are full, I make broth. A compost bin (or municipal pick-up) is another great way to keep food scraps out of landfills, and your garden and planting beds will thank you next season. At EUA offices we compost coffee grounds, another good additive for soil. In the U.S., 30% of available food is wasted so let's use this time to get creative with what we have and waste less.

Action item: Save vegetable cuttings to make broth.

I saw a post recently on social media that suggested that we may not all be in the same boat during this pandemic, but we are in the same storm. I thought that was a great way to think about how everyone's current situation right now is different. Some people are discovering new hobbies, others are working the front lines (thank you!), and unfortunately some have found themselves out of work. This is not easy on anyone, but I am hopeful that one positive outcome is that I can maintain these habits. I would love to hear what routines you've started in the past weeks that are making your life more sustainable. 

Emily McNamara, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Project Architect

Emily McNamara, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a Senior Project Architect with EUA's Healthcare Studio in the Milwaukee office. She loves to cook, especially when the food comes from her own garden.