Oh baby its cold outside! Time for sweethearts to head indoors.
Soft music, a bottle of wine, a dozen red roses, chocolate truffles… the accoutrements of romance lay out on a soft white sheepskin in front of….. a hot air vent. What’s wrong with this picture?!?!?
When it comes to creating atmosphere nothing beats the warmth of a toasty fire. The deep penetrating heat, dancing flames and crackling roar delight our senses. Having a relationship with this powerful element evokes a deep sense of home. The hearth is the heart of home and this is why so many homes have one, even though, as a rule, a they produce very little heat in the home and lots of smoke pollution in the neighborhood.
There is a way to have it all…romance, energy efficiency, and healthy heating, by following the example of Northern Europe.
Our European ancestors were no strangers to energy crisis. Their big ah-ha occurred in the 13th century when it dawned upon them that the wood supply was not endless and, in fact that they would soon be shivering in misery if they did not curb their rapid consumption of the forests. This is when the evolution of the masonry heater began. The German Kachelofen, Finnish Tulikivi, the Russian stove… each country invented a way to provide home heat efficiently with a sustainable use of the available wood fuel. Using the principles of contra-flow, mass, surface area and central placement, regional versions of the masonry heater have continued to serve Northern Europeans generation after generation…knowledge, passed down and perfected over a 700 year evolution. The masonry heater works by burning a small wood fire full bore for a short amount of time. A series of chambers built into the heater circulate the hot air, warming the masonry mass. The spent air finally exits through the chimney without the polluting combustion bi-products emitted by other fuel burning appliances. The heated mass continues to radiate warmth into the space for many hours after the fire is spent.
From the standpoint of Building Biology which considers the natural environment to be the gold standard for human health and planetary ecology, a radiant heat source is ideal. Consider how nature heats us. The sun is our renewable source of radiant heat. Life on earth is possible because that heat is stored in the mass of the Earth sustaining us through the night and the winter. It is because radiant energy heats bodies and not the air that we can be comfortably warm on a sunny day, even when the surrounding air is cool.
From nature we can deduce the qualities of the perfect heating system for optimal health and ecology.
- radiant heat that warms us and not hot, dry air heating air.
- free of toxic combustion bi-products and fried dust
- maintaining a natural ion balance (negative ions cling to ductwork and forced air is depleted of ions)
- maintaining a constant temperature from head to foot
- providing healthy temperature variation within the home
- quiet, without noise pollution from blowing air an cycling motors.
As a bonus radiant heat in the form of a masonry heater can create a cozy focal point in the home.
A masonry heater combines all of these qualities providing function and beauty…a romantic addition to any home.
In our EcoNest homes we often use Tulikivi which is a Finish soapstone masonry heater. Because the soapstone is so dense these masonry heaters are more compact than some others and they fit well into our compact designs.
If you have the opportunity to build from scratch then I invite you to think outside the conventional box of forced air heating blown around in a lightweight home. Be prepared to realize a new level of comfort in a win/win relationship with the environmental steward inside you!
To quote Mark Twain, who first discovered the masonry heater in his travels to Germany:
…to the uninstructed stranger it promises nothing, but he will soon find that it is a masterly performer The process of firing is quick and simple. At half past seven on a cold morning one brings a small basketful of slender pine sticks and puts half of these in, lights them with a match and closes the door. They burn out in ten or twelve minutes. He then puts in the rest and locks the door and carries off the key. The work is done. He will not come again until next morning. All day long and until past midnight all parts of the room will be delightfully warm and comfortable.
Americans could adopt this stove, but no, we stick placidly to our own fearful and wonderful inventions of which there is not a rational one in the lot….
Consider these aspects of the Masonry stove. One firing is enough for the day: the cost is next to nothing, the heat produced is the same all day, instead of too hot and too cold by turns: one may absorb
Himself in his business in peace. Its surface is not hot, you can put your hand on it anywhere and not get burnt, yet one is as comfortable in one part of the room as another”
From “some National Stupidities” written in 1891.
Resources for Masonry Heaters:
Alaska Masonry Heat
Canadian Kachelofen: they manufacture and ship masonry oven cores.
Masonry Heaters Association of North America: A source for general information and list of person trained and certified in the specialized art and craft of masonry heater building.
Temp-Cast: Modular wood-fired masonry heaters and heater core kits.
Tulikivi: Soapstone masonry heaters imported from Finland.
Photo by Susan Glazer
There are a lot of ways in which technology has transformed modern life, and it is simply wonderful just how much easier each new development has made our lives. However, for many years, with each new development came a new and more harmful challenge to the earth. Whether it is the non recyclable materials that are used, or harmful emissions from the processes that make them, there is a lot of new technology that is not what we would call eco-friendly. However, in the last decade or so, there has been a wave of new, green technology, a sort of “green revolution”. New, efficient technology is replacing the old, and it is transforming the way in which we live, and more importantly, our impact on the environment. Here are a few of the best new green innovations that have replaced less efficient tech.
If there is one place where it literally pays to save energy, it is in your home. The cost of wasting energy is high, and it takes its toll when you get round to paying your bills every month. However, new technology means that we no longer have to waste energy by overheating or using too much air conditioning in our homes. When you are out, it is so easy to leave your heating running, so that it is nice and warm for when you get back. However, with the smart thermostats that are on the market these days, you don’t have to worry about that, because you can program it to follow your habits precisely. This means that, while you do not have to waste energy by heating or cooling an empty house, it will still be the right temperature for when you get home. With a system from industry leaders like Vivint or ADT, you can also automate your lighting, add solar power, and control everything from your phone, making it the ultimate green machine.
Automobiles are often held up as one of the largest contributing factors towards global pollution. However, in recent years, car manufacturers have made great strides towards completely eco-friendly practices. Companies like Toyota and Honda are often celebrated as some of the most eco-friendly companies in the world, let alone the automobile industry. They are constantly working on using green-friendly production processes, and have released a number of fuel efficient vehicles and hybrid cars.
Furthermore, you can transform even the most traditionally environmentally unfriendly parts of your home. That is to say, your appliances. Companies like General Electric (GE) are starting to take notice of the effect that they can have on the environment, and GE has started a large green initiative that encourages energy efficiency in all of their products. You can even check on energystar.gov for an extensive list of energy efficient products to use in your home. In all of this, there is a lot that we can take away about the impact that our purchasing decisions have on the environment. But the one thing that we learn is that the future is green, and the future is now.
Photo by Fotolia/Alexandre Zveiger
“Our ancestors, when about to build a town or an army post, sacrificed some of the cattle that were want to feed on the site proposed and examined their livers…they never began to build … in a place until after they had made many such trials and satisfied themselves that good water and good food had made the liver sound and firm.”
Vitruvius, roman architect circa 20BC- The Ten Books on Architecture
Before deciding where to build our ancestors and their ancestors before them paid close attention to the site to determine how well it would support their health and well-being.
While the Romans slaughtered their cattle and examined the organs, the ancient Indians, being more kindly disposed towards cows, simply observed their behavior. If cows left to graze on the potential site grew amorous this was one good sign. The Vedic scriptures prescribed a whole roster of additional tests for evaluating a site including the taste, color and smell of the soil, the sound of the ground when tapped, and the health and species of the vegetation. Far from superstition and ritual, these tests evaluated important attributes of a site including fertility, compaction, water flows and presence of soil gasses.
Building biology also pays close attention to the health qualities of natural site conditions and advises us to avoid building over geopathic stress zones. These zones are caused by disturbance under the earth’s surface such as ore bodies, crevices and underground water and can result in anomalies in the geomagnetic field emanating from the earth. Measurable surface characteristics associated with these underground features include deviations in the earth’s magnetic field, increased electrical conductivity, increased radon, and increased positive ionization. Geopathic stress zones have been associated with weakened immunity in individuals who sleep over them. Observations of flora and fauna on a site can indicate the presence of geopathic disturbance. Cancerous growth on trees or a group of trees that lean away from a spot, evidence of lightning strikes and animal behavior (dogs avoid these zones cats will gravitate to them) are all said to be indicators. Aside from the human dowser there is no single instrument that can measure all of the physical parameters associated with naturally occurring geopathic stress zones. Although dowsing may be considered “unscientific”, Egyptian hieroglyphics attest to the fact that mankind has a long history of dowsing as a form of site investigation.
Unlike our ancestors we must also consider the impact of man-made pollution which can turn a naturally healthy site into an unhealthy one. Following is a partial checklist for avoiding various forms of man-made pollution:
• Choose a site with clean air. Determine prevailing winds and seasonal changes in prevailing winds and know what is up wind from you.
• Avoid industrial areas, traffic corridors, agricultural lands that have pesticide applications and proximity to power plants.
• Evaluate levels of light and noise pollution at different times of day/night.
• Avoid proximity to high voltage power lines, microwave relay stations, cell phone and broadcast towers and smart meter radiation.
• Consider not only current activities but future development potential and how it might affect your well-being.
If you don’t own a herd of cows, become a keen observer of your site. Learn about the man-made impacts. Study the interplay of natural forces over time, the flora, fauna, wind, sun and moisture patterns. Choosing the right location is the first important step in creating a healthy home for you and your family.
• a geotechnical engineer to determine the bearing capacity of your soils
• local zoning and planning departments or consultant to learn about building restrictions and current and future potential neighborhood developments.
• a permaculture expert to gain insight into the natural patterns and flows of your site
• a Building Biologist to measure levels of electro-magnetic radiation
• a dowser to find well location and potential geopathic stress zones
Note an early version article first appeared in print in Santa Fe Home magazine in 2009
Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle architect/founder of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. www.paulabakerlaporte.com, www.econesthomes.com.
By the time fall rolls around, most of us are ready to say ‘goodbye’ to the summer heat, and hello to a few months of cool weather. However, autumn is more than just a time to enjoy the changing color of the leaves and the dropping of the mercury in the thermometer; it’s a time to prepare your home for the coming ravages of winter. After all, if you don’t take care of potential problems now, before they actually happen, you could find yourself stuck with some major repair work right in the middle of the Holiday Season. Here’s a quick list of things you need to do to prepare your home for the coldest months of the year.
1. Prune back your hedges, shrubs, and branches.
When it comes to being covered in snow, the plants with less surface area are less likely to get damaged. Trimming back your outdoor plants will help keep them safe, and will give them a nice fresh start to grow from once spring arrives.
2. Check around your doors and windows.
With the cold fast approaching, now’s the time to locate any areas of your home through which heat could escape. Make sure that the caulking around you windows is solid and free from cracks, and check around your doors to make sure that they shut securely without leaving gaps.
3. Give the heater a test run.
Replace your furnace filter, open your vents, and kick the heater into high gear, because you’ll want to make sure that your heater works before you get trapped inside during a blizzard. If you notice any problems, call a repairman and get it sorted out quickly.
4. Clean and cover the AC outdoor condensing unit.
This is good idea especially if your area drops into low temperatures or has heavy snowfall. Use a high pressure hose to clean any debris out of the condensing unit, and then cover it up for the winter. If left open, the harsh winter weather could damage your system, leaving you without a cooling system once things begin to heat up again.
5. Clean out your gutters.
If you have any trees near your house, then chances are that once all the leaves have fallen, you’ll have rain gutters that are absolutely full of debris. Clean these out before the weather starts to get any worse, otherwise you could have to deal with water buildup and ice damage.
6. Check the roof.
If you have any missing or damaged shingles, you should hurry to get them replaced before winter arrives. Also check to see if you have any significant air leaks coming up through the roof, and have them repaired if you do.
7. Blow out your sprinkler system.
In many areas, simply turning off your sprinklers isn’t enough to protect them. Have your sprinkler lines completely emptied of any residual water by using an air compressor (or hiring someone to use an air compressor) to blast it free. Water left in the pipes could freeze, causing massive damage to your home irrigation system.
8. Fix any cracks in your driveway and other paved surfaces.
Small cracks can become big eyesores if you allow water to get into them and freeze. So, before that happens, take a close look at any of your paved surfaces and fill any cracks with either poured concrete or special concrete crack sealer.
9. Store an emergency food supply.
Winter can often mean storms, which in turn can result in loss of power, being snowed in, or even being unable to access running water. If that should happen, you’ll be thankful for a well stocked food storage to help keep your family healthy and happy. There are many sites online that can help you figure out exactly what kind of foods you should store for winter.
10. Automate your home.
If you really want to get ready for winter, contact one of the leading home automation providers such asVivint. Home automation can help you regulate house temperature, keep an eye on your property during storms, and conserve precious electricity.
The editors here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS benefit greatly from the involvement and opinions of the magazine's readers. Our Advisory Group members (whose ranks you can join!) vote on their interest in the topics and artwork we propose, and give us feedback on all kinds of subjects, including gardening and poultry.
In the spirit of such involvement, we'd like potential homeowners to answer some survey questions on their preferences when it comes to their future homes' designs and features. This survey will be particularly relevant to you if you plan to build a new home or weekend cottage in the near future, but even if you're still just in the dreaming-about-it stage, we welcome your opinion.
Thank you for your participation and feedback!
Photo by Fotolia/KB3
Collegiate teams involving more than 1,000 students from around the world have assembled at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., to showcase their highly energy-efficient, solar-powered houses for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013. The opening ceremony on Oct. 3 kicked off the highly anticipated biennial competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate houses powered by the sun that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive and easy to live in.
“These inspiring collegiate teams show our onsite visitors and online Solar Decathlon audience around the world how efficient building design and clean energy products available today can help families and businesses save money by saving energy,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “The event provides student competitors with unique real-world training to become the clean-energy workforce of the future and helps ensure that our nation remains competitive in the global race for clean energy.”
In addition to educating the public about money-saving and energy-saving opportunities available today, this award-winning competition engages students from across the nation and around the world to develop the skills and knowledge to become the next generation of architects, engineers and clean energy entrepreneurs. Over the last decade, the competition has prepared approximately 17,000 students to become future innovators in clean energy technologies and efficient building designs that cut carbon pollution and help slow the effects of climate change to leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations. The Solar Decathlon also supports the Obama Administration’s goal of transitioning to a clean energy economy while saving families and businesses money.
Student teams in the 2013 competition span two continents, including teams from the United States, Canada, Austria and the Czech Republic. Over the next 10 days, they will compete in 10 contests that gauge each house’s performance, livability and affordability, rewarding teams that build houses with estimated costs at or below $250,000. The teams will have to perform a variety of everyday tasks, including cooking, laundry and washing dishes, to test the livability and energy use of their houses. The winner of the overall competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.
Thousands are expected to visit the houses, which will be open to the public free of charge on eight days over two weekends: From Thursday, Oct. 3, through Sunday, October 6, and again from Thursday, Oct. 10, through Sunday, Oct. 13, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. PDT. Visitors are able to tour the houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes, and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today. The overall winner will be announced on Saturday, Oct. 12 at 10:00 a.m. PDT. This Solar Decathlon is the sixth such competition since 2002.
This year’s collegiate teams were chosen nearly two years ago through a competitive process. The selected teams and their projects represent a diverse range of design approaches, building technologies, and geographic locations, climates and regions – including urban, suburban and rural settings. They also aim to reach a broad range of target housing markets, including veterans, disaster relief, retirement, and single family. Teams have gathered their combined interdisciplinary talents to design and build the houses, as well as to raise funds, furnish and decorate the houses, and optimize the houses’ performance.
For the first time, the Solar Decathlon will be hosted alongside XPO, a clean, renewable and efficient energy exposition, featuring visionary and innovative companies, products and educational opportunities, organized by the City of Irvine and Orange County Great Park. Through fun, interactive exhibits and activities, the XPO will provide visitors with information about the broad spectrum of energy efficiency in home design, transportation, consumer products, food production and education. Visitors will experience a 21st century festival of creativity, technology, design and educational experiences that will inspire children and adults alike at this years Solar Decathlon.
May is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Month. Because many historic homes are built with aging and perhaps brittle or discolored wood, Sansin Corporation — a company specializing in eco-friendly, “water-borne” interior and exterior stains — offers five tips for historic home renovators to keep in mind when tackling a DIY historic home renovation project, such as Frank Robinson's renovation of a 108-year-old cabin in Alberta, Canada.
Preserving Historic Places, Naturally
Wood — our most renewable resource — is often a showcase of historic homes, and something that many renovators, including Robinson, want to protect naturally. Many also want a coating to protect and even reinvigorate the wood, yet not mask the innate beauty of the grain. But homeowners aren’t willing to sacrifice stain quality and longevity in order to “go green.”
Water-Borne vs. Oil-Based Stains
Oil-based paints are traditional coatings for wood surfaces and have a history of great performance and durability. Because of environmental reasons, water-based acrylic latex products have replaced oils in many areas. Oils, however, still have some benefits over water-based products, including penetration and sometimes stain-blocking and durability, as well as water resistance and possibly even flexibility.
Water-based products have low toxicity and low-volatile organic compound benefits (VOC). They also tend to be somewhat more stable with respect to discoloration from ultraviolet light. However, many renovators find them difficult to work with, since they tend to raise the wood grain, create an uneven surface, streak, and dry too fast.
That’s why Sansin developed water-borne alkyd formulas that combine the benefits of both technologies: the low VOCs and environmentally friendly benefits of water, combined with the durability of oils. A water-borne alkyd wood finish uses water as the vehicle to allow oil to penetrate deep into the wood. Water-borne means the formulation comprises pure alkyd and water — and doesn’t use acrylic or synthetic resin.
The water-borne formula leads to long-lasting durability, easier maintenance, and outstanding performance without the toxicity found in conventional stains that contribute to smog and ozone depletion.
108-Year-Old Log Cabin: A Sansin Success Story
Robinson is one of Sansin’s most recent historic home renovation success stories. He is refurbishing a 108-year-old homesteader’s log house near St. Michael, Alberta, which will serve as a vacation retreat. The home is a 1,000-square-foot, two-story cabin that was abandoned in about 1968. Robinson bought the property and decided to preserve its historic significance while creating a more modern, comfortable vacation retreat. Robinson met the Sansin team at a home show, and was immediately convinced that Sansin’s products were the right choice for his project.
“I wanted wood protection that would be climate-appropriate and would last, so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time on maintenance,” says Robinson, a busy administrator at Alberta University in Canada. “Sansin’s low-VOC stains are not the only way I have ‘gone green.’ I also salvaged old windows, clear fir flooring, and staircase treads from other abandoned homes to use in our cabin. It’s a way to keep the historic significance of the property, while also reducing, reusing and recycling.”
Tips for Historic Home Renovators
Historic home renovators like Robinson should consider the following tips to improve on a historic home without damaging the character and significance of the property.
Determine whether the home is a designated historic structure by checking with the state preservation office. If the home is in a historic district, there could be restrictions on the changes that can be made to the exterior. Also, easements and tax abatement programs could be available. By getting to know what makes the home unique in terms of design, architecture and materials, choices can be made that maintain the character of the home.
Stain, Don’t Paint
Staining — particularly with a low-VOC stain — treats historic wood surfaces with respect. Follow this rule of thumb: If a surface isn’t already painted, it shouldn’t be.
Know Your Wood Species
Maple and pine can be very difficult to apply finishes to, while it is easier to apply stain to hardwoods, such as oak. Also, darker stains are more difficult to work with than lighter ones. Those planning to use a dark stain should consider practicing on a scrap piece of wood before diving into the project.
Select the Right Product
A low-VOC penetrating stain wears gracefully, allowing the restorer to apply maintenance coats to sustain beauty, clarity and protection without excessively increasing the thickness of the finish. This approach allows the wood to breathe. Also, request samples and practice on scrap wood before applying to ensure the color is what you want.
Prepare the Surface, Apply the Stain
Repair any defects with acrylic-based wood filler. Sand the surface, working with the grain. Then clean the surface with a vacuum and a damp cloth, making sure it is clean and dry before applying the coats of stain and topcoat per the manufacturer’s direction.
Finally, selecting a color is important when considering exterior maintenance as the pigment loading will affect the performance of the coating. The more pigment, the longer it will last, as good-quality pigments, particularly iron oxides, provide excellent UV protection.
However, wood on historic buildings has a very attractive and distinctive character that most homeowners wish to retain and not hide. With clear or nearly clear coatings, new technologies use finely ground iron oxides, such as trans-oxides or nano tints, to maintain clarity and enhance UV protection, even in a clearer coating.
Wood is an amazing and strong material that creates unparalleled atmosphere, bestowing on historic homes a timeless aura. With some homework, preparation and the right wood stain, one can enjoy the beauty of a historic home for years to come.
To calculate the amount of stain you’d need for your project, use Sansin’s coverage calculator. For more tips on applying stain and details on where to purchase Sansin’s eco-friendly, low-VOC products, visit Sansin's website.