Green Homes

Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

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9/26/2014

There is an ideal relative humidity range for our health and that is somewhere between 35% and 55%. In modern life we have introduced many new sources of moisture into our homes. Daily showers, laundry, cooking and dishwashing tend to create concentrated bursts of humidity. Because conventional construction can tolerate very little increase in humidity without condensation/mold problems moisture from these sources must be mechanically sucked out of the home. At the same time most heating systems tend to make the air too dry for optimum health, and so homes must be humidified to reach healthy levels. So on one hand, we are using technology to suck moisture out and on the other, we are using it to add humidity back in! Is there a better solution. econest-paula-baker-laporte-building-biology-creating-a-healthy-indoor-climate

This adobe building designed by Paula features naturally sealed earthen floors, interior, unfinished adobe walls, unsealed woods and clay-based plaster. It has built-in capacity to regulate the interior climate.

Building Biology explains how we can maintain healthy humidity in our homes by working with nature.  Certain building materials such as unfired clay, wood and natural fibers have the ability to naturally regulate indoor humidity provided they are not sealed with impermeable finishes. They can effectively capture humidity when the levels are too high and then release it again once the ambient levels drop thus buffering these extremes and creating natural humidity ranges. This material characteristic is known as hygroscopicity. This explains one aspect of the value of using natural unadulterated building materials, finishes and furnishings. Although exhaust fans are still a good idea they are a supplement and not a dire necessity for the health of the home.

There is a trend in conventional construction to take the exact opposite approach in finishing our homes, making everything impervious for ease of cleaning and maintenance. Surfaces are covered with a thin layer of plastic in the form of various types of man-made polymer finishes. While these wet applied finishes were once a great source of indoor pollution, there are now many choices for low-zero VOC synthetic finishes. Although with careful selection it is now possible to apply synthetic finishes without releasing poisonous gasses there are a number of subtle consequences to consider. These include:
An imbalance in the electro-climate that manifests in frequent static electric shocks
Reflective surfaces that have a negative impact on the acoustics and can create visual glare
A loss of hygroscopicity which leads to imbalanced and unhealthy ambient humidity

Here are some ways to introduce a higher level of hygroscopicity into our homes:
Use natural finishes that maintain porosity such as beeswax and natural oils
Use unfired clay in the form of clay plasters or exposed earthen walls and floors.
Don’t seal wood surfaces where a seal is not required such as ceilings or on exposed timbers
Use natural cottons and wools instead of synthetic fabrics for upholstery and drapery

The benefits of natural finishes go well beyond visual appeal. They aren’t maintenance-free. They require occasional re-application but they patina with age and these natural finishes reward us daily with a better indoor environment. It is a life-style choice.



9/16/2014

small houseThis week’s idea may sound rather radical. I should warn you that I like to make a practice of disruptive thinking. I was always the ‘why?’ child and have yet to shake that ‘why?’ throughout adulthood.

This past week, I have been pondering how vastly different our world would be if every person was allotted no more than 500 square feet of housing. Considering conscious consumption is what led my thoughts to this wondering. I don’t like to think of myself as a consumer, but I am. I try to be intentional. I love to buy art — books and hand-crafted pieces. I often pick up bottles of wine, wedges of cheese, and bars of chocolate. While traveling, I find myself wanting to collect, more than I need or can squeeze into my bag when returning home. I don’t need any of this stuff.

A Tiny House Movement

Beyond my individual thoughts, I found a Tiny House Movement that’s gathering speed. This movement features houses between 100 to 400 square feet. So, for this imagination game, let’s add a few feet and move forward with my proposed 500. For many among us, living under the economic poverty level, 500 square feet per person could seem palatial. Some may even initially struggle to fill the space. For the wealthier around, where 5,000 square feet might feel like a targeted norm, the 500 adjustment would be equally monumental in the reverse. If one wanted something new, methods of exchange and recycling would need to replace accumulation. The wealthy could have far more expensive items, but not more items for more’s sake. If one wanted to collect more widely, you would need to loan out your collections. To remain in the spaces we currently inhabit that are larger than the 500 allotment would require inviting others to live together – cooperatively.

Modest Living in a Tiny Home

Recently, my daughter Carly and I were discussing over consumption and the possibilities for more modest living. We drew conclusions on how living in small spaces would limit one’s concentration on the material world. I have learned from our 1,800 square foot home in Seattle, where we raised Carly, and her foster brother for two years. There was never space to waste. We lived in fewer than 500 square feet per person. We used every room. I believe our limited physical structure brought our small community closer together. When touring castles, seeing photos of the massive homes built for the one percent, and turning the 500 square foot idea over in my mind, I’m reminded of an observation Carly made about township living in South Africa. She noted: ”The people here rely on their community". Her comment resonated with me. Living in close quarters necessitated maintaining mutually beneficial relationships in our household. The same could of course hold true for larger communities. Space, in abundance, can isolate.

Perhaps living in smaller quarters could ultimately bring our larger seemingly sprawled and disintegrated communities closer. If so, what a socially beneficial argument for reducing our ecological footprint. This might never happen, but for me the concept poses an important question that I hope to be asking myself daily: will this fit into my 500 square feet – is this really important and necessary? How much space do you and your family want to use and live in? How might you consume less or share with others? What could you do without?



8/28/2014

air conditioner

According to research, the U.S has used more energy for air conditioning than all other nations combined — vehicle air conditioners in the U.S alone use 7 to 10 billion gallons of gasoline annually. However, demand for air conditioning is dramatically increasing in other warmer regions and it is possible that world consumption of energy for cooling could explode tenfold by 2050, having a major impact on climate change. For instance, China is expected to surpass the U.S as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020.

If global consumption for cooling grows as projected, it will have a significant negative impact on the world’s environment. Air conditioning releases poisonous gases in to the environment, thus contributing to global warming and making the climate warmer. Furthermore, the power to run air conditioned consumes fossil fuels, further contributing to global warming. The air conditioning process is a vicious cycle — while we use air conditioning to cool us down, we are contributing to making the world’s climate warmer, meaning that air conditioning continues to be needed with increased demand.

However, although these statistics may seem shocking, there are things that can be done to reduce the impact that air conditioning has on the environment.

Replace Inefficient Air Conditioners

Figures from 2009, revealed that 10.1 million homes had cooling equipment that predates the first federal efficiency standards which is likely to use more than twice as much energy as equipment being manufactured today. It is likely that many U.S. homes still have these types of air conditioners therefore, in order to reduce the number of carbon emissions significantly, U.S citizens should replace their air conditioners so that they meet the efficiency standards.

Before getting an air conditioner installed, individuals should complete research to ensure that they select an air conditioning installation company that considers the environment. For instance, EOC Services, who install air conditioning in Cambridge, can help individuals to reduce their environmental impact by installing an approved air conditioning system which will assist in reducing the cost of their waste management and make savings in consumption of energy.

Sizing Air-Conditioning Systems

It is also important to get a professional survey completed of the property before an air conditioner is installed, so that they can take into consideration individual requirements. For example, if the system is undersized, it will need to work extra hard meaning that it will use much more energy and will shorten the system’s life span. On the other hand, oversizing the system can lead to greater energy use and poor quality operation. Therefore it is vital to get the right air conditioner to ensure that the air conditioner delivers the best performance possible.

If an air conditioning unit is installed outside, it is vital to check that it has insulation around the pipes so that the air conditioning unit doesn’t cool the outside air rather than the building, as this is not only a complete waste of energy but also very bad for the environment. It is equally important for buildings to be well insulated, as it can prevent the building from warming up so quickly during the day and therefore reduce the length of time that an air conditioner needs to be used for, saving people money on the energy bill and significantly reducing their carbon footprint.  

Servicing and Maintaining an Air Conditioner

Although it is common practice for Americans to have routine service or maintenance performed on their automobiles, just 42 percent do the same for their central air conditioning systems. It is essential to regularly get air conditioners serviced because even the latest air conditioning systems with the best insulation will be inefficient if it is improperly serviced. What’s more, it is important to regularly clean the fans and heat exchangers as this can increase efficiency by around 40% as well as increase the air conditioners life span.

Finally, it is important to use air conditioning systems in an appropriate way – simple things such as shutting doors and windows when the air conditioning unit is in use, as well as using blinds and recommended operating temperatures will all significantly help to increase the efficiency of the air conditioner unit and reduce the amount of harmful gases being released.

Overall, if everyone followed the points listed above, air conditioning would be a much more energy efficient process and would significantly reduce people’s carbon footprints in the U.S as well as other regions of the world where demand for air conditioning is increasing.



8/22/2014

wagonEver felt like getting rid of all your worldly possessions and living the nomadic lifestyle? Lloyd Kahn and friends at Shelter Publications have just the tome for you!  In the wake of their most popular book, Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, the company has released a 36-page preview of their upcoming book, Tiny Homes on the Move

The flipbook contains a plethora of full-color images of roaming, small homes, which travel on either wheels or water, along with stories about the people who built and reside within them. The flipbook is available in both Flash and PDF formats. For higher-quality mobile-cabin eye candy, and more stories along with it, grab your copy of the book at Shelter's website or here at Mother Earth News.

Photo by Fotolia/Jenny Thompson



8/22/2014

image 1

In a recent post on MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Paul Scheckel touched on the benefits of induction as a highly efficient way to cook. But he brought up a common complaint: Induction cooktops are really expensive.

If you've been considering investing in induction cooking for its considerable eco-friendly benefits (close to 90% efficiency is pretty impressive), but have been stonewalled by the $1,200 to $3,000 price tags, then I have good news. There are ways to integrate the hottest new technology in cooking into your kitchen without winning the lottery.

First things first though, let's review the benefits for Mother Earth of this method of cooking.

Energy Efficiency. Induction cooking heats the cookware itself, not the stove top, making the pot or pan the heating element. This is where the optimal efficiency comes from. The U.S. Department of Energy determined the efficiency of energy transfer for an induction cooker at 84%, versus 74% for a smooth-top, non-induction electrical cooker. This isn't a huge difference, but when compared to 40% efficiency of gas, which is often touted as the eco-friendly cooking option, the difference is more than noteworthy. Additionally, gas cooking generates substantial ambient heat, often requiring extra energy be expended on cooling the kitchen.

Speed. It's the speed of induction cooking that is a big selling point both for chefs and eco-warriors. The ability to boil a gallon and a half of water in half the time of gas or electric saves precious resources, and time. That speed also means a faster heat response - when cooking with the correct cookware - all without the unpleasant byproducts of combusting gas in your home.

Durability. The glass ceramic cooktop of an induction cooker is much easier to clean than a gas hob, and because it is never hot itself, no burnt-on food will destroy the cooktop or the cookware, as can happen with regular electric. This means less waste and less need to manufacture replacements.

Downsides: That glass ceramic cooktop is more susceptible to scratching and breaking, and cookware needs to be ferromagnetic. If your current pots and pans aren't cast iron or stainless steel you may have to buy all new ones. Additionally, non-flat surface cookware like woks don't work well, because the induction only works through direct contact. If you like to stir-fry your food in a wok, you probably won't like induction.

Now, back to our main point: How do we benefit from all this eco-goodness without going bankrupt? By downsizing.

Induction cooking is not new - it's the manufacture of full-size induction cooktops that is the recent development. And, as with all new technology, soon it will become more affordable. In the meantime however, you can use one of these three options to both benefit from the technology and see if it's the right fit for you while you wait for those prices to plummet.

Image 2

1. Install a two-burner induction cooktop like this 12 in. Summit Radiant Electric Cooktop ($289) next to your current stove. This way you can benefit from the speed and efficiency of induction in tandem with your current setup.

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2. If going whole hog and cutting a slice out of your counter is too big a step, consider a combination countertop/freestanding cooktop such as this 1650 watt Countertop Cooktop ($99). It can either sit on the counter or be built in, allowing you to test it out first then install it more permanently if you decide you like it.

Image 4

3. The cheapest and simplest option is to buy a portable micro-induction cooktop like this $58 SPT Countertop Induction Cooktop and set it alongside your current set up, using it for high-energy needs such as boiling water.

Conclusion

If you can afford a shiny set of new pans and a grand or two for a fully-fledged induction cooktop, then induction is the clear choice for ultimate energy efficiency while cooking. But if the price tag is too steep, investing a small amount now in trying out the technology in your kitchen will benefit you immediately, and prepare you for when the prices inevitably plummet.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about new technologies in the kitchen, including induction, for Home Depot. A large selection of induction ranges can be viewed on the Home Depot website, as well as a full selection of induction cooktops.



8/22/2014

If you’re looking for a greener way to not only build your home, but insulate as well, look no further than straw bale construction. To help you in your building endeavors, the second edition of Build It with Bales has been made available for download by the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT). Build It with Bales is a comprehensive guide to building and insulating straw bale homes. The 150-page guide contains all manner of guidelines and information on how to build a straw bale house.

Originally released to correspond with the 2012 International Straw Builder’s Conference in Colorado, the second edition of Build It with Bales is available as a free download from the DCAT. The free download of the updated guide comes in the wake of amendments to the 2015 International Residential Code made in May 2014 that will include updated information concerning straw bale homes.

Photo by Fotolia/Evolution93



8/20/2014

recycled log cabin

I live in a what I call a recycled log cabin. Half of the logs came from an 1800's log cabin from around the Nashville area.

My home is located on The Farm Community, one of the oldest, largest and most successful intentional communities/ecovillages in the world.

log support beams

Much of the cabin's  initial construction took place in the 1970's, when the community's members lived under a communal economy. The Farm's economic structure changed in the early 1980's, a shift which made each family financially responsible for any future improvements and maintenance of their home. My family took possession of the cabin in 1985.

Building With Recycled Lumber

The original cabin was disassembled by Farm work crews at its original location in Nashville, Tenn., and the cedar logs were re-stacked back on The Farm to form one half of this home. 

The other logs came from oak trees harvested on the site where the cabin now stands, hand hewn into shape by a member of The Farm who became one of the cabin's first residents.

Many of the support beams throughout the home also came from the local timbers harvested from the building site.

The log walls are about 8 inches thick. Because wood is comprised of plant cell walls, the millions of tiny air pockets make an excellent source of insulation, keeping the cabin warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

cabin wall logs

Although they do not require any painting or maintenance, on some of the interior walls we have sanded the logs and coated them with linseed oil to bring out the natural honey color of the wood.

The entire floor system and the framing for the second story and interior walls all consist of recycled lumber acquired by Farm salvage crews.

Sourcing Salvaged Building Materials

recycled subfloor

Throughout the 70's, The Farm was involved in the demolition of hundreds of buildings across the region, bringing back the materials to use in the construction of homes and community buildings back on the land.

This was economically feasible because there were no labor costs due to the collective economy that was in place at that time. Once it became necessary to pay workers wages after the economic restructuring of the early 80s, it was no longer cost effective to acquire salvaged lumber through demolition.

During the communal period, this home housed about 40 people, including several families and assorted single folks. In the 1980s the house was turned into a duplex and it remains that way today. By sharing resources, we are able to live comfortably while dividing various expenses, keeping our cost of living down.  For example, our two families share one electric meter, one propane gas connection for our cooking stoves, one water heater, one washer and dryer set, and the list goes on and on. We have also shared costs of improvements to the home over the years.

Home Heating and Efficient Windows

bamboo floor

One of our first investments together was a wood furnace in our basement. The furnace heats both sides of the house with a forced air or central heat system, which keeps all of the dust, debris and smoke associated with wood heat out of our living areas.

A few of years ago, my wife and I had an addition built on to our side of the home to expand our living space. It features a floor of Vermont slate. We added a computer controlled electric radiant heating system to the floor, which actually can use less energy than most water based radiant heating systems. It is enough to keep our side of the home warm when temperatures are above freezing.

In Tennessee, we are concerned as much or more about keeping the home cool in the summer than gathering heat in the winter through passive solar.

For this reason on our south wall we installed tall, narrow windows that let in light without allowing a lot of heat come through.

wood furnace

Our entire north wall is glass, wrapping around the corner with two more large, Low E, gas-filled windows on the east wall. This also happens to be where we have a view into the wooded valley below. A sliding glass door on the north wall can be opened to draw in cool air.

The sliding glass door opens out on to a deck. The deck flooring and railing is constructed of locally harvested sassafras lumber, a wood rich in oils and naturally insect and rot resistant. This enabled us to avoid the use of treated wood.

Insulation and Siding

We also built the addition with six inch stud walls, giving us two more inches of insulation than is typical in standard home construction. Under the siding there is an extra layer of foam board, providing yet another layer of insulation. The exterior siding on the addition and on the second story of the entire home is cypress, another wood that is naturally resistant to rot and insect damage. It requires no painting or exterior treatment. Another home improvement has been the addition of new flooring in our upstairs hallway and bedrooms. We chose to use bamboo both because it is a renewable resource and because it is also one of the more affordable options. The downside of bamboo is that although it resembles hardwood in appearance, it is actually quite delicate and susceptible to scuffs, dings and dents. We felt that the upstairs floor would not be exposed to the same amount of traffic that our downstairs receives and for the most has held up just fine.

Vermont slate

Our other options could have been pre-finished hardwood or locally milled hardwood from the nearby Amish community. The Amish hardwood would have required extensive sanding and finishing, something that can be endured with new construction, but is impractical when remodeling.

Green Roofing Material

The shingle roof we installed 30 years finally had to be replaced and this time we went with a metal roof, coated with a baked enamel paint that is rated at 40 years. The roof color is white, which reflects heat and even infrared light. Even on a hot summer day, the metal is cool to the touch, which in turn helps keep the home cooler during the hot summers of Tennessee.

It has taken many years to get where we are now. Instead of a mortgage, we have always worked with a "pay as you go" plan, doing a few improvements or projects each year. We have always been happy that we were not burdened under the weight of a mortgage, but these days it feels very good indeed.

sassafras deck

Join Douglas at the upcoming MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Penn., where he’ll will be speaking on Friday afternoon about growing food, green building, and his life at The Farm Community, one of the largest and most successful ecovillages in the world. For more about The Farm, check out Douglas’s two books, Out to Change the World: The Evolution of The Farm Community and The Farm Then and Now. You can also see it all firsthand by attending one of his Farm Experience Weekends at The Farm in Summertown, Tenn.









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