Green Homes

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


5/1/2014

Read "Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 1" to learn how Cadmon assessed his home for straw bale retrofitting.

Though I didn’t know exactly how, I decided that if my family and I were going to move into a 50 year-old Albuquerque house, I would substantially change it — and I would do it with straw bales. I’d pledged to make it more energy-efficient, more valuable, more aesthetically attractive. I would do it on a shoestring budget. And with my previous experience of bale construction in mind, I promised myself that I would think differently about how to do it.

Rewiring a House Yourself

First, I put my ‘rewiring-from-the-outside’ idea to the test. It proved to be even easier than I’d thought. I walked around the inside of my house with a drill, and wherever I wanted an outlet — or a light switch or wall fixture or even a hook-up for my computer — I made a small hole that punched through the thin sheetrock on the inside and the old layer of stucco on the outside. Then, I ran wires around the exterior of the house, and as I pushed a loop of those wires through the holes I’d made, an electrician-friend quickly placed an electrical box on the inside of each loop and attached the plug or the switch to it.

The work was easily completed in a couple of weekends, there was only a bit of patching around the new outlets to be done (and some sweeping up, which my awe-struck children happily did as they watched their new rooms get all the outlets they needed for their electronics), and I knew the exterior wires I’d just run would get covered by the bales.  Once my friend had connected the wires to the main electrical panel, I had a newly-rewired house, accomplished at a fraction of the cost it would otherwise have been.

Doing the Straw Bale Retrofit

Next came the main work: setting the straw bales. I had the advantage of having worked with straw bales before, and I’d put up privacy walls about 8 feet tall. But here I was looking at a two-story house and I faced unknown questions.

Would 20 feet of straw bales stacked on top of each other just crush the bottom bales? What would happen when I came to window openings, especially ones I wanted to make bigger?  How could I attach the straw bales to the existing structure so they wouldn’t peel off in some windstorm? And what sort of a foundation would the bales need to rest on?

But I needn’t have worried. After I’d poured the foundation (see above) I cut small holes through the old stucco to find the house studs, and attached metal straps to those studs which I wrapped around each bale as I put it against the wall.  I was delighted how solid the wall felt.  Even after I’d gone higher than I had ever done with free-standing privacy walls, the bales continued to feel completely stable which allowed me to create wood openings by each window and rest them on the outside of those bales.  I couldn’t help but wonder, though, what people down the street must be thinking as their crazy neighbor attached bales to his house then jumped and pushed on them to seemingly pull them off again.

Next, I put new windows in my wood openings.  Once I’d done that, I took out the old ones that were now on the inside of the bales, and I put wood around the space between the new and the old.  The result (see the photo below) was beautiful!

The next challenge was attaching the stucco netting to the straw bales. When building other houses and walls, I’d had access to both sides of the bales and could simply sew the netting by pushing big two-foot needles threaded with baling wire through one side of the straw and back again. Now, though, I only had one surface available because the other side was attached to my house. This, I realized, was going to be a case where I really needed to think differently; there was no manual to consult and no-one else who had done this before.

Putting my thinking cap on, I first tried threading pieces of wood behind the strings of the bales. Then I could staple the netting to the wood with little difficulty.

That worked well in most places, but there were still plenty of loose areas.  I really felt stumped this time.  But luck, rather than thinking, came to my assistance because just then I stumbled over some leftover reinforcing wire—and realized I could pin the netting to the bales with it.  I cut the wire, bent it into a spider-like shape, pushed it into the straw and it held amazingly well.

Finally, there was the hard work of applying literally tons of stucco – which is a mixture of sand, cement, and lime – to all the outside surfaces, before I could call the job finished.  Weeks of hauling bucket after bucket up the scaffolds, and mixing load after load of heavy mud took place, but we were rewarded by watching the new ‘skin’ of my house being created after having spent so long putting together the underlying structure.  Once the color coat had been applied, the process was finally complete.

The Finished House

My house had been transformed. The walls were now thicker, and they were super-insulated. New windows made the place even snugger, with window wells becoming a beautiful place to grow plants.  The additional electrical outlets made life easier for both my children and me.  It was much cooler in the summer, and cost much less to heat in the winter.  And the entire structure had taken on a softer and less box-like feel.  The old house I had tentatively bought a few years earlier, it had truly been transformed into a home – and could now serve as an example of how to think differently about the possibilities of transforming other old places into new structures.

If you're in New Mexico or are interested in making a trip, Cadmon’s got a straw bale retrofit workshop in Albuquerque. Check out the workshop details on his website. Please let Cadmon know your thoughts about this post in the comments below, and if you’re interested in learning more about straw bale construction check out PajaConstruction.com.



4/24/2014

I live in a home that now has very thick, slightly undulating walls, and deep window wells where my wife grows beautiful plants. It is incredibly energy-efficient: It’s warm in winter and cool in the summer, and my gas and electric bills are a fraction of what they used to be.

My house has a new electrical grid, but even though I’m not an electrician, I could do much of the work myself. And if you look at it today from the outside, you’d never guess that 15 years ago, it used to be just another old, falling-apart, high-energy-use house which looked like all the others on my block.

That’s because I live in a house that I retrofitted with straw bales.

Building houses with straw bales isn’t a new concept at all: There are homes in Europe constructed with a mixture of straw and mud that are 1,000 years old, and straw houses began popping up in the U.S. a century and a half ago. As I’ll explain, I’ve been building straw houses for a while. But taking an existing house, and stacking bales around it, that was something I’d not heard of before experimenting with it myself – and liking the results so much that I began doing it for other houses.

Here is my journey.

Starting my Straw Bale Construction Company

In the early 1990’s, I founded a straw bale construction company in New Mexico that specializes in building houses and walls using straw bales. As I first built a few, then later dozens of houses, along with several hundred privacy walls using bales, I saw first-hand the advantages of this building method. Their extremely energy-efficient, they have obvious aesthetic beauty, they’re easy to construct and straw bales are a locally available as well as an annually renewable resource, and “green” building with them a great option.

I became increasingly enthusiastic about the potentials in straw bale construction.  And somewhat to my own surprise, I discovered that the process of practically inventing this new method of creating houses and walls with bales was forcing me to think differently, very differently, about the whole concept of how to build a house.  

Assessing an Older Home for Retrofits

Several years later, I found myself needing a new place to live and some office space for Paja Construction (my New Mexico straw bale construction company), but I did not have the finances to buy land and build on it as I had done so often for my clients. As I searched around Albuquerque, I noted that there were thousands of old houses for sale —and they tended to be rectangular boxes with outdated electrical wires, ancient plumbing, inadequate heating and cooling, and almost no insulation.

In particular, I had my eye on a 50 year-old Albuquerque house. It had plenty of advantages: Friends lived just down the road, there were parks close by for my children, the area was filled with schools and shops, and the price of the house was right. But I cringed at the long list of problems in this potential home. The place needed all new electrical wiring and I couldn't stand the thought (or expense) of tearing out all the sheetrock to put in those new wires — let alone patching it all up again. The windows were single-pane and leaked like sieves, but to replace them I'd have to tear apart both the inside and outside of the home. The stucco was cracked and peeling. The heating system was a mess, and neither the walls nor the ceiling had insulation to speak of, so a good portion of my monthly bills would go to heating Bernalillo County rather than the inside of my home.

Could A Straw Bale Retrofit Help Your Home?

Though I didn’t know exactly how, I decided that if my family and I were going to move into this house, I would substantially change it — and I would do it with straw bales. I would make it more energy-efficient, more valuable, more aesthetically attractive. I would do it on a shoestring budget. And with my previous experience of bale construction in mind, I promised myself that I would think differently about how to do it. Along the way, loads of questions began popping up in my mind:

Could I really place straw bales directly against the outside walls of my house?  That would insulate those walls and would allow me to re-stucco the place.

If I was going to cover the outside walls with bales, before I put them in could I do my electric rewiring from the outside rather than having to tear up all the inside sheetrock? That way, I could run the wires on the exterior, drill through the thin walls where I wanted an outlet or switch box---then simply cover up all the wiring with the straw bales as I retrofit.

Could I put a whole new set of windows on the outside edge of the bales?  Doing so would create beautifully deep window wells on the inside, and since the straw bales would cover the old window openings I wouldn't have to worry about patching anything outside.

Could I make the house more beautiful by using straw bales?  Would the natural curves and the organic feel of straw bales placed against the outside take away that 'ticky tacky' look?

With all those things in mind, I nervously began to put my plan into action.

Read “Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 2” for a breakdown of how Cadmon transformed his house using straw bale construction.

If you're in New Mexico or are interested in making a trip, Cadmon’s got a straw bale retrofit workshop in Albuquerque. Check out the workshop details on his website. Please let Cadmon know your thoughts about this post in the comments below, and if you’re interested in learning more about straw bale construction check out PajaConstruction.com.



4/15/2014

While the majority of people are aware of and may make efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, not so many people know about their water footprint and how their everyday decisions can impact it.

An individual’s water footprint is not restricted to the water they use to wash, cook and drink with, this only makes up a minority of their overall water consumption. The remaining impact of our water footprint is made up from indirect use, on the crops we use to feed ourselves and livestock, into the materials we wear and to make all of the food that we eat.

Amount of Water in Everyday Products

Most people are surprised at the amount of water it takes to produce simple, everyday products that we consume without thinking. Here is a list of the water required for commonly used items, to help put it into perspective, remember 2 liters is a large bottle of fizzy drink.

1. That egg you had for your breakfast required a huge 200 liters of water to produce. That’s 100 bottles for that egg alone!

2. The number of liters to produce 1lb of cheese is 2,500. Remember, it’s not as simple as turning milk into cheese, a cow has to be fed on grain to be milked to make the cheese – and cows eat a lot.

3. 4,650 liters of water are needed to produce a 0.6lb steak and a huge 16,600 liters of water are required to produce as little as 2.2lbs of leather.

4. That simple T-shirt you wear? That took around 2,700 liters of water to produce. Think twice before you go clothes shopping. Do you really need anything new? Consider going to the thrift store and getting something second hand.

It is imperative to take into account the impact that your personal and your family’s water footprint is having on the environment. But, why should we be mindful of our water footprint, water doesn’t run out!

While there is plenty of H2O on the planet for our 7-billion-people-strong planet, unfortunately it is distributed unevenly and a lot is wasted, filled with pollutants or not managed sustainably.

There are currently around 700 million people in 43 countries suffering from water scarcity today. By 2025, this figure is expected to increase by 250 times to a massive 1.8 billion, meaning one third of the world’s population will be living under stressed water conditions.

We are currently taking our water situation for granted and gallons of water are being wasted each day. However, by managing our water footprint properly, we can ensure the way we use it is sustainable and future proof.

Here are a few simple steps that do not require any drastic lifestyle changes that will help reduce your water footprint, and likely improve your finances.

Cut Down Your Home Water Use

When you shower. Shave off the time spent in the shower by just one minute and you could save up to $25 per person in your utility bills and between 547 and a massive 2,007 gallons of water per year.

Making tea and coffee. When you fill the kettle, make sure you only use enough water for the cups you will be filling. A good way to do this is to pour water into the cup and then into the kettle, this way you will waste no water at all. We all know that the UK are a nation of tea drinkers, but staggeringly – if they only boiled the water they were using, over the course of the year they could save enough money to generate all of the street lights in the UK for two months.

Laundry and dishes. Try and only use the dishwasher and washing machine when you have a full load. This will save you between 130 and 400 gallons of water and mean you have to do less cleaning!

Turn off that faucet! When you’re brushing your teeth make sure that the water is not still running. Leaving it on can waste up to 1 gallon of water each minute which is completely unnecessary  , wasting your money and the planet’s resources.

Taking Larger Steps to Reduce Water Usage

Eat less meat. The consumption of animal products is responsible to more than 25% of the world’s entire water footprint. By changing to a vegetarian diet permanently it is possible to reduce your footprint by a huge 36%, of course, this isn’t feasible for a country filled with meat lovers, so try to go for one meat free day each week. Do this every day for a year and it will cut 68,000 litres off your annual water footprint.

Responsibly farmed products. Where possible, look to buy responsibly farmed and sustainable produce. Farms that incorporate effective water management and land drainage systems into their everyday processes are far more conscious of their water usage and use it more responsibly.

Don’t buy what you won’t eat. The food we consume accounts for a huge part of our water footprint. Simply being mindful when you do the grocery shopping will mean that you’ll be throwing out less and not wasting the water used to produce your food. Millions of tonnes of food is thrown into the garbage each year in the US – each item in the trash is not only wasted food, but also wasted water.

So, next time you go to throw out that half eater burger – stop and think about the vast amounts of water used to produce it and try and remember to always eat, wash and consume responsibly.


4/15/2014

Passive House HomeIn our April/May 2014 issue, we ran Passive House: Beyond Passive Solar in Ask Our Experts, which discussed the differences between passive solar design and Passive House standards. In response, we received a letter from architect Richard Schmidt of San Luis Obispo, Calif., questioning a number of points in the article. We’ve posted his letter below, and we’d like to hear your thoughts as well.

“Your article ‘Passive House: Beyond Passive Solar,’ intended to clear up confusion between ‘Passive House’ and ‘passive solar,’ merely adds to the muddle. The only connection between the two is the word ‘passive.’ The building philosophies behind the two could hardly be more opposite, nor is there, as the title of the article implies, the slightest evolutionary relationship between the two. To state that Passive House is superior to passive solar is just plain nuts. That’s like saying apples are superior to tomatoes — a proposition few MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers would buy.

“One of the problems with current building codes and conventional thinking about what makes an energy-efficient building is the codes’ obsession with energy conservation at the cost of energy generation/collection/conversion. Passive House is code-type energy conservation on steroids — a super-airtight, super-insulated building envelope of industrial materials dominates the process. A Passive House, it is sometimes said, can be heated with a light bulb, which sounds fine until you think about how you get there: petrochemical insulation far beyond what’s probably needed; layer upon layer of petrochemical housewraps, vapor barriers and the like; a house that’s so tight you have to run mechanical ventilation 24/7 to control mold and condensation and keep it pollution-free; and paranoia about energy loss through windows so much that windows are often minimized, creating cave-like interior spaces more suited for spiders than human comfort.

“In fact, contrary to your article’s implication that Passive House is merely a souped-up version of passive solar, many Passive House designs exclude winter sun because the building would overheat if sun were allowed to pour into the interior. To top it off, there are the politics of Passive House: One has to follow a set of one-size-fits-all rules to get ‘certified,’ and the competing Passive House certifying groups can’t even agree on just what that entails. This is a very expensive and highly questionable way to build.

“Your writer dismisses passive solar as ‘popularized in the 1970s’ (1970s? Boo! Hiss! Orange bathroom tile! Old technology!). Actually, passive solar embodies timeless energy principles largely ignored by most building codes and not embodied in Passive House. Until the era of cheap fossil fuel, this was the common way of building in much of the world. Then we forgot it, and now, we’re told by MOTHER EARTH NEWS to do something called ‘Passive House’ instead. That is a mistake in clear thinking.

“All building sites have natural energy flows that can — and should — be captured for use by the buildings we put on them. Passive solar heating and cooling — letting in the sun’s winter warmth, storing some for later, keeping out the sun in summer when we don’t want heat — is one means of tapping these basic energy flows, which we can capitalize on free with good design. In places with sunny winters, why not make capturing this free heating energy — with its added bonus of brightly lit rooms that cheer us during winter’s short days — our top priority? If we ever hope to get off the fossil fuel treadmill, it will be through capturing passive energy flows — passive solar heating, passive ventilation, passive cooling and the like. All of these techniques require some thought about how to design a building — they’re not good add-ons, because buildings need to be sited and configured to make the most of nature’s passive energy flows. We also need to fight to get energy generation given coequal status with energy conservation in building codes to make designing for passive energy conversion routine.

“Passive solar design is timeless design — Passive House, not so much. This sort of super-insulated house may make sense in Arctic-like winter climates, but it makes little sense elsewhere — yet it’s being promoted everywhere. I recently read of an affordable-housing project in Santa Barbara, Calif., being built to Passive House specifications. At that point, it became obvious to me that this specialized building approach is being thoughtlessly applied where it makes no sense. Santa Barbara has perhaps the most benign climate on the face of the Earth — one can leave windows open year-round to enjoy the sunshine and ocean breezes. There’s no need for super-insulated, super-tight Passive House design in such a climate. That suggests this is merely a technology-based fad and not a movement greenies should be promoting.

“Unfortunately, in promoting it, your article leads us away from what we should be doing — the simple capture and use of sun, breezes, light and other natural energies we’ve evolved with to make our homes comfortable, energy-wise, simple and healthy places to live.”

Photo by Rick Pharaoh Photography: A Passive House-certified home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.



4/11/2014

The MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR is on its way to my lovely little mountain town this very weekend. (If you're going to be there, you can catch my workshop on Net-Zero home design on Sunday afternoon!) In preparation, I was tasked by our marketing department to look through some of the various green homes we’ve built in the area and pull together the highlights of their green features. As usual, I wanted to list all kind of nerdy exciting details of heat transfer coefficients and Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratings…and was told, with my marketing department’s usual patience, to cut a bit for simplicity and clarity. In doing that, one thing really stood out me. All these homes had one salient feature in common, one aspect to their design that really augmented their claim to green fame.

That feature is passive solar design.

Blogs and articles abound about passive solar design principles. If you’re a regular MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. My aim today then, is not to explain it, but to celebrate it. It's darn neat to see how many of our houses have put passive solar design into practice! Especially here, in a southeastern climate, where cooling is just as important a consideration as heating, and high humidity can be a concern.

A Quiet Mountain Retreat

Passive solar home in the mountains of North Carolina

This home, located here in Asheville in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, still has to contend with some hot summer days. Being built on a densely wooded lot helps greatly with the cooling side of things, as does the metal shingle roof, which is an Energy Star cool roofs product whose low emissivity helps keep the sun’s heat that it’s pelted with all day, out of the attic.

Yet the house is shaded by deciduous trees, which lose their leaves in winter. Following classic passive solar design principles, we made sure that the open living, kitchen, and dining area faced south, and we put an appropriate amount of window glass in that living room, three Marvin Integrity wood-ultrex windows at 6 foot wide and 4 feet tall, with a 2 foot deep overhang to shade them in summer but keep them un-shaded in winter. We used Marvin's "Low-E 180" glass coating that lets in 57 percent of the sun’s heat, as opposed to only 20 percent to 30 percent as is common with standard Low-E coatings. We made sure all that incoming solar heat was put to good use with an acid-stained concrete floor to act as a thermal battery. I remember standing in front of those windows on a 20 degree day in winter, after the house had been insulating but before the heating system had been installed, and feeling so comfortable.

A Coastal Bungalow

Sun-tempered home in coastal NC

This home, in warm and humid yet still occasionally chilly coastal North Carolina, uses "sun-tempered" design--what I like to think of as Passive Solar Lite. Sun-tempered design features some south facing glass and appropriate shading overhangs, but does not incorporate thermal mass. It can be a practical design strategy for those who want some passive heating benefit but do not want to have a concrete floor or use other interior thermal mass designs.

Pictured here with snow on the ground, this homeowner had to design for heating and cooling concerns alike. Expansive south-facing windows--deemed essential by the homeowner t to capture their view--were shaded with a nearly 4-feet deep overhang, keeping the ratio of un-shaded winter south-facing glass to floor area at 6 percent, the maximum that is recommended in a design that does not incorporate additional thermal mass. East and west facing windows, which can let in a considerable amount of low angle sun, were used sparingly, and shaded, when use at all, by deep covered porches. Energy Star certified windows, 2x6 thick walls and a layer exterior insulation helped this home far exceed the insulation values required by energy code for the area, holding heat inside in winter while keeping it out in summer. A high efficiency heat pump and air conditioning system, properly designed and commissioned, rounded out this home's practical energy design.

A Solar House

A solar house in the Virginia Blue Ridge

This home was designed for solar in every way. Passive solar, of course, with the usual contingent of south-facing glass, overhang shading, extra insulation, and thermal mass - but it was designed for active solar too, with a solar water and space heating system, and solar electric system. To hit their goals of being nearly net-zero in their energy use, these homeowners did all of this, tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, without installing an air-conditioning system. To passively keep the house cool use of light colored finishes, very minimal east or west facing windows, combined with a fan system designed to exhaust warm air at night through a high attic fan.

Crucial in all of these home designs was avoiding the overuse of glass on the south side. I have been far too many beautiful, well-intentioned passive solar homes in this area whose living areas became unbearable in spring, fall, and even winter, because of the large amount of glass used. Passive solar design techniques originally came out of the desert southwest—with high day/night temperature swings—and out of cold climates, with an intense focus on heating. It is a design principle that can work great here in the southeast; too, it just takes a little bit of different thought.



4/2/2014

Garden shed cc.org

In my last blog posting, "How do I Learn Cordwood Construction?," I mentioned that my next blog would be about How to Build a Practice Building. There are basically 3 ways to learn a new building technique.

3 Ways to Learn Cordwood Building

1.  Read all the available literature

2.  Take a workshop from an expert  Cordwood Workshops

3.  Build a practice building

I would highly recommend doing all three, but if for some reason you can't attend a workshop, then you want to consider:  Reading everything you can on the process and build a small, manageable practice building.  This will inform you of the demands of the technique, the time frame involved and what it looks like upon completion.  

Make the practice building a part of your homestead.  Planning on having chickens?  Then consider building a cordwood chicken coop.

 Chicken Coop one

Chicken Coop 1

Want to shelter your animals?  How about a cordwood or hybrid dog house?

Dog House one

Dog house two

 Need a place to store your garden tools and plants? Why not a cordwood garden shed?

 Garden Shed

Park you car, tractor or truck out of the elements with a cordwood garage or relax in a cordwood sauna at the end of a long, hard days work.

sauna

What book would I recommend for starters? Cordwood Construction Best Practices is my choice.  It offers an abundance of photos and details the choices and decisions you need to make when planning your building (types of wood, mortars, insulation, roof, foundations, etc.), www.CorwdoodConstruction.org

If you want to take a workshop, here are some choices, Cordwood Workshops

If you want to build a Cordwood Shed, why not take a look at Cordwood Shed Plans available at the online bookstore at www.CordwoodConstruction.orgWhile you are there, take a look around at the beautiful photos, read the Articles about cordwood in the Menu section.  Have a gander at the 2014 eNewsletter, Cordwood eNewsletter

 Need books fast, almost all the selections at the Online Bookstore also come in ebook format. No shipping charges and immediate access to information. Online Cordwood Bookstore

Or, if you wish, you can email a question to Richard Flatau at richardflatau@gmail.com

Happy Stacking!



3/4/2014

A new building insulation guide is available to assist homeowners in choosing the right insulation for new building and DIY home renovation projects.

NAIMA Home Insulation Guide

Released by NAIMA Canada, Building Insulation: A Performance Comparison for Today's Environmental Home Builder & Renovation Project is an excellent source of information for learning about one cost-effective and energy-saving insulation materials.

Building Insulation includes:

  • A description and comparison of the types of insulation available
  • Tips on where to insulate in your home
  • Financial benefits of insulation
  • Environmental benefits of insulation

"Building Insulation offers an industry-wide look at how best to choose and use insulation," said JayNAIMA Home Insulation Guide Nordenstrom, Executive Director, NAIMA Canada. "Insulation offers a significant return on investment, as it saves energy from the day it is installed, requires no maintenance and offers increased comfort in our buildings."

What makes Building Insulation allows for individuals to make a comparison and choose the insulation that best suits each residential construction or renovation project.

Download Building Insulation here.









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