Green Homes

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

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Earlier this spring we started excavating a big hole next to our house to serve as a root cellar. We live without electricity and with about 3/4 of the year here in the High Desert having cool, refrigeratory nights a root cellar seemed like a great idea.Root Cellar 1.JPG

Digging a Root Cellar

We are also a fossil-fuel-free urban homestead so digging our roughly 11-by 9-foot hole was done completely by hand. About half of the wonderful clay in the hole was used for our “One-Day Cob House” workshop in May and harvested by workshop participants during that weekend (we’re especially proud of that stacking of functions). The rest we dug piecemeal over several months. While I enjoy digging I never do it for more than an hour at a time unless we’ve created some sort of deadline. We also had an intern with us for a few months this past summer and she got to develop her digging skills in the root cellar quite regularly. In fact, she also dug most of our driveway Hugelkultur beds and several holes in our backyard for tree guilds. Lucky girl!

When we got to about 3 and a half feet deep I called it quits. I’m optimistic that will be deep enough to make good use of the constant coolness of the Earth. We went with earthbags for the walls until above grade and then used Balecob to the roof. Earthbags seemed the perfect fit for several reasons:

• I like working with them
• We had a ton of clay, stone, sand from our recently dug up driveway beds. Really an ideal mix for earthbags. We also added about 48 oz. of Portland cement to each bag to harden them up.
• They are inexpensive. I bought 200 of the 14-inch by 26-inch variety for about $80 and used them all.
• They partner nicely with cob and strawbales 

root cellarI laid several inches of gravel on the bottom (including under the bags) and went round and round and up and up filling and tamping until reaching grade. In total we laid 9 rows of these bags. From there I added one more row of big bags (leftover feed bags from Feed World in Reno). These were heavy, but they got me about 8 inches above grade in most spots and are wide enough to hold a bale set on edge nicely. A bale is about 17 inches wide at its narrowest dimension (on edge) - the one I’ll be using above the bags. From what I recollect a strawbale set this way has an R-value of about 30. In addition to its insulative value, we chose to use bales because we want to cover their exteriors with luscious earthen plaster which we’ll get to put on and look at every day. 

Other Root Cellar Features

I also set in "deadmen" of leftover redwood 4-inch by 4-inch scraps so I can attach shelving and tie in the roof beams with the shelves and walls.  You'll also notice some vent pipes (black 4-inch ABS pipe) that stand up outside the wall and enter between the earthbags towards the floor on the inside. These will be cut shorter above grade and serve to improve air flow in conjunction with a high 6-inch vent on the door side of the cellar. Two low and one high on opposite sides of the cellar will bring cool air down and flush warm air out and provide needed ventilation for our future crops. Root cellars need three components to function well:  cool temps, high humidity, and good ventilation.

More to come as we finish and use our earthbag root cellar.

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If you spend enough time in the environmental movement, you'll undoubtedly get wrapped up in the philosophical discussions of what is the most “green.” Paper, or plastic? Off-grid, or grid-tied? Such debates are naturally going to arise in a movement whose goal is to improve the way people live on this planet, because the act of living affects our natural world many varied ways. Sometimes, improvement in one aspect of environmental impact has unintended consequences in another.

Green building is not without its own debates of this ilk. Should a new insulation product capable of drastically dropping energy consumption be used, even if it is manufactured with chemicals whose toxicity is not well studied? Should I stay in my existing energy hog of a home here in town, or build a new green home in a location that requires me to drive many miles each day to work and the nearest grocery store? Any project that successfully transforms from dream to reality is going to have to accept some compromises between competing environmental concerns. I work with customers every day who must contemplate these trade-offs, and have observed that green home projects are often guided by one of two very different general philsophies, each with their separate focus on what it means to be a truly green residence.

Resilient Off Grid Home Colorado

The Resilient, Self-Sufficient Approach

This school of thought is the older of the two. The goal is to disconnect the home altogether from the environmentally problematic systems that modern homes depend upon, supporting its own needs in a more sustainable manner.

This kind of green home has a plan for everything. Not connected to the electrical grid at all, a solar array, wind turbine, micro-hydro generator, or any combination of the above will charge batteries to power the electrical essentials of this house—although a propane generator is in place when even these systems fail. Heating for this home also often comes from propane, (it is generally too far away from town to have natural gas service) in combination with a trusty wood stove. Water comes from wells, greywater, and rain barrels; much of the food comes from the site. This home likely features strong passive solar design, and will be well insulated—although preferably with natural insulation materials such as cotton or sheep’s wool. Some modern conveniences, such as air-conditioning, are likely foregone, although enough will remain to satisfy the particular wants and hobbies of the homeowner.

This home in Colorado exemplifies the philosophy of resilient green design. It uses natural materials (adobe, wood-framed construction, interior tile and brick for thermal mass) and off-grid systems (solar electric system, solar hot water system for domestic hot water and assistance with hydronic radiant floor heating, all with propane backup) to remain resilient in an very remote area with common snowstorms and power outages.

The High-Tech Approach

This philosophy embraces technology to improve connections to the existing infrastructure. This home may look on the outside very similar to a standard home—minus the solar array--and it will use whatever technology is available toward the goal of ultra-low resource consumption. It likely uses mass-produced building products like spray foam insulation or structurally insulated panels (SIPS), to achieve exceptional levels of insulation. It will be extremely air-tight with the help of caulks, gaskets, and tapes, and will incorporate a mechanical fresh air system to keep the occupants healthy. It will likely be both heated and cooled, using ultra-efficient technology like a ductless mini-split heat pump or a ground source heat pump with variable speed blower and desuperheater for water heating assistance. It will likely be all-electric---the better to be powered by an on-site solar array—and hooked up to the existing electrical grid so as to allow the homeowner to use her solar when the sun shines, pull electricityNational Institute of Standards and Technology Test House from the grid when it is not, and send any excess generation from the solar back out to the grid as a credit against later grid use. It will use passive solar design whenever it can, with special coatings on south-windows to allow more heat transfer, and triple pane windows on other sides of the home.

The National Institute of Standards Net Zero Test Facility, pictured here, is one example of such a home. Using thick walls, air-tight construction, and high efficiency systems, the it was built to use 60% less energy than standard construction before the addition of the 10 kilowatt solar array and separate solar water heating system. It was also designed fit in with the look of the regular suburban homes around it.

Low-Loads Is What They Have in Common

Though the means to get there may differ, the common theme in both of these philosophies is low energy use--the first philosophy because of necessity, as the on-site systems must be able to supply all the home’s needs--and the second because of the cost benefits of negating electric bills. This means houses insulated above and beyond code levels. This means passive solar design principles used to their fullest extent whenever possible. And in either case, there is some portion of modern living that demands electricity: whether for an array of consumer electronics or just for a well pump. That means on-site renewable energy will always have a role to play, at least until the utilities start getting serious about deploying renewables for widespread grid generation.

All Of the Above!

As a green building consultant, I can usually tell which philosophy my clients are more likely to identify with after a few conversations—although of course, in real life, many projects take on aspects of both. My preference is for neither. Every attempt at green building can teach us something new about how to reduce our environmental impact. Every new green building advances the goal of a less impactful building stock in some capacity. A project really wins when it can find ways to accommodate multiple environmental goals. Low energy loads, and healthy, non-toxic materials. Resilience against what may come, without requiring the sacrifice of all modern luxury. Arriving at a product or process that benefits the environment, benefits people, and remains economical can sometimes be a long, iterative process. As an environmentalist, I believe it is a process that is essential to undertake.

Which philosophy do you identify with more strongly?

photo 1 credit: John Janus
photo 2 credit:


wink hubMy Wink hub now controls all my lighting, as well as other smart devices in my home.

Since I started making strides toward a sustainable lifestyle way back in 2007, I've known that the first and simplest step toward "greening" your home is to replace outdated incandescent bulbs with cool, clean LEDs. So, when my husband and I recently renovated a 1960s house in Charleston, I decided to take over the light bulb buying duties and finally complete my quest for LED livability. However, my first trip to the light bulb aisle in search of a swath of these eco-friendly illuminators left me wondering:

1. If I'll need to remortgage my new home in order to afford them, and
2. If I would need a second college degree just to understand which ones I was supposed to buy.

LED Learning Curve

Slowly but surely, LEDs are shedding their reputation for being too bright and ugly to fit into a home's décor. This is thanks, in large part, to manufacturers' enthusiastic (albeit government prompted) adoption of the technology. Today, there is rarely a case where you can't get an LED alternative to an incandescent. However, there are now so many on the market that when the average consumer is confronted by floor to ceiling bulb options, it's understandably easier to just grab that trusty (and cheaper) incandescent and run.

To address consumer confusion, manufacturers are attempting to educate the public on how to choose the right bulb through thorough package labeling. The problem is that there are so many numbers on each bulb, it's even more confusing. When I sent my mom a picture of this bulb I was considering, she replied, "$209 for a light bulb!?"

I quickly discovered that you can ignore most of those numbers. All you really need to focus on is the "wattage equivalent" and the "bulb type," (which is ironically often the hardest thing to find). The wattage equivalent helps you choose the same light level as your previous incandescent, and the bulb type will tell you whether it will fit where you want it to go.

The big number most people focus on, however, is the price. I know every argument for LED bulbs (75 to 80 percent less energy use, lasts up to 25 times longer, emits less heat) and I'm sold. But my husband's response to the sticker shock is understandable. $25 for a bulb you could pay $5 for requires a lot of explaining. I've tried the math: "This LED only costs $1.51 a year to run, versus $7.83 a year for that incandescent. Factor in the longevity of the LED bulb, estimated to last 20-30 years, versus one year for the incandescent, and the incandescent actually costs $128.3 to run over 10 years, compared to $40 for the LED."

But what he (and many people) need is to see some real, tangible benefit from this significant initial outlay. In order to justify a whole household switch to LED, I decided to investigate the benefits of turning my quest for LED livability into a "Smart Quest." After all, by controlling how much the lighting is on via smart technology (wirelessly connected light bulbs), I'll be enhancing the benefit both for the planet and our pockets. So I went room by room, researching the perfect light bulb set up for each scenario and seeing how I could incorporate home automation technology into the system.

The Bedroom

The first stop on my quest was the bedroom. We are midway through remodeling an old garage into a master bedroom, and for such a large room we needed eight recessed ceiling lights. My initial plan was to install the industry leading Philips Hue LED bulbs. Offering every color "hue" you could possibly want inside just one bulb, the Hue can do such magical things as turn on automatically to the color of the sunrise every morning. However I couldn't quite stretch my budget to the $480 it would cost to outfit my bedroom with eight $60 light bulbs. Thankfully, manufacturers are now following in Philips footsteps, producing connected bulbs which, while they don't offer quite the functionality of the Hue, offer the convenience of being Wi-Fi enabled at just a few dollars more than a regular LED. It's a lot easier to justify the upfront expense of LEDs when you are getting more from your bulbs than just light. Most of these smart bulbs require their own hub, which adds between $40 and $80 to the upfront cost, but also adds a host of functionality.

However, acquiring the right hub for each bulb and device is a challenge the smart-home industry is still conquering. Many devices come with their own hub, so if you bought them all you'd quickly be drowning in a clutter of hubs.

After going back to the drawing board I came up with a hybrid solution. I purchased eight "dumb," dimmable LED floods ($200) and one "smart" wirelessly controllable dimmer switch ($60). I then picked up the new Wink smart hub for only $1 (regularly $49, but I found a deal at The Home Depot where you could purchase the hub for $1 if you bought two other smart devices). The Wink hub promises to control all of my smart devices: both those I already have and those I'm considering purchasing, hopefully saving me from smart home hub overload. Now I can control the dimmer switch from my smartphone through the Wink hub and voila, smart lights without the $500 price tag. The dimmer switch also comes with a remote control, and courtesy of the Wink Home Automation system can connect to other smart devices so I can control my lighting with automated rules and shortcuts.

The Living Room

Our living room presented a conundrum. It has two recessed lights and a ceiling fan that are on the same circuit, meaning we can't have the fan running without the lights on (very irritating when you're trying to watch a movie on a hot steamy night). Here's where I was hoping these smart LEDs would really prove their worth to my husband. The ability to remotely dim or turn off individual bulbs means we will be able to turn off the lights without turning off the fan, and without paying an electrician $500 to re-wire the living room.

I excitedly purchased numerous smart bulbs, only to discover that they each required their own hub, and while the bulbs were individually between $25 and $30, the hubs were upwards of $100. I already have a hub and I didn't want another one. Luckily, those weeks of dead ends paid off, because this month GE launched the GE Link bulb that works with my Wink hub, and starts at $15 -- yes a $15 smart LED light bulb! Truly, when it comes to technology, just wait a while and what you need will appear. 

I ordered two GE Link 65W Equivalent BR30 Connected Home LED Light Bulbs at $19.97 each for my living room and three GE Link 90W Equivalent PAR38 LEDs for the hallway between the living room and bedroom. I am anxiously awaiting their delivery and the ability to control my home entertainment lighting from my smartphone. No more fighting over who has to get up to turn the lights off, and at least enough savings to spring for HBO.

Quest Completed

The benefits of "smartening" my LED bulbs are many: convenience, yes, but also energy and time savings. No more running around the house making sure my family of four has switched off every light before I leave. I can simply set up a geo-fence program to switch everything off when I walk out the door.

The total cost of my quest is currently about $370, and the benefit is that I can add and replace bulbs to the system for between $15 and $25. The beauty of LEDs means I probably won't need to replace any until my kids are buying their own homes, but I will be adding to the array; to my kid's rooms and the bathrooms, when the CFLs in there eventually flicker out. I estimate the total cost of the remaining bulbs to be bought at $200, bringing my total expenditure on a whole house, Wi-Fi enabled "Smart" LED lighting system to just over $500.

As this infographic comparing the two main types of LEDs I've chosen with their incandescent equivalents shows, over 10 years I will save between $80 and $125 per bulb. With an estimated total of 26 bulbs in my home, that's a total of $2,000 to $3,300 over the next decade. Not bad, considering all of those savings are in electricity and manufacturing, meaning I'll be leaving a lighter footprint on the planet.

Jennifer Tuohy shares her chronicles of trying to mesh her love for technology and being green into the integration of her home renovation. In Jennifer's latest adventure, she explores using home automation and Smart LED light bulbs to save energy and money. Are you considering Smart LED light bulbs for your home? Check out the LED bulb options at The Home Depot.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


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.


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?


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.


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

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