Green Homes

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

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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.


RV at Redrock Canyon State Park - Davido~O

Thanks to the World Wide Web and more accessible and affordable travel, the world is the smallest it has ever been. People are able to get to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours, for fewer dollars than ever. As a result, a new trend is developing. While it has always been commonplace in the US, more and more countries are adopting the idea of the staycation and holidaying domestically.

The Rise of the 'Staycation'

Both the US and the UK have seen a rise in the number of staycations being taken in 2014, with 10% more Americans vacationing within the United States, and reports from a Suffolk cottages agency in the UK expressing record bookings this summer, staycations are at an all-time high.

In theory, vacationing in the homeland is a great deal more environmentally friendly than flying to an overseas destination. This is because air fares have such a large impact on carbon emissions. Choosing to use public transport or drive your own car is a great deal more green than purchasing a plane ticket.

However, in vast countries like the United States, staycations have the potential to not be so green. With such long distances to travel, flying is often the only option and of course with flying involves huge carbon emissions. 

A return trip from Los Angeles to Orlando for a family of four generates a massive 6.5 tonnes of carbon. During the average lifetime of a single tree, it will absorb just one tonne of carbon meaning that seven trees will need to be planted to offset your vacation.

Surprisingly, cruise ships are also a very environmentally harmful way to holiday, they emit three times more carbon than aircraft. Approximately 14 ounces of CO2 is emitted per passenger, every 1000 yards travelled.

Great Green 'Staycation' Ideas

So what ways can you take to decrease your overall carbon footprint on vacation? Here are just a few ways you can have an eco-friendly vacation without leaving the country:

Rent an RV with a friend or with your family to minimise costs and your carbon footprint all at once. 1 in every 12 vehicle owning households in the US owns an RV, so it seems logical to utilise these vehicles and take a trip to a state or city you have never visited before. Over the course of the year an RV will emit

Take careful consideration when choosing the hotel you stay in on your vacation to help to minimise your carbon footprint. Many hotels have “gone green” and now make small efforts to limit their negative impact on the environment. Efforts include only washing the bed sheets at the end of the visitor’s stay or switching to water efficient showerheads. Hundreds of thousands of hotels are joining The Green Hotels Association, like a Chicago Hyatt, which reduced their waste hauling by 80% since being part of the association.

Walking and biking holidays are becoming increasingly popular in the US, with 34.54 million people going hiking or backpacking in the Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 period. Vacations such as these are beneficial for your health, and as almost as environmentally friendly as you can possible be. In addition to this, there seems to be a positive pattern of camping in the States, 42.5 million Americans (14.9% of the population over the age of 6) went camping in 2011.

It seems that the recession has led to fewer Americans seeking to vacate abroad, and instead preferring the comfort of our own backyards. This, of course, is favourable to the welfare of the environment. So whether you’re staying in a beach hut by the sea, or a reliable hotel, camping or even a mobile home why not try your own version of a staycation this summer? You might find that it is less hassle and more enjoyable than venturing abroad.

Image Credit - Davido~O, RV at Redrock Canyon State Park


half timber houseBuilding Biology advises us to look for a successful history of use when choosing building materials but in our ever changing product-based building environment we seldom have the luxury of evaluating track record. This becomes quickly apparent when vetting new products for client’s homes.

I recently called a major manufacturer to find out what was in a new product developed to prevent mold growth on framing lumber. I wanted to avoid the use of biocides for this chemically sensitive client. The rep said with great pride that the product had now been out for six months and that they hadn’t received even one warranty complaint!  When Building Biology addresses the principle of history-of-use it is looking at a bigger picture…not six months but decades and centuries!

In the brief history of building with petrochemical-based products, centrally produced by a handful of very powerful corporations, we must often put our trust in new products expecting them to do what the manufacturers have claimed they will do. Time-accelerated lab testing can help us to project how a material may behave over time but it is not an exact science and nothing can surpass the real test of time.

New “smarter” products for building our homes are being invented all the time and while advertising campaigns continually grind out tantalizing lists of benefits for the latest and greatest, the manufacturers are silent about the millions of homes that were built on yesterday’s promises…those products that failed to become the “super endurables” they were initially advertised to be: waterproofing materials that have been conveniently re-named “water resistant”, construction tapes that lose their “stick” over time,  foams that get tunneled by insects, insulations that shrink away, products that leach chemicals, and so-called harmless chemicals that are found to be harmful.

The Evolution of Natural Building

In contrast the pre-industrialized buildings that populate the old world, intact and serving for centuries, are the byproduct of thousands of years of building evolution that preceded them. They represent holistic systems that were perfected for their local climate, from their local resources and by their local craftsmen. They are made of natural non-proprietary materials and they have successfully weathered the test of time. They embody the principles of sustainability by their very nature. This valuable heritage of accumulated wisdom is little understood or acknowledged in current North American building and it has become the precious baby that got thrown out in the bathwaters of industrialized building assembly.

Many of us who have embraced natural building have found that, contrary to what manufacturing interests would have us believe, we can not only use time-tested materials and traditional craftsmanship to build our homes, we can create enduring spaces that nurture us, nurture the environment and serve our modern lifestyles well. All of the buildings throughout Europe and Asia that are several centuries old stand as a testament to longevity and they have several things in common:
They are built of the natural materials at hand
They have massive wall construction
They allow for the free flow of vapor through them…no vapor barriers.
They have the capacity to handle large fluctuations in moisture without deterioration
They are petrochemical free and biodegradable.

We can build building with such longevity in North America too. Why don’t we? As long as we continue to see housing as a short-term financial investment for personal gain rather than a contribution to the wealth of future generations, initial cost per square foot will continue to be the most important perception of housing value. It remains the rare home-owner/investor who is willing and able to step outside the conventional housing industry, pay more for something that will last beyond their lifetime and reap the benefits of living in a naturally healthy home along the way

Photo credit Robert Laport

compost tea 1

When I was first attempting to build a garden at my Ecohut, even though I grew up on a farm, I had no idea how to build soil. I was privileged to grow up on a working farm before chemicals became the norm. We didn't have an organic garden, we had a garden.  

I watched endless videos on YouTube and read many books. Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is a great book and always Ruth Stout, but there was never a conclusive DO THIS! bit of information in any of the books I read. Yes, composting is vital, but the gardeners on YouTube who were growing amazing gardens were using this home creation called Compost Tea.  

I watched many videos on YouTube about compost tea, but every video had some 'secret' ingredient they were trying to sell, so after watching many videos I started to experiment with materials I had on hand. The secret I came to find out was a magical tea 'activator' for $49.95

water pump

A Recipe for Compost Tea

I have found there is no exact recipe for compost tea. My compost tea recipe is based upon materials readily available, so here is a basic recipe for compost tea, and short of killing your batch with sulphured molasses, there is no wrong answer for my witches brew.   

Water: I use rainwater when available or my awesome well water.  

Oxygen: I started with a small aquarium pump in a 5 gallon bucket. Now I make 40 gallons  at a time and use a large air pump that I bought. An air compressor will do.

Unsulphured Molasses: I use approximately 1/4 cup per 5 gallons. Make sure to use UNsulphured molasses only. The sulphur will kill all the microbes in the tea.


Manure: Cow, sheep, horse, rabbit, bat guano, whatever you have available.

Hay: Alfalfa, alfalfa or alfalfa is the best. Spoiled or new alfalfa both work great.

That is my basic recipe. Oxygenate the water, add dry ingredients plus molasses. Continue to inject air into your tea for the duration of brewing.

Microbial life grows and feeds on oxygen and carbohydrates (molasses) and will be evident by a frothy head on the batch.  When either of these is eliminated, the tea will go anaerobic very soon. Apply to your garden asap.

Compost tea can be added directly to the soil around your plants, or strained for use as a foliar spray.

I have made many recipes of compost tea, and no two batches are ever the same in terms of the microbial growth which is demonstrated by the frothing action of the tea.  So don't be discouraged, keep brewing.

compost tea


According to statistics, Americans are responsible for roughly 25 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, which is more than any other nation and on a per capita basis is 6.6 tons of CO2 annually. In the U.S., most carbon dioxide (98 percent) is emitted as the result of burning of fossil fuels.

Surprisingly residences account for as much as 21 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions with 68 per cent of residential emissions coming from the consumption of electricity and 80 per cent of those coming from the burning of coal at coal-fired power plants, which residences use for lighting, air conditioning, heating and other household appliances.

Solar Panels, photo credit: LivingOffGrid

In order to help reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions, and to achieve the rule put in place to reduce America’s carbon dioxide emissions by 30% from 2005 levels, housing in the US needs to be made more energy efficient through improved insulation.

Although efforts have already been put in place to help reduce CO2 emissions from residences, for example, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is helping buildings save energy, water, resources and money, efforts need to increased considerably further in order to reduce residences carbon emissions by a significant amount.

Much of the existing housing stock in the US is not insulated to the levels it should be today, with older homes in particular, significantly using more energy than they should, which is not only bad for the environment but also leading to higher heating and air-conditioning bills. Newer homes tend to be much more energy efficient because they have been built with ‘being green’ in mind.  However, while some newer housing is being built in the US, a large percentage of US housing is old.

The UK is an example of a country who have put in place a system, called the Green Deal, to help improve energy efficiency in housing and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions from residency. The Green Deal is a new way to pay for energy-saving home improvements. Brits are able to take out Green Deal finance to pay for measures such as loft, cavity or solid wall insulation, glazing, a new boiler or solar panels. Which makes us question, would the U.S. benefit from a similar system? As a lot of U.S. residents may be put off investing in insulation for their home simply because of the costs that are associated with it.

Not only are is the UK government introducing new green government initiatives, they are also cracking down on building new homes that are extremely energy efficient. For example, just one example of a new housing development in the UK are the new homes in Norfolk by Abel Homes. Each home has been fitted with triple glazed windows, ‘Superwall’ insulation, insulated ground floors and lofts, low energy lighting and have Solar PV (meaning that homeowners will enjoy free electricity that it generates as well as benefit from the ‘Feed in Tariff’ payments from the Government for 20 years).

Although newer green housing is being built in the U.S., because of the size of the country, it is not having such a significant effect on reducing the carbon emissions that the U.S. are generating.  And if the U.S. want to reduce the carbon footprint from U.S. housing, government efforts need to be significantly improved.


Two friends from our last natural building workshop called, "The One-Day Cob House," put together this wonderful ten-minute video of the event. The good folks at House Alive! partnered with us at Be the Change Project for a memorable weekend that resulted in a great cabin and lots of great connections. 

I hope you enjoy watching it!

Contact me at to learn about next year's build!


After finding himself without a home, LaMar Alexander moved onto inherited land and built a 400-square-foot cabin in two weeks for $2,000. Alexander was able to keep costs low by using recycled and salvaged materials. Learn more about how he built his 14-by-14 foot structure by watching the video below, or reading A Solar Cabin in Two Weeks for $2,000.

YouTube video posted by solarcabin

More Videos!

The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff has been featured in videos covering topics from seed starting to skin toner. Check out our full collection of wiser living videos on our video page.

Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. You can find her on .

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