Green Homes

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

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5/19/2014

packing boxesMoving to a new house can be stressful and moving in a green way may be the least of your concerns on top of the whole long list of other things you have got to do before you move. However, moving house in an environmentally friendly way doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might initially think, and simple changes can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, making a positive difference to the environment.

De-Cluttering

Moving house is a great opportunity for you to get rid of any unwanted clutter that you have accumulated over the years. While this can be a long process and one which might not be very enjoyable, it is your chance at a fresh start – after all, there is very little point in transporting unwanted goods into your new home that are only going to gather dust for the next 10 years!

Be ruthless and eliminate everything that you don’t want. However, don’t be ruthless in the sense that you get rid of your possessions completely - recycle them, give them to a charity or sell them to people who might find more use for them. Perhaps arrange a car boot sale or yard sale a few weeks before the house move or if you prefer sell them online on websites like Gumtree and Ebay – you never know much money you might make. A bit of extra cash is always a bonus, especially with all the expenses that come with moving house. Recycling old possessions is a much greener option than just throwing them out. Furthermore, fewer possessions will require less vehicles to transport to your new home – reducing your carbon footprint even further.  

Reusable Containers and Cardboard Boxes

If you can, get hold of any reusable containers to pack your belongings in because this is a much greener way to pack rather, than using cardboard boxes and tape (which can’t be recycled and takes a very long time to decompose). Ask any friends and family if they have any storage containers that you can borrow for the move, or perhaps find a company that offer a plastic box rental service. 

If you are going to use cardboard boxes to pack your belongings in, then keep it green by going to your local store to see if they have any cardboard boxes that they no longer need. They will most likely have some spare and will be happy to give them away. You can collect them over time so that you have enough for all of your possessions.

Recyclable Materials

Rather than using lots of bubble wrap, which causes a significant environmental problem by taking up space within landfills worldwide, use recyclable materials such as old newspapers and magazines to protect your more fragile possessions. Over the weeks, before the move, collect as many as possible – even offer to take them off the hands of neighbours, friends or perhaps your local convenience store.  Alternatively, old cloth or your clothes will work just as well to protect any valuable items– so any of the clothes clutter that don’t sell or give to charity, save them and use them to protect your possessions.

Green Household Movers

Make sure that you complete some research to ensure that you choose an environmentally friendly removal company. With the environment becoming a major concern in today’s society, there are now loads or different removal companies around to choose from. Such companies will focus on using bio-fuel vans as well as smaller trucks that are more fuel friendly. For example, Abels international removals use vehicles that are built to have very little impact on the environment.

Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Products

Finally, when it comes to cleaning both your old house and your new home, use environmentally friendly cleaning products.  Did you know the average American uses roughly 25 gallons of toxic, hazardous chemical products every year in their home, of which a major portion of these can be found in household cleaning products. Not only do these cleaning products have a negative effect on the environment, but also on your health. Therefore, purchase ecological cleaning products from the supermarket, or alternatively use buckets of hot water with a splash of vinegar –you’ll be surprised how effectively this will clean things as well as protect the environment, your health and your wallet!



5/2/2014

From 2012-2013, my partner April and I took on the work of building a new home for ourselves. After living in a less-than-warm cob house in a cold northern Missouri climate, we quickly decided in favor of using straw bale for the wall construction to provide insulation in our new design. That left the frame in question, but we quickly decided that it had to be a traditional timber frame, and I'm glad we made the choice.

Advantages of Straw Bale Building

The union of straw bale building and timber framing is a harmonious one, and there are numerous advantages of employing the two systems in collaboration. Straw bale and timber frames are highly compatible, beautiful, and the efficiency and longevity of using these natural building techniques is superior in a cold climate setting.

The use of straw bales in home construction is actually rather "new", relative to the historical longevity of other natural materials, especially stone, cob, adobe, wattle and daub, and others. All of these long-lived materials have one thing in common -- they are all massive, and do not provide much in way of actual insulation values (R-values). If your goal is to maximize insulation and minimize the amount of fuel you burn to keep comfortable, straw, and specifically straw bales are an excellent option to pursue.

A two-string straw bale is typically quoted to be an average of R-27.5 for its 18" of thickness when used on-flat. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1998). Though there are other materials with a higher R-value per inch, I would argue that straw bale is a highly effective choice of insulators, considering all other factors involved.

Straw: A Local Building Material

Those other factors include local availability, fire resistance, ease of use, moisture regulation, and longevity. Straw is widely available across the country, and not too surprisingly, the same places where wheat and cereals are grown are those same places where people usually benefit from living in a well-insulated home. That includes places like the cold north, midwest, and northeast United States.

In an era where nearly everything is shipped great distances during its manufacturing and delivery, choosing the local option is increasingly important to cut down on carbon emissions. In the case of our straw bale home, we were able to acquire all of our bales from a farmer a mere 7 miles away -- that's one trip with a truck and trailer (plus fuel to cut and bale the straw), compared to an almost unaccountable distance most industrial products have traveled.

Fire Resistance, Ease of Use, and Moisture Regulation

Straw bale walls have been subjected to valuable fire-rating tests by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), and the results have proven valuable. Two different clay plastered and lime plastered walls have successfully passed code-recognized testing, and proven to be much superior to conventional stud and fiberglass walls in terms of resistance.

The advantages of straw bale extends past local availability, good insulation values, and fire resistance. Working with bales requires few specialized tools, making the work very accessible to unexperienced individuals. Clay and lime-plastered bale walls are vapor permeable, meaning in the best case scenario, the home will self-regulate moisture and remain comfortable throughout the changing seasons. Acoustic isolation is another benefit attributed to straw bale walls, and depending on where you are building, this could be an attractive boon.

Last but not least, straw is 100% biodegradable, and at the end of a straw bale building's lifespan, the material can gracefully return to the earth, leaving no toxins behind. We can drill more deeply into these advantages, but since my goal is to provide an overall illustration of the benefits of straw bale when combined with timber framing, let's look ahead.

Advantages of a Timber Frame

When comparing a timber frame to a conventional stud frame, the myriad advantages make an easy argument. Like straw bales, materials for a timber frame are best acquired locally. Whereas most dimensional lumber used in conventional construction and available at every home supply store across the country comes from only a few (and frequently overexploited) regions (namely, the northwest), a timber frame encourages local use of readily available materials. Shipping large timbers is cost-prohibitive, and it only makes sense to work with local sawmills to produce wood for a frame. I would argue that choosing the timber frame route encourages working within your area, creating stronger connections with your neighbors and local economy.

A Frame For Generations

Another big benefit not to be underestimated is the inherent and potential longevity of a timber frame structure. Timber frames are more durable and long-lived than any than any other framing system, hands down. 500-750 year old timber frame homes are not uncommon in Europe, where maintenance and care of these structures is common. When the wood in a frame is well-protected from the elements and maintained during its lifetime, there is no reason a house should not last well beyond your lifetime. This is in stark contrast to the disposable model of conventional home building today, where homes are simply not expected to last.

Like straw bale, timber frames offer superior fire resistance ratings. Heavy timber construction is given a two hour fire rating by NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association, which is vastly superior to a stick frame insulated with fiberglass. In fact, you may be eligible for lower home insurance costs based on the higher fire rating.

Between the longevity, durability, increased fire resistance, and excellent potential for use of local materials, timber framing is a highly desirable natural building option.

The Meeting of Straw Bale and Timber Framing

I've pinned down a few individual advantages of both straw bale and timber frames. But why do they go so well together?

If kept dry, a timber frame should last almost indefinitely. To maximize your home's energy efficiency, your insulation should be uninterrupted. This is where straw bale and timber frames make for a beautiful combination. A straw bale wrap provides a continuous wall of insulation around the timber frame, providing excellent energy efficiency and protecting the framing from weathering. With a sound roof and foundation, this combination should result in a very long-lasting home. The use of large timbers means that the straw bales do not need to be notched, saving on labor, and leaving the frame exposed on the interior is aesthetically appealing and a functional way to divide living spaces. 

The benefits of straw bale and timber framing are highly complementary, and the best aspects of each can be fully realized when the two are in combination. This is why I have come to believe that this is a building system very worthy of pursuit, especially in colder climates.



5/2/2014

In 2012 we were asked to help build a Cordwood Chapel at the Kinstone Permaculture Academy near Fountain City, Wisconsin (SW Wisconsin). We were grateful for the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of people who were in the process of establishing an infrastructure that would help fulfill the goal of spreading the news about permaculture, natural building and all manner of things.

Over the last two years, we have held workshops to teach people about cordwood construction, while getting some serious work done on the 12' chapel walls. Kinstone is alive with activity and is host to many and varied classes (plant identification, permaculture certification, bee keeping, gardening, harvesting, cordwood, straw/clay, and so on). Check out Kinstone Academy's workshop calendar.

Cordwood Construction Pictures

Here are some pictures of the building and some of the amazing folks who lent a hand.

Cordwood Workshop

Two cordwood wall builders are happy with their patterning.

Happy workers at days end

After a hard days work the crew is having a good time posing.

Kinstone framework

The framework is double 8" x 8" cedar posts.   

The river wall

The river wall depicts the nearby Mississippi with recycled colored bottles. 

Sawdust insulation

Sawdust mixed with lime is packed into the insulation cavity to create an R-24 value (as tested by the engineering department at the University of Manitoba). The cordwood infill is all Northern White Cedar.

Roof framework

The roof is set for thatching.  It has a ring collar that ties all the rafters together. 

Thatched roof

The thatch was applied by Master Thatcher William Cahill of www.RoofThatch.com

Sunrise wall and doors

The inside of the Chapel.  There are nature motifs throughout (sun, stars, moon, plants, trees, flowers, wind, river, etc.)  The motifs are based on the poem of St. Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. 

Resting under the snow

The Chapel rests comfortably under a blanket of snow. 

This summer (2014) we are holding three Cordwood and one Cobwood Workshops at Kinstone.  We will be building a sauna and a cobwood kiosk (cobwood is cordwood log ends with cob (sand, clay, straw) mortar).   The complete list of workshops is available at Cordwood Workshops 2014.

We are also hosting a three day workshop in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.  

For books, articles, photos and information go to Richard Flatau's cordwood website: CordwoodConstruction.org.



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.”




A response from Paul Scheckel, the author of Passive House: Beyond Passive Solar:

"The reader brings up some great points about working with nature in building design. The history of intentional-use passive solar energy is older than the human species, and that story alone would make an excellent feature.

"To be clear, the Passivhaus standard was originally developed in Europe and offered an approach and a set of performance metrics for a relatively narrow range of European climates. As the concept was accepted by other parts of the world, those performance metrics required adjustments. As the reader points out, these adjustments were not easily accepted by the more rigorous defenders of the European Passivhaus standard, and that resulted in some fragmentation among followers. Today, we have the U.S. Passive House Institute (PHIUS) to help navigate the much broader US climate. The article does not specifically promote Passivhaus, PHIUS, or passive solar design, but rather sought to offer some level of understanding between these oft-confused phrases. Further, I didn’t write, reference, or imply anything disparaging about passive solar design or the 1970s.

"Properly adhered to, the PHIUS standard incorporates all the benefits of the best of passive solar design, plus additional science-based efficiency approaches using technology, products and processes to drive a building’s energy consumption to exceptionally low levels. PHIUS offers excellent training and resources to those working towards the PHIUS consultant certification. These resources include information on the environmental impacts of various building materials, such as the global warming potential of materials used in the manufacture and installation of insulation products. The reader is correct in pointing out that some efficient buildings can represent the incorporation of more carbon and chemicals than they may save over their lifetimes. Wise choices and solid information are required, and then further aligned with the local climate and tempered with common sense.

"Passive solar designers of the 1970s were on the cutting edge of building design at that time. Both Passivhaus and “Passive House” represent the equivalent in today’s high-tech, low-energy building design world. It’s not easy, though; we humans learn by experience and we don’t always get it right the first time. We may argue about the details along the way, but we keep trying. The Passive House standard represents a significant stepping stone to energy-neutral buildings that can (if desired) be completely energized by small, onsite renewable energy systems. It’s encouraging to see how the greater awareness of building efficiency has influenced innovation and the evolution of building products. In the long view, these “barn-storming” years of low-energy building design seem to be a required process for us to learn how to make practical, lasting buildings for a carbon-constrained world.

"On a final note, the article takes no jabs at the 1970s. This writer has fond memories of growing up in that decade. The article is merely stating a truth that passive solar design was popularized during that era of high energy prices and the reawakening to the many alternatives to energy gluttony. Gone are the days of throwing energy at a problem to fix it. The future requires creative thinking to bring us intelligent, resilient design on all fronts."

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









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