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5 Ways to Help Your Smart Home Heat and Cool More Efficiently

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Motorized shades can work with your smart home to reduce solar gain in your home.

I recently wrote about how smart home technology can help your home save energy. Chief among these energy-saving tips was installing a smart thermostat. A Wi-Fi-connected programmable thermostat can save you as much as 30 percent on your HVAC’s energy use. However, the potential to save money on your heating and cooling doesn’t end there. One of the biggest benefits of smart devices and the Internet of Things is the potential for integration. When these devices work together, you can create a smart home that actively and intelligently works to help you save energy.

Products such as connected thermostats, blinds and lighting can team up to automatically adjust your smart home system to achieve optimal energy efficiency. Here are a few options you can implement in your own home.

Install Motorized Blinds

On their own, motorized blinds are a simple way to cut down on the energy used to heat and cool a home. The convenience of being able to press a button and have all your shades close or open to cut down on solar gain or welcome in the warmth of the sun makes it more likely you’ll do it on a regular basis and thereby use less energy, keeping your home comfortable.

With the advent of the smart home, however, motorized blinds can be programmed to automatically adjust themselves even when you’re not there. Set the south-facing window coverings to open and close based on time of day, and you won’t even have to think about it. Plus, by having all your shades shut at sunset, you don’t have to worry about the day’s heat escaping through the exposed glass.

Connect your motorized blinds to a smart thermostat and the thermostat can actually tell them when to open and close based on the ambient temperature of the room and the weather outside. That way, it won’t need to turn your HVAC on, and the shades can do some of the hard work without burning unnecessary energy.

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Wi-Fi-connected fans can work with your HVAC system to improve its efficiency while keeping you comfortable.

Use Smart Fans

A smart fan can connect to smart thermostats and help control the temperature in your home. For example, a Haiku fan with SenseME technology paired with a Nest Thermostat can adjust automatically, switching between its seasonal settings based on the temperature sent from the thermostat. It can also adjust its speed as temperatures rise, allowing you to increase your thermostat set point and still feel just as cool. During winter months, the fan can switch direction to slowly push warm air down from your ceiling, reducing your heater’s workload without creating a draft.

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Consider Smart Vents

Smart vents have built-in sensors that wirelessly communicate to each other and your smart thermostat to regulate and redirect airflow to where it’s needed so your HVAC system doesn’t overwork. They also act as room sensors (see below) that tell your thermostat if you’ve left the house, letting it safely reduce its energy use.

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Temperature and occupancy sensors can tell your thermostat where you are and if the room is at the right temperature.

Use Sensors to Control Energy Use

Some smart thermostats can work with external sensors to adjust the temperature so that one room isn’t left too cold or too hot. For example, the Ecobee3 thermostat comes with a sensor that you can place in a room that has temperature fluctuations to help even out the temperature of the whole home. You can also use the sensors’ built-in occupancy detectors to avoid overcooling or overheating your house. The sensors “follow you” throughout the home, making sure that the room you are in is the one that’s at the optimal temperature.

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Want the heating to turn off when you leave the house? Connect your smartphone to your smart thermostat and let geolocation and IoT do the rest.

Sync Your Smartphone with Your Thermostat

With a smart home hub such as Wink or Samsung’s Smart Things in your home, you can connect your smartphone to your thermostat and have it automatically set to an energy saving temperature when you leave, then turn back to a more comfortable one when you come back home. You simply connect your phone to your hub, then it uses geolocation to determine if you are home or away and adjusts the thermostat’s temperature respectively.

A few smart thermostats including Nest, Ecobee3 and Honeywell’s Lyric, can do this on their own without the need for a separate hub.

Smart Makes Sense

Bringing smart technology into your home can increase the convenience of everyday life. In the case of controlling energy in the home, this type of convenience can also cut out waste, allowing us to tread with a lighter footprint on our planet each and every day.

An award-winning freelance journalist, Jennifer Tuohy has 15 years’ experience in newspapers, magazines, marketing and online content. She writes on a variety of subjects, but her passion lies with technology, sustainability and the intersection of the two. Jennifer began her career at London's Daily Telegraph and has written for a number of lifestyle publications and newspapers. For more information on  window treatments that can impact energy savings, visit Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

Harvesting Civic Culture in a Neglected Filbert Grove

My first blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS were about my quarter-acre suburban property. For 16 years, I have been creating a suburban permaculture landmark in the Northwest — grass to garden, reclaimed automobile space, passive-solar retrofits, edible landscaping all over, energy-saving investments, 6,500-gallon rainwater catchment system. See for more info and photos.

Graphic of a transformed suburban property using permaculture techniques

Vision for Sustainable Communities

During the same 16 years, the growing threat posed by a changing climate has stimulated interest in technology that is more planet friendly: solar electric, windmills, passive house, electric cars, etc.

Overall, these technologies fall short. They are still products of mainstream economic thinking. For the most part, they are still supply sided, meaning, they are still intended to support a growing demand — automobiles (eco/social footprint of a car is far more than simply carbon), energy-intensive food system, homes that are still too large (kudos to tiny houses). Advertising that claims a product to be green does not necessarily make it so.

This writer believes consumer culture, even the emerging greener version, does not honestly address the deepening trends. Mainstream “green” strategies still take too much from planet Earth. A very different set of goals and culture is called for.

Green technologies and home scale permaculture are urgently needed, but to address climate change, damage to the natural world and economic malpractice; the goal should be to trade consumer culture for a culture where humans fit within their ecological and economic means. In simple terms: to use and buy less, to live closer to home, to consume far less meat and animal products, to trade “stuff” for social uplift and human relationships.

Notably and importantly, the positive values and ideals for an eco-logical culture are the same as values advocated by the world’s great spiritual traditions - service to the community, care for the natural world, uplift of the spirit and modesty of lifestyle. A society, economy, and culture based on living within our means would addresses almost every social and environmental challenge of our time.

Over the coming several months, this writer’s blog will describe and explain a variety of real-ife examples of people who are pioneers, taking initiatives that provide a preview of what fitting in might look like. Fitting in can take place at home, work, play, anywhere — rural, urban and suburban. Most of these stories take place at the neighborhood scale. They typically involve multiple civic entities working together. The goal, to create green and resilient homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture.

Civic Culture Sparked in a Neglected Filbert Grove

The first story comes from my neighborhood here in Eugene.

The east side of our neighborhood for almost two miles is the Willamette River which includes a greenway park along both sides of the river featuring beautiful urban bike paths that go for miles. There are no cars in the greenway.

Eight blocks from my home is a 65-tree filbert (hazelnut) grove in the greenway. Planted in the 1940s, the grove predates the greenway by decades. Until six years ago, the trees were covered with a tangle of blackberries and English ivy. I passed by the grove on the bike path for years.

Finally, after close to 10 years of inaction, I realized we could do something with the grove. I found that the city of Eugene had a program to empower people in the community to take on projects on public property. The city would actually help organize work parties, provide tools and even offer snacks for the volunteers.

Early work party in the filbert grove.

So we started to restore the grove. People from the neighborhood helped. Over the years, fraternities and Chinese student groups from the U of Oregon helped. A church youth group helped two times and feasted on pizza after work.

The work parties were fun, the site is beautiful, along the river, no cars, bike path. We did cut out the black berries, did a lot of pruning, we fertilized, mowed, coordinated with the city.

Church youth group helps in the filbert grove.

The filbert grove project offers a preview of a greener future where citizens take on more responsibility for the well being of their neighborhoods and community. People learn new skills and make friends at the work parties, but perhaps most important, they learn the idea of “civic culture,” a very desirable condition where people actively participate in making where they live a better place. Civic culture is strong on building social skills, that put people and planet friendly values and ideals into action for creating green and resilient communities.

At the work parties, participants hear the story about citizen-city collaboration, the ideas of local food security, citizen initiative, greening the neighborhood and reducing our eco footprint. Our neighborhood association has been helpful. The grove is one of four areas in our neighborhood along the greenway where citizen volunteers have agreements with the city to look after public property. These are all elements of local civic culture, taking on responsibility and taking action for the good of friends, neighbors and the environment.

Most cities do not have time or money to do this kind of work and community building but it should be “regular” people stepping up anyway. A thoughtful look, even at familiar places, can reveal surprising opportunities for citizens to take initiative.

The citizen projects in the greenway have all built a trust and relationships with the city. We now have agreements with the city where we help remove invasive species by hand rather than the city using herbicides.

We have more ideas for future collaborations. These lessons and actions will only become more important as time goes on for creating more green and resilient homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture.

This past fall was the best filbert harvest in decades for the grove. I saw many people out collecting nuts. Its come one, come all.

Almost any neighborhood, suburban, rural, urban, has places people can “repair” — a stream, open space, underused buildings, community need. Upcoming blog posts will profile other places building civic culture. If you know of projects that deserve some recognition, please contact me. Finally, I have a new poster - Creating Green and Resent Homes, Neighborhoods, Economy and Culture. Here’s a link to see the poster.

Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home, including food, energy, water, and culture. Read a draft preface for his forthcoming book, Notes from the Suburban Frontier at www.SuburbanPermaculture.orgHe is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. Find his contact info, CV and more topics he can address on his website, and click here to read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts. 

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.

Pringle Creek: A New and Improved Green-Living Option

As an organic gardener growing my own fruits and vegetables I keep a watchful eye on what others are doing across the U.S. On a recent trip to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Pringle Creek, a newer subdivision, seemed an unlikely place to find gardening inspiration. I found inspiration for organic gardening and a whole lot more.

Pringle Creek Community occupies what was once the Fairview Training Center, where for nearly 100 years the State of Oregon had a school for training developmentally disabled persons. With a vision of offering quality homes in a natural environment in 2006, Pringle Creek opened their doors selling lots on 32 acres of the former training center.

Community-Supported, Locally Grown Food

One of the things that sets Pringle Creek Community apart from most urban subdivisions is their organic farm goods grown and raised onsite. Colleen Owen is Pringle Creek’s full-time Urban Gardener. Colleen is in charge of the fruit orchard, two vintage Lord and Burnham greenhouses, a chicken yard, and an acre of outdoor growing areas.

 Pringle creek greenhouses exterior

Pringle Creek greenhouses

Residents can buy eggs, fruit and vegetables produced onsite if they desire.  They can also grow their own fruits and veggies in a raised bed in the greenhouse or outdoor plots free of charge. Thus far, several have claimed a plot or two and grown their own. The Salem climate is conducive to growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but when a greenhouse is added to the equation, year-round growing becomes a reality.

Imagine growing your own cold weather crops like cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, peas, and lettuce during the winter months in organic soils. Not to mention a timed watering system reduces the need for water monitoring for ease of gardening. Sounds like a winner to me. If you need help learning organic gardening, Colleen offers an 8-class series in the spring. This course covers most of what you need to know to grow your own organic veggies and cost $130.

But wait! What if you don’t want to grow your own? May be you just want access to fresh organic fruits and vegetables grown onsite? At Pringle Creek Community this garden of plenty offers membership for up to 25 members in their Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). If by some chance you don’t belong to the CSA, Colleen operates a farm stand to sell the excess fruits and veggies.

 Pringle Creeks gardener Colleen

Colleen, Pringle Creek's Urban Gardener

Oregon is famous for fruits like cherries, apples, pears, peaches, blueberries and strawberries. All of these are available from Pringle Creeks’ orchards and berry patches. When these fruits are ripe, the community members are invited to come and pick what they want. Residents can make their own applesauce and can it for winter use. Plums, peaches and blueberries freeze well for winter storage, and what a feeling of satisfaction knowing your fruit came from your home turf!

Green Home Options: Buy or Build with a Host of Sustainable Options

Of course to make the most of this one has to live in Pringle Creek, so what about the rest of the picture? Homes can be custom built or choose from homes move-in ready. Choose from a selection of building lots, custom home plans, or newly constructed homes.

Home prices are reasonable starting around $300,000 and above. Home sites start around $60,000. Environmentally friendly features are available like: solar panels, bamboo flooring, tankless water heating, energy star windows, recycled plastics made carpeting, high R-value insulation, and a drought-tolerant landscaped yard.

 Pringle Creek custom home

Custom home at Pringle Creek

At Pringle Creek, you will find the first LEED Platinum community center building in the U.S. This building features a kitchen, plenty of room for events, gathering space, and a pool table. Jonathan Schachter, the community’s Director of Development who lives onsite, told me the homes are low-cost when it comes to heating and cooling. During last summer’s heatwave when temperatures hit 100 degrees or more for several days in a row his electric bill was a mere $50.

Livability and Community

Livability ranks high here. Neighbors can easily connect with one another naturally. With large front porches and walking trails, it’s easy to get to know your neighbors. Walk among tall trees and  gurgling Pringle Creek in this urban refuge where it’s hard to tell you are in the middle of a capital city.

During the development of infrastructure, 80% of the existing trees were preserved. Twelve acres of open space include towering sequoia and fir trees, parks, gardens, walking and bike trails. Pringle Creek Community offers urban home owners the best of both city living and the natural world while holding to some of the best green living standards of any subdivision in North America.

Perhaps the rest of the developers in North America are taking notes and planning more of this type of green urban living? I certainly hope so.

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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.

Women in Sustainability and Social-Impact Tech Companies

sustainability technology

I was recently interviewed by Joan Michelson of Green Connections Radio about my startup company, Viva Green Homes, a global data-driven platform for eco-home listings. During the interview, I was asked about women and their role in tech and in sustainability. As an entrepreneur and non-technical founder of a sustainable tech startup, this question was really fascinating to explore.

Tech, without a doubt, is a male dominated industry. Some statistics of large tech companies show that typically 60-75% or even more of their employees are male, while CEOs of S&P 500 companies in 2015 are even more male dominated, coming in at 96%.

While tech is clearly an important part of my start-up company, I look at it as a tool to advance the true mission and culture of the company, which is sustainability and social impact in the real estate industry.

And because sustainability is an emerging and growing market, the opportunities for women to become entrepreneurs, even in tech start-ups, are on a level that we have rarely seen before.

Tech is the Manufacturing Industry of our Generation: From Rosie the Riveter to Tina the Techie

During WWII, women entered the manufacturing industry, the armed forces and many other male dominated fields on a large scale. According to, in just 5 years between 1940 and 1945, nearly 6 million women joined the workforce, from 27% to 37% of all women, and this included 1 out of every 4 married women. This placed women front and center of a critical part of our economy and our workforce in fields dominated by men.

Unfortunately, once the war ended, much of that momentum was lost for women to stay in those industries as men returned to those positions. Technology has opened the door once again.

we can do it

Photo source

Sustainability and Social Impact-Driven Companies Can Use Tech as a Tool to Advance Their Mission

So how can women break into the tech industry even if they do not have a technical background? One way is by focusing on sustainability as the mission. Sustainability encompasses new (and up-cycled) technologies, creative solutions, and a fresh look at how our society functions every day, whether it’s in our home, family-life, commute, jobs, daily products, energy use and so on — there’s room for sustainability to improve all aspects of our lives.

Both sustainability and tech are upending traditional markets. And with women as half the population, we should definitely be shaping the future of our products, services and our companies.

Viva Green Homes: A Sustainable Tech Company with a Woman Founder

One example is Viva Green Homes, which is a comprehensive multiple listing system (MLS) type of database for eco-home listings. Viva Green Homes is working to provide more data-driven information to consumers prior to ever seeing the home, like energy-efficiency scores, eco-certifications, details about the home’s features, and soon, information about cost savings of owning an eco-home on each listing. All the while giving a place for sellers of these homes to accurately market their premium sustainable features. Viva Green Homes is breaking real estate data barriers and hopefully disrupting traditional real estate as we know it through its outside the box thinking.

But while I’m a non-technical founder, I have taken steps to understand code, process and filling my tech gaps with mentors, friends, family and tech team members. I am also actively searching for a tech co-founder, which means that I will share the role for the technical vision of the company, a move that non-technical founders have to be open to.

I started Viva Green Homes because I care greatly about sustainability, but tech has been the tool to actually bring my vision to life. From proprietary algorithms to databases and metrics, is definitely a tech company, but the result is a company that’s mission is to incorporate eco and energy efficient homes into the traditional real estate industry while encouraging consumers to choose these homes as their own.

Others recognize the value too for both Viva’s mission and its female entrepreneurship. Viva Green Homes is a winner in 2016 Cleantech Open’s Southeast region and a 2016 national finalist. As one of the few women that pitched in the competition, I received a lot of praise and encouragement for doing so. There’s a good deal of support out there for women to jump in. The company has gained momentum among other tech-based companies as a sustainable, social impact driven company and it’s received press in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and nationally syndicated columns, ActiveRain, and more. 

Filling the Tech Gaps in Your Team and Building a Startup Company

Finding tech mentors, adding tech-co founders and team members, and learning at least the basics of coding are all essential and so are building the foundation of a start-up company. So here are some tips on how to do it.

1. Read The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. This a very useful book for building the foundation for your startup responsibly.

2. Taking basic (and perhaps even more advanced) coding classes is a good first step. Many counties offer classes, and entities like General Assembly are very practical, cost effective and you can even take classes online. Startup incubators are extremely helpful with specific courses, panel discussions, networking and resources. Some even focus on sustainability. Here are just a few sustainable and social impact driven incubators; Mentor Capital Network, Bethesda Green, Cleantech Open, but there are many others across the country. Also, use networking to find team members like Meetups and online through Linkedin, and Angel List.

3. There are resources for women like FemaleEntrepreneurs.Institute and the Department of Labor, which have some great tips for women in sustainability careers.

The tech industry isn’t just about the newest gadget anymore, it’s where social impact and sustainability are the driving forces to meet our needs, and tech can help us achieve that.  This is exactly the time for women to apply their knowledge and skills and break into the male dominated tech industry while also making a huge difference in our global and environmental progress.

We can do it!

Kari Klaus is a Northern Virginia Realtor and founder and CEO of Viva Green Homes. In addition to working on establishing Viva Green Homes as the most popular sustainable homes site, she also is volunteering and working with local animal rescue groups in Mexico. Read all of Kari's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

Utilizing Outdoor Space for Small Homes


Front view of the deck at our new cabin

When we built our 700-square-foot cabin, we knew we’d be somewhat space-challenged after we moved in — there are five of us, we homeschool, and we do like to spread out with our projects. In anticipation of that, we invested in a large wraparound deck attached to the house, with the idea of spending much of our time there when the weather is nice.

Seasonal Use of Decks and Porches

We have seen this practice implemented by many people living in little homes — sometimes, the outdoor front porch or deck will be even larger than the house itself. Decks, porches and pergolas are wonderful for spreading out a spring or summer brunch, hanging out with friends and watching the sunset, relaxing in a rocking chair with a good book or a needlework project, or even taking a laptop with you and catching up on emails while you soak up some sunshine.

Of course, this isn’t possible at all times of the year. Those who live up north by necessity spend several months every winter inside. Around these parts, what keeps us indoors is mainly the heat, during the peak of which people tend to stay in air-conditioned spaces. However, as we love the outdoors, the smells of nature and fresh air and wind, a deck is a great solution for us.

For a front porch or deck to be inviting in hot weather it needs, of course, to be shaded. You can choose a complete waterproof awning that will also give you protection against rain – and it really is lovely to step out of doors and stand on a covered front porch and hear rain gushing all around — or if you just want shade, you can use bamboo canes or a sailcloth.

Foliage for Natural Cooling

Another attractive option is natural foliage. What we have seen on our visits to some friends, and what we intend to do ourselves eventually, is erect a network of poles and supportive wire all around the deck and plant grape vines in such a way that they are trained to grow up and provide shade for the outdoor area. It does take time, but the result is lovely natural shade that provides a degree of moisture and coolness that can’t be achieved by simply spreading an awning. And, of course, one also gets to enjoy some delicious fruit in time!

While grape vines are by far the most popular local front porch/pergola plant and grow very well around here, other people opt for passionfruit, which grows faster than grapes and provides awesome edible bounty as well. Of course, you can also choose a purely decorative climbing plant, such as morning glory, honeysuckle, jasmine or climbing roses.

Consider Fencing

If you are building a deck on uneven terrain like we did, keep safety in mind and fence off any risky areas. Don’t just put in a decorative border, but invest in a good, tall sturdy fence, especially if you have small children that can climb over and fall off the deck.

Even if one lives in a house that is roomy by all standards and has no space constraints, I consider a front porch or deck a wonderful addition to promote wholesome outdoor time that will leave you refreshed and relaxed.

Anna Twittos academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here

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.

Think Green AND High-Performance Building

One of the wonderful things about building a green home is that it will help you meet multiple goals (such as lowering your carbon footprint, getting better indoor air quality and lowering utility bills). But what if your home could do even more? 

Increasingly, people interested in building green homes are moving toward creating high performance homes. By adopting this holistic building philosophy and giving careful consideration to the design and materials that go into your house, it’s possible to create living environments that meet a host of goals, not just your environmental ones.

There are two schools of thought on how to build high performance homes. The first is to take advantage of the best and newest building science available. The second is to stick to tried-and-true natural building methods that have created quality, healthy homes for generations. Take time to research both and see which is right for you. It’s possible that adopting elements from both will deliver the best possible outcome.


What is High-Performance Building?

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) defines high performance building this way: “High performance building means a building that integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.”

“From our perspective, green certainly focuses on one aspect of building performance,” says Ryan Colker, a presidential advisor for the NIBS. “We look at high performance more broadly to include green and sustainable building, but also to look at the other things we want buildings to deliver. It’s not a singular focus but a more broad look at how buildings help owners and the communities in which they sit.”

The NIBS breaks this definition down into eight subcategories homes should address in order to be considered high performing. Besides sustainability, there’s cost-effectiveness, productivity, safety and security, aesthetics, accessibility, historic preservation and functionality.

Colker gives examples to explain why these considerations matter and how they relate to green home building. “If you were to build the most sustainable house, but you don’t pay enough attention to those safety and security aspects, and there’s a natural disaster and the house is destroyed, you end up putting all those resources into a landfill, or you have to think about other ways to dispose of those materials,” he says.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how green the home is if it isn’t durable enough to last for generations. 

Colker gives an additional scenario to explain why a home’s functionality is so important. Building a home that’s highly energy-efficient can lead to lower utility bills, greater comfort and fewer carbon emissions. But here’s something people don’t often think about: “If your home is super-insulated and you have a freak snow storm that knocks out power, being able to maintain a habitable environment in a home without electricity could be an additional benefit,” he says.

In other words, high performance buildings helps residents stay safe, comfortable and healthy in the face of multiple life circumstances.

Key Parts of High-Performance Homes

These cases illustrate the importance of sustainability, safety and security, and functionality. But what about the other aspects of high performance building?

Aesthetics, accessibility and historic preservation are all somewhat related. When you build a home, you want it to last as long as possible. Keeping structures standing means all of their embodied energy remains in the house. There’s no need to harvest, fabricate and ship new building materials to a site to create a new structure.

In order for a home to stay standing for a long period, it needs to be aesthetically pleasing or someone will tear it down. It needs to be accessible so that homeowners can stay in it as they age or if they become disabled. And it has to offer enough value to a neighborhood and community that it will be preserved even after the original owners vacate it.

Productivity refers to the health and comfort of the people who live and work in the building. In order for residents to carry out day-to-day tasks and accomplish long-term goals, they need to stay healthy. They also need to be an environment where they feel comfortable, both physically and mentally.

High performance homes can have excellent indoor air quality, which is a big factor in keeping people free from sickness. Their tight envelope and corresponding healthy ventilation systems also give inhabitants consistent indoor temperature, freedom from drafts, and a quiet and relaxing environment.

Building a high performance home can be more expensive than constructing a conventional home – even higher than building what we think of as a green home. But the operating and maintenance costs are likely to be much lower over the long duration of the home. If you look at the whole lifecycle of the house, high-performance homes are very cost-effective (the last item on NIBS’s list). As new building technologies continue to advance and become more mainstream, the expensive of building a high performance home is slowly getting lower.

Building Science vs. Natural-Building Methods

It’s worth noting that there’s more than one avenue for achieving high performance goals in a home. One is to make use of the newest building technology that’s available. Systems such as heat and energy recovery ventilators, air and vapor barrier systems, and smart thermostats are modern and high-tech systems that help high performance homes achieve their goals.

DIY or other home builders interested in learning more about creating high performance buildings with technological solutions can visit the National Institute of Building Sciences, Whole Building Design Guide (which is produced by NIBS), and U.S. Department of Energy for information, resources and case studies.

People more interested in using traditional building methods to achieve the same results can learn more by studying building biology, or baubiologie. The International Institute for Building-Biology and Ecology (IIBE) educates professionals and the public about this building philosophy. They guide them “to an understanding of the vital, complex relationship between the natural and built environments, and teach them the means for merging these complementary environments into greater harmony.”

Here’s an example of how these approaches differ in meeting the same goal. Homes that use conventional building techniques such as stick-framed walls, structural insulated panels or foam insulated concrete forms (ICFs) rely exclusively on tightly wrapping a building and installing mechanical ventilation systems to provide indoor fresh air exchange, which mitigates the buildup of indoor moisture.

Alternatively, building walls out of clay-straw forms, wood fiber-cement block, or straw bales are ways that encourage a more natural “breathability” (which refers to the movement of moisture, in the form of vapor, inside a home; for more on this commonly-misunderstood building term, read this blog post). DIY and other home builders interested in learning more about building biology can visit IIBE or the Institute of Building Biology and Sustainability.

Paul Wood is has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks, an insulated concrete form (ICF) that can be used to build extremely green homes. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter. Read all of Paul’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.

Are Straw Mattresses the Natural Bedroom Solution You've Been Looking For?

Beautiful Buttons On Straw Mattress

Photo by Ziggy Liloia

I’m a classic over-thinker - every decision I make, every purchase I consider, it has to take me like five times as long as a normal human being. Whatever man — I work hard for my money, and I don’t wanna waste it on junk.

It’s this thought process that went into my decision to try out sleeping on a straw mattress. I know, it sounds crazy, just hear me out here.

So it started like this — we had moved across the country to a very small town in central Montana, and the house was fully furnished, meaning there was a gargantuan, very uncomfortable California king sized mattress in the master bedroom. After the landlady agreed to move the mattress out, it was time for us to start mattress shopping.

Pft, as if. One does not simply, go mattress shopping.

It was a couple of years prior to this that my husband and I had fallen down the rabbit hole that is sustainable living and permaculture. We had started listening to Jack Spirko’s Survival Podcasts, as well as Paul Wheaton’s permaculture podcasts, and become flies on the wall at the forums at Permies.

After building up this mindset, even something as simple as just buying a new mattress was a weighted decision for us. We knew what these mattresses were made of, we knew what they cost, and ultimately, the idea of buying one just didn’t sit well with us.

Sustainability: More Than Just Product Sourcing

To me, the pursuit of sustainability doesn’t just have to do with things like recycling and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — it’s about living a life that requires as little outside input as possible. That means frugality, making what you can, bartering when you can, so when it came to mattress shopping, the idea of spending $500 or more on something that wasn’t even going to be what we really wanted just didn’t make sense.

We went back to the drawing board — what did people sleep on before memory foam and Sleep Number?

I conducted hours of research on the topic, and found some interesting tidbits of information, but all in all, the web wasn’t proving to be a hugely rich resource on the topic - it was very hard to find any detailed accounts, let alone guide to making and using different kinds of beds.

I read about wool mattresses, corn husk beds, soft feather beds, until finally, I stumbled across the most primitive mattress of them all: straw mattresses.

The Best Nest You'll Ever Sleep In

This is generally something that hasn’t been done for a couple hundred years, so it was pretty challenging determining exactly how feasible sleeping on one was going to be. But hey, straw is cheap, and if anyone was going to make a suitable guinea pig, it was me, a pregnant woman, working on concrete floors, with a history of lower back pain.

With the odds stacked against me, I presented my idea to my husband, and we set to work.

I loved our straw mattress. Loved it. It was my cozy little nest at the end of a long day of work, cushy, yet firm, and free from the nasty smell of polyester and foam.

We were a little nervous, jumping headfirst into sleeping this way, but it worked out beautifully. We made our own mattress ticking with some heavy duty canvas we ordered online, and as a result, we couldn’t even feel the sharp ends of the straw needles.

Though the initial stuffing process was pretty dusty, when we finished up, you would have never known there was straw in our bed (aside from the amorphous blob shape it took). There wasn’t so much an odor of straw, since it’s not as fibrous and fragrant as hay, and since we were careful to keep it dry, we never had an issue with mold.

Getting Used to Sleeping on Straw

Sleeping on straw was an interesting experience, particularly while I was busy incubating a tiny human in my midsection. Though the straw was firm, it does tend to shift around a bit over time, and so eventually, we noticed that there were some pretty distinct indentations in the mattress that were shaped like our bodies while we slept - mine complete with a gaping space for my rotund belly.

My husband called it “memory foam, with a really good memory” - the longer we slept in it, the more pronounced the impressions got. Every few months or so, we’d have to beat the major lumps and bumps out of the mattress, whacking it with our forearms and stomping around on it, til eventually it was somewhat uniform again. There would be a few days of awkwardness as we coerced the mattress into a more reasonable form, then back into blissful slumber.

One challenge we did have to overcome was getting it off the ground — though not necessary, I began to have a hard time rolling my gestational butt out of bed in the mornings, so to ease the hilarity of the situation, we devised a sort of bed frame for our odd mattress.

Using a queen sized metal bed frame and some heavy duty rope, we created a sort of grid-like rope hammock, rather than just use boards, where the spaces would allow the straw to bulge through. At first, it worked great, but then we ran into the issue of everything wanting to pull to the center of the "frame", and we wound up with a significant lip of straw around the perimeter of the mattress where the frame was, further boxing in the pregnant lady.

In hindsight, I think just using boards with some plywood sheeting laid across the top would have worked fine, and I’m not really sure why we didn’t think to try that — the rope idea seems vastly more difficult.

Historically, these mattresses were fluffed once a week for high class citizens, and maybe a few times a year for poorer families. We reshaped ours about every 4 months, and only emptied it of straw after a year because we were moving.

The Mattress You Can Compost

My favorite thing about this mattress was that it was completely, 100% biodegradable. The straw we emptied from the ticking went into the chicken coop, where the hens happily bedded down and laid eggs. The remainder went out as mulch on our hugelkultur bed, where it eventually decomposed into the soil.

Throughout this entire experience, even with my horrendous history of lower back pain, and running around on concrete floors with my big bad pregnant self cooking and waiting tables, I never once had lower back pain — it was unbelievable. The lumpiness that formed around where we slept every night made it a little challenging to get up, but never once did I feel like I couldn’t find the sweet spot and settle in for a good night’s sleep.

I encourage everyone to challenge themselves, and determine exactly what they really need to get a comfortable night’s sleep. No matter your age or activity level, it’s possible that the mattress you use is actually doing your body more harm than good. There is a significant amount of research out there to suggest that people do much better sleeping on firmer surfaces, and straw is definitely a step away from pillow toppers.

From Straw Mattress to Floor Sleeping

After we moved, we said we’d sleep on a few blankets on the floor until we had a chance to refill our mattress ticking. After a few weeks though, we noticed we weren’t really uncomfortable at all sleeping on the floor, even with them being hardwoods, so we just never used a mattress again.

Two years later, we’re still sleeping on the floor, with just a couple of comforters separating us from the hardwoods, our toddler son nestled between us. We all sleep quite contentedly, with no aches or pains, and no mattress, and we’re truly blown away by how many years we spent on one. Now when we go to hotels and visit friend’s houses, we do everything we can to avoid sleeping in a bed!

The bottom line is, conventional mattresses are not the most eco-friendly purchase a person can make, and the expense definitely doesn’t fit the model of a sustainable, self-reliant lifestyle. If you’re feeling bold, I encourage you to try a straw mattress out, or even just sleep on the floor for a few nights — you may be surprised by just how comfortable you can be with so little.

Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of and, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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