Green Homes

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


Passive House HomeIn the April/May 2014 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we ran Passive House: Beyond Passive Solar in Ask Our Experts that discussed the difference between “passive solar design” and “Passive House design.” 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 house,' 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 implies, the slightest evolutionary relationship between the two. To state that Passivhaus 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. Passivhaus is code-type energy conservation on steroids — a super-airtight, super-insulated building envelope of industrial materials dominates the process. A Passivhaus, it is sometimes said, can be heated with a light bulb, which sounds fine until you think about how you get there: petro-chemical 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 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 Passivhaus is merely a souped-up version of passive solar, many Passivhaus designs exclude winter sun because the building would overheat if sun were allowed to pour into the interior. Top it off, and there’s the politics of Passivhaus: One has to follow a set of one-size-fits-all rules to get 'certified,' and the competing Passivhaus 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 Passivhaus. 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 Passivhaus 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/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 of these basic energy flows we can capture 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 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 co-equal status with energy conservation in building codes to make passive energy conversion design routine. 

“Passive solar design is timeless design, Passivhaus not so much. This sort of super-insulated house may make sense in Arctic-like winter climates, but 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 Passivhaus specifications. At that point, it became obvious to me 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 breeze. There’s no need for super-insulated, super-tight Passivhaus design in such a climate. That suggests this is merely a technology-based fad, 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 pleasant, comfortable, energy-wise, simple and healthy places to live in.”

Photo by Rick Pharaoh Photography


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.


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

That feature is passive solar design.

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

A Quiet Mountain Retreat

Passive solar home in the mountains of North Carolina

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

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

A Coastal Bungalow

Sun-tempered home in coastal NC

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

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

A Solar House

A solar house in the Virginia Blue Ridge

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

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


Garden shed

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

3 Ways to Learn Cordwood Building

1.  Read all the available literature

2.  Take a workshop from an expert  Cordwood Workshops

3.  Build a practice building

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

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

 Chicken Coop one

Chicken Coop 1

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

Dog House one

Dog house two

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

 Garden Shed

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


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

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

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

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

Or, if you wish, you can email a question to Richard Flatau at

Happy Stacking!


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

NAIMA Home Insulation Guide

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

Building Insulation includes:

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

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

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

Download Building Insulation here.


Treehaven Garden Shed "How do I learn to build using cordwood contruction techniques is often the first question asked, followed quickly by "Will it save me money?" 

The first question is simple:

1. Read a book  
2. Take a Workshop
3. Build a Practice Building

 The second question about saving money involves many variables.  Do you have access to wood, do you have any home building skills, can you barter or trade for work, are you willing to recycle, reuse and repurpose? The cost goes up or down depending on your willingness to learn, bargain, barter and do.  Can you build your own cabinets, buy them second hand from a Habitat for Humanity restore, or trade to have them built? Suffice it to say that cordwood homes have been built for as little as $10 @ sq. ft. and more than $100 @ sq. ft.  The final answer lies somewhere in your decision on cost/benefit choices.Learning By Doing

Now, let's work on how to learn to build one first, so you can determine if this natural building technique is your cup of tea. Taking a workshop, taught by a master cordwood builder is the best way to go. You learn what mistakes to avoid and you are given individual, hands-on instruction using best practices. Questions flow and answers are forthcoming as the workshop evolves.

Here are a few examples of cordwood buildings and the actual wall building taking place. 

Kinstone Academy Of Permaculture

Workshop in Minnesota Workshop at Kinstone Permaculture Academy

Workshops smiling

If you are interested in a Cordwood Workshop for 2014, take a look at the following brochure to see if there is one near you.  Cordwood Workshop Brochure 2014.

We will talk more about the Practice Building in a future posting.

If you are interested in learning the latest about Cordwood I would recommend reading the book Cordwood Construction Best PracticesIt is available in print, CD and ebook format from the Online Bookstore at


Kefir grainsKefir is a milk product a bit like yogurt, but with even more digestive benefits.  You make kefir using grains (the "mother" bacteria and fungi), and since the grains double in size every month or two, you can often get starter cultures for free from a friend.  But what do you do once the grains show up?

Rinse your kefir grains. Since the grains (the solid gob) have been sitting in the same milk during transit, they'll need to be rinsed. Place them in a colander and pour milk or unchlorinated water (such as well water) over the grains until they look clean. Discard the rinse liquid.

Place the grains in a glass jar and add one cup of whole milk per tablespoon of grains, then cover the top of the jar with a cloth napkin or other piece of breathable fabric. You can use a rubber band or the ring of a mason jar to keep the cloth in place. The cloth is just to prevent bugs and dirt from getting in your brewing liquid. Be sure to use whole milk (cow or goat is fine), and unpasteurized milk is even better if you're a raw-milk drinker.

Fermenting kefir

Put the jar in a warm place, such as on top of your refrigerator, and leave it for 24 to 48 hours. You might actually have to wait 3 days the first time since the microorganisms will take a bit of time to recover from the trauma of being mailed. You'll know the kefir is ready when it solidifies and you see a bit of separation of whey (clear liquid) from the milk solids. If you want a mild-tasting kefir, stop after 24 hours. A more sour kefir with more beneficial fungi will develop when fermented longer.

Once your kefir is ready, remove the grains and place them in a new jar with another cup of milk to ferment the next batch. To remove the grains, you can either spoon out the contents of the jar into a bowl and scoop out the grains, or you can strain the kefir through a plastic or stainless-steel sieve. Do not allow anything other than plastic, glazed ceramics, and stainless steel to come in contact with your kefir grains or you will harm the microorganisms.

Scooping out kefir grains

Eat your kefir. Your kefir grain(s) will have been stressed a bit by their trip, so be aware that your first batch of kefir might taste a bit funny. This is more likely if you're changing to another type of milk (such as goat milk). The strange taste should go away as the microorganisms adapt to their new surroundings, but you can discard the first batch(es) if necessary. Once the flavor evens out, you can eat your kefir any way you'd eat yogurt. Our favorite methods include mixing in honey and cocoa (combine warm honey and cocoa first, then add the kefir), mixing with applesauce, or making kefir cheesecake. You can also use kefir grains to make sour cream out of fresh cream and to make kefir out of coconut milk and other non-dairy milks. However, your grains will be happiest in whole milk, so try to give them a round or two of milk in between other substances.

Kefir cheesecake

As your kefir grains grow, you'll need to increase the amount of milk, or split them. A rule of thumb is to use a tablespoonful of grains per cup of milk. We like to culture our kefir for two days in the winter, so I keep two jars of kefir going at all times, one to eat today and one to eat tomorrow.  Once you have more grains than you can handle, pass some on to a friend and keep the cycle moving!

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