Build Smarter Homes

Learn about the upgrades that can be made to your home to decrease the amount of energy used in the home.

| June 2018

 In The Permaculture Promise (Storey, 2016) by Jono Neiger,  readers will find new ways to cut down on waste and to make better use of the land they have, find ways to improve homes and increase production of food supplies. Find this excerpt in Chapter 14, “Build Smarter Homes.”

Home is where the hearth is. Much of our lives is spent in our homes, which can be a fulfilling experience or an uncomfortable one. Modern homes are built with little attention to passive solar potential, energy efficiency, nontoxic materials, or land connections. Permaculture is all about making the connections through design. The home is a great place to make this happen.

Let’s explore this idea by taking a look at the work my own family did with our home, Hickory Gardens, in Leverett, Massachusetts. When we moved there more than a decade ago, there were many things we loved (and still love) about the land: a very short driveway, which meant little maintenance or snow to remove; a generally east–west orientation (good for passive solar), and close proximity to neighbors and the community co-op/grocery store. And because the house is naturally earth-bermed, with a ground-level entrance, it’s protected from the prevailing winter winds, and heating and cooling are buffered by the temperature of the ground.

But we also faced a common situation — the house had been built with little consideration of energy use. On top of other problems like questionable wiring and plumbing that was held together with duct tape and bungee cords, there was very little insulation. The windows were drafty, and most of them faced the road to the north. It was a neighborly arrangement, but because our winter storms come from the north, the house was very exposed to cold weather. We didn’t have the resources to build a new home somewhere else or to take down our old house and start over. The only choice we had was to slowly retrofit the house and make it more energy efficient while we lived in it.

Keep Out the Cold

Our first priority was the basement. The walls and floor were uninsulated concrete, leading to condensation and mold. To begin, we added insulation. We also lowered the ground level outside a bit, just enough to allow for short basement windows on the south side, giving more natural light and airflow. We used the open walls to rewire, replumb, and put in forced hot-water heat — a very efficient system that produces even, comfortable heat and can eventually be connected to a solar thermal system.

Early on, we enclosed part of the front porch for a mudroom. Instead of having cold air blow through the front door in the winter every time we come in, we enter into the mudroom, close the outside door, and remove coats, hats, gloves, and boots. The mudroom is insulated but not heated and acts as a buffer between the outside and inside. The cats also come through the mudroom, using a series of doors (but smaller). They can wipe their feet and drop off mice and voles before coming in!

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