Build Smarter Homes

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We made small, incremental changes to our property over time to increase the food-producing potential of the land, to improve the energy efficiency, and to open up more of the south side of the house to the winter sun.
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The property after all of the changes had been made.
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Removing the uninsulated, south-facing enclosed porch and replacing it with an insulated, window-filled space allowed sunlight to enter our living space and made the whole house warmer.
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The new porch with windows.
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Increasing the amount and quality of insulation in a house is one of the best first steps a homeowner can make.
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Someday, we may be able to attach a greenhouse like this one to the house, to extend the growing season and help reduce our heating needs in the winter.

 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!

Upgrade over Time

Over time, we’ve worked our way around the house, insulating the walls and replacing old windows. A few years ago, we were ready for a big upgrade to the south side of the house. A dilapidated, uninsulated south-facing porch was blocking light and leaking cold air into the house. Water pipes in the outside wall would freeze. We rebuilt the new space into a large family room and took the opportunity to adjust the house layout and fix some other key problems in the process. The bathroom, in the center of the house, moved to the northeast corner, and the funky plumbing was replaced. The new bathroom has the clothes washer for easy access (we don’t have a dryer, preferring an outdoor clothesline in summer or a drying rack by the woodstove in winter). Instead of replacing the flush toilet, we installed a composting toilet so our humanure can be recycled on the land. (See page 91 for more on humanure.) Graywater goes into the septic system for now, but a future project will be to make use of that resource. Leachate from the composting toilet goes into the septic system by law, but should the right time come, we can collect that nutrient-rich water and use it to build fertility on the land.

The walls of the addition are 10 inches thick and have blown cellulose (recycled jeans) insulation. Insulation in the ceiling is 12 inches thick, and an 18-inch-thick blanket of insulation in the attic space reduces heat loss there. With the bathroom removed from the center of the house, we installed the woodstove there, and it now serves as the central heat source. Heating with wood from our land allows us some control over our heat supply. The increase in insulation and closing off the north walls has reduced our winter heating requirements to about two to three cords of wood each winter.

Summer cooling is easy in a well-insulated house. We open the windows at night to let in the cool air. In the morning, as the outside temperature is warming up, we close the windows and the house stays cool all day. A ceiling fan gets the air moving on the hottest days. Wide house eaves and trees to the west block midday and afternoon sun and reduce the afternoon heat. And a dip in a nearby stream or pond on the hottest days helps, too!

Secure the Water Supply

To add redundancy to our water supply, we built a 3,100-gallon cistern into the basement of the new space, simply by pouring an extra wall at the end of the foundation. The cistern stores rainwater collected off the roof. The water is gravity-fed to the backyard gardens or can be used in a future home aquaponics system; it’s also available for emergency use when we lose power, which occurs occasionally in winter storms, sometimes for several days. This water source provides backup for our well and requires no pumping or power to operate.

Other Strategies

In addition to everything else, we’ve replaced drafty windows on the north side of the house, improved the insulation in the existing walls, and replaced appliances with energy-efficient models to reduce electric use. We’ve also installed low-flow water faucets and showerheads whenever possible.

All this work had to be done before we could consider investing in solar electric or solar hot water systems. Those are great technologies, but for us, the first steps were to lower our energy needs.

As with any house, there are aspects to an energy retrofit that we couldn’t do either because the home and land were not suitable or we couldn’t afford it. Some of the other strategies you might consider:

Windbreak to block prevailing winter winds. Large energy savings can be gained with a windbreak to reduce cold winter winds. The cold air pulls the warmth from a house, particularly if it’s not well insulated. In the right situations, a windbreak with several rows of evergreen trees can reduce energy use by 25 to 30 percent and even up to 50 percent.

Attached greenhouse. An attached greenhouse is sometimes a good way to passively heat a structure. It is important that the greenhouse be built outside the thermal envelope of the structure, to allow control of the air movement between the greenhouse and home. Humidified air should not be allowed inside the home in a high-humidity summer environment. This can lead to mold and mildew spores in the home. But a well-designed greenhouse can make it possible to grow plants through the year, add light and warm air to the home, and offer a getaway from the cold. It can also potentially hold space for aquaculture, worms, chickens, and more.

Making Use of Human Waste, Safely

People have been safely turning human waste — often referred to as “humanure” — into valuable compost for thousands of years. And not just their own! In his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, agronomist F. H. King documented the farming practices of peasants in Japan, Korea, and China; he witnessed farmers building decorative outhouses meant to tempt travelers into utilizing them so they would have more fertility to add to their fields.

But in our current day and age, using human waste for any purpose is a cultural taboo. Instead, we use the flush toilet, which takes the waste to a waste-treatment plant or, if you live in a rural place, to a septic field in your backyard. Either way, instead of being utilized, this resource becomes a source of pollution.

The energy cost of pumping wastewater to a treatment plant and treating it is immense, and the chemicals used in treatment are then spilled into the nearest body of water, along with the partially treated waste. Waterways overloaded with the additional nutrients from the waste spawn algae, which leads to oxygen loss and dead zones in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Septic systems are no better; they can leach nutrients into groundwater and have the potential for polluting nearby waterways. On top of all that, the water that fills toilets is fresh, drinkable water that we turn into wastewater.

There is an alternative, though. There are safe ways to compost humanure, either with simple home composting toilets or with more complex neighborhood or town-wide systems.

We use a composting toilet in my home to effectively convert our family humanure into compost over the course of a year or two. State laws are changing and making it easier to do this. We use the compost in our orchard or forest gardens to enrich the soil and cycle the nutrients back into the food we eat.

An example of advanced thinking on recycling nutrients on and off farm is in Veracruz, Mexico. At the Las Cañadas community, cooperative members who don’t live on the land must install a compost toilet and bring back a certain amount of composted humanure when they come to pick up their harvest share. In this way, they replenish what is lost by farm production being sent off farm. This is another method to close the loop of nutrients and organic matter and make use of human waste instead of treating it as a problem.

Excerpted from The Permaculture Promise © Jono Neiger. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.