Simple and Green Building

Reader Contribution by Leigha Dickens
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I’m a green building consultant for a company that builds unique round homes in Asheville, North Carolina.  I work with customers from all over the US — customers who have all kinds of different dreams about what it means to build and live in a “green” home. You might imagine that I am involved in many LEED-certified projects, that I work with an array of neat technologies like wind and solar power, geothermal heat pumps, and greywater recycling systems. I do get a lot of customers asking about these things, and not a small few of them go on to incorporate these efficient and forward-thinking building systems into their new homes.  I’m both an environmentalist and a nerd, so I love seeing all of these things coming into more widespread use.

To me, though, the most important features of a sustainable building are not its technological wonders but

its simple design features:  common-sense strategies that should be incorporated whether the building becomes LEED certified, Energy Star certified, or is just trying to be environmentally friendly. These are the strategies that I find are at the core of green building.  I will go into more detail about these and other green building topics in future blog posts.

Photo at right: Well-designed green homes, such as this round Deltec Home in North Carolina, focus first on simple design features such as passive solar design, a simple shape, and quality craftsmanship.

1. Passive Solar

In the Northern hemisphere, south-facing windows let in considerable sunlight, which can offer free warmth in winter made better by how thoroughly the house is designed to harness that warmth. West-facing windows let in considerable afternoon sunlight as well, which, in an already-warm summer afternoon, can add quite a bit to cooling costs. North rooms are often the coldest in the house, because north windows see no direct sunlight to counteract the heatthey lose. How the house is facing has a direct impact on the heating and cooling, and thus the energy, needs of the house.

 Minimizing window area on the north side, allowing the largest windows on the south side of the home, and employing good shading for east and west windows are basic design principles to allow you to take advantage of the environment around your home. This design strategy is a piece of “Passive Solar Design”—called passive because it’s not any kind of fancy piece of technology but is part of the home design itself.  Although not as outright impressive as a shiny array of solar panels, fully incorporating these and other Passive Solar techniques, outlined to great detail in books like Daniel Chrias’ “A Solar House,” can drastically reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed to heat a home.

2. Right-Sized

‘Bigger, and further out into the country,’ were the aspirations behind the home construction model of the 80’s and 90’s.  But through the housing crisis we have found that this model was not economically sustainable, and with the associated habitat loss and the high energy, material, and maintenance costs of operating these buildings, this model is not environmentally sustainable, either. In green building we prefer to “right-size” a building design, and build no more space than we actually need to have. This eliminates concepts like the formal living room, dining room and winding hallways; and relies more heavily on porches and patios to add flexible floor space. Reducing the building square footage also reduces the total cost to build that home, perhaps allowing the difference to be put toward the shiny stuff, like solar panels.

3. Built to Last, with Quality Systems

If one is going to build something, it only makes sense to build it well enough the first time so that it doesn’t fall down again, doesn’t need to have materials thrown away and replaced, and has systems that work as intended.  Indeed, this is what homeowners expect when they build it.  However, in the building world as in so many other places is the old adage “you get what you pay for” extremely true. Building a green home means using durable materials and making sure that components are installed according to solid craftsmanship—which in the contractor world is not always the cheapest craftmanship. It means making sure that design and thought are steps in the process that happen before construction and installation.

The structural materials should be durable and strong, should be built in a way that protects them from undue moisture burdens. Insulation should be installed not only in ample qualities, but in a way that correctly and evenly fills the space it occupies, without gaps or compressions. Heating and cooling systems should be designed for the specific energy and comfort consideration of the house they will be going in.  Mind should be paid to cracks that can be sealed, corners that can be taped, water-diversion systems that can be lapped and sloped and drained appropriately.

All of these things spring out of a well thought-out design: one that is oriented to take advantage of the local climate, takes up the right amount of space for the occupants, and has systems that are well-installed. These features are like the skeleton, the basic and necessary layer upon which the more flashy and ambitious green systems, such as wind power or greywater recycling, are built.

Photo by Jim Stilwell

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