If you need more facts and figures about the urgency of the climate change crisis, go here. The summary is that a large majority of climate scientists from around the world predict dire consequences if we don’t change our ways. In mainstream science, it seems the only real debate is how much time we have to do the job. Even if you’re a tenacious skeptic, the choice we’re faced with is either to see if we survive by doing nothing or to insure our survival through action. What if we could have our cake and eat it too? In other words, if we could take actions that made our lives better while also combating climate change, wouldn’t action be a no-brainer? This is the basic concept behind the Nauhaus.
The culprit in our accountability for climate change is our emissions of what are called greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) making up the lion’s share of that group. CO2 alone isn’t a problem. Plants give off CO2 when they decompose, but they have also taken that CO2 in during their lifetime. Therefore, the net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is zero. Fossil fuels (petroleum and coal) are plant and animal tissue that were prevented from decaying millions of years ago. In other words, they are huge stores of CO2 that has been sequestered from the atmosphere for all that time. When we combust this ancient carbon to heat our buildings, create electricity, or move our cars, we are increasing the net CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore setting the stage for climate change, sometimes called “global warming”.
In the US, our buildings are responsible for about 50% of our collective carbon emissions. Transportation is responsible for 30%. Though there is some overlap in those two statistics, the point is that reducing or eliminating the carbon emissions from those two sectors would almost single handedly get us to the healthy emission benchmarks defined by the present scientific consensus. Here’s how the Nauhaus does its part:
Renewable energy systems such as photovoltaics (solar electric), solar thermal, wind power, and hydro power create energy for use in buildings without burning fossil fuels. Therefore, if the energy required to heat, cool, and electrify a building comes solely from these renewable sources, then the building is said to be zero net energy(ZNE) and consequently no carbon emissions are required to run it. However, those energy systems (as well as the building materials and a variety of other variables required to create the building) emitted carbon during their manufacture or transport. If we, however, produce more renewable energy than our building needs and place this electricity onto the utility grid for use elsewhere, we are preventing the burning of a measurable amount of fossil fuels, namely the fuel that would have been required to produce that amount of electricity. Therefore, if we calculate the amount of carbon it took to construct our building, we can produce enough surplus renewable energy on site beyond what it takes to run the building to offset those carbon emissions . This scenario is called carbon neutrality (CN).
Every Nauhaus is designed to be what we call “carbon neutral ready”. We start by creating the most energy efficient building envelope possible. This means super-insulation and lots of internal thermal mass combined with passive solar design (heating, cooling, daylighting), innovative high efficiency mechanical systems, and very efficient lights and appliances. The result is buildings that use up to 90% less energy and therefore emit significantly less carbon than their conventional counterparts. We add to this efficiency a focus on local and site-harvested materials that have a small carbon footprint in their manufacture. Some of these materials, like wood and Tradical® Hemcrete®, can actually be carbon negative because they are sequestering carbon that would have been returned to the atmosphere if not used as a building material.
These combined measures have reduced our building’s carbon and energy footprint sufficiently to allow renewable energy systems designed for ZNE or CN to be much smaller and therefore more affordable. These systems are still expensive, so many projects won’t have the budget for their full implementation initially. That’s why we design these systems to be “plug and play” which means that they can be installed during construction or easily added at some later date, therefore bringing true carbon neutrality within the reach of many more building projects.
The two most direct ways to reduce carbon emissions connected to transportation are (1) to get more of what you need locally and (2) to walk and bike more. Every Nauhaus design integrates indoor and outdoor living, rainwater collection and greywater irrigation with a diverse edible landscape and habitat. This means a lot of food and water can be produced and collected on site rather than trucked in. Also, though a Nauhaus can be built anywhere, our goal is to focus on urban infill, mixed used developments, apartments, and cohousing because inner city living allows for more pedestrian and bike transportation. Not only does this result in less carbon emissions, it’s healthier and a better avenue toward the creation of community.
We won’t claim to be financial experts but we will hazard the opinion that it’s time to adjust our social financial perspective. The concept of profit for short term gain has proven problematic to say the least. However, it isn’t only shifty financial wizards who have caught the bug. Our present approach to housing is based on minimizing upfront costs and designing for resale. The result is large, short-lived, inefficient buildings that only take, contributing nothing. They use untold resources to construct and maintain, but don’t produce energy or food. Over their lifetimes they are incredibly expensive because they were built for the lowest cost per square foot that an economy tooled to mass production could muster.
The Nauhaus approach turns this logic on its head. We design to maximize the long term economy of the built environment. Insulation, for example, is an incredible value. Once installed, it will do its job of saving energy and therefore money for many, many years without further input. Once a building is constructed, it is very difficult to improve the overall insulation envelope, so spending more on insulation in initial construction makes sound financial sense. The same is true of a building’s structural system. Relatively small monetary expenditures on structural components can increase the lifespan of a building by decades and even centuries. You only get one chance to do it right, so it’s very shortsighted not to make an investment with such an incredible return.
These are only examples of a perspective that creates buildings that on a lifecycle basis are considerably less expensive than their conventional cousins. Ultimately, we don’t believe that the burden of these decisions should be left only to the individual. The resources saved and pollution avoided by quality design and construction benefit all of us, so individuals should be given incentives to “do the right thing”.
Okay, we don’t have the hubris to claim that our little housing system can make a dent in these perennial human foibles. We do believe, though, that the global economy and our consumer culture have perhaps unwittingly conspired to take a lot of our personal power away. Not too long ago, ours was a rural culture, and a rural world, in which we took care of most of our own needs either directly or on a local economic level. We aren’t suggesting and actually don’t desire a return to “a simpler time”. What excites us is the present opportunity to take the best of what technology and mass production have to offer and combine it with low-tech sustainability perfected by our great grandparents. Urban agriculture, site harvested resources and power, walkable commerce, mixed use environments, local manufacturing, and a host of other extant strategies will make us more self-reliant, healthier, and we believe happier while they help us solve the environmental and economic problems we presently face. It’s this dynamic that allows us to say, “Hey, global climate change isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity to make life better!”