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Building Fundamentals: Energy Efficiency Geekout – Anatomy of Windows and Doors Part I

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

If you ask 10 kids to draw a picture of a house, I can almost guarantee that they’ll all include a door and at least one big window. Ask those same kids 25 years later to describe their dream houses and I predict they will all be crammed full of windows. What I’m saying here is that in my experience, we all love windows. What’s wrong with that? Well, if our goal is to create an energy efficient building, typical glass-filled openings are actually a real pain in the astragal because compared to modern wall systems they perform horribly. In this month’s column, I’ll explain the basics of why this is true. Then next month, I’ll tell you what you can do about it.

Sidebar: R-value vs. U-value

Resistance to heat flow in building materials is usually quantified as R-value. The higher the R, the better the insulation. Just to confuse us, the insulation value of windows is expressed as U-value which is the inverse of R. To find out the R-value of a window, divide 1 by its U-value. For example, U= .4; 1÷.4 = R2.5

Heat Loss

Other than keeping rain and snow out of your bed, perhaps the most pivotal function of your house is its ability to create a different temperature inside than the temperature outside. This is accomplished by wrapping the interior space with insulation, a generic term for a material designed to resist the flow of heat. To oversimplify for our purposes, the better this insulation cocoon functions, the less heating or cooling the building will need. Since heating and cooling both cost money and usually involve global warming creating carbon emissions (our buildings are responsible for about 50% of our collective carbon footprint), improving insulation has been a focus of the green building movement. In recent years, we’ve made incredible strides and now have access to insulation systems that can produce walls systems with R-values (see sidebar) in the 20’s, 30’s, and even 40’s. Typical new windows, however, have R-values of only 2 or 3, 10 or more times worse than the wall itself. This is almost equivalent to a thermal hole in the wall. Therefore, the main performance flop for windows is their inadequate resistance to the flow of heat.

Mean Radiant Temperature

Mean radiant temperature is basically the average temperature of the surfaces of everything in the vicinity of your body. In a house, that means the surface of windows, walls, furniture, dusty knickknacks, and everything else. All of these surfaces radiate heat outward toward your skin, and your skin in turn radiates toward them. Since windows are so bad at slowing heat movement, their surface temperature will tend to be very different than that of other surfaces in your house. If the surface temperature of an object near you is considerably less or more than that of your body, you feel it as cold or warmth. This is why on a cold winter day, the thermostat can read 70F and you’ll still feel cold standing by a window. Low surface temperature, then, is another way windows drag down the overall thermal performance of our wall system.

Air Leakage

Doors and operable windows are basically huge holes that can be opened and closed. By definition, though, that closure is never perfect. The hole always leaks. Gaps and cracks in our wall will allow air to bypass insulation resulting in the movement of heat in or out of our building. Therefore, another strike against windows and doors is their contribution to this air leakage.

Solar Heat Gain

Responsible energy efficient designs incorporate a basically infinite, free source of energy: the sun. In our climate this means letting the sun in during the winter.  We need glass-filled openings to accomplish this. Different glass types and configurations let in more or less of the sunlight that hits them. This is quantified as a number called the solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) which is basically the percentage of potential solar heat that glass lets into the building. For example, a SHCG of .5 means that 50% of the potential solar heat is making it through the glass. There are situations where we want solar heat gain and others where we don’t, so the wrong glass type in the wrong place can be a major detriment to building performance.

Conclusion

The point I’m making here is that windows and doors are typically VERY weak spots in the performance of a modern building. Next month, I’ll give you the skinny on how to choose the right windows and doors for new construction and remodeling or how to spiff up the performance of your existing underachieving glass units.

Building Fundamentals: Energy Efficiency Geekout – Anatomy of Windows and Doors Part 2

This article by Clarke Snell was first published in the New Life Journal.

Last month I ragged on windows and doors, pointing out that they are generally a very weak spot  in the performance of a modern, environmentally conscious building. To summarize: they don’t insulate very well, are a source of air leakage, can cause perceived discomfort, and can either let in too much solar heat when it’s not wanted or block too much solar heat when it is wanted. The obvious question is, “What can we do about it?”

Luckily, a lot of really smart people have been working on window technology in recent years and they are making big strides. If you are looking to build a new house, there are good choices to be made to improve the energy efficiency of your doors and windows. Similarly, if you want to increase the performance of your existing house, replacing windows and doors is a good place to start.

Sidebar: R-value vs. U-value

Resistance to heat flow in building materials is usually quantified as R-value. The higher the R, the better the insulation. Just to confuse us, the insulation value of windows is expressed as U-value which is the inverse of R. To find out the R-value of a window, divide 1 by its U-value. For example, U= .4; 1÷.4 = R-2.5

If you want to understand the mechanics, there’s a lot to learn. For example, most windows have two glass panes separated by a space filled with air or another gas, but triple pane windows with much lower U-values (see sidebar) are becoming more common. Then there’s the issue of low-e coatings, basically coatings that increase efficiency by reflecting heat energy. Windows can have different numbers and types of coatings configured to reflect heat in or out. Frame type is also important with choices ranging from metal to vinyl to wood to fiberglass. Glazing spacers, thermally broken frames, gas fills, closure mechanisms…the list goes on.

You really don’t need to worry about most of that stuff because all of this technology is synopsized in three quantifiable performance characteristics: U-value, solar heat gain coefficient, and air leakage rate. The National Fenestration Rating Council has created a standardized rating system that requires computer modeling and lab testing for verification of these variables. The results of these tests are prominently displayed on a label you’ll find on any new window or door. If it’s not labeled, don’t buy it. If you are talking with any professional, be sure to reference these numbers and make clear that you want values for the whole window or door unit, not just the glass. Armed with this basic knowledge, I can now offer you some simple rules of thumb summarized in the following chart:

Wind or Door Facing

U-value (BTU/hr-sf-F)

SHGC

Air Leakage (CFM/sf)

Good*

Best

Good*

Best

Good*

Best

East, West, North1

.3

.15

.4

.25

.3

.01

South2

.35

.15

.5

.6

.3

.01

* My advice is for you not to go below these performance ratings

1East, west, and north facing openings. In terms of winter solar heat gain, these windows will be a net loss. No matter how much sunlight you can let in, the energy gained won’t be enough to offset the energy lost when the sun isn’t shining through the glass. Therefore, choose windows and doors with the lowest SHGC, U-value, and air leakage rates that you can afford.

2South facing openings. For glass that faces south AND gets full sun at least between 10:00am and 2:00pm all winter, choose windows and doors with the lowest U-value and air leakage but highest SHGC. NOTE: There is a new building code in effect setting a maximum SHGC for windows which is well below the desirable SHGC for south-facing windows that get full winter sun. There are ways around this glitch that are too involved to describe in this column. Just be sure to get this worked out with your builder and code officials before ordering windows.

As you start to shop for windows and doors, you may think that some of my chart numbers are wrong. According to NFRC specs, they aren’t. Right now, there are a huge range of performance levels and corresponding prices for windows and doors. Windows made in Europe, such as by the German manufacturer Optiwin, are the best, but they can cost more than $100/square foot. (Compare this to perhaps $15-20/sf for a decent off the shelf window in the US.) Canadian and US manufacturers are catching up in the performance category, so you just have to look around.

On the other hand, if you can’t afford the premium windows, there are other low-budget strategies. Covering glass openings with thick curtains anytime you aren’t in a room will increase window efficiency. If you live in an old drafty house, you can buy shrink wrap plastic to cover your single pane windows in the winter probably for less than $20. You’ll most likely immediately experience an increase in comfort due to higher radiant surface temperature (see last month’s column) and reduced air infiltration.

Regardless of the specifics of your situation, my point is simple. If you want to reduce your heating and cooling bills, improve interior comfort, and reach carbon reduction nirvana, don’t neglect your doors and windows.

A sample NFRC window label

Building Fundamentals: Certifiably Green

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

People are always asking me to define “green building”. It’s a good question and one that continues to elicit collective head scratching from us aficionados. How do you define “green” and once you define it how do you really know if a building matches the description? One of many trajectories spawned by this question has been the creation of certification programs designed to define and then guarantee the relative “greenness” of buildings. Some have worked, others not so well, some are still developing. We are lucky enough to live in a region that has a success story, the HealthyBuilt Home (HBH) program. For this month’s column, I talked about HBH with Maggie Leslie of the Western North Carolina Green Building Council.

[Note for readers in Georgia: While HBH is a North Carolina program, there is a similar program in Georgia called EarthCraft House. Though there are differences between the two, this article can serve as a general introduction to both programs. For specific information on EarthCraft, check out the links listed at the end of this column.]

What is a Healthy Built Home and Why Should We Care?

The HBH program was developed as a tool to educate people about green building and to improve the quality of new construction from an environmental and health perspective. It’s a statewide North Carolina initiative that is funded through the North Carolina State Energy Office. Our program here at the WNC Green Building Council was the first in the state and a large part of the development committee was from WNC. The pilot project was Prospect Terrace right here in Asheville.

There are three reasons why you’re better off with a HBH certified home: comfort, durability, and energy efficiency. HBH homes are more comfortable for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are “tighter”, which means that insulation is carefully installed to create a cocoon of 100% coverage around the living space and leaks are carefully sealed to prevent drafts and improve indoor air quality. In addition, heating and cooling systems are designed so that they heat and cool as they should. Durability is increased because moisture is carefully considered with a focus on a variety of construction details to keep both sensitive buildings materials and the building’s interior drier. Credit is given for higher quality materials, such as those with longer warranties. Also, third party certification allows for a fresh eye to catch mistakes and problems that builders under time crunches and other pressures sometimes miss. As for energy efficiency, HBH is built on top of the federal Energy Star program. All HBH homes are Energy Star certified. This means that they are a minimum of 15% more efficient than code requires. This is accomplished through improved insulation, lighting, heating/cooling system design and installation, use of renewable energy sources, and passive solar design.

How do you go about getting your house HBH certified?

The program is based on a checklist. In addition to a number of prerequisites, there are seven categories dealing with the building site, water use, building envelope, comfort systems, electrical consumption, indoor air quality, and materials with a bonus section for miscellaneous features and innovation. By complying with checklist requirements points are earned toward four levels of certification: Certified, Bronze, Silver, and Gold.

The first step is to contact the certifying organization in your area. In WNC, for example, it’s the Green Building Council. We hold HBH orientation classes every other month for builders, designers, homeowners, and anyone else interested in learning about the program. The idea here is for the project to be conceived in the context of HBH from the beginning. At this stage, the checklist is basically a design aide. Once a project is far enough along in the design process, the architect or builder meets with us to go over the checklist and register the project. We review the plans, makes suggestions, and help in any way we can. The next step is to hire a certified home energy rater. The rater will perform a computer energy model to determine the theoretical performance of the planned building. This step is designed not only to determine where the building will fall within the rating system but to identify possible changes to the design that will allow improvements in the building’s efficiency. Once the house is under construction, the energy rater will perform three onsite inspections (framing/HVAC, insulation, and final). After the inspections, project documentation is turned in to us. We check over it and then send it to the state for final certification. The homeowner then receives official certification and a variety of documentation including a list of their house’s “green” features, performance statistics including energy efficiency, money savings, and pollution averted, all in comparison to the present norm.

Personally, I think the real stroke of genius in the HBH program is that it is built on Energy Star, an inspection-based federal program. The Energy Star inspector was already going to the site to inspect for a variety of thermal efficiency issues, so why not get them to check on other building features at the same time? The result is a robust program that produces real building improvement at a very reasonable price.

Of course I agree. Our fees for administering a project are very low and are based on the size of the building. The fee for a building less than 1,200 square feet is only $100 and it goes up from there to $500 for anything over 6,000 square feet. Energy raters usually charge something like 30 cents per square foot of building with a minimum charge. The whole process runs between$750 and $1,500.

From my point of view, though, tabulating fees isn’t a good measure of the cost of certification. Since many of the HBH improvements will save you money over time, the question really is can you afford not to get certified. Increased energy efficiency means lower energy bills, less maintenance means fewer repair bills, and better indoor air quality means fewer doctor bills. In fact, some power companies offer discounts on your monthly bill for HBH certification, so the payback can start immediately

I know that you’re biased, but do you think the program is a success? How would you improve it?

We’ve worked hard on this program and accomplished a lot in a short time. The number of certified and registered buildings is growing at an impressive rate. One thing that I’ve noticed that really excites me is that first time HBH contractors almost always improve their certification level on their second project. For example, from certified on the first home, to bronze or silver on the second. Since we see our role primarily as educational, that statistic alone seems to me like a great measure of success. Our goal isn’t simply to certify homes, we want to be part of building a sustainable industry. We are setting up a system and then letting it loose for market driven businesses to take it where it needs to go. I think it’s working. Of course, we can always improve. I’d like for us to update the checklist even more often. I’d like to increase our educational outreach. I really think that every new home should be enrolled in the program. It just makes sense. I think that the strength of the green building movement is that there is something in it for everyone. Environmentalism is often perceived as forcing people to give something up. Involvement in HBH creates the opposite result. The homeowner gets a better house, the builder gets a certified product that is easier to sell, and we all get the benefits of reduced pollution and better natural resource management. It’s win, win, and win some more.

To learn more about the Healthy Built Home program, contact the WNCGBC:

Phone: 828.254.1995

Email: info@wncgbc.org

Web: www.wncgbc.org

For more info on EarthCraft, contact South Face Energy Institute:

Phone: 404.872.3549

Email: info@southface.org

Web: www.earthcrafthouse.com

Building Fundamentals: Thoughts on Picking a Place to Build

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Unless you live under a rock on another planet whose sentient inhabitants have developed advanced anti-BS technology and the ability to block HGTV, you’re just about sick of the word “green” right now. With green oil companies, green Wal-Mart, and even green warfare (I shitake you not!), it’s enough to drive a rational person to pledge allegiance to another color. Alright, before we start the chartreuse revolution, let’s take a deep cleansing breath and get back to basics. Why green instead of blue or pink?

The answer is plants. You bring sun, soil, water, and air together and you get plants. Green plants. Underneath the hype, spin, and snake oil lies the simple profound concept that we live on a little magic rock that maintains a self-sustaining balance between a complex matrix of variables that together produce the color green…and LOTS of it. Any process or product purporting to be “green” is claiming to be conscious of and in some way in synch with this natural perpetual motion factory, this Green Machine.

A green building, then, is a building designed to work in concert with its natural surroundings. Admittedly, this is a complex undertaking that requires a lot of give and take, especially in the context of a “modern building” that is called upon to support a complex and demanding indoor lifestyle. Still, the most fundamental component of a green design is how the building interacts with the Green Machine manifested on the piece of land on which it sits. In fact, choosing the land and siting the building are more fundamental than the building itself because the building can be designed to fit the land, not vice versa.

Given this reality, what should you look for when buying a piece of land or choosing a building site for a green building project? Here’s my list of the top five things to consider:

  1. Sun. The sun’s path through the sky changes in a regular progression through the course of a year. For our region, the summary is that it hovers low in the southern sky during the winter and spends a lot of time high overhead in the summer. In our climate, a well chosen building site can provide considerable direct solar heat in the winter, solar generated electricity and hot water for much of the year, and protection from the sun’s heat in the summer. A poorly chosen site can produce the exact opposite results, changing the sun from your best friend into your worst enemy. In the mountains, this effect can be exacerbated. A northern ridge can create a situation where a section of land is completely (and frigidly) shaded for three months during the winter while a contiguous section enjoys full solar exposure. Luckily, it isn’t difficult for someone with simple equipment and a little training to create an accurate analysis of how the sun will interact with a given piece of land.
  2. Water. Water evaporates off bodies of water, falls to the ground as snow or rain, and then flows over or under the ground coming to rest in a body of water for the process to start all over again. This Ferris wheel called the hydrologic cycle is the ultimate recycling program and is a poignant manifestation of the old saying “what goes around comes around”. In green building, our goal is to redirect and use water as needed without affecting it adversely. Our first consideration is planning for the water that will fall on the land. Rainfall in our region varies widely. For example, the annual average for precipitation in downtown Asheville is 37 inches. Fifty miles away at Lake Toxaway, the yearly average is 92 inches!  Atlanta weighs in at about 50 inches. The amount of rainfall your building encounters can have an effect on a number of decisions from building materials, to water collection strategies, to garden and planting designs. For this reason, it’s important to research the rainfall profile for your specific location. Next, we need to consider how water flows over the land which means analyzing the existing contours and how they relate to potential building sites. Another consideration is finding a clean source of water for domestic use. The options are raincatchment, a spring, a well, or a municipal source. Where I live, for example, we were able to access a spring high enough above the house site that gravity creates sufficient water pressure. The result is a free, clean source of water that requires no pumps or external power source. Finally, we need to consider how to responsibly return the water we use to the hydrologic cycle.
  3. Wind. Wind can be used to generate electricity, though in our region residential projects rarely muster the requisite conditions (including enough cash) to make this practical. For the most part our concerns about wind will be focused on protecting the building from cold winter winds, exposing it to cooling summer breezes, and utilizing design and construction methods that will allow it to withstand the worst storms expected on the site. Unfortunately, air movement is the most site specific and unpredictable of the natural forces. Especially in the mountains, the only really accurate way to assess wind patterns is to chronicle the wind over an extended period of time, ideally at least a year. This can be done either by living on site or by installing a device called an anemometer. However, knowledge of regional patterns combined with common sense and some experience can go a long way toward understanding how wind on a given piece of land might interact with a planned building.
  4. Earth. So far we’ve looked at forces that operate on the land. Now, we turn to the land itself. We need to look at the shape, contour, and constitution of the earth to consider how a building might best nestle in to and be supported by it. We need to look for materials on site that might be useful, such as stone, timber, and clay. Perhaps most importantly we need to analyze the state of the existing natural balance, the Green Machine, and determine how best to partner with it. In urban settings, this process can be a lot more fun because the land has often been devastated by human intervention. The building project in this situation can be an act of repair. In a more pristine setting, construction will almost certainly be destructive to the natural order, so careful thought needs to be put into creating a long term positive out of an initial negative.
  5. Access. Roads are disruptive and expensive. If you’re building in the mountains, quadruple that sentiment. In the context of a green building project, the rule is simple: the shorter the road, the better. This can be counterintuitive because the first impulse is often to head for the ridge and that panoramic view. In many situations, there are simply better places to build…and by better I mean more pleasant and beautiful in addition to more practical.

If this all sounds complicated, it is. In fact, these basic parameters, along with others, come together to create an intricate matrix. What’s more, decisions made at this point have long reaching effects. For example, in a matter of minutes, a bulldozer will expose soil layers built up over millions, perhaps billions of years. The decision to move that soil is a decision to make a, for all practical purposes, permanent change to the make-up of that piece of land.

Don’t let that daunt you, though. The good news is that at this point in your project no decisions and therefore no mistakes have been made. Relax and enjoy the possibilities. I’m writing about this topic this month because this is the best time of year to be analyzing land for a green building project. It’s easier to get a picture of year round solar exposure when the leaves are off the trees and it’s easier to walk through the woods before the understory sharpens its thorns for the spring. If you’ve got land or are looking for land, now’s the time to put on the hiking boots. One word of advice: get some professional help. Our company offers land analysis services as do a number of other qualified professionals in our area. The stakes are simply too high to go it alone. Remember, the Green Machine is watching.

Building Fundamentals: Expanding the Concept of Health

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

My father-in-law just turned 80 and he shows no sign of slowing down. One of his favorite sayings is, “If you’ve got your health, the rest takes care of itself.” That about covers it, don’t you think? Like many truths, it’s easy to grasp and often difficult to do.

I’m sure that’s always been the case, but I wonder if it’s truer now more than ever. These days the discussion encompasses not only our own health, but the health of the planet itself. Wherever you come down in the spectrum of present environmental debates, I think that most would agree that we humans are adept at creating change, but inept at predicting the consequences of that change. Take the automobile, for example. Could anyone have imagined the effect that single invention would have on the entire planet? I’m sure it seemed like a great idea in those heady early days of its inception. No more cleaning up after your horse, and you got to wear those cool goggles and scarves, too. Now, in the heyday of the car, I’m just not sure that the convenience of sitting in traffic with everyone else twice a day to get to and from a windowless office that’s too far from your house is really worth all the pollution, expense, and shady political petroleum shenanigans. Honestly, I’d give a fortune in tree-shaped, Pina Colada air fresheners for a single decent bike lane.

I think one of our big problems is that we’ve come to confuse comfort and convenience with health. There’s no section of modern society where this malady is more prevalent than in our approach to buildings. For example, I grew up in Texas in the generation that transitioned from open windows and ceiling fans to “A/C 24-7, baby”. When the temperature was topping 100 degrees, that air conditioning sure felt great, until you walked outside and nearly fainted from the contrast. Not to mention that the net result was the adding of heat to the ambient air due to the realities of mechanical evaporative cooling. When you combine that fact with the effects of replacing plants that naturally bring air temperatures down with asphalt, concrete, and reflective skyscraper windows that have the opposite effect, what do you get?: Business men and women wearing wool suits in the summer to hazard frigid office buildings with questionable indoor air quality while the ambient temperature in the city climbs up to 10degF higher than in the surrounding countryside. (It’s called the “heat island effect” and is well documented.)

In other words, in our search for cool, we actually created heat and a questionable environment for health. If you’re not convinced, just stand in the middle of a busy city on a summer day and ask yourself if the forest that used to be there wasn’t a healthier environment. Though it’s seldom stated explicitly, I believe that the central tenet of the present green building groundswell is based on this idea. In fact, my one sentence definition of green building is “creating a healthy indoor environment without adversely affecting the outdoor environment.” If maintaining personal health is harder than it sounds, then this is even harder. I know that’s true because we, the pinnacle of evolution and the inventors of both spray cheese and the “virtual pet”, seem unable to get a handle on it. I’m here to help with some concepts that I find basic to creating buildings that support health both indoors and out.

Think Small

Here’s a riddle: how do you make the most efficient building in the world more efficient? Answer: make it smaller. That’s because though we may someday find a way to create resources or reduce pollution through our built environment, for now the simple fact is that our lives create pollution, waste, and natural resource depletion. Presently, we simply have to settle for a reduction in our adverse effects. On the physical plane, reduction means less, and less means smaller. Let’s not stop with buildings. Move closer to work to shorten your drive. Eat local to reduce transportation and packaging. Skip every other heartbeat…okay, I haven’t worked out the details on that one, but you get the idea.

Passive Then Active

In this context, passive and active represent two strategic approaches. Passive strategies interact directly with forces of nature to achieve a goal. Active strategies change a natural force into some other form to get a desired result. A sailboat is passive, setting a sail in the path of the wind to generate movement. A powerboat is active, burning organic fuels to run a motor to accomplish the same thing. Given any goal, we should always maximize passive possibilities first, then supplement that result with an active approach to reach the desired goal. In buildings, that means maximizing insulation and designing to let the sun in when we want it and keeping it out when we don’t to create the most advantageous interior temperatures first, then adding mechanical heating and cooling to tweak as needed. It means open windows before ceiling fans, and ceiling fans before air conditioners. It means water filters before chlorine and a paradigm shift to see the water leaving our buildings not as “waste water” but as “nutrient rich plant food” and all organic “waste” as useful compost. I could go on, but the point isn’t memorizing a list, but putting the concept into practice every day. Think of it as a mantra.

Do Not Poison Yourself, Your Family, or Your Friends

Let’s face it we’re awash in chemicals. The modern world is one big testing lab and we’re the mice. We mice need to band together and take over the lab. The first step is becoming aware of what’s in the things we put into our bodies and in our houses. As usual, that can be harder than it sounds and will require some level of compromise. The best strategy is to buy locally sourced stuff from local people because then we can verify quality, ingredients, and methods. If it’s not made locally, we should still buy it locally and give our merchants the following simple mandate: “We want the least toxic alternatives and we are willing to pay for them.”

Support Innovation

Let’s cut to the chase. There is no simple and no single way to create healthy indoor environments that support healthy outdoor environments. Modern life makes unique demands on buildings and every climate has its own idiosyncratic trials. In Florida, a big challenge is dealing with heat and humidity while creating good indoor air quality with minimal energy expenditure. In Michigan the analog is keeping warm with good indoor air quality and minimal energy expenditure. In our region, it’s a combination of both. There is no shortage of ideas and options, but each one represents an innovation from standard practice. The construction industry and government code system is by definition conservative and slow to change; therefore, there’s great inertial incentive to go with the flow or make minor incremental adjustments. As a result, a lot of what is labeled today as “green building” is basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The answer is for the consumer, i.e. you and me, to support innovation. To be a part of the solution, we all have to share responsibility and be willing to take a few chances, maybe make a few mistakes. My new bumper sticker: Ask For Innovation.

Live Outdoors

If all of this sounds complicated, don’t forget the old school approach, popular with plants and animals everywhere: be outside. Turn off the machines and go outside. I know that sounds simplistic, even preachy (especially since I’m sitting indoors typing on a computer right now), but once you get past that reaction it’s really a radical notion. Walk somewhere that you usually drive. Make outdoor cooking the default. Sleep outside. These and similar simple steps will not only improve our personal health (fresh air and exercise: duh) but, I believe, they are essential research toward understanding what ails the planet. For example, walking or riding a bike in an area colonized by cars is a transformative experience. It’s like being thrown into a tank full of sharks, only yesterday you were the shark. Your reptile brain will generate the following report: walking and bikes good, cars bad. In other words you can know something with your mind, but to understand it, you have to feel it with your body.

Oops, I see that I’ve well exceeded my monthly word ration, so it’s time to close. The point, in summary, is that a holistic concept of health has to encompass our bodies, our buildings, and our planet. As with our personal health, the key is in learning the basics and then acting responsibly. When it comes down to it, your health is my heath, our health is their health, and everyone’s health is built on the health of the planet itself. Of course, that brings us back to the same old conclusion that bears repeating until we finally get it: we’re all in this together.

�d�sa��xm�n style=’color:#3366FF’>www.zedfactory.com

  • Passive House Institute:  www.passivehouse.us
  • The Living Building Standard (No credits, just prerequisites.  It’s about what you did good, rather than being about what you did less bad.):  http://www.cascadiagbc.org/lbc

Building Fundamentals: Engineering Fundamentals

This interview by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

I moved to this region about 15 years ago because I thought it would be a better place to set up a homestead. I was looking for mountain spring water and milder temperatures than my Texas home. I found both, but the longer I’ve been here, the more I’m amazed by the people who live here, especially the ones I meet in my work in the world of “green building”. For my next few columns, I’m going to interview one of these local founts of wisdom on some aspect of all things green. This month, I talked with local mechanical engineer Jeff Buscher:

You and I are old enough to remember that ancient time before “green building” was a household word. How did you first get involved in the field?

I was studying architecture and engineering at Kansas State University when I read the book “Ecotopia” in an elective philosophy class. I remember it as a turning point for me. I started focusing on energy efficient technologies and sustainable practices in whatever way I could. After graduation, I worked for a large commercial engineering firm in Dallas for a number of years. It was frustrating because I kept pushing for sensible energy efficiency measures, putting them into designs only invariably to have them taken out at some point due to shortsighted reasoning, such as short-term construction cost reductions over long-term operating cost savings, let alone considering the additional environmental benefits. I finally decided to put my money where my mouth was and move to a smaller firm identified with green principles.

You and I have been working together for a while and I’ve come to really value your perspective. You’re unique in my experience because you combine an expansive knowledge of complex technology and technical methods with an interest in simple technologies, such as those commonly referred to as “natural building”. Given that novel perspective, what do you see as the important issues for “green building” enthusiasts to focus on?

First of all, we’ve got to face reality. The conventional construction world is in the grip of two dangerous forces: ignorance and inertia. Ignorance because efficiency has only been a concern for one generation.  We’re all still learning the best way to do this, but frankly, many building professionals aren’t educated as to even the most basic, common sense issues of building science. Inertia because to make money and avoid getting sued it makes sense to keep doing the thing that worked the last time. In other words, the construction industry is wary of innovation and slow to change. Real innovations tend to come from small companies that are light on their feet and driven through passion to do interesting things. Even in the “green building” industry most people are content to build to code. Forget codes. Building to code is the bare minimum acceptable to avoid being fined for breaking the law. To get where we need to be, we should be building at least two times in excess of current code mandated insulation levels. By achieving that level of performance we can significantly downsize or eliminate heating and cooling systems and make zero net energy buildings financially feasible. [Note: Zero Energy Design (ZED) can be defined as designing buildings that produce as much or more energy than they use.] ZED has been possible and achieved for decades. It’s not technically all that difficult to do.  It’s rare because it requires more design effort, and with current solar prices it costs a little more up front.  However,  the long-term benefits are huge. The question today is whether we can afford not to do it.

ZED is just barely starting to make it onto the mainstream radar. I think to a lot of people it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Can you shed a little light on the steps to move from conventional construction practices to ZED?

Well, it’s true that there is some high-tech involved, but many of the steps are old school. These concepts have been around for millennia.  First, we start with the land. Maximize what you can get from the building site and the surrounding area. Work with the sun for passive solar heating and cooling. Collect water on the site. Use as many materials from as close to the site as possible. Next, we need to stop building these light, expendable, giant boxes that pass for houses, office buildings, malls, what have you. We need more insulation and more mass. Insulation is a common concept for most people, but mass not so much. Adding heavy, dense materials (mass) adds to temperature stability and longevity of a building. This is a common approach in Europe, but we’ve missed the boat here.

In our climate, by creating a highly insulated building, you can drastically reduce the heating load, and by using a lot of mass you can potentially avoid mechanical cooling to keep the building comfortable. When compared to complex mechanical systems, insulation and mass are inexpensive and, once installed, they don’t require any additional input of energy to do their job. Past a certain threshold of load reduction, current “alternatives” such as solar electricity (PV), wind generators, solar hot water, and waste heat recovery start to become the sensible default solution rather than a luxury. This is where engineering becomes pivotal. Through energy modeling and integrating systems design with passive aspects of the building’s performance (insulation, mass, solar heating and cooling), we can create buildings that require only a fraction of the energy and resources to build and run compared to present common practice in this country.

The single variable that has the most effect on a building’s energy and resource efficiency is it’s size, so another major component of this strategy is to build smaller. Finally, we have to stop looking at our buildings as islands and start seeing them in their social context. A small, energy efficient eco-cottage is still missing the point if it’s part of a lifestyle that requires a two hour daily commute. Mixed use. Co-housing. Go local.  Live where you work.  Eat where you live. We should be designing to make driving less convenient and walking, and biking more convenient. I’m a big fan of the New Urbanism movement and recommend that people read up on it.

I’m with you on all of this, but one thing that makes me a bit nervous is our increasing dependence on complex technology. I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer, but now I find myself spending more and more time in front of a computer whose inner workings are a complete mystery to me. That makes me fundamentally uneasy. What’s your take on the possibility of taking technology too far?

Obviously, that’s a danger. However, my personal feeling is that we need to find a way to solve our environmental problems while maintaining some level of the “comfort zone” that modern humans have become accustomed to. Technology can be a very useful tool in that context.  For example, in our climate, humidity is extreme. Around here, there is no way to create stable indoor humidity levels without some level of mechanical equipment. For me, the fun is in finding ways to limit and simplify the technology required to solve problems like this. I’m working on it, and I know others are too, so stay tuned.

To find out more about what Jeff thinks about, check out his blog at www.thinkorthwim.com and check out these sources of information that he recommends:

  • Walkable towns:  www.ecotownz.co.uk
  • Andrés Duany’s talk about how to avoid suburban sprawl:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysoth-DYs78
  • ZED Architects in the UK:  www.zedfactory.com
  • Passive House Institute:  www.passivehouse.us
  • The Living Building Standard (No credits, just prerequisites.  It’s about what you did good, rather than being about what you did less bad.):  http://www.cascadiagbc.org/lbc

Footloose and Carbon Free: The Passive House Standard

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Okay, by now everyone has gotten the “human induced global climate change” memo, right? If not, here’s the executive summary: We burn a lot of fuel for heating, cooling, manufacturing, generating electricity, and driving stuff around. That burning releases carbon dioxide (CO2). As CO2 levels increase, the atmosphere basically traps more solar heat, causing temperatures to rise. The dynamics of all this are pretty complicated and the details are debated, but there is a frighteningly solid majority of climate scientists who agree that we need to drastically reduce emissions of CO2 (and other “greenhouse gases”) if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

In the US, our buildings are responsible for about 50% of our carbon footprint. Therefore, if we take this somber warning seriously, we need to do a major overhaul of how we build…and fast. Luckily, since carbon emissions come from energy use, the solution is simply to use less energy, something that saves money, reduces pollution, and makes us more self-reliant. That’s right, it’s patriotic, baby!

The concept is really pretty simple. First, we greatly improve the efficiency of the building itself. We do that by reducing heating and cooling demand by increasing insulation levels and carefully sealing up air leaks. We then install a nifty device called an energy recovery ventilator which allows us to bring in fresh air with only minimum energy loss. Next, we focus on the sun, letting it in the winter for heat and blocking it in the summer for cooling. We also add  interior thermal mass to help store this energy. Finally we choose the most efficient systems, including mechanicals, appliances, lights, and anything else that uses energy.

If we do all of this right, we can reduce heating and cooling loads by 90% over the norm and cut electrical consumption by at least 70%. At this point, we’ve significantly reduced the carbon emissions associated with our building. However, to reach carbon reduction benchmarks based on climate science predictions (translation: to save the world as we know it, yeah!!) we need to go even further. We have to make all of the energy our building needs without releasing carbon, which basically means without burning fossil fuels (coal and petroleum). No big deal. Solar, wind, and hydro electric power are all available options. What’s more, our energy demand is so low now, these systems can be much smaller and therefore more affordable.

To go all the way, we need to make enough surplus renewable, non-carbon emitting energy to offset the carbon emissions produced to build the building, even to make the solar panels and other renewable systems we have installed. If we do all of this, we have reached carbon neutrality. In other words, our building is not involved in carbon emissions and is therefore doing its part to avert “human induced climate change” (see memo…you did get the memo didn’t you?) What’s more, the building will cost almost nothing to run and will have wonderful indoor air quality.

What’s the catch? Well, though the concept is simple, the application isn’t. First of all, when we get to this level of energy efficiency, some of our typical building components are woefully inadequate. For example, conventional windows and doors are just sieves for heat and air loss. Though high performance fenestration is available, it’s very expensive. In addition, the tiny air leakage allowable to make this work is simply outside the experience of US builders. Very careful attention to a variety of construction details is required, often using tapes and gaskets that are hard to find for sale in this country. There are other difficulties, all of which have to do with money. Though these buildings cost considerably less in a lifecycle analysis, the fact is that it simply costs more money upfront to save money, energy, and carbon emissions in the long wrong.

Luckily, if we want to move in the direction of carbon neutral construction, and I feel we have to, there are sensible, proven methodologies already in existence. The one I like the best is a certification program called Passive House. There are many thousands of buildings that have been built to this standard and performance monitored throughout Europe, mostly in Germany, though almost none to date in the US. The Passive House standard is laughably simple to grasp. You are allowed a given amount of heating and cooling energy per square foot of building as well as a defined rate of allowable air leakage. You then have to design a building envelope (basically insulation and air leakage strategy) and mechanical system that will perform at that level regardless of the climate in which you live. In other words, you can’t take a common “out” popular in the US green building movement: build a low efficiency building then attach a huge, expensive solar electric system that provides 25% of a large household energy demand and call it efficient.

The Passive House standard is administered in the US by the Passive House Institute US. These wonderful folks are hard at work training consultants, certifying buildings, helping to import or develop requisite materials, and educating the public. For more information, visit their web site at  www.passivehouse.us . If you want to see the process up close, we are hoping to build a Passive House certified building in West Asheville starting later this spring. To find out more, go to our project website at www.thenauhaus.com.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Me In Community

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Remember the Wizard of Oz? For you youngsters, it’s the story of a young teen who is bummed about her scene. Based on an irresponsible article in High Times magazine, she eats some moldy bread and has a bad trip. After a rough night filled with singing imps, neurotic talking animals, flying monkeys, a good witch, a bad witch…all the basic Jungian archetypes, she decides to finish high school and go to business college.

Most analysts dismiss this tale as a cheesy piece of anti-drug propaganda, but I’ve always seen something deeper. To me, it’s a modern parable about the search for community. I know because I’ve lived it. About twenty years ago, I too was bummed about my scene. I had friends, a solid love relationship, a nice place to live, and even time for creative pursuits, but I still felt alone somehow. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my aloneness because the topic seemed to be a mainstay of every party and pot luck. Though there were many variations, the central theme was that the modern world was too big, impersonal, competitive, and alienating. We wanted more cooperation, communication, and connection with people around us. We longed for the return to some hypothesized village paradigm. In short, we wanted community.

After the requisite false starts, wrong turns, and utter disasters, I did eventually get involved in the creation of a small “intentional community” in which I’ve lived for the past ten years. Based on these experiences here is my top four list of things to think about when searching for that special social nest:

1. Moral Cloning. Imagine yourself in a group of people who share your identical interests and opinions. You eat the same foods, read the same books, have the same hobbies, and chew the same gum. Come on, be honest. That sounds horrible doesn’t it? Even if you could stand it, what would you learn there? Also, as a group you’d have clear strengths, but also incredible weaknesses. Now imagine a group of people who run the gamut of opinions, skills, and experiences, but still consider themselves a community. Get that going, and you’ll be on Oprah in a week, baby.

2. Consensus or Not to Consensus. After watching the winner take all football game that is U.S. electoral politics, the benefits of consensus decision making seem obvious. These days gaining the 20% of the vote (52% of the 40% of eligible voters who actually vote) is considered a “mandate” to do whatever your heart desires. Still, in a small group with limited time to devote to decision-making, the problem often isn’t agreement but actually getting things done. If someone is willing to volunteer to spearhead building maintenance or garden planning, for example, not scaring them off the task might be more important than everyone getting exactly what they want.

To take the argument a step further, if you find yourself in the position of starting a community initiative of some kind, make as many unilateral decisions as you can at the outset. We modern westerners aren’t very good at this community stuff. It’s hard enough for us to get along under a defined social structure. Asking us to make up the rules as we are trying to work out interpersonal dynamics is really pushing the envelope.

3. There Are Bad Questions. Is your idea of a perfect summer day sitting in a meeting discussing gravel prices? If not, then community may not be for you. Community means meetings, so do yourself a favor and get good at having them. I once suffered through a couple hours of a community meeting in which the group discussed what might be the law pertaining to a non-profit paying property taxes. Regardless of what your third grade teacher told you, this WAS a bad question because our opinions and theories had no access to the actual factual law in question. Be boring: have an agenda and stick to it, use Robert’s Rules of Order, set time limits.

4. Wherever You Go, There You Are. In my work, I often consult with people who have  just bought land in the area and are planning on moving here to build their dream homestead. As they outline their plans, they invariably describe the bad things about their present life and the good things they imagine for the new life they are beginning. It’s as if they will leave the bad behind and pack only the good for the move. Of course, life doesn’t work like that. You need idealism to fuel changes, but too much will catch your dreams on fire. In my opinion the quickest way to kill community is to expect it to solve your problems. If you are thinking more about what you’ll get than what you’ll give, you might be headed for problems.

As for my own situation, though it was hard work and there were rocky times, things seemed to have settled out nicely in our little community. We don’t have many meetings anymore and I often don’t see some neighbors for long stretches of time, but regardless there is a strong feeling of camaraderie that I feel with everyone in the group. When I analyze our situation, though, we really haven’t created a unique infrastructure or made any inroads into changing typical social patterns.

In fact, after all of the time and work I’ve spent on this project, I think the main thing that is different about my life now as compared to 10 years ago is my own attitude. I seem to be better able to empathize, cut people slack, and accept my own limitations. I’m even making inroads into forgiving myself for all the mistakes and miscalculations I’ve made over the years. Maybe that’s a result of living in an “intentional community” or maybe it’s just the result of living a few more years on planet earth.

Upon reflection, I think the whole “intentional community” approach might be the long way around. If you accept my opinion that the ideal community would be made up of people with the broadest cross-section of opinions, skills, experience, and lifestyles who still thought of themselves as a community, then you have two choices: either start with the goal of community and work to find the group of willing people, or accept the group of people in which you find yourself (whether a neighborhood, school, or country) and work to create the will to be a community. Though I don’t condone the use of hallucinogenic bread mold, I think Dorothy had it right. You’re community is all around you. All you have to do is see it.

Notes from the Green Building Trenches: Should You Build Your Own House?

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.


Just let me vent for a minute. I’ve been having a little trouble with my brain, nothing serious or anything… just been forgetting things, blacking out, and feeling a strange compulsion to listen to ‘N Sync. Okay, so I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know I need brain surgery, right? Anywho, I’m a handy guy, so I’m thinking I’ll do it myself. I figure I can do a better job for less money and get the personal satisfaction to boot. I’m a careful dude, though, and after reading the pamphlets I’m not sure if I want to do it all myself, just assist in the operation, or simply run the hospital during the procedure. I decide to call a neurosurgeon for some pointers, right? I left four messages with different “doctors” explaining my situation clearly: I don’t have much money, I want to do as much of the brain surgery as possible myself, and I need it done immediately.  Would you believe it? Not ONE of them returned my calls. I guess they were too busy playing golf.
[Insert dream sequence music here.]

Insane, right? Out of touch with reality, eh? Interestingly, though, if we change the topic from brain surgery to house remodeling or other construction (and “playing golf” to “drinking beer at Hooters”), then this “rant” becomes a story I’ve heard repeated with a straight face by a number of people. But are the two really that different? How realistic is it for the average person to consider having a considerable role in the construction or remodeling of their own home? Where does this idea come from that we can do our own brain surgery…I mean house building?

The phenomenon is even more pronounced in my specific neck of the construction woods: “green” and “natural” building. I completely understand the impulse. In fact that’s how I first got involved in construction. I didn’t know a kerf from a smurf when I decided to build my own house. All I knew was that I wanted a house and I didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that modern houses were expensive energy hogs. They also often seemed like soulless, black-holes of emptiness…and then there was that bathroom wallpaper with seashells. It was all very confusing.

I set out to find a better way. I eventually built a house that is substantially heated by the sun for a fraction of the going square foot cost. Though my wife and I live and work there, our electric bill is usually less than $20 per month. We use less than 100 gallons of propane per year and have free water. By most standards, that’s very efficient. It’s also a beautiful place (though, like most owner-builts it’s not completely finished) and I have the personal satisfaction of having done it myself. This isn’t personal back scratching, just a testament to my credentials for making the following statement: Owner-builder beware. The road is potentially fraught with danger, stress, spousal unrest, and cramps in your check writing hand. I’m not saying you can’t do it, just be careful. The first step is to get real. Here’s a list of a few, from my point of view, popular myths that you should be aware of:

Myth #1: There are simple materials and techniques that can make house building accessible to everyone.

At some point in history regardless of your lineage, your ancestors built their own houses. People grew up involved in house building and repair and thus it wasn’t something to learn or study, it was a part of life. For most of us, those days are long gone. What’s more, a modern house is considerably more complicated than most of its forebears. I’m not talking fiber optics and heated towel racks here. Energy efficient construction, the hallmark of all environmentally conscious building, is a distinctly modern concept that requires careful design and attention to detail in construction. Even operable windows and doors are a complicated technology requiring a fair amount of skill to implement. The “simple” materials and techniques that people talk about (cob, cordwood, straw bale, etc.) are almost exclusively relegated to filling wall volume and as such just scratch the surface of the complex matrix that is a house.

Myth #2: “Natural” or “green” building is easier because it works with nature, using less complicated systems.

The evil genius of modern construction is the combination of mass-produced components with forced air HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). This allows you to replicate a design anywhere using the exact same quality-controlled components. The floor plan can be of basically any shape and size and the building situated unconsciously because the indoor air is “conditioned” and moved around mechanically. This is the lazy way, and we pay for it collectively with the pollution and resource depletion caused by its resulting profligate energy consumption. The better approach is to create a building that works with natural forces on the site (sun, water, and wind) to create a comfortable base interior environment. This approach is more subtle, takes more thought, and is less forgiving of mistakes. For example, you can replace a too small boiler with a bigger one, but you can’t move your house to take proper advantage of winter solar heat gain.

Myth #3: If you do it yourself, you’ll save money and get a better product.

This statement is part of the great CON-tractor vs. c-LIE-nt culture wars. The owner-builder variation is to make cost comparisons between owner-built and contractor-built houses without factoring in the cost of the owner’s labor. That’s just bad math. Every hour you spend on your house is an hour that you aren’t spending at a job that you know how to do. Unfortunately, beginning construction workers with your skill level earn low wages, don’t get paid vacations or holidays, and often don’t even have insurance. Moving from spending time at your job to grunting and groaning at your construction site is most likely a financial loss. In other words, it would be cheaper to pay someone with more skills to do the work while you earn cash to pay them. As for the quality of the product, when did you ever do a good job on anything the first time you tried it? Fundamentally, you have to ask yourself this question: do you really want to trust some clueless novice, i.e. you, with something as precious and practically fundamental as your own house.

In the end, the real question is about your goals. If you are looking for a vision quest, building your own house is a great one. Just realize that you’ll spend so much time (measured in years, not months) amassing knowledge and practical experience that the most practical outcome is that you’ll find a profession in the process. On the other hand, if you’re looking for the most cost-effective way to build the most environmentally conscious house that fits your needs, I strongly suggest making yourself part of a design and construction team that is dominated by experienced professionals. We’re not all CON-tractors, just like you’re not all c-LIE-nts.

Building Fundamentals: Building "Green" Beyond the Home

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

If you think about it, the “green” in green building refers to plants. Our health and survival depends on the color green in the form of a vibrant plant committee with which we coexist. That’s why it’s surprising to me how often a “green building” project doesn’t include a focus on the area around the building, the place for interaction with plants and the rest of the natural world. This month I sat down with permaculture and edible landscaping expert Chuck Marsh to discuss how we can reconnect with the area around our houses.

I went to my first permaculture event, a design course in Texas, about 20 years ago. Since then, it seems that permaculture has gained almost mainstream status as a design system. Still, I don’t often see it defined. From your point of view, what is permaculture?

Permaculture is an ecological design system for the creation of regenerative human habitats. “Regenerative” is a key word here. Sustainability means “to hold up”, to maintain. I think we’ve reached a point where that’s not enough. We have a higher calling than to maintain what is. We now need to build up, to reweave the web of life, to restore abundance and diversity to the landscapes and spaces that we inhabit. So, while many people think that permaculture is a gardening system, it is in fact a complete ecological design approach to craft how humans inhabit landscapes whether built, planted, or natural.

As I look at houses, whether they’re in the city or the country, new construction or older in a historic neighborhood, I’m struck by how little the area around the building is actually used. Few people grow food anymore or craft outdoor space that allows them to spend productive time outside. Can permaculture help us connect again with the world outside our front doors?

Everything we build, plant, or just leave alone is an element of our landscape. A central goal of permaculture is to foster relationships so that the yields of one element meet the needs of another. We want to create interdependence.

The house, then, is one piece of a whole system. It has all kinds of companions. Driveways, pathways, gardens, existing habitats, outbuildings, etc. Let’s take a central tenet of green building: energy efficiency. If we consider only the house, we’ll add insulation and energy efficient appliances, then consider the job done. But if we see the house in relationship to the landscape, we can find many more opportunities to conserve. For example, we can place trees for cooling, either through redirecting wind, establishing natural vortexes of air movement, or creating shade. We can also introduce plantings to block winter winds, therefore preventing heat loss in the building.

These same plants can provide food and be a natural habitat, in other words they are multifunctional and therefore can be part of a complex interplay between elements. This multi-functionality is also central to permaculture. So, for example, in addition to being a lane of passage, pavement or pathway surfaces can be chosen to add heating or cooling to the area around a house. In combination with plantings, they can provide both. A bird bath or garden pool can be placed at the right angle in the right spot to bring light and passive solar energy into the house while adding color variation and the magic visual combination of light reflected from water. These are just examples of ways that multifunctional landscape elements can work together to simultaneously create food, thermal efficiency, natural habitat, visual beauty and many other positive effects on the livability of both the interior and exterior environment.

Of course, we used to do this. Nobody had lawns until the beginning of the 20th Century. Instead, people had what were called “door yards”. This was an outdoor space whose center was the kitchen door. It was swept, not vegetated, and was the space where clothes were washed, meals cooked, and beans shucked. Chickens were kept here and fed recycled food scraps in exchange for eggs. Today’s patios are a poor representation, a non-functional replica, of these yards. I think there’s a desire to move back in the direction of useable outdoor space. You see it in high-end outdoor kitchens being included in large custom homes. We can do the same thing and much more at the lower end of the budget scale too.

What can people do to start the process toward reengaging with the area around their houses?

The first step is to throw out the idea of a “maintenance free yard”. Maintenance has gotten a bad rap, but essentially it means “to care for”. Maintenance is love. We need to be creating landscapes that draw us outside, that pull us into interaction. We need to lure kids away from computer generated magical landscapes to the real magic of the sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and tastes of the changing seasons.

How can we trigger this reengagement? The best way is through our mouths. That’s how we discovered the world as toddlers. Therefore, we start with edible plants. We place them along paths and in front of doors, places where people will naturally pass by and take a taste. Next, we intermingle plants and other elements that have different colors, different textures. We create an environment that engages all the senses as it changes through the seasons.

Fundamentally, I see the house as a place for refuge, safety, and nurturing, not for all human activities.  We are fortunate to live in a climate in which we can live comfortably outside for seven months of the year. By seeing the house as a single element of a larger landscape, we can shift many activities outside. Why, for example, heat up the indoors in the summer by cooking when an outdoor kitchen is both more enjoyable and comfortable during those months? Remember, too, that useable outdoor spaces are much cheaper to build than their interior counterparts.

The bottom line is that we need to transform our conception of outdoor environments from eye candy viewed through picture windows to functional spaces in symbiotic relationship with interior spaces. The result will be more efficient buildings, a more enjoyable lifestyle, and a reconnection with our true home, the earth.

Sidebar: Tips from Chuck

  1. Don’t place your house on your favorite spot. Doing so turns the sacred into the vulgar or common.
  2. Place your house consciously in the microclimate. For example, when building on a hill, site the building mid-slope. Ridge tops are windy and cold and basins are frost pockets.
  3. Avoid north, northwest exposure. Winter winds create convective heat loss in buildings. If there is no existing natural barrier, place outbuildings or windbreaks to block these winds.
  4. Start at your kitchen door and work outward. Gardens needing the most care should be near the kitchen. Once you’ve managed these, move outward.
  5. Make enjoyment easy. Place berry bushes and small fruited plants along paths and driveways so that you’ll pass by and graze.

CHUCK MARSH is a permaculture and edible landscaping/ecological land use teacher, designer, and consultant.  He is the founder of Useful Plants Nursery and a co-founder of Earthaven Ecovillage, south of Black Mountain, NC, where he lives and grows.  He can be contacted by phone at 828.669.1759 or by email at marsh2246@bellsouth.net.