When we set out some six years ago to write this book, we had no idea if the concept would work. Could we really document the design and construction of a green-built cottage and write a book about the process that included enough theory and background to serve not only as a how-to manual, but also as a primer on the principles of green building? The answer, it turns out, is a resounding “yes!”
I make this bodacious claim of success based partly on the typical indicators: the book has sold and continues to sell very well, and we have amassed a number of positive professional reviews. However, for me the best evidence is that since its initial publication, we have received wonderful letters and e-mails of praise from around the world. Common comments are that people find the writing accessible, they love the beautiful layout and plethora of color photos, they enjoy the interplay between green-building idealist (me) and the seasoned construction skeptic (Tim,) and they appreciate the careful design-through-finished-construction follow-through of the how-to approach.
The comment that we get the most often, however (and the biggest payback for our more than two years of hard work designing, building, and writing) is that the book is truly useful—useful not only for the extensive how-to construction sections, but for the realistic picture we paint of the process required to create an environmentally responsible building. This particular praise means the most to me because although it’s fun to walk into bookstores and find your work, it’s truly rewarding to see a tattered, dirt-smudged copy on someone’s bookshelf. An even bigger high comes from the photos we receive. I still feel like a granddad every time someone sends me a picture of something they’ve built that was inspired by our book.
To be fair, we’ve also gotten a bit of friendly constructive criticism, almost all of which can be summed up by the phrase, “Give us more!” One reader lamented the lack of specific illustrations of plumbing and electrical details for cob or straw-bale walls. Another wished for specifications for the heating and cooling systems that are appropriate partners for passive solar design. Yet another was looking for how-to details for larger and multistory buildings. In fact, to this day the questions continue to come in, each like a drop of water from the vast ocean of green building.
Honestly, I consider it a compliment when people consume a huge, fairly technical book and come away wanting more. I’d love to accommodate each and every reader, but here’s the problem: this book can’t get any longer and still stay in this incredibly affordable paperback version. At just over 600 pages, it’s in the largest binding possible.
What to do?
In partnership with our publisher, Lark Books, we racked our brains and came up with the solution of creating a Web update to the book. I’m excited about this because it means that (to adjust a common saying) we’ll be building two walls with one stone. In other words, we’ll be able to update the book without requiring that our readers buy a back brace to lift it, and we’ll also be creating the potential for a living document that will continue to grow, change, and be useful for many years to come. By spreading to a Web-based medium, we’ll also open up possibilities for reader input and sharing of information. Green building is a community enterprise in which we acknowledge our collective environmental predicament and work together to find solutions that will make life better for all of us. I’m excited that this book is taking a further step into this communal arena.
What’s the Same?
The Web update has another important advantage. It will allow the book itself to stay the same. I learned long ago that the old saying is true: the only constant is change. The materials, techniques, and construction details covered in this book will continue to change. Some will be perfected, and others abandoned. Such is life. That evolution is best chronicled in a more malleable medium such as the Web. My opinion, expressed often in these pages, is that materials and technologies are only tools. In fact, in my own work, I often find myself well outside the confines of the specifics presented here.
To me, the enduring value of this book isn’t in these details, but in the thought process and problem solving approach presented. In fact, that’s the core concept of the book. The design and construction decisions we illustrate in the project documented here are specific to our situation: our climate, local material palette, budget, intended building use, and a variety of other variables. Your situation will be different, and therefore your solutions will need to be adjusted to those differences.
Obviously, in a mass-produced book, we can’t help you with those specifics. What we can do is give you the tools to solve problems and to design creatively to find your own solutions. This doesn’t mean that the extensive how-to photo sequences and the beginning-to-end documentation of the design and construction of our cottage won’t continue to be of practical value. Far from it. However, by having a Web resource that reflects innovation and changing times, we’ll be able to leave the soul of the book intact. It’s that soul—that functional core—to which most readers’ comments have referred. I’m happy to be able to leave it be.
The goal of green building is to create healthy indoor environments that contribute to the health of the outdoor environment—also known as “Planet Earth.” As such, green building is an inherently practical activity. The process is to theorize, design, and then build. The fun, reward, and value of green building are in its inherent mandate for results—the inseparable marriage between thought and action. For this reason, a useful resource on green building has to give readers a solid introduction to both the theory and the praxis—the hands-on how-to—of green building. We designed this book to fit that bill.
In Part One, we start with a primer. First, we take a look at what goes into making a house—any house. We discuss concepts such as structure, building loads, thermal mass, insulation, and more. From there we move on to outline some strategies for manifesting these basics in sensible ways. It’s here that we start to take issue with how modern houses are being constructed, and learn the advantages gained by simply taking responsibility for the specifics of your own housing. For example, though your local contractor and city planner seem to overlook it, you can harness the largest power source known to humanity to help heat, cool, and power your house for free and in perpetuity. It’s called the sun, and in this section, you’ll begin to see how easily you can incorporate the sun’s power into any home design.
Part One, then, is the fundamentals-and-theory section of the book. It begins with basic concepts and ends with the intricacies of design. In Part Two, we take this information and apply it in a real world situation: the design and construction of a small, efficient, carefully thought-out green building. In keeping with the principles introduced in Part One, our goal was to create a beautiful, affordable building with a focus on local and site-harvested materials. In addition, it needed to be configured in an energy- and resource-conserving package designed to last a long time while providing a healthy indoor environment.
The result is an inventive combination of a whole host of popular alternatives to conventional building practices incorporated into a small, fully functional cottage. Among the building’s many card-carrying green features and innovations are a gravel trench foundation; lightweight, insulated, concrete-stem walls (the waterproof walls that lift a building away from the ground); a simple and versatile post-and-beam framework; passive solar design; a practical living roof system; and both earth and lime plasters covering five different popular natural wall systems: straw-bale, cob, clay slip-straw, cordwood, and modified stick-frame. We carefully documented the entire design and construction process for the project in text, almost 1500 color photos, and more than 70 beautiful illustrations, which together make up the lion’s share of the book.
How to Use This Book
We conceived Building Green as a multifunctional resource. It can be used as a quick reference how-to guide for experienced builders unfamiliar with the basics of straw bale, cob, and other local and site-harvested materials; a how-to introduction for the novice looking to try something new; a pictorial chronology for anyone wanting to understand the basics of how a green building (any building, in fact) goes together; or even, as I’ve used it, as a college textbook on the theory and practice of green building.
Though it may be tempting to jump right in and start building something using only the how-to photo sequences as a guide, you should resist the urge. The concepts introduced in Part One are critical to the successful application of the building techniques in Part Two. With the basics under your belt, moving on to the how-to will go smoothly. Each how-to chapter starts with a discussion of materials and techniques within the context of the general concepts introduced in Part One before showing you how we applied those concepts—our thought processes, materials choices, and installation techniques laid bare in text, how-to photo sequences, and illustrations. As we’ve said, though, each site and every builder is different, so we end each chapter with an overview of some possible variations to the approach we chose. These are solutions that different climates, environments, builders, and building uses might engender.
Of course, we can’t begin to cover all the possibilities. That’s where the new Web resource comes into play. We’ve created an online resource that picks up where the book leaves off. Suffice it to say that it’s a place where we engage every aspect of green building that we couldn’t cover in detail in the book, including:
- Heating and cooling
- Renewable energy
- Composting and greywater
- Rain catchment
- Mass-produced building components
- Zero net energy and carbon-neutral construction
- U.S. and European certification programs
This list goes on and on, and will continue to grow. In addition, there’s a section for each book chapter that includes updates, innovations, comments, complaints, and anything else that we all, as the green building community, want to contribute on the given topic. There is also an extensive and updated reference section of links and other resources related to the world of green building, as well as information on what we’re up to and how to contact us. In the works are plans for interactive Web classes and other educational resources. In short, we are building a comprehensive, growing, interactive resource to reinforce and build on the foundation created by this book.
A strength of this book is the varied backgrounds of its authors. Tim Callahan is a master craftsman, having built everything from fine guitars and expensive yachts to custom timber-frame homes. He has extensive engineering and building system knowledge and, frankly, knows more about buildings than anyone I’ve ever met. He has also been a conventional building contractor and therefore has wide-ranging experience with the ins and outs of modern building techniques.
I, on the other hand, got into building from the natural/green/alternative end of the spectrum. I am experienced with a wide variety of green and conventional building materials and techniques; have researched alternatives to conventional construction for many years; have built my own passive solar, partly earth-sheltered home; and am the author of The Good House Book: A Common-Sense Guide to Alternative Homebuilding.
Tim and I designed this book’s cottage together with a lot of help from my wife, Lisa Mandle, who did everything from cob-wall sculptural and bottle design to the living-roof planting choice and layout. Tim was the structural engineer and was involved in much of the building process, including most of the more subtle woodworking. I was the main, day-in-and-day-out builder and technician on most of the “alternative” stuff. As for the book itself, I wrote the main text, while Tim contributed his perspective and passed on some valuable tricks of the trade by adding a number of special sidebars.
Tim’s encyclopedic knowledge, inquisitive nature, and road-weary skepticism about some “natural,” “green,” and “alternative building” claims were a great complement to my stubborn focus on innovation and my tarnished though still-kicking idealism. Together, our two perspectives combined to create a special building, and what we hope is a genuinely useful, helpful book.
After finishing this project, Tim and I started a design, consulting, research, and rabble-rousing network dedicated to the development of high-performance natural building systems. Find out what we’re doing at thinkgreenbuilding.com.
Keep it green!
About the Printing
Another important new feature of this revised edition is that it is now printed on recycled paper with agri-based inks. I applaud my good friends at Lark Books for “walking the talk.”