Simple Measures for Making Your Home More Green

Kelly Hart is your host here at greenhomebuilding.com, and has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. Kelly spent many years as a professional remodeler, during which time he became acquainted with many of the pitfalls of conventional construction. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation (he has a patent for a process for making animated films), video production and now website development. One of the more recent video programs that he produced is A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, which explores a whole range of building concepts that are earth friendly. Kelly is knowledgeable about both simple design concepts and more complex technological aspects of home building that enhance sustainable living. He has even designed and built a solar-electric car that he drives around his neighborhood. Kelly, and his wife Rosana, live in the earthbag/papercrete home that is profiled on the earthbag page. He is available, at a modest fee, for consulting about sustainable building design, either for remodeling existing structures to more fully embrace these concepts, or for new architectural designs.

Questions and Answers

Q: What can your average person do to make their home "greener"?

A: Much of green living has to do with conservation of energy use, so sealing obvious air leaks in the shell of the house, providing good insulation in the walls and ceilings, putting thermal curtains on windows in the cold season, replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent, and buying energy-efficient appliances are all fairly simple measures that conserve energy.

Q: What kinds of products do you recommend to people who want to infuse green products into their living spaces?

A: I have suggested some of these above, but I would like to emphasize that living "green" is more about consciousness than about "products". If you make it a goal to conserve energy, then you can develop habits of turning off lights that are not needed, etc.

Q: What are some comparisons between sustainable items and non-efficient items for your house?

A: compact fluorescent light bulbs vs. incandescent, solar space heating  vs. electric heating, solar water heating vs. gas water heating, solar electricity vs. grid electricity, front-loading washing machines vs. top-loading machines, clay paint vs. synthetic paint.

Q: I have a question about simply trying to keep our house a bit cooler on days when we are trying not to use the air conditioning. In our front bedroom upstairs, the afternoon sun pours in, heating the room to somewhat uncomfortable levels. We have the windows open to let any breezes in, but eventually I pull the shades all the way down to keep the sun and heat from pouring in. My wife likes to keep the shades up a bit to let fresh air in. I think with the shades up even a few inches that the little bit of sun coming in and bouncing off the wood floors heats the room up and that it is more important to keep the sun and heat out than to let fresh air in as it is more difficult to cool the house down once it warms up. Who's right in this situation?

A: Well, you are both right to some extent, but who is "more right" depends on various factors. First of all, it is really important that any air that comes in that window is able to replace the hot stagnant air in the room. In other words you need to have adequate ventilation above, through the attic and eventually back outside. If this is not the case, then you are probably right, it is likely better to eliminate the sun entering the room.

If you don't already have one, I recommend installing a "whole house" attic ventilation system that will force hot air our through vents in the attic space. This can make a big difference in the build-up of heat in a house.

Having light-colored roofing materials can also help reduce the heat that will enter your house.

West-facing windows are notoriously cookers in the summer. Under some circumstances you might even consider installing insulated shades on those window to block even more heat from entering. Then it is also possible to make air vents that will allow air to circulate from outside without letting the sun in at the same time.

Q: I am building an active adult community of several hundred houses on my farm (Virginia Berry Farm) on which I raised more container-grown fruit plants than anyone else for many years. We sold the business in 2007 but now are transforming it into a place for about 1,000 people to live. I would be very interested in your suggestions as to how to proceed. Am thoroughly familiar with building regulations, county government, construction, etc. It is in the creation of 5-8 story buildings, overlooking a forest, that my questions lie. I have lived in Amsterdam about 9 months of each year since 2,000 so have a lot of experience with conventional buildings.

A: Many of the natural building methods described at this website are not suitable for such tall buildings, but that doesn't mean that you can't employ some of the concepts for sustainable architecture advocated here. For instance, any building can be well-designed for passive solar heating and passive cooling, and employ aspects of water and energy conservation, even providing renewable electricity to some extent. Another aspect of sustainability that housing complexes such as what you are describing could easily employ is the sharing of facilities. Many such strategies are described here. There are quite a few manufactured building materials that can be used in the construction of taller buildings, and many of these are described here. All of these materials or techniques offer some sustainable advantage over conventional wood-framed construction.

Q: How can we make our normal homes green?

A: There are various ways to improve an existing home. Providing good insulation and sealing air leaks can save a lot of wasted energy. Adding windows to provide passive solar heat can help, as can adding thermal mass materials within the building to help absorb and hold that heat for use later when the sun is not shining. Attaching a solar greenhouse can not only provide additional heat for the home, but healthy produce as well.

Q: I am from Portugal where legislation and certification goes hard on buildings that go a bit off from general construction. I am mostly interested in eco foundations. Some builders here make some in stone and lime plaster, but they only build them after analyzing the type of soil we are working on, I am no engineer so I believe that people generally run away from that because of water capillarity (we do have a lot of rain in the winter here), but shouldn't or couldn't stone be used to avoid water from coming upwards, and even sideways, from the rain, even if it was used only for that purpose, of drainage or repelling water ? Allowing you to do an earthen metal frame kind of slab foundation on top ? This is very frustrating because I can find no company or engineers doing this kind of work and people generally say this is something very new, when in fact it's not..., most older buildings that were built upon traditional methods still stand nowadays and require little to no energy waste on heating and cooling but nobody is building this way anymore...

A: I agree with you that stone foundations can be one of the most sustainable and durable approaches. Actually rubble trench foundations that rely on cobble stones going down to the frost level at the site, with a possible French drain installed at the base to carry away excess water, were first proposed by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Q: In an undeveloped area which do you think would be the most effective strategy, having an eco building or automated ?

A: I would rely on ecological building to remain efficient and functional over time; technological solutions are more prone to failure.

Q:What are the most important strategies in designing a sustainable building?

A: Use local, natural and renewable materials; keep the scale as small as is appropriate for the use; design with passive solar heating and cooling in mind; employ renewable energy; design to conserve resources; use recycled or reclaimed materials where possible.

Q: How can biodiversity be done in this type of building?

A: Keep the footprint of the project small and employ underground or living roof plans to allow more space for other animals.

Q: Are there any building code restrictions on the use of green materials?

A: Most building codes do specify the use of common materials that are not necessarily green. However it is often possible to replace these with more sustainable choices, especially if an architect or engineer will attest to their worth.

Q: Is flexibility in design related to sustainability?

A: Yes indeed... it is always wise to remain flexible or resilient when designing for an unknown future!


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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.