Designing Your Affordable, Energy-Efficient, Eco-Friendly Home

by Dr. Owen Geiger

There's a huge groundswell of interest in living more lightly on the earth. On the one hand, conscientious homeowners want to pollute less and protect natural resources. But they also want to save money on construction and energy costs and still have a beautiful, safe and comfortable home. Whether you call it natural building, green building or sustainable building, the eco-friendly building techniques outlined here meet all of these goals and more.

In designing your dream eco-friendly home, perhaps the most important consideration is affordability. This requires a realistic evaluation of individual and family wants and needs. Building small and simple, only what you need, will save money and headaches every step of the way, including reduced long-term energy costs and maintenance. Building small and simple means fewer resources are consumed, resulting in a smaller energy footprint for your home. That's good for you and the planet.

Building affordably requires discipline and the right mindset. All too often people get swept away with ideas from home design magazines and luxury home tours. To build affordably and avoid budget creep during the building phase, put everything in writing and stick to the budget. Make a list of materials and then shop and compare prices. This one step alone, just a couple hours of effort, can easily save you $1,000 on a small home.

Do your research and plan meticulously. Every hour spent on planning will reduce problems (and unnecessary costs) later. Keep a careful eye on every detail. Even professionals make mistakes, so allow for delays and cost overruns. If you're not a professional builder, be doubly careful. It is heart wrenching tearing out mistakes and doing things over. There are thousands of small steps in building a home and many of them must proceed in a certain sequence. Being your own contractor and building your home as a do-it-yourselfer is a good way to cut costs, but again, do your research, learn as much as you can and plan judiciously.

Going low-tech is one of the easiest ways to save money. We're constantly bombarded with advertising claims that will supposedly improve our lives, when in reality they often complicate them. Scrutinize every product, every material that goes into your home. You may want to prioritize items that quickly pay for themselves. For example, we added vents in the gable end wall of our kitchen. (It's a hot climate, year-round.) Everyday hot air rises to the top of the cathedral ceiling and flows out the vents . for free. Our kitchen stays cooler, the air is fresher and the refrigerator doesn't work as hard. And soon, we'll be enjoying our outdoor kitchen that will keep most of the heat outside. These are but a few examples of working with nature to improve the design of your home.

Energy efficiency is another top concern. It's best to avoid the use of fossil fuels whenever possible. You never know when the price will skyrocket, or if supplies will be cut off in a crisis. Just ask anyone who's been through a blizzard, earthquake or major flood. There's a comforting feeling having 10 cords of wood on hand instead of worrying if the gas will get cut off in an emergency. The same is true with building a superinsulated home that uses solar energy for daylighting and space heating. Your home will be quieter and more comfortable and pleasant. Energy-efficient appliances pollute less as well as save you money year after year. Investing in a cool pantry and/or rootcellar are inexpensive ways to add valuable food storage areas that don't require electricity. And, like your budget, look at every detail closely - build wide roof overhangs to shade and protect your walls; orient windows in hot climates to pull prevailing breezes into the home; use an airlock entryway in cold climates to keep the cold out; and don't skimp on ceiling and floor insulation, weather strips and caulk, because they will pay for themselves faster than almost anything else you do.

You'll want to use safe, sustainable products and materials in your eco-friendly home. The ultimate goal is "do no harm." This requires investigating the embodied energy in the life cycle of each item - the amount of energy used for construction, production and transportation. Using locally available, low-impact natural materials will enhance aesthetics as well as reduce construction costs. These materials are ideally suited for owner-builders since they're easy to work with and they don't emit noxious fumes in your home like synthetic materials. Search for natural materials in your area that can replace costly and potentially harmful manufactured materials.

There are hundreds of ways to save money and beautify your home using natural materials. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Small diameter wood: U.S. forests are currently overcrowded with small trees. Selectively thinning these trees in a sustainable manner improves the health of the forest and reduces forest fires. For about $20, the cost of a firewood permit, you can gather this wood and use it throughout your home.
- Clay, sand, soil: Earth is probably the lowest cost, most environmentally friendly building material. Over 1/3 of the buildings in the world are earth structures, many of which have lasted hundreds of years. The soil at or near the building site can typically be used. Investigate earthbag building, adobe, cob, and earth floors and plaster for your eco-friendly home.
- Rice hulls, straw, lava rock, perlite, vermiculite and pumice: You can use these insulating natural materials throughout your home -- lava rock (scoria) or pumice in insulated foundations and under earth floors; straw bales in walls; chopped straw in earth plaster and earth floors; rice hulls in wall and ceiling insulation. All of these materials except straw can be used as fill material in earthbags to create an insulated earthbag structure.
- Stone: For timeless beauty and durability, use stone for hearths, foundations, floors, columns, countertops and decorative surfaces.
- Reeds, bamboo, thatch: These materials add a special touch by contrasting with other materials and softening their appearance. Rattan furniture is one of my favorites.
- Recycled materials: A thrifty builder will utilize recycled tile, sinks, tubs, doors, hardware, fasteners and many other components scrounged from jobsites and yard sales. And it doesn't have to look tacky. I once toured the home of an internationally known artist couple in Colorado that had recycled materials throughout - hardwood floors from a school gymnasium, rustic timber stairs and countertops made with pieces of slate blackboards. A neighboring artist used salvaged tile to create a stunningly colorful mosaic on their kitchen countertop, the most beautiful countertop I've seen anywhere.

Owen Geiger, Director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building and Kelly Hart have teamed up to create EarthbagBuilding.com and naturalbuildingblog.com to better focus and keep track of the rapid growth of this novel building method.


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