green home building resources
January 11, 2004 8:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in exploring options for building a "green" home, and I would like some advice about where to start. [more inside]

My partner and I are a couple of years away from buying our first home. Ideally, we’d like to build (or renovate) in a way that is sensitive to energy efficiency, environmental concerns, and ‘healthy home’ considerations. But a lot of the information we’re finding is really only applicable to wealthy folks who can afford to hire specialized architects and contractors. We won’t be able to afford the ‘ideal’ green home. So, where do we find information – and people – who can tell us what’s practical, affordable, etc.? We live in downtown Toronto, so resources geared towards urban spaces and northern climates would be especially welcome.
posted by stonerose to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Check with your state's cooperative extension. In Louisiana, they are in the process of developing the Louisiana House, which will provide information to homebuilders that is specific to the the Louisiana climate and environment.
posted by ajr at 8:36 AM on January 11, 2004

Have a look at homepower magazine. I would also be happy to put your request for info out on an alternative energy list I'm on, they are quite a few practical types on the list (I don't normally listen to them as I'm more policy oriented).
posted by biffa at 8:44 AM on January 11, 2004

If you struggle with finding local green energy sources, another option is to investigate carbon neutrality. I don't know of an American organization, but Future Forests in the UK will offset your carbon dioxide emissions by plating trees that you fund as one way to offset your emissions. In Britain there are also various options with major power companies to ensure you're being supplied from renewable sources. Our energy allocation is met by North Sea wind turbines. I don't know if American firms do the same, but it might be worth getting in touch with them to find out. Other things that spring to mind are investigating local recycling schemes and making sure your home is insulated up to the eyeballs. I know less about building green homes, but from an energy consumption point of view, the above suggestions are very real alternatives.

Strictly speaking, if you did want to offset your CO2 emissions, then there's no particular reason why any trees you wanted to plant would need to be anywhere near where you live.
posted by nthdegx at 8:59 AM on January 11, 2004

Here are a handful of ideas off the top of my head, which may or may not be covered by the other resources you find here and elsewhere:

Solar water heating will only be useful to you during that portion of the year which is not freezing. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing where you live has winters of ice and snow.

Find out if your local power monopoly permits you to generate some or all of your own power while "on grid." The energy savings here is moderate, but there is a powerful feel-good factor which may very well compel you to be more conscientious about your electricity use: keeping the needle hovering around net zero grid consumption is a potent motivator. If you can do it, design your energy generation into the house: solar and wind generation may not be substantially more "clean" on such a small scale (given manufacturing cost of generating equipment and batteries), but you will know for sure that the energy you use is having a minimal impact on the environment.

Look into environmentally friendly or recycled/reusable building materials. I have seen beautiful countertops made from salvaged slabs, and bamboo flooring is quite pleasing to the eye. Salvaged brick has an impressive look that the new stuff lacks. You may find lovely salvaged fixtures (although much is dreck). Bamboo construction materials may or may not be costly for you or approved for use, but use bamboo wherever you can. Think Reuse!

Bamboo is a cheap, rapid-replenishing source of material. Properly cared for, reinforced adobe is another strong and durable material, and it's pretty much just mud.

Insulate, insulate, insulate. It adds relatively little to the cost of new construction, but high-R insulation, windows, doors, and framing will really pay off in both comfort and energy savings.

Depending on how urban an area you select, you may be able to plant a tree or two. Good placement will keep the sun off your roof (eventually, once it grows to size) and reduce your cooling costs in summer. Plus, trees are pretty.

If you can stand it -- it bothers some people and others not at all -- design to a minimum ceiling height. You'll be heating a lower volume of overhead air.

Look into tankless water heating as an option. If your hot water use is well-controlled, it's cheaper and greener than keeping a tankful of water on hot standby.

Consider skylights. Designs have improved quite a bit in the last couple of decades and they now rarely leak and are reasonably good insulators. The natural light they admit has a positive effect on the comfort of your home, not to mention daylight is free.

Design for heat (and cool) retention: avoid exterior doors on large rooms, or place large rooms away from exterior doors. Use unheated, uncooled foyers and mudrooms as airlocks between your interior and exterior.

Want a truly green home? Build smaller. Fewer materials are used, it's cheaper to heat and cool, and modesty in use and consumption of resources is the greenest approach to living.
posted by majick at 9:16 AM on January 11, 2004

Check out greywater recycling and composting toilets too.

Greywater recycling essentially routes all non-solid-waste water to a tank for irrigation use.

Greywater is chock full of stuff that plants LOVE.

Not really very easy to retrofit a greywater installation.

I haven't had an opportunity to do either myself.
posted by tomierna at 9:37 AM on January 11, 2004

Lots of links here. Their classes may be something to consider, too. Instructors include John Anderson, David Sellers, and Steve Badanes of the Jersey Devils.
posted by vers at 9:39 AM on January 11, 2004

You might want to look at straw bale construction. There have been a couple of houses built here in Ottawa (and Gatineau) and they seem to be a very affordable option (cheaper even than normal construction) that works well in the Canadian climate. I've been considering it myself. There are straw builders in the TO area. Here are a couple of links to get you started. Wolf jokes come included.
posted by bonehead at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2004

A blog by someone who's building an off-grid straw bale house outside Peterborough, Ontario.
posted by mcwetboy at 10:01 AM on January 11, 2004

Keep in mind that if you "insulate, insulate, insulate," which *is* good for energy conservation, you also need to take extra pains to avoid indoor air quality problems. A really well-insulated home will retain a lot of moisture (leading to mold/mildew problems) as well as chemicals outgassed by building materials or produced by combustion appliances.

You might want to look into heat exchangers, which can provide adequate fresh air without loss of heat. Don't know how much they cost these days, though. Really, in a cold climate, you're always kind of playing a balancing act between the costs and large-scale environmental impacts of heating your home, and the health effects and long-term structural consequences of inadequate ventilation. (When the first flush of energy awareness hit here in Minnesota, some people who hyper-insulated their homes ended up with structures that literally rotted away beneath the sheetrock, from retained moisture.)

Oh, and if you're thinking about straw bale construction, be sure you deal with a builder who really knows what they're doing. I've seen some straw-bale horror stories (structures that rotted so badly they needed to be demolished after a few years).
posted by Kat Allison at 10:08 AM on January 11, 2004

Anyone who wants to follow up nthdegx suggestion in the US might look at this EPA site as a starting point to finding out whether they can get power just from renewable generators.

nthdegx: you may find you're subsidising turbines that are still waiting to be built. There are only 2 x 2MW turbines in the North Sea currently.
posted by biffa at 10:11 AM on January 11, 2004

Response by poster: Amazing! Thanks so much for all of the links - really inspiring stuff. By way of giving back - folks in Canada can look at R2000 is a certification standard that combines ultra-high insulation with proper ventilation to ensure energy efficiency and healthy air.
posted by stonerose at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2004

where are you going to build? can you find a site that is close enough to work that you don't have to commute? or, if it's too far to walk cycle, will it have public transport and will you use it.

answering the question - i'd start by thinking about how your life is going to pan out. are you hoping to have the same job for life? would you choose a lower paid / less interesting job so that you could reduce commuting? alternatively, is there some kind of more radical solution that will adopt an existing building - perhaps in a way that's portable when / if you move. (i see you mentioned renovate so i guess you're already thinking along these lines - hurray :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:43 AM on January 11, 2004

My favorite practical & affordable solar energy guy is Nick Pine.

He believes that most current solar designs suck and he offers an alternative, the "solar closet":
A "solar closet" is an insulated box filled with sealed containers of water, with a solar air heater attached to one insulated side. In a simplified solar space- and water-heating technique, a low-thermal-mass isolated sunspace heats a house on an average winter day, with an average amount of sun. A higher-temperature, compact, high-thermal-mass sauna behind the sunspace provides domestic hot water and space heat for the house during cloudy weather.
Here is his "solar closet" paper, and he has a few thousand alternative energy usenet posts archived here.
posted by Sirius at 10:46 AM on January 11, 2004

I recently bought a book on heating a home using natural methods. It is a survey of all your options and the pros and cons and apx costs of each. Very up to date and practical way to decide how to heat your home.
posted by stbalbach at 10:47 AM on January 11, 2004

Take a look at the enertia building systems. They've built one in Green Bay Wisconsin. These homes can exist entirely off the grid, they don't need a furnace and rely on heating up solar mass during the day time as well as the near-constant 50 Farenheit heat source beneath the ground.

I'm going to see about touring the one in Green Bay and if I end up sticking in Wisconsin it's what I'll be building.
posted by substrate at 10:59 AM on January 11, 2004

One of the difficulties with "Green design" is that, as you can see by all of the excellent comments above, the idea of what constitutes sustainable architecture is a broad and moving target. My take on the whole issue starts with the old real-estate adage: location, location, location.

Location: as someone touched on above, will you be living in an area where you can walk to sustain many of your life's needs?

Location: better to renovate and take the benefits form the energy already expended to make an existing building.

Location: if you build new, remember the first point about location and don't build on a virgin site. (Virgin in this case meaning a site that has not previously been built upon, not virgin in the sense of "virgin woodland" although you may want to avoid that as well. :-) On the other hand, if you live completely off the grid and sustain yourself in your own Garden of Eden™, who would object except your visiting relatives?
posted by Dick Paris at 5:44 AM on January 12, 2004

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