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"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." – M.K Gandhi
It started when my son Ian was born. The birth of my son Ian and then just 22 months later, my daughter Claire, triggered an understanding of how we're all connected, and how that connection continues through time. My son Ian brought tears of joy through 43 hours of hard labor, pain, agony, and finally joy, when he appeared calmly with a look of peace on his face. My daughter Claire appeared after just eight hours of labor. She literally flew into this world, looking terribly lost. She turned purple as she could not breathe from the shock of having to breathe on her own. She was eventually resuscitated by a calm miracle worker of a doctor after what seemed an eternity. I cried with joy as never before or since both times. This miracle of birth is our connection to each other and the life force through time. I am them and they are me.
These moments of truth, these connections between child and parent that link us all together, the miracle of life, and the recognition of our simple humanity, these connections are why we must take responsibility for the problems all around us.
What does it take to achieve a lifestyle that is restorative to the earth? First you have to imagine what the result will be like. At the dreaming stage you really need to be open to all the options and opportunities around you. Let your mind run free and dream of all the incredible things you can do to create a lifestyle that lets you enjoy nature, provides a healthy environment for your kids and allows you to explore a new way of living. I have found that keeping a journal is an excellent way to keep track of all the ideas, thoughts, task lists, pictures, poems, and news clippings of interest. Having these notes, and reviewing them periodically, reminds me of dreams I may have forgotten – good ones, that might now be possible.
Creating a plan for lifestyle change requires a thorough understanding of your requirements, budgets, goals, objectives, values, and principles . This level of planning is important so you remain true to your intents and purposes. This is not to say that the creative process of Natural Living won't alter your path as you take each step. In fact, it's important to be prepared to go with the flow that guides all processes. Sometimes the results will not be exactly what we envisioned. Nature accepts this type of process and so should you, as long as you adhere to the essential principles. Many times this process will lead to a more natural path towards your goals.
The story of my journey toward Natural Living begins with the birth of my children. The love we feel for our children is a deeply protective one. I have discovered that in the face impending dangers, an almost primal urge wells up inside me giving me the courage and energy to protect my children. Protect them from what, I wondered. Any danger to their health and well being, any threat to their life, was a deep concern to me as a new father. The great danger I was reading and hearing about in the news, books, magazine and television reports was the threat humans were posing to their own "environment". The greatest scientists of our time issued a "Warning to Humanity" (see Appendix A for the full text of the warning) that struck me as perhaps the greatest long term threat my children would face. I posted this warning message on the bulletin board above my desk at home. My passion to act in the strongest way possible had been fully aroused.
The late fall of 1992 saw the birth of my son Ian. At the time we lived in downtown Toronto, in a wonderful old neighborhood called Riverdale. Our beautiful old house had been perfect for Leigh and me as a couple working downtown. Now, with Ian our baby, the cost of living suddenly grew dramatically. Leigh's return to work necessitated the additional expense of day care. Our financial future became a concern.
Claire our daughter was born October 6, 1994. In my journal I noted:
Claire, our daughter is almost one month and a half. My little girl is so beautiful, so precious, so delicate, true innocence and expectation of a beautiful future. It is time to act. Somehow I must try to make a difference. We must give back to the earth a lasting natural park recovered from the rubble. Children can gain so much from simple, beautiful educational experiences on peace and nature and people's ability to affect change. An oasis in a desert makes a strong impression because it is so refreshing. We need to celebrate and enshrine and perpetuate the heroes of peace and nature in order to build on their foundations. The voices must be heard.
Shortly after Claire was born we realized that if we were to make our dreams a reality, we had to downsize. We found a townhouse twenty minutes from downtown by commuter train. This small townhouse was about half the price of our wonderful old house in Riverdale. These savings would go towards a fund for purchasing and building the solar powered house of our dreams.
Most of the changes we need to make depend on making the jump in understanding that we are all connected to each other, to nature, and the entire universe. Once you understand this, once this becomes your extended self, then you are ready to look at things as they really are.
Here is a list of objectives developed during the early years trying to understand what we needed to do:
This evolutionary process will be lead by ordinary people like you and me, not political leaders. Try to come up with your own set of objectives.
North of Toronto is a large provincial park called Algonquin. In the park are many lakes, trails, and campsites. Many of them are only accessible by canoe. My first canoe trip into the interior of this park was with my brother. Despite having grown up going to YMCA camps for many years as a youngster and as a teenager, this would be the first "out-trip" as an adult. We prepared in characteristically Wilson cavalier fashion, with a minimalist approach bordering on foolhardy. This was the wild where anything might happen.
We rented the traditional aluminum Grumman variety familiar to us as YMCA campers…just in case we took some difficult rapids, the thick aluminum walls would save us. We did this despite planning for two long portages in order to "get away from everybody". Leaving Toronto on a Friday evening is never a pleasant task with all of the other traffic racing to get north. We would arrive too late, we feared, to pick up our canoe. We arrived around 6pm as the sun was starting to set. The clouds looked ominously gray. With pots dangling and clanking from our packs we loaded up the only ultra heavy Grumman aluminum being used by any campers. Every other wimpy group was using some red Kevlar canoes that looked terribly light and breakable. Hmm?
We had little time to waste, as our first campsite was a considerable distance paddling and a long portage away. As we paddled hard into the wind the rain started pelting us. The winds got stronger the further we got out onto the large lake. We could hardly see the shore. We didn't really know where we were going. Our map was getting soaked. It started getting darker and darker. After an hour or two we looked at each other and agreed we weren't going to make it to our planned campsite. We made for shore partially with some level of fear that the growing waves, wind and rain would soon swamp us. Exhausted we made it to the shoreline. As the darkness began to engulf us we found a bright reflective sign indicating a campsite. We decided we'd share if we had to but we needed to stop for the night.
The site was little used…or so it appeared. It was dark. We set up the tent sloppily and as quickly as possible. It was cold and we were soaked. The fire we tried to start simply fizzled. We had a few crackers and went to sleep in our tent with the rain continuing to fall heavily. The wind blew harder. It was getting colder and colder. We weren't comfortable. Then, all kinds of strange noises started all around us. Something was trying to scratch its way into the tent, above us, at the corners, everywhere! We were terrified. Bears. Wolves. What could it be? It was, we soon saw by way of flashlight, tiny silhouettes of mice crawling all over the tent. Horrifying but not deadly. Needless to say we did not get any sleep that night.
The morning was cold and damp but at least it wasn't raining. The mice had found our crackers and eaten most of them. Mist rose from the lake. My brother and I looked at each other. We both saw, without speaking, that we were both thinking, "this is a nightmare". Our heads ached. What should we do? We could pack it in and head back to the city. We decided, instead, to take off our clothes and go for a swim as the sun began to rise. We dove into the frigid waters. We swam more and more joyfully, roaring, and laughing and splashing to warm ourselves. Our heads cleared. We felt free, cleansed, happy, energized, totally liberated and fully in touch with nature. It was so utterly unexpected! That moment changed our lives. We continued the canoe trip and enjoyed several days of calm quiet beauty in the back lakes with no other campers, as the portages did prove brutally difficult, a great barrier to those unwilling or unable to break through especially those with big heavy Grumman aluminums. And yet the challenge, the exhaustion, the satisfaction of going deeper into the quiet places brought a greater calm, a more wonderfully surreal aspect to the sunsets, and a sleepy openness to the clear star filled skies at night. Food tasted better. Things made more sense. We talked late into the night about nothing ordinary. We were one with the universe.
O Me! O Life!
O me! O life! Of the questions of these
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish.
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than, I and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question O me! So sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The summer of 1991 found the Wilson family north of Toronto at a rented cottage. Despite typically hot and humid summers in cottage country, frost warnings were the weather warnings this particular week. At the end of June. Ian Wilson told his family it was time to go somewhere warm. Son Dan Wilson had mentioned a place called Cabarete in the Dominican Republic that was beautiful, with wonderful beaches, and hotels that offered reasonable rates. Dan recommended that his parents, my parents, Lynn and Ian Wilson check it out as it might be the place where they could find their dream of a beach house in the tropics. Exploring the north coast of Dominican Republic Lynn and Ian found the tropical paradise they had been dreaming of. Walking the beach west of Cabarete they rounded the point to find hundreds of wind surfing fanatics flying across the water. This "honky tonk" little town was hopping with Europeans, Americans and Canadians who loved the sport of wind surfing in one of the best locations on earth. As Lynn decided that the local restaurant was far enough to have walked that day, Ian decided that perhaps just around the next bend would be something.
Yes. At the far end of the beach was a big, blue, red and white house sticking out prominently, right on the edge of the beach. There it was. The perfect spot. A run down house with an old "For Sale" sign on it.
Over the next four years the Wilsons spent summers and vacations renovating while working in Abu Dhabi. Ian is a professional engineer. Lynn is a teacher specializing in English as a Second Language. Together they reshaped, redesigned and reinvigorated what was at first an eye sore with no views on the beach side of the house.
My first direct experience with the use of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which convert sun light into electricity, came about after discussing their benefits with my father. After explaining the potential I saw in them, an opportunity arose to purchase some for the beach house my parents owned in the Dominican Republic. Frequent (daily at the time) power failures required the use of a noisy diesel generator in order to provide light, hot water and fans for guests. Solar panels, batteries and power inverter offered the perfect solution. Installing the eight year old used solar panel system has worked well for the better part of the last ten years now. Last winter my father added two more new solar panels and a solar hot water heating system.
Having spent our winter vacation there for the past ten years, I can personally testify to the benefit. When the power fails, and it always does several times during our stay, the beach house has lights for reading, fans to cool us, and even warm water for our showers. The system works in perfect silence while, unfortunately, the neighbors must power up noisy polluting diesel generators to keep their guests happy.
Ian Wilson, now a prominent member of the Cabarete community, got a set of four photovoltaic solar panels, from a Canadian who had used them for several years in about 1998. Then in 1999 the family brought down four more panels in large suitcases. These solar panels have worked essentially flawlessly since then. The mixed set of panels generate approximately 560 watt hours combined. This is enough power to keep the house operating without electricity from the grid for about twenty four hours. Of course a large bank of batteries is used to store the electrical energy generated during the day. As well, the batteries can be charged up using the electrical grid when available.
The electricity situation is erratic in the Dominican Republic. The power may be shut down for extended periods of time. Wilson thought the reliability of the countriy's electrical utilities would improve but it has continued to be unpredictable up to the present.
The result of the investment in this system starting almost six years ago is the ability to supply seven bedrooms, two living areas, and two kitchens and with one electrical fridge and fans in most rooms with enough power . This despite the fact that the grid utilitiy power is typically down from late morning until the evening every day. Power outages are typical at night as well. With the solar system Wilsons Beach House maintains lights, fans and fridges without any interruption during these frequent blackouts. Other hotels often can be seen along the beach with their lights flickering off as the power fails, and then slowly coming back as their noisy diesel generators blast into action.
The system has only failed once because the batteries were not maintained properly. The key to maintenance is cleaning the batteries using WD40 and having good wire connections. The beach house has always had power despite frequent outages.
The Wilsons have a small diesel generator as a backup which they don't like to use due to noise and air pollution . But from time to time they turn it on and it does charge the batteries when power is out for especially extended periods of time. Dull weather would be another reason they sometimes charge things up with the generator.
The original system of 6 panels (2 died), with inverter, and batteries cost about US$4,000. Four additional panels were purchased for about US $1,000 each. Replacement of batteries over the years has cost about US$1,000.The original hot water heaters only worked with city power that was out so often they didn't have hot water when it was needed. Now, with the MegaSun solar water heater, they and their guests have hot water pretty much whenever it is needed. If they get a few cloudy days, the showers provide warm water instead of hot. The system has a glycol type fluid that is heated and in turn heats water in the tank. This avoids direct heating of the water that can have problems since water at times has sediment that could clog the system. The solar hot water heating system was about US$4,000. It was installed by a local plumber without any special skills related to solar systems. The MegaSun systems are made by a Greek company and sold through a local distributor in the Dominican Republic. The system has worked flawlessly for the past three years.
All the solar panel systems are essentially maintenance free. Cleaning the surface might be a good idea. The rain seems to keep things pretty clean.
Inside the beach house all the lights are compact florescent to reduce power consumption. Of course the Wilsons are careful to make sure that lights are not left on especially when the electricity grid has failed and the house is operating on solar /battery power only.
Some other things the Wilsons have learned over the years. They save vegetable waste so that their friend Gaby can use it in her garden. This reduces their garbage which you have to pay for pickup in the Dominican Republic. They don't have a car since they can walk to everything. Life is simple. No need for a car. Sports are wind powered as in wind surfing and kite boarding. No motor boats or jet skis are allowed in the bay except for the local fishermen who bring in fresh fish every day.
Getting started with solar power is quite an initial investment and requires some additional investment in time but it is worth it according to the Wilsons. It is a nice feeling to have power supply in your own control especially in countries like this where it is essential for keeping food from going bad and keeping guests happy.
The strict restrictions on types of electrical devices that may be used can become a problem when guests who are not used to this level of strict energy conservation start using a blender or hair dryer for instance. It is a great learning lesson for those of us so unaware of all the energy we waste.
The town of Cabarete provides plenty of low impact activities for the energetic EcoTraveler. Of course the wind surfing and kite boarding can't be beat. Check out one of several great wind surfing shops right on the beach, such as Vela, Bic or Mistral for some great deals on wind powered sports.
Other attractions include Iguana Mama, an award-winning provider of natural and ecotourism related adventures. These include mountain biking, inner tubing down rivers, horse riding, and whale watching.
My parents' good friend, who looks after the beach house business, is also a solar pioneer. In fact, using the Solar House Book, Gaby was able to integrate a number of different second-hand panels and some new panels in order to provide power for water pumps on their farm. She also has enough power for home lights, TV, VCR, and stereo. Recently, she installed a wind turbine on top of an old windsurfing mast. Every time we visit the wind is blowing enough to keep the turbine going at a steady clip.
Gaby was a major inspiration in our determination to create a solar powered home here in Canada. She has implemented many of the ideas of Natural Living on her farm, which is completely off-the-grid. She's shown us how easy it is to:
The dream of an organic farm, in the breezy hills of Dominican Republic, independent from the electricity grid, is the result of a creative, strong, independent visionary. This is the life Gaby Reiners has created and she loves it!
Gaby bought the finca, which is Spanish for farm in 1995. At the time one of the ideas she had was to cultivate Neem trees. These trees, from India originally, have many valuable properties including an organic insecticide. As it turned out these trees did not do as well as had been hoped. Fortunately everything else that Gaby grows and looks after on the farm does very well as we shall see.
Gaby originally came here on vacation more than fourteen years ago. She fell in love with the wonderful tropical weather, friendly people, great food, fantastic beaches, and a more natural lifestyle. For the past ten years now Gaby has established herself as the agent for many of the better rooms and homes to stay at in Cabarete. Cabarete is a wind surfers' and kite boarders' paradise. It offers the world's best conditions including an off shore wind that doesn't start until afternoon so you can party all night, sleep until noon and not miss the great boarding action.
The finca where Gaby lives and farms is about ten to twenty minutes out of town, or about forty minutes from Puerto Plata international airport. The finca house is completely off-the-grid as are a number of other solar power systems used for lighting and small pumps throughout the farm. Given the chance, when she bought the property, Gaby declined to invest in the new hydro electricity connections that her neighbors did. Instead, she favored the independence of a completely self-sustained, off-the-grid, setup. She has no regrets given the frequent power outages on the grid in Dominican Republic and problems with people connecting illegally to the hydro wires.
The two primary energy generation systems for the home she has expanded extensively, include a Whisper 1440 wind turbine and a mixture a several brands of photo voltaic solar panels that you can see on the roof. The house systems are all connected to a simple controller that lets her know how much power she has generated on a digital readout in the media room. A set of eight batteries store the energy generated during the day. A small PortaWatt 1750 inverter converts the DC current generated by the photo voltaic solar panels and wind turbine into AC so that her lights, appliances, television, stereo and computer have power whenever she needs it. This system also provides power for about twenty lights all of which are fitted with compact florescent light bulbs that consume dramatically less energy and last ten times longer than conventional light bulbs. Each light has a beautiful local fixture that gives the home a wonderful touch of character.
During the winter,when it rains the systems generate less power even in this part of the world. Given this circumstance Gaby connects an extra set of eight batteries so that she is able to store more electricity during this time. In the summer she only needs eight. By changing the systems number of batteries she is able to extend their life span by better optimizing the level of charge and discharge. She has found that having good, properly gauged cables and clean connections makes a big difference in their ability to store electrical energy efficiently especially in this humid climate.
The finca has several other renewable energy systems. For the driveway lights a single small panel near the entrance gate (you can see it on the right post in the picture on the previous page) provides enough power for about four lights along her driveway at night. In order to do some small scale pumping and provide lighting in one of the farm's work sheds, another panel is used along with several batteries . Gaby says that she prefers a more distributed system since there is then less chance of all systems failing at once. This is a good analogy for the large scale centralized systems prevalent in North America. Witness the devastating Blackout we had in 2003, throughout eastern North America that cost the economies of Canada and the US millions, if not billions of dollars. By getting more distributed we can avoid such major disruptions.
The system is also able to supply power for the occasional use of a blender which Gaby really hates to use. She is an amazing cook. However, she does not have any iron or toaster since these are such big energy hogs. She is also very careful about not leaving lights on at any time unless necessary. This can become a problem when she has guests who are not used to this level of strict energy conservation . It is a great learning lesson for those of us so unaware of all the energy we waste.
Gaby has had to learn how to setup and maintain the all of the energy systems over the past several years. She says that for her it is a wonderful rewarding challenge and can be really fun. She especially likes that feeling when she gets something working…wow, look at those lights go on/off automatically at night. She has become so aware of the difference positioning the solar panels makes in energy production that she would like to get an automatic tracking system that would keep the solar photovoltaic panels facing the sun at the optimal angles throughout the day.
The wind turbine system, after several years of flawless operation seized up on Gaby. She had a local electrician come up to take a look. The unit was brought down from its forty foot pole. The electrician found that many of the screws had corroded. The entire unit was taken apart, parts that had corroded were replaced, and everything greased up again. After this maintenance that took a few days, the system was back up and operational again. This particular unit was very quite despite the heavy winds…testament to the name Wharrisper.
On the finca Gaby grows many wonderful fruits and vegetables. The partial list she could come up with during morning visit included:
With rapid growth of trees near her first vegetable garden Gaby is now moving it to a location that gets more sunlight. An important additive to the garden is compost that she collects from Wilsons Beach House and her own food waste.
Compost here consists of:
These supplements are very important as the soil is quite thin and rocky just beneath the surface. In some places the land is so harsh only undesirable weeds grow. Gaby is trying to figure out a way to improve the soil and get grass growing for the cows . Currently the only way she knows of is to use a poison weed killer and then manually plant grass. She hates the thought of having to do this.
Since the finca uses a large amount of water the 2500 cubic litre cistern is very important for both domestic and farm usage. The property has a stream that runs through the middle of it. Gaby fills her cistern with a portable pump.
Being an organic farmer is not always easy. Recently Gaby invested in some bees. As with any new venture this involves learning many new things. First of all, the bees had to be picked up in the dead of night while the hive was asleep, for obvious safety reasons. With a friend Gaby arrived to pick up the hive from a local keeper who was keeping them in an old palm tree log. The stock was placed gingerly in the back of her jeep for fear of waking the hive that was producing a slight buzz. This ominous buzz got louder as the trip progressed along the bumpy roads. Fortunately the transit was accomplished without incident.
Recently the bees decided they wanted a new home. So, left the hive and took up residence in a nearby tree. The local experts said that all Gaby had to do was make loud noises all day and night until the bees returned to their home. This was tried for some time without effect. For whatever reasons the bees decided that the wind turbine was the next logical place for their home. Unfortunately this was a mortal mistake. The little bees bodies were found strewn all around the turbine pole as the winds picked up and the determined bees made every attempt to stick with their new home.
The finca is expanding. On the day we arrived a new born calf roamed the pasture. Gaby has planted bamboo trees. Sheep are kept as pets. The chickens and geese are producing lots of eggs. Our kids were fortunate enough to get a ride on two of the seven friendly horses that Gaby keeps for riding and as friends. Gaby loves animals and quite clearly they love her. The five dogs she currently has are her constant companions.
Reading about sustainable communities and homes is one thing. Actually seeing one is quite another. One of the most powerful experiences in our journey toward building a solar powered home was visiting the Toronto Healthy House . We visited the "Healthy" house in, ironically, Riverdale, Toronto, the neighborhood we had left as a downsizing measure. We were thoroughly impressed by what we saw, and left with a collection of brochures and a thirst for more. Reflecting on what we'd learned, Leigh and I found that we had many more unanswered questions, so we booked a second visit to see it again and take notes, pictures, and video-tape the tour. The Toronto Healthy House demonstrated all of the ideas I had read about for years, including passive solar design, solar photo voltaic panels, solar water heating, high insulation values for walls, windows and roof, and predominantly natural building materials. What's more, this duplex demonstrated both an independent solar-powered "off-the-grid" setup on one side, and "grid-connected" solar-power electrical system in the other unit. It could be done!
For us, seeing was believing. Having seen, touched, and experienced the Healthy House, we knew this was what we wanted. For Leigh, this was a turning point – the idea of living in a solar home became conceivable, even desirable – not just another one of my "pipe-dreams". We made a decision to contact the architect when we were ready to design our own home.
Features of the Toronto Healthy House as outlined by CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation ) included:
1. Occupant Health: Cleaner, Fresher Air
· Ventilation: The fresh air system and associated heat recovery unit provide continuous ventilation and heating, cooling or dehumidification. The system draws fresh, filtered air into the house while removing odors, molds, dust and pollen. The heat recovery unit recovers about 70 percent of the heat from stale indoor air while providing a continuous supply of fresh air.
· Construction materials: Construction materials have been carefully selected to reduce emissions of chemical vapors that cause indoor air pollution .
· Airtight walls: Airtight walls eliminate drafts and minimize the entry of outdoor air pollutants and moisture. They provide exterior weather resistance and eliminate as much as 75 percent of the heat loss of conventional houses. They are like a Goretex® jacket for the outside of the house.
· Low-emission cabinets: Hardwood or formaldehyde-free alternatives, which emit little chemical vapor into the indoor air, replace particle board, plastics and other synthetic materials in kitchen cabinets.
· Low-emission trim and mouldings: Mouldings such as birch and basswood trim emit few chemicals, particularly when sealed with a low-toxicity sealant.
· Water-based paint: The water-based interior paint reduces chemical vapors, which improves the quality of indoor air.
2. Energy Efficiency Cuts Costs
· Building envelope: The envelope of the house incorporates high levels of insulation and air tightness to promote energy efficiency and, in combination with ventilation system, better indoor air quality.
· Rigid board insulation: Rigid board insulation under the concrete slab results in 75 percent less heat loss through the slab than in conventional construction.
· High-efficiency lighting: The use of natural lighting and a well-chosen mix of task and area lighting reduces energy consumption.
· Energy-efficient windows: Suitability oriented and designed windows allow the sun to provide passive solar heating. Overheating in the summer is prevented by awnings and vines. The thermally efficient window system reduces heat loss and increases comfort for the occupant.
· Solar panels: Rooftop solar panels generate most of the electricity required. The peak electrical output of about 2 kilowatts is sufficient because the house uses energy -efficient appliances and natural lighting.
· Heating: Heating is provided by solar energy and a co-generator which generates both auxiliary heat and electricity. Because the house is well insulated, use of the co-generator is minimized.
3. Resource Efficiency is Good for the Environment
· Water systems: The house has 2 integrated systems to handle drinking and reclaimed water. Together with simple and inexpensive low-flow shower heads, taps and water faucets, these systems can use up to 90 percent less water than conventional homes.
· Rain and snow that fall on the roof are the only source of water. The water is collected and directed to the cistern. The water is then purified and pumped to the kitchen and bathrooms for drinking and washing.
· All waste water is directed to a purification system in the basement that mimics nature 's treatment of waste water, rendering the water pure and suitable for re-use. The water is then recycled to the toilets, washing machine and showers.
· Low-volume toilets: Low-volume toilets use only 6 liters of water per flush compared to 18 liters per flush for regular toilets. Each flush is even more efficient because it uses recycled water.
4. Environmental Responsibility: Benefits for the Community
· Reduced greenhouse gases: Reduced demand for heating, cooling and electricity cuts the emission of greenhouse gases.
· Conservation of the water supply: The on-site water system eliminates the demand for municipal drinking water. The self-contained sewage treatment system, which discharges only clean water into the environment, does not contribute to the contamination of waterways.
· Efficient land use: The house can be built on small infill lots in the city that may not have the municipal services required for a conventional house. As a result, land is used more efficiently.
· Reduced infrastructure needs: Because it is designed to be self-sufficient, the house reduces the need for urban infrastructure in the form of water and sewer systems.
· Reduced automobile pollution : The downtown location of the house provides easy access to existing public transportation . A large den close to the front door is ideal for a home office. Decreased use of cars helps reduce air pollution .
· Reduced disposal of toxic products: Non-toxic products are used in construction to minimize the contamination of landfill sites.
· Effective waste management: Careful choice of construction materials, and composting and recycling by occupants, contribute to responsible waste management.
5. Affordability: Healthy Housing Saves Money
· Low operating costs:
o Annual water consumption is zero.
o Energy requirements are dramatically reduced. Hydro costs are zero.
o Annual space heating requirements are less than one-quarter that of an average house; in some years, there may be none.
In the winter of 1998 I visited my brother who was living and working in San Francisco ,California. During this vacation we visited the "Solar Living Center", a brilliant example of using the principles I would one day call Natural Living. We found this oasis for natural living in the middle of a desert, in a place called Hopland. We took a guided tour of the facilities and I was blown away by the inspired thinking that had created the highly integrated systems of water flows, shading, straw bale construction, natural lighting, and art. The solar powered fountain at the heart of the center was constructed to display many elements of nature including orientation of the sun, time, water, and space, with a built in calendar to mark the cycles of nature. The amazing, inspiring story of the design, development and construction included:
Inspired by my parents, Gaby, the Toronto Healthy House and The Solar Living Center, it was time to start designing our own home.
In order to become familiar with the design and building process we began to read many books on the subject. Some of the books we read are as follows (see the Bibliography for the details and other excellent reading):
All of these books provided important background information, inspiring ideas and practical details on how to achieve our dreams. My favorite is Living Spaces. This books was originally published in German for the European market. The acceptance of new ideas is clearly evident in the book. Details for the use of green roofing, composting, and many other techniques are shown in great detail with many inspiring examples. Get this book if you can find it.
Early in the design stage we started listing our basic requirements, and this list grew and changed over time as we broadened our knowledge and processed what we had learned. For example, it was our dream to have the kitchen as the center of the house, since our family life seemed to revolve around it.
Next, we developed a schedule that included:
Having downsized to a townhouse in the suburb of Mississauga our finances were on track to allow us to buy the property for building our future home. With the smaller mortgage and small monthly payments, we were able to put money aside each month into savings. This also allowed us to consider the additional burden of monthly payments on a mortgage for a property.
First we had to find the right property. Initially we had hoped to find an "in-fill" lot, in a city or town around Toronto where we work. The limited availability and high cost forced us to look further away from the city. We had estimated that we would spend about $100,000 on the property. The budget for construction was estimated at about $250,000 during this early stage of our search (approximately $100 per square foot we were told). In other words we planned on owning at $350,000 (Canadian dollars in 1995) home by the time we were done. Since we could not find properties in Toronto within this price range, we began looking further from the city and suburbs.
We looked at more than ten properties over about a two year period in our search for the perfect place to build our new lifestyle . The first one I saw was on the escarpment just south of Milton. The price was a bit beyond our budget, due to the GO Train service to the city and proximity to a prime wine growing region, but the added convenience of the location made it worth considering. When I took Leigh and the kids to see it, the property had a bright red "Sold" sign on it. That was our first disappointment.
We began watching the real-estate flyers. I noticed a listing for 25 acres of land that looked nice in the picture. This property turned out to be in Caledon, about 45 minutes north of Toronto . We dropped in on our friends Krista and Mike who lived in the area, and talked about our plans. Krista and Mike were very happy living in the country and were finding the use of the Go Train, a local commuter train service, quite good. This encouraged us to continue searching for a property in this country setting.
Most properties we saw had problems, such as proximity to a highway or railway, which I feared would produce too much noise and pollution . Others were too big or too barren. Having some trees to protect the home from the cold north winds seemed essential to the natural landscape I had in mind. We were looking for a good southern exposure and some mature trees, which would shelter the home from cold breezes.
The search for the perfect property seemed fruitless. For the budget we had there did not seem to be a property that had the right natural features. Finally, one weekend we walked through about one hundred feet of forest to find a beautiful wild grass filled hill sloping south. The land was rough with rocks and many young pine trees. A row of trees was also fairly established along the back fence. This might be it, we thought.
We visited the site many times in order to get a sense for its natural qualities through the changing seasons. In the winter the land was more visible and provided great views to the south. The southern exposure was amazing. From the very south end of the property we could see for miles…into Toronto, the big city.
We made a couple of unsuccessful bids on the lot, but the owner was holding out for a higher price that was slightly over our budget. Before making a third, higher bid, we met with Martin Liefhebber the architect of the Toronto Healthy House, to ask if he would work with us to design our home. Martin was eager to see the site to make sure it provided some of the natural features we would need. This would be his first project in the country, but he knew what to look for. For Martin it was perfect, because of the protective tree cover on the north, open exposure to the south for sunlight, gentle slopes for great views, some protective trees to the east and west, and natural swales for water drainage.
In summer the woodlot on the north 100-200 feet of the property provided nice cool breezes, and a sound and dust barrier from the sometimes busy dirt road. In the winter we found the roadside about 5-10 degrees colder than south of the woodlot, where we planned to build the house. We visited the property several times before deciding that it was the right one. As Martin would later say, he wanted to use the local environment and the design of the house to extend the seasons, summer into fall and spring into winter. That all seemed to be possible by locating the house on the north east portion of the property near the top of the highest point, but just south of our pine woodlot, essentially nestled into the trees.
So we decided to go for it, and our third offer was accepted. We were fortunate that the vendor was agreeable to a vendor-take-back mortgage, at a very good rate. This worked out well for us, because banks will not mortgage vacant land. (Recently I've learned that it may be possible to get a "development" plan approved for a property that you haven't purchased. With this it may be possible to get development financing that can cover both the land and the future structure…at least up to 65% of the overall projects expected value.) They'll only get involved once the property has a structure on it – at least a foundation. We would need to finance the land and the first stage of construction (building the foundation) without any assistance from the bank. We would later discover that it is best to have cash reserves for this, since the bank will only finance what is completed. Ideally, you should own the land outright before beginning construction. We learned this the hard way, after having purchased the land!
We made many visits to our property once it was purchased. During these visits, we noticed that good winds typically flow from the north both in winter and summer. In the winter the shelter provided by the trees was always a great relief from the wind on the north side of the woodlot. At all times of the year the place where we planned to build the house seemed protected and naturally warm, with great solar exposure. We had many great picnics with our extended families in our future "kitchen", a patch of wild grass between the many scotch pines growing rampantly, the remains of a formerly thriving Christmas tree business.
We began to consider the type of home we wanted to build. We picked up material at home shows. We read the books we'd purchased on various "natural" building techniques. Some of the insight we gained through our research included:
R New Standards – "R2000"-type super-insulated homes, which are tightly sealed with a vapor barrier, do make sense for our cold Canadian winters but do NOT make sense for the hot humid Canadian summers. Technologies like straw bale offer a much more appropriate solution that has advantages through all seasons – cooling in summer with no condensation to cause wood rot, warmth through insulation in the fall, spring and winter – all with good air flow for good indoor air quality. This type of wall "breathes", creating naturally healthy indoor air, while at the same time providing superior insulation so critical to keeping the home comfortable in the winter and summer.
R Building Code Limitations – Using rainwater is a simple concept that is not allowed in the building code. Therefore, an expensive ground water well, a pump and piping systems would be required. There are also difficulties with the handling of gray water (used water from sinks, showers and baths), which would necessitate a septic system. We were well aware that this type of system had lead to the incident in the nearby town of Walkerton, which suffered through a terrible tainted water situation in 2001. Water contaminated by sewage lead to a serious outbreak of e-coli. These building code restrictions create barriers that prevent creative workable solutions that would eliminate the contamination problems. The solution is to handle different types of water and sewage optimally. Then there is no need to drain the ancient, non-renewable ground water sources or pollute these with archaic septic sewage treatment systems. Unfortunately, the current building codes work against nature and our health in some ways. We tried to convince the building inspector to allow us to use a composting toilet rather than a septic field system. We were not permitted to do this. This failure of the building code system cost us more than $13,000 for the septic system. This cost that we had hoped to avoid made the additional $10,000 for the composting toilet system too much for our budget. We did get permission to operate a composting toilet, but the code required at least one conventional toilet to feed the septic system. We have a long term plan to make an application to convert to a composting toilet system by requesting an exemption from the code.
R Green Roof – The idea of creating a natural green roof came from Martin. The green roof would keep the home cool in the summer. Rainwater collected from the roof would be stored in a large cistern. Our plan was to either use rainwater directly or purify it for all of our water needs. The used water could then be processed optimally by type as well. Grey water can be used to clean clothes, water the garden plants, and flush water toilets until we get a composting toilet system. Sewage can be separated into urine and feces or combined and processed using composting techniques. The compost can then be used in the garden as a soil fertilizer. The result is that valuable gray water is re-used and sewage is turned into a valuable soil amendment, all of which eliminates the potential contamination problems of ground water and septic systems.
Having bought the property with a vendor-take-back mortgage we thought we were well on our way to financing the construction of our new home. The money we saved during the four years in our Mississauga town home left us with approximately $100,000 in cash after we sold the house. Our construction budget was based on an estimated construction cost of $100 per square foot. We had originally hoped to build the home at under 2,500 square feet. The property costs totaled $130,000 plus $250,000 in construction meant a total budget of about $380,000. Adding in solar and wind power brought the total to about $400,000. In the end, by the time we finished the designs for the home, we were at 3,500 square feet. So, our total building budget ended up at $450,000.
One of the first surprises that just about stopped everything was the requirement of owning the "land" outright before being able to finance the construction. We had not known this until well into the final stages of getting our building mortgage arranged. Our bank, one of the big five here in Canada, was getting out of the building mortgage business just as we were trying to arrange for this type of financing. Fortunately we were able to get in under the wire. In addition to getting our bank to provide the building mortgage we had to get Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC ) to insure the mortgage since it was for more than 75% of the value of the home and included non-conventional construction. This added thousands extra to the overall costs.
Compounding our cash flow problems was the need to complete construction before being able to make a draw from the building mortgage funds. In order to get to these payments we had to leverage every credit card we could get our hands on, plus increase our line of credit, and then finally borrow money from family.
The only other problem was going over budget on some of the construction costs. Our zinc roofing, the windows, a very deep well (250 feet) and of course the septic system pushed costs beyond the originally budgeted amounts. The winter was also particularly harsh, and delays in getting permits pushed a large portion of the construction through the bitter winter months of an unusually harsh winter in terms of amount of snow fall.
If we could go back and do things differently I would recommend the following:
R Wait until the land is paid off before starting construction. In Canada, the construction mortgage is based on the construction budget, and doesn't include the land.
R Build a smaller house over all.
R Plan for adequate financing to fund each stage of construction.
R Reduce the number of windows on the east and west sides of the house.
R Simplify the design of some parts of the home.
R Find a way to convince the building inspector to allow use to use composting toilets rather than septic.
There are, of course, long term advantages to some of the things I would do differently, but in hindsight our cash flow difficulties caused more stress than I would wish on anyone else.
The bottom line is that we were able to build our phenomenally efficient home, complete with solar panels and a wind turbine for about $128 per square foot. This puts us on par with conventionally built custom homes. Given the long and short term advantages of our home, the cost of our home is quire remarkably affordable. If the size is scaled down, less costly siding and window finishing considered, more straw bale used, and better luck with the weather I firmly believe the costs could be in the $60-100 per square foot. For smaller homes and apartments the long term benefits are particularly appealing.
Now just imagine if the building industry became determined to bring down pricing through economies of scale, automation, pre-fabrication, and bulk orders for materials. Also, when applied to town homes, semi-detached homes and apartment buildings the potential is even greater. That more builders aren't taking advantage of these ideas is a shame. More and more builders are starting to especially in Europe and even Japan where solar panel sales and wind power is growing rapidly.
We first met with Martin Liefhebber at the Mövenpick on York Street in downtown Toronto for lunch. We had talked several times on the phone, but this was our first meeting. It was a strange feeling to finally meet the man who had designed and built the Toronto Healthy House, which had been such a great inspiration for us. Right from our very first conversation, I knew that Martin was a practical, down to earth, and caring designer who shared the same ideals that I held. My excitement at the prospect of working with him on the design of the house grew as we discussed his thoughts, ideas and stories.
Through our many conversations with Martin, he told us of his other projects – the "pharmacists" who built a house on a hillside, a co-housing project in Mississauga, the earth house in Caledon, the retirement home on the Toronto Island, and of course the Toronto Healthy House. All of these have provided insight into the opportunities and problems to be solved in our own project. Each site, each client represents different opportunities and challenges for designers and we are all designers. While working with Martin I had some pretty strict principles I wanted to follow.
In designing and building a home, there are many decisions to make. To ensure some consistency in our decision-making, we came up with some principles that we shared with our builder, Colin, and Martin, as well as family and friends, in order to be clear about our direction.
1. No fossil fuels
Example: Most homes in this region have a furnace powered by natural gas or oil. We have eliminated the need for this through a combination of primarily passive solar home design , excellent insulation levels with the use of straw bales in the walls, photovoltaic panels and a wind turbine for electricity, a plan for solar water heaters, solar powered lighting, a wood stove and a wood barbeque pit.
2. Optimize efficiency in order to reduce overall energy requirements
Example: The use of natural light was optimized throughout. Portal windows in the floor allow light to flow into the basement, minimizing the need for lights during the day. Outdoor lighting selected is primarily independently powered solar garden lights.
3. Use natural materials
Example: During site visits before we began construction, Martin determined that we could use the tree logs we removed from the driveway as posts for the solar shading system. Other local natural materials included sand from our own pit. The straw bales purchased from a local farmer provided a natural, renewable resource for insulation.
4. Select materials that are renewable
Example: The posts and beams used for the main structure of the house are made from fast growing tree farms rather than old growth forest timber. Bamboo for hardwood flooring can be harvested every 3 or 4 years from the same plant, since it grows back. The straw bales used in the north wall are an annual crop available from a local farmer.
5. Invest for the long term
Example: The passive solar design , which requires many windows, an in-floor heating system and photo voltaic panels, will not likely pay for itself within conventional time frames of three to five years. Instead, we are prepared to invest in these for a period of fifteen or twenty years before "payback". As a bonus, should fossil fuel prices rise substantially, our pay back may be significantly less. As well, by selecting products that adhere to the other principles listed here, pay back or economic principles do not get top priority. Instead, as these principles suggest, we apply top priority to nature , which our children will inherit from us all.
6. Inspire others to build a natural home incorporating the same principles
Example: The "Straw Bale Happening" was an event that allowed us to invite many of our family and friends to join us in the process of building this house. Because of this experience they now have a greater awareness of the vast potential for this type of construction. The house warming party was also designed to allow as many people as possible to see the beautiful results, ask questions, and experience the potential in action. As well, we have initiated what we plan on making an annual event we call the SunFest to celebrate the sun that provides us with our energy and inspiration throughout the year.
Example: The need to provide for the individual preferences and view points of the four people in our own family, as well as Colin, Martin and others in the design team, necessitated some flexibility in these principles in order to support the overall vision. For Leigh, this meant a larger house than might be optimal for pure efficiency. For Martin, this meant some aesthetically pleasing design features like angled walls, reveal moldings and zinc roofing, and these features increased costs. For Colin, this has meant some simplifications in the design to make the construction process more efficient.
At some point during one of the first few design reviews, I provided Martin with some drawings that Leigh and I had sketched during a vacation in the Dominican Republic. My purpose was to help Martin understand some of the key features I wanted, such as locating the kitchen in the southeast portion of the house in order to get the great morning sunr ises that have inspired me through the years. The kitchen has always played a central role in our home activities. A bright beautiful place for morning breakfasts on the south east section seemed important to me as well. Another important feature for me was placing the living room and work area on the southwest area of the house to maximize the daytime sunlight and to enjoy the magnificent sunsets.
The design stage required many review sessions. This process of review, decision making and changes necessitated a willingness to compromise, look for creative solutions in order to adhere to principles , and finally, come to agreement as a group.
The method for solving these complex problems, like the ones that power the earth's atmosphere, can be found in a new natural design process. The new design system that is being used to transform ourselves, homes, work, food , transportation , communities, government , spiritual institutions and economic systems must be based on ecological principles of design. Ecological design principles include:
These design principles require a far deeper level of understanding of the systems inherent in nature and humanity. "Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of what we believe to be true about the world. Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature's own. It is clear we have not given design a rich enough context. We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defined human interests but neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures." (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, Ecological Design, pg. 9) Clearly something has gone wrong, as manifested in the terrible gap between rich and poor, the monstrous destruction of the natural world that sustains us, and the thwarted initiatives of the best among us. Still, this new design paradigm, the processes and principles of Natural Living, offers hope as a new generation of creative people, including you and I reconnect with nature.
The difficulty here seems to be that this type of design , which may be used in the processes of redesigning our lifestyles, requires us to take a path that may seem to be more difficult, more complex, more costly, and more creative. All of this means more effort. Personally, I have long felt that one of my greatest weaknesses is my laziness. In trying to achieve a Natural Living lifestyle , one in which I have developed and applied the eight steps, each day I confront my own lack of "energy " to get down and do the hard work required to achieve these goals. Change is like that. Change is a form of creativity that requires more energy than might otherwise be required.
In order to get to the parts I've enjoyed so much, I have had to overcome my natural desire to simply rest, not try, do nothing, and accept things as they are. I have had to fight against the urge of leaving it for a future day. For me, overcoming this is a constant struggle. One thing that seems to help in applying these new design processes to my life, is to give myself some time each day to think about it. For me, this means with a pen, paper, and a coffee. I simply write a to do list for the day, week or year, note some ideas I've had, record the story of some wonderful experiences, express a new thought, create a poem, remember a dream, or describe the vision of something that has inspired me. Whether it is the caffeine or the creative energy this daily activity generates, this process has helped to focus my awareness so that I stay on track and get just a few of the hard things done each day, or celebrate the new connections , or remember a recent accomplishment, or rejoice in the new connections with a friend with a similar vision. This constant celebration of the creative process seems to provide the energy that feeds further effort towards the next step .
The design process, the early creative vision stage, for me, provided the essential structure for achieving a higher level of awareness by opening my eyes to the deeper aspects of place and process. The design process is significant since it applies, essentially, to any kind of change required. As you go about planning for the changes you need to make, take the time to refer to these design processes in order to ensure you include the complexities of nature in your creativity.
From the book Ecological Design by Sim Van Der Ryn and Stuart Cowan, the process of Ecological Design can be summarized as follows:
1. Solutions Grow From Place – design in harmony with place
2. Ecological Accounting Informs Design – account for all costs to nature
3. Design with Nature – design in harmony with nature
4. Everyone is a Designer – take advantage of local knowledge and your own creativity
5. Make Nature Visible – allow nature to retain its place
It is the goal of Natural Living to apply these design principles . These design principles may also be applied to the broader context of the way we live, the work we choose, the food we eat, and the understanding we maintain of our deep connection with nature throughout our lives. Once these principles evolve within the context of our society, once our cultures evolve, once the most powerful institutions of our communities, corporations and nations evolve to support and incorporate these principles in a more complex set of integrated systems we will have achieved an ecological or natural based lifestyle that will support us now and our children well into the future. These principles have been applied to the step-by-step process of Natural Living provided here.
The design process provides a chance to deal with the complexity of requirements from a number of perspectives. In general there are a number of priority levels to the design process. These levels or priorities reflect a measure of the long-term energy , cost, and simplicity of various aspects of the design. The following list provides a rough measure of where the largest long-term impact can typically be found:
1. Site – solar access, trees, soil, and local materials, orientation
2. Efficiency –reduction of openings, size
3. Insulation – ability to retain heat or coolness
4. Passive Solar – heat collected and stored directly from sunlight
5. Passive Cooling – cooling using convection currents and natural ventilation
6. Solar Hot Water – sunlight heat collected by panels and transferred to water
7. Wind /Hydro Power – transformation of wind/water motion into electricity
8. Active Solar – transformation of sunlight into electrical energy
9. Energy Storage – chemical means of storing electrical energy for peak demand
The following are notes on our requirements for the site and home we wanted to build. Some of these ideas haven't made it to reality, for a variety of reasons. They were based on the principles we had developed, best practices I'd read about in books on the subject, site conditions, creative thinking, and the ideas of Martin Liefhebber, our architect for the project.
In every aspect of the design process consider the local site conditions and environment, year round, and over longer periods of time.
R Protect the house from prevailing winds during winter with local site barriers such as trees, hills and a wall.
R Provide openings to collect cool forest breezes in the summer in order to eliminate the need for air conditioning.
R Orient the position of the house to take advantage of passive solar design principles .
R Design with and for nature .
R Apply the concepts of Permaculture (get the amazing text book by Bill Mollison) as they apply to the design , location and site of your home.
Work with nature to ensure that the design fits in with the local environment.
R Prepare designs that are in harmony with the local climate, rainfall, plants, soil, wind patterns, and amount of sunshine.
R Incorporate locally available materials that harmonize in color, texture, shape, and substance.
R Retain or restore as much of the natural landscape as possible by planning for a green roof, swales for natural rain water management, rain water collection systems, and even potentially a living machine sewage waste processing system.
Use as many of the natural resources provided by the site selected.
R Local wood logs if trees must be cut down.
R Local sand, soil, stones, gravel and large rocks.
R Allow local wild grasses to grow on the roof, walking paths, and on the septic field.
R Take advantage of the local straw bale harvest as a low cost, highly effective alternative for insulation.
R Build on marginal land, use the fertile areas for growing vegetables, and maintain the largest portion possible to naturalize.
R Remember that trees provide one of the most powerful cooling and pollution reducing engines known.
R Spend time on the site throughout the year in order to determine local site attributes that provide resources.
R Local wind variations and strength may allow for a wind turbine .
R Solar access may be optimized by ensuring that large trees do not impede local solar input while providing a buffer from cold winds and cooling in the summer.
Re-use local natural materials available, such as logs of wood, local straw bales, local timbers, and local raw building materials.
R Use local trees where possible for the posts and beams.
R Use locally available rocks, sand, trees, bushes, air, and solar access.
Take full advantage of local solar , wind and hydro through proper orientation, location, building design and landscaping.
R Locate near a dense forest to break the cold winds in winter.
R Orient the house in order to take optimal advantage of solar gain.
R If a wind generator makes sense, given enough windy days, then locate it at a high point in order to collect the greatest amount of wind energy .
R Landscaping features should include a sod roof to cool in the summer and provide extra insulation in the winter especially when snow accumulates.
R Electricity connection will be made by laying cable in a trench to be dug along the north east perimeter of the property. The electricity grid connection will provide power throughout the project. Eventually the photo voltaic solar panels will provide electricity generated by the sun and returned into the electricity grid.
R Driveway to curve as plotted on survey or as adjusted once house placement on site has been made. The curved driveway is designed to reduce the flow of wind from the north by providing some forest barrier whereas a straight driveway would not.
R Trees to be cut down for driveway will be re-used in construction so logs must be placed in a good location for "drying". Martin continually reiterated his desire to try and use as many of the natural materials available on the site as possible.
R A Garden Pond that includes a bathing pond to be constructed on south side of property. Solar powered pump to be used for water circulation/waterfall. See pages 340-347 of Living Spaces.
R House to be built on natural high ground towards the northeast area of the property just south (about 100-150 feet in from the road on the north) of the woodlot. The trees will provide a natural wind barrier to reduce the effects of cooling in the winter and improve cooling in the summer.
R Landscaping to be level with main floor on the North and South sides of the house at the center of the house, and to the east of center. The landscaping will gently slope from the center on the north and south at ground floor level down to the basement level on the west side of the house where a basement walk-out will allow for exit from the house (solarium enclosed sliding glass door as an air lock to be built).
R An area for growing vegetables, herbs, and other food should be planned for and located optimally for access from the kitchen but with ideal soil, sun and other parameters considered.
R Planting of apple trees as well as wild raspberries and strawberries to be planned and located.
R Rainwater harvesting system to be used for all landscape maintenance requirements.
R Ecological design and building principles to be adhered to for all aspects of design, construction and operation.
R Straw-bale wall on north side of the house to provide superior insulation from the cold north winds.
R Earth covered roof, natural vegetation on roof, cultivated pitched roof, grass-roofed home (natural grasses). The grass roof should provide significant cooling capabilities in the summer and some increased insulation in the winter. Typically green roofs provide a 30-40% reduction in energy requirements for cooling in the summer.
R Extensive 6'x6' triple glazed windows (we ended up with double glazed) predominantly along south side on both 1st and 2nd floors.
R 3 x Fireplace/Wood burning stoves to be planned for (models of optimal efficiency and minimal pollution to be selected). First to be located in main Living Area. Second to be located in or near the Kitchen/Dining area. Third to be located in the basement and located for optimal heating during winter.
R Natural lighting to be used as much as possible to minimize lighting requirements during the day.
R Rainwater harvesting system to be incorporated wherever possible.
R Water conservation to be maximized for all appliances and fixtures.
R If regulations allow, integrate a large built-in composting toilet system. See page 369 of Living Spaces. This system combines both organic kitchen and toilet waste. Garden waste composted in a separate receptacle. If composting toilet is not permitted then a Garden Waste composting system should be integrated into the kitchen separately.
R A root cellar/cold room will be used to minimize refrigeration requirements. Optimally designed root cellar to be incorporated, preferably on north side of house near kitchen
Appliances to be purchased will be highest efficiency models available:
· Dish washer
· Stove top range
· Clothes washer
· Clothes dryer (plan on using indoor and outdoor clothes line whenever possible as an alternative to the electric clothes dryer)
· Microwave oven
· Computers – 4 notebook models (low energy requirements) + 1 low energy printer
R The kitchen should be U – shaped most likely with an island. A 4' table will be placed near the window on the south side of the kitchen for breakfasts and light meals. Bar stools and a counter should be provided between the breakfast nook table and the kitchen.
R There will be 3 bathrooms. One in the Master Bedroom on the ground floor (bath, shower, toilet and 2 sinks). Second on the ground floor with a toilet and sink only. Third on the middle level or second floor with a bath, shower, toilet and sink. Roughed in washroom (3-4 piece) in the basement
R Mud room will provide access to the house from the northwest side; lots of good storage will be provided. The laundry facilities may be located in this room. Access from the garage should be provided. Space for 2 big dogs will be required to sleep.
R Garage for 2 cars and some storage space. Firewood storage may be near the garage.
R Main entranceway will be near the center of the house on the north side. In order to create an airlock a glass solarium will be built out from the front of the house. The air lock will be in the solarium so that the lobby doesn't need to be air locked. This air lock and front door arrangement will provide a layer of solarium in order to provide light from the north without compromising the insulation and sealing.
R 3 bedrooms will be located on the second floor all along the south side of the house. Like on the ground floor, each room's south wall will be dominated by 6'x6' triple glazed windows (we ended up with double glazed, krypton filled glass which provided the best benefit for a reasonable cost).
R The fourth bedroom – the Master bedroom – will be on the ground floor. Room for 2 large antique dressers, a small seating area (two chairs) on the east side, two walk in closets (a 6'x6' minimum and a 4'x6') and a bathroom.
R The basement should be predominantly open concept with a walk-out to the west near the north side. The basement will be used as a play room and television viewing room, as well as an occasional spare bedroom for guests. Some storage space will be required. 9-foot ceilings to be finished. A window should be located on the south side of the basement near the west side to let in the sun light coming from the south for natural lighting. These windows should be slightly above ground level as the landscape descends towards the walkout at basement level on the west side of the house.
R Space will be required in the basement for a water cistern, composting toilet system, electrical room, and root cellar. (The cistern ended up being placed outside the house.)
R A central vacuum system should be built in.
R The Living/Family room will be located on the south west side of the house. Both the view to the south and the west should be viewable through windows.
R The Dining room should be just west of the kitchen on the south side of the house.
R The Work /Studio area will provide a space for working from home. Four desks should be able to be accommodated along with book shelves, filing space and good natural lighting. The view to the south should be available even if the sliding glass doors are closed between the Work/Studio and the Living/Family room.
R Total space for the house not to exceed 2500 square feet.
R Excellent natural ventilation to be built into the design .
R Natural passive solar heating to be optimized wherever possible.
R A green house will be built on the south east side with easy access from the kitchen. Growing herbs and some vegetables in the winter can be expected.
R Patios should be provided on the west side walkout from the basement and near the green house and south east walkout near the kitchen for summer breakfasts outside.
R Water supply to be provided by rain water. A secondary source in a drilled well may also be included.
R Electrical supply to be provided primarily by Photo Voltaic panels. Solar water heating panels also may be considered. A wind power device may also be integrated into the power systems. Back-up power to be purchased, and excess power sold, through the Hydro One connection.
R Heating will be primarily through the radiant floor heating systems and passive solar systems.
R Natural materials will be used to minimize potential indoor environment hazards from synthetic materials.
One of the most important things I've learned is that the true power of smart housing design resides in the basic structure, the quality of the foundation, framework and walls/windows. By orienting the building structure correctly for sunlight (spring, summer, fall and winter), by insulating optimally through-out, by applying shelter from sun , rain and wind using the local environment and simple shading, by providing natural ventilation in the structure, by putting heat absorbing mass in the water pipe filled flooring and double glazed argon or krypton filled high quality windows on the south side, you get a nearly complete self-sufficient, minimally mechanical, simple to maintain house. These key elements also provide, for the lifetime of the house, free heating, cooling, lighting, fresh indoor air quality and all water requirements without the additional expense and ongoing expenses of a furnace, air conditioner, duct work and water systems – not quite as "cool" as photo voltaic solar panels for power or a fancy modern kitchen or low water/power dish washers or efficient sealed wood burning stoves, but far more important. As our architect likes to say it comes down to simple basic quality of design and construction of the house.
In terms of the finishing details, we discovered that beauty of leaving things basically "unfinished" and open concept is that you are able to make decisions when you can actually see and feel the space, that you can change things around using simple moveable walls, closets and doors. Also, through the elimination or minimization of trim, finishing, paint, façade, and coverings much of the high costs can be minimized and potentially used on the basic quality of the design and structure.
Through the design and planning phases we've learned how the building code standards have been setup primarily for tract housing developments. The building codes typically define the worst possible design that you can get away with legally. Developers are able to conform to the code, avoiding costly design and engineering costs. The results are houses of the poorest quality of design and construction allowable by the law. To be fair, some well-intentioned programs like Canada's "R2000" standards are designed to set guidelines and standards for super-efficiency. These have resulted in higher resale values for these better-quality homes. However, for the vast majority of home builders there is little or no incentive to build beyond the minimal standards. Sadly, this is more a reflection of society than of the government bodies or developers. We must all demand simple quality, smart design and compliance with sustainable design principles so that government and developers will find it necessary to change things.
In a book called the Toilet Papers, Sim Van der Ryn outlines the key reasons why these "bureaucracies" fail to allow for sensible, safe alternative solutions even as the environment so obviously needs them.
1) As a general
rule bureaucracies like to deal with other bureaucracies rather than with
people. The more a problem can be centralized, the better.
2) It is easier to come down on the little guy than the big guy. I have heard of cases where permits were denied until the applicant could prove that dry toilets killed viruses, which no conventional sewage treatment can do.
3) Regulatory processes are set up for routine. It is easier to say "no" rather than rethink the problem and design a better procedure.
4) Like most bureaucracies, the assumption of regulation follows Murphy's law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." Alternate systems do require more individual responsibility than conventional systems. Bureaucracy assumes you are incapable and unwilling to take responsibility for such basics as managing your own waste.
5) Regulations are oriented towards control, not towards education. Most people who are using or have built alternate systems are valuable sources of information for neighbors. Yet the person who rocks the boat is often viewed as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
6) A keystone of sanitation practice is water borne sewage. For years the United States Census measure of progress was the number of flush toilets in the country. Any departure from this practice, no matter how rational or safe, is looked at as a step backwards.
7) Most local health departments are not set up to evaluate unconventional systems.
We experienced an example of this bureaucracy related to our plans for composting toilets.
During our design discussion we had agreed that a composting toilet system was required in order to meet the requirements of our principles . Ideally the composting toilet system would cost no more than a sewage system hookup or a septic system, and could be significantly less. Unfortunately most building codes in North America do not allow for a composting toilet system to be built inside a full time residence.
The local building inspector was very comfortable with the straw bale walls. He had approved quite a number before ours. However, when it came to the composting toilet system, it appeared as though this was something that had not been done before, and the inspector was not willing to go beyond the code. Rather than work through the legal process we decided to proceed with a hybrid approach to our sewage processing problem. Martin thought that he could convince the inspector if we included a backup septic system for one toilet and provided direct access to the outside for disposal of the composting systems waste through the greenhouse . Essentially, the composting toilet system had to be separate from the house. Martin was able to get approval for the composting toilet system using the combined small scale septic system and an exit from the greenhouse.
By taking this approach, we were able to prove out the ability of the composting toilet system to meet a household's needs, and get on with the project by having the septic system as a backup. The down side is that we've had to pay upwards of $15,000 extra for the septic system we hadn't originally budgeted.
Since straw bale wall construction has been approved in this area before we had no trouble with this part of our design . Not so with the house our architect built in the popular suburb of Mississauga. It took more than a year in the courts to get permission to build with straw bales. The City had big concerns around the lack of a vapor barrier, which is required by the code. Sadly, the problems associated with vapor barrier sealed houses don't seem to have reached the building codes yet. The straw bale walls, which are covered by several layers of plaster, can in fact breathe. This type of design provides a very good barrier to air leakage, with the added advantage of some air and vapor transmission. Air quality is improved by this exchange. As well, problems such as trapped condensation on vapor barriers causing wood to rot and molds to grow are much less likely.
On my 34th birthday – August 16th 2000, we visited the site of our new home. The initial excavation work for the foundation had been done, and the devastation to the earth, to our favorite picnic spot – the place where we dreamed of a kitchen – came as quite a shock. The deep hole was gigantic. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my god, this is real." I said to Leigh, "I was just kind of dreaming…I wasn't really sure it could be done." This was my sense after seeing the results of my dreams coming true. It was truly a great shock, and one that still surprises me.
Trying to find a builder open to the challenges of a natural home proved surprisingly easy for us to find. While Martin Liefhebber, our architect suggested a builder, Leigh had found, through discussion with her hair dresser, that a friend of hers was a builder. In fact, this builder actually lived near the property. This as it turned out, was a critical moment. We met Colin Richards, toured homes he had built in northern Ontario, and decided he was the right choice. Colin told us that he had been building homes for thirty years. He was looking for a challenge, something new and different. Although the essentials of a natural home can be quite conventional, in the case of our home, post and beam construction. The use of straw bales, solar panels and a green roof were not conventional.
Colin is a big man, with very large paws for hands, and a comforting, confident swagger. Speaking with Colin you get the sense that there is nothing to worry about, that he has figured it out before and will again. Over laying his confidence is an easy going, laid back attitude. Leigh and I both felt Colin was the right choice in terms of his experience, willingness and interest in new ideas, and perhaps most of all his easy going confident manner. We knew we'd being working together for many months through some tough phases. We both felt that the relationship would work. In hindsight this sense of trust and comfort with the relationship proved critical. Many custom home construction projects I am aware of have been derailed by difficulties in with the owner/builder relationship. This relationship required that a diverse set of personalities work well together. As it turned out Martin has discovered a great partner in the design/build process with Colin. Both Leigh and I found that as a team we worked well together even through difficult problems that lead to many tensions. In the end we understood each other well enough and knew what each others priorities were.
Both Colin and Martin worked well together finalizing the details of the design. The drawings went to the towns building permit group and within several weeks they were approved. Several design ideas proved difficult to get approved. The first sticking point was composting toilets. Martin was eventually able to get approval by providing easy access to the central composting unit in the basement for removal of the waste. Unfortunately the code, we were told, required that we have a septic field despite the composting toilets. Given that the septic field would cost more that $10,000, composting toilets would have to be postponed to the future for reasons of cost. Martin had in mind the idea of using grey water (from sinks and baths) to feed planters in the green house and through the south end of the living room. Again, the building inspector lead us to believe that this was not something he could approve. The rest of the design requirements passed this review including straw bale walls, rain water collection, solar panels and a wind turbine .
Once Colin and Martin got approval, delayed a few weeks for the updates to accommodate the composting toilet access, the planning and preparation proceed very quickly. We met at the site with both Colin and Martin to precisely position the home. Colin brought his new GPS device in order to be sure we were facing due true south. We staked out the general area of the home. We had planned to tuck the home quite close to the trees on the north side. We ended up a little further south as new trees and the driveway made this necessary. The driveway was staked.
On August 30, 2000 our builder, Colin, and I met with Pers Drew to discuss our solar power requirements. Pers had been the director at Ontario Hydro for solar power applications. His setup at the Kortright Conservation Centre that provides an excellent learning center for those interested in the different types of solar power systems available, how they are constructed, their advantages and disadvantages. Pers brings a great deal of experience – more than 20 years – during which time he has implemented photo voltaic and wind power systems in some remote areas of northern Canada, in southern countries, and in various places throughout Ontario.
Pers walked us through the Kortright Centre. A solar powered Living Machine facility, which processes all waste water requirements for the center, was recently added. This very impressive building, funded by the steel industry, is a giant solar powered greenhouse . Within the facility, a Living Machine quietly processes the Centre's sewage into clean water. This system is powered by a solar photo voltaic and solar hot water heating system integrated with the building structure. The electric system is inter-tied with the power grid system so that the electrical meter runs backwards during the day when the solar panels are generating more power than the Centre needs.
Next on the tour was the self-sufficient demonstration cottage. This small building provides working examples of both grid connected and off-the-grid solar power systems. Inside the cottage are examples of a small composting toilet system, an efficient wood stove, wind-up radio, and natural passive solar heating through orientation and windows on the south side of the structure.
Just past the demonstration cottage are four structures for teaching students how to setup and install photo voltaic power systems. Further on down the path are facilities that demonstrate the full integration of solar panels into the building structure. The first structure integrates conventional aluminum framed cells as the roofing material, simply laid together and sealed. This integration was done around eight year ago and still functions well as shown by the demonstration inside the structure. Beside this structure is a new three-year-old demonstration of a roof shingle system with embedded photo voltaic cells. This system, although providing less energy per square foot, provides for easy integration wherever roofing material exists.
We sat with Pers in the demonstration cottage to discuss our power requirements. Pers showed us some of the other projects he had done. Most were in quite remote locations where off-the-grid systems were required. Recent projects, like the straw bale Meadowood house in the large city of Mississauga near Toronto , were grid-connected solar power systems. It is comforting to know that a large number of people are starting to do this without any support from government or society in general.
We had already decided to implement a grid-connected system – to which Pers' responses became quite simple. "How much do you want to spend?" The basic principle is that since the grid can supply as much energy as you need, you are only getting the photovoltaic and wind power generators to "make a statement". In my head, I am thinking yes and no. Yes – I would like to make a statement. On the other hand, no, I also want to save money by being a net supplier of energy to the grid. Who knows, maybe one day they will pay me for this at a rate that makes it worthwhile to supply more. In the end, our decision was to start with a smaller system, although large where essential like in the inverter system, so that we can add panels as required to meet our demand and budget. We budgeted $20,000 for the system although an average quote is around $15,000. In my own mind, if I am buying my energy for the foreseeable future I don't mind spending $30-40,000 if my loan on that money isn't more than I would spend on conventional electricity. If I get lucky, energy prices will go through the roof and our investment will look brilliant.
Essentially, we decided to implement a hybrid approach, which would allow us to store some energy for the large loads like the oven, washer, and dryer, while still supplying excess into the grid and taking power from the grid if required. There are many experts at supplying and installing these types of systems. Take advantage of their knowledge and experience as you plan your own system. The technology is constantly changing and improving. Many options exist. Do your own research as well, so you know what questions to ask.
On Martin's suggestion, we approached construction as an organic process, leaving ourselves open to opportunities that present themselves throughout the building stage. The idea is to continuously look for ways to use natural site features for things like better natural lighting, improved ventilation, use of local site materials and simplification of the construction.
Martin dreamed up the idea of allowing more light into the basement by providing small portals in the main floor near the south facing windows. Just before the concrete was to be poured we modified the floor to allow for tempered glass plates to be inserted, allowing light into the large basement area.
Another of Martin's ideas was to install vents in the hallway floor to draw cooler air from the basement into the rest of the house during the summer. We left an 8-inch gap between the straw bale wall and the flooring. The vents could then be cut into the plywood sub-floor, and covered with standard heating vents or some kind of grate. Then we could fill the gap with stones to finish it off. This design feature serves many purposes, including ventilation, safety (it keeps people away from the rough stucco wall, so they don't get scratched by it), economy (time and money to cut the flooring to match the uneven wall), and aesthetics (we get many compliments on this unusual "trim"). Taking the time each day to review the construction site for unrealized opportunities provided many advantages.
The water system was designed to collect rainwater and store it in the cistern installed to the north of the house, near the well. Once this system is connected, the water will need to be run through a sand filter and ultra violet light cleaning system so it can be used for drinking.
The single conventional toilet, required by code to properly operate the septic system, was installed on the second floor. The composting toilets were to be placed in both bath rooms on the ground floor, in order to allow the visitors to try out these systems.
Using the local sand from the site saved us approximately $20,000. This local sand was used for the septic bed, and resulted in a smaller septic field than would otherwise have been required.
At some point we decided to use one-side-good Fir plywood as the finished floor and on some of the walls on the second floor. The ground floor would get a bamboo floor. The existing concrete flooring on the south side would be left as is. Martin came up with the idea of adding gravel to the greenhouse area and "landscaping" indoors for this area.
Hydronic In-Floor Heating
Letting Light In
Post and Beam Supports Green Roof
Green Roof with Central Sky Light
Straw Bale Walls
Straw Bale Work Volunteers
Finishing Stucco on the Straw Bale Walls
Passive Solar Design
Green Roof Concept
Martin Liefhebber provided this touched up photograph of what the green roof will look like once we get the soil and plants on it.
Photo Voltaic Solar Panels on the Roof
Wind Turbine Operating while Solar Panels are Covered by Snow
John Wilson on the South Side of the Home
Wind and Solar Going Full Blast
We decided to avoid a conventional boiler for our radiant floor heating system. One thought was to build a masonry-type fireplace in the center of the house with built in water circulation coils. Once we reached the stage of construction where the wood fireplace was required, we switched to an EPA-rated wood stove instead of the masonry heater. This also required a switch to a small electric boiler that would support a solar hot water heater.
Before doing the straw bale walls on our own home we participated in the work on the Mississauga house that Martin had designed. We learned how to divide bales for different spacing requirements, stack them like bricks for strength, secure them with chicken wire fencing, sew them together with giant needles and finally how to sponge the last coat of plaster applied to the straw bales for the final finish. We spent two weekends working on the bales the first weekend and plastering the second weekend.
We sent out a press release to try and attract some press attention before having our own straw bale wall raising. Although one local television station said that it would send a camera crew to the event, they never showed up. The local newspaper did print a version of this release which did garner a few calls from local residents interested in this type of construction. One lady who called asked whether this technique could be used to construct a Church. There could be no better structure suited to this type of construction in my mind. We referred her to our architect and said we'd be glad to meet with her to discuss our experiences and be of assistance should they decide to proceed with design and construction.
The following is our press release:
The pioneering spirit is alive and well in the Mono Township, North of Toronto , this Easter Weekend. Friends, family, and a host of volunteers will join homeowners John Wilson and Leigh Geraghty for a "Straw Bale Weekend" at their home near Mono Mills. "The idea", says John Wilson, "is to create a home which is healthy, beautiful and sustainable, by turning to old/new technologies such as straw-bale construction, sod roofs, and composting toilets."
John and his family look forward to moving into their "healthy house" in May, a dream that has taken over seven years to realize. Since his children were born, John has developed a strong interest in preserving the natural environment, and leaving a healthier world for Ian and Claire to grow up in. The natural warmth of the sun will heat the house, while a sod roof and straw bale walls protect it from the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
Early settlers in Nebraska first used straw bales to construct homes in the late 1800s. Faced with no trees to mill and soil too sandy to use for sod homes, they turned to the abundant supply of prairie grasses and their recently invented baling machines. Many of these turn-of-the-century homes, schools and churches still stand today. Modern straw bale construction uses the same basic principles applied by the Nebraskan pioneers, but updated to meet current building code requirements. Straw bale homes offer insulation values more than double that of standard frame homes. Environmentally, the use of straw bales replaces the majority of the framing lumber, manufactured insulation and plastic barriers with an annually renewable , agricultural waste product. Straw bale homes consistently use less than one half of the heating and cooling energy required by standard frame homes.
The straw bale post and beam house has been designed by award winning architect Martin Liefhebber, to compliment its natural surroundings and capitalize on readily available resources, such as the energy of the sun , the natural slope of the land, and protection of the trees. The living roof will grow low-maintenance plants typical of the surrounding area. The house is structured to maximize passive solar heat with concrete floors that also have hydronic tubing as a back-up heat source. Composting toilets will allow the recycling of human waste without polluting the environment.
One of the best things about building with straw bales is the opportunity to involve others, whether amateurs or experts, in the construction of your home. With minimal instruction and supervision, a team of inexperienced family, friends, and other enthusiasts can help you to erect your straw bale walls in just a few days. We call it a "straw bale happening".
Friends, family and a small group of experienced straw bale builders gather for a few days to prepare and stack straw bales for a building. For a volunteer, it's a chance to exchange experience with others, and plan for their own future straw bale structure. The new skills you learn can be used in preparing to build your own home. Whether or not you plan to build with straw bales yourself, the opportunity to participate in a straw bale happening provides a great sense of accomplishment. It just feels good to help others.
We met some remarkable people including the straw bale experts from Camels Back Construction…Tina, Pete and Chris. These folks are leading experts at the trade. Peter Mack and Chris Magwood have written a book on straw bale construction that is one of the best available on the subject called Straw Bale Building. They build up to twenty projects a year out of straw bales. Like a rock group, they have their groupies who show up at the construction site when called on, and work their hearts out over a weekend or two to raise the straw bale walls. Before starting construction Chris gives everyone some tips on the process. Complete one layer of bales first, offset the second row by half a bale, interlock the corners, make sure the walls go up straight, fill in gaps with loose straw before starting on the next layer, be safety conscious, and have fun. With these experts keeping an eye on family, friends, groupies and strangers things went incredibly smoothly. We had it all done in two weekends.
Working together like this on the straw bale walls, you develop a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. Networking with people of all ages and backgrounds, who share in a common interest and purpose, leads to the sharing of ideas, solutions to problems, and an all-important level of encouragement. The resulting optimism and positive attitudes generate a sense that it can be done – and we're doing it together. It's amazing to witness the enthusiasm of volunteers so interested in learning by working hard, for free, for somebody else.
For me, one of the most valuable lessons was the importance of good site preparation. Our builder Colin and architect Martin put a lot of thought and effort into preparing the work site, ensuring a prompt start with less waiting around for volunteers and helpers. This includes preparing the base that the bales will sit on, as well as careful planning of windows and electrical outlet placement.
I also picked up some great tips for building with bales, for example:
R Staple the chicken wire to the outside frame before starting to stack the bales of straw.
R Complete one row before starting the next one.
R Decide which side of the wall needs to be the straightest (usually one side will have a bit more "character" than the other). Then use huge wooden mallets on each side of the stacked bales to straighten the walls.
R Don't forget to stuff gaps on the outside and around posts before starting the next level.
R You can apply either two or three layers of stucco. If you plan to add color, apply the final pigment layer with a paint roller several weeks after completing the first two layers. This allows time for the stucco to dry properly, and the color layer will hide any cracks or flaws.
The natural curved lines and spaces formed by straw bale walls produce a spiritual sense of closeness to earth, a sense of harmony with creation and life. Look at the teepee, igloo and many other examples of aboriginal dwellings. When you enter one of these structures, this spiritual feeling surrounds you. You can feel it if you spend a night in a cozy warm round teepee with an opening in the top to the stars above. This is the feeling I get in my own home, both inside and out. When guests visit my home, they feel it too.
Shortly after finishing our straw bale walls, I spent a day insulating other parts of our home with Roxul insulation. I realized with startling clarity that straw bales are much more pleasant to work with than conventional insulation material. It doesn't irritate the skin, you don't need protective goggles, and a day of straw bale building is actually lots of fun. Now, who can say that about a day of working with fiberglass or Roxul insulation?
We moved into our new home on May 26, 2001. I slept at the site for two nights prior to the actual move to safe guard construction materials. The first few nights, with insulation not yet in place, were cold. It was striking how much warmer it got once the insulation was in.
For the first eight weeks the main south windows were covered in a thick plastic sheet in order to prevent water leakage during rains until the windows had their final seal, flashing and siding applied. This, during the middle of our summer, has meant some warm evenings. With the few small windows on the east and west side that have been completed we do get a good up-draft at each end of the house. Without the windows on the south side operating the second floor remains quite hot during the night. We believe that once the green roof is filled with plants and the outside sun shades are installed, the overall natural ventilation and a minimization of solar heat gain will create a much cooler pleasant indoor environment for sleeping.
Already a dramatic temperature difference exists between the basement and the 2nd floor of the house. In fact a constant flow of air is pulled up through the vents from the basement into the ground floor. This natural air conditioning system, even at this very early stage, appears to have great potential. The solid concrete floors, stay cool. This coolness reaches me as I sit in the living room reading a book on a hot and muggy evening.
The opportunity to tour a natural home can be a turning point for people who are serious about renovating or building. Many people are surprised to learn that a large part of the design is determined by the particular conditions of the site. Unlike large-scale developments the orientation of the sun at different times of the year, location of trees for protection from cold north winds, the slope of land, and access to sunshine from the south are where the design starts. The Wilson natural home is oriented to true north/south. This was accomplished during site visits long before construction began. A GPS was used to determine this location information as precisely as possible. Once the solar orientation was determined the house was staked out facing due south.
To retain the benefits of the trees to the north of the house that block the cold north winds, the laneway through these trees follows a long curve to prevent the wind (and dust) from blowing directly through to the house. The house was then tucked in to the trees on the north while leaving the south exposed. The site also slopes gently to the south leaving plenty of solar exposure on the south side. The east and west sides are buffered with more trees, since the winds from the northwest can be fierce during the winter months. These simple orientation concepts provide significant long-term savings on heating and cooling. In the summer the cool breeze is pulled in through the trees on the north maintaining a cool pleasant temperature in the home. In the winter the trees block the coldest winds from hitting the home directly. The temperature difference is optimized for cooling in the summer and warmth in the winter. In fact, the temperature south of the trees where the home is located can be more than several degrees warmer in the winter and can seem much warmer as the wind is so much milder in this area compared to the north side of the trees.
The next layer of protection for the home is the straw bale wall on the north side. This wall provides excellent insulation (R50-R60). Straw bale is a renewable building material that comes from local farmers. The bales are used like bricks to build the walls. Then a chicken wire mesh is stapled to both sides and sewn together compressing the bales. The final treatment is several layers of stucco on each side of the wall. Straw bale walls have the added benefit of being breathing walls. This means that some level of air transmission occurs, while maintaining the high level of insulation. There is no vapor barrier, unlike almost all modern Canadian homes. This ability to breathe eliminates the need for a mechanical heat recovery ventilator and vapor barrier, while providing better indoor air quality without any additional energy costs.
The tour continued at the south side of the home. Here the concepts of passive solar design were explained. Essentially this passive solar concept is the primary heating system for the Wilson home. Windows on the south side of the home allow light into the home especially in the winter when the sun is low in the sky. Inside the house, thick concrete floors absorb the heat so that it can slowly dissipate over night when it is needed during the winter. The fiberglass windows, filled with krypton gas, provide exceptionally good insulation levels for windows thus keeping the sun's heat from escaping. Throughout the home, hydronic tubing is embedded in the floors to capture and circulate the heat (or coolness in the summer). This system eliminates the need for any furnace.
Think about the thousands of dollars that are saved in reduced oil, gas, or electricity bills each year. All these cost savings without producing any pollution. People who came to the open house said they were paying anywhere from $1,500 to more than $5,000 each year in heating costs. Over twenty years that adds up to $100,000 assuming the cost of these energy sources stay the same. There is no doubt that gas, oil, and electricity prices will continue to rise. It is possible that the cost of energy required to heat conventional homes may reach numbers far greater than the cost of actually building the home in the next thirty to fifty years, especially as fossil fuel reserves become exhausted. Most scientists agree that we are reaching the peak. Since the cost to extract the rest will only increase – as supplies diminish and become harder to reach – it is quite possible that prices may skyrocket. When this happens the investment in passive solar will look simply brilliant.
As the tour continued, groups were told how the two levels of windows on the south side double the potential for passive solar heat collection. This design is optimized for the specific climatic conditions of the site. There is a great need for solar heating in the winter. Two levels of windows to collect this heat doubles the storage capability. In the summer the planned shading system and green roof will ensure the passive solar system does not overheat the home. A green roof will reducing heating in the summer by 30-40% while providing additional insulation in the winter when it is so critical. People are surprised to learn that more that 20% of houses in Germany have a green roof. The shading system (not yet installed) will also help to prevent overheating in the summer. A vine-covered pergola will also improve the cooling properties of the passive design in the summer.
The solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are located above the upstairs windows. The solar PV panels turn sunlight into electricity. The DC electricity generated by the PV panels is transformed into AC by an inverter in the basement, for use by home appliances. The wind turbine also produces DC electricity. Again, the inverter turns DC to AC. When more solar/wind power is being generated than used in the home, the inverter feeds the excess AC power into the public electricity grid, turning the meter backwards. The ten Siemens solar PV panels produce up to 400 watts an hour when the sun is shining directly above them, without any cloud cover. The Bergey XL wind turbine can generate up to 1,000 watts an hour when there is a relatively strong wind. Many people were surprised that the entire system, which could be retrofitted for most homes in this area, cost only $20,000 fully installed and CSA certified. Many people believe that the minimal level of investment is in the $100,000 range.
Inside the house the tour reflected on the benefits of a natural air-cooling system provided through the skylight tower in the middle of the house. This idea, thousands of years old, is still used in the Sahara to provide a natural air conditioning system during hot weather. The cool air is naturally drawn up from the basement and through the house, eventually venting out of the skylight at the top using convection. The window in the skylight is opened during the summer in order to drive this effect. At all times of the year the light coming in through the large central skylight means electric lights don't need to be turned on nearly as often. The use of opaque materials like Plexiglas and fiberglass allows light into places like bathrooms and hallways.
Some of the materials used in the Wilson natural home include bamboo for wood flooring. Bamboo is a grass. After it is harvested for use in the floors the bamboo grows back. Bamboo is also a very hard wood so that it withstands the beating that many hardwoods might not. Other materials included parallam posts and beams for the framework of the house, birch for the paneling and kitchen cabinetry, as well as MDF cardboard for much of the shelving. Other natural materials used include slate, local pinewood, and gravel.
R Produced from a waste product – available annually;
R Easy to use;
R Durable over time;
R Easy to maintain;
R Requires only simple tools and unskilled labor;
R High insulation value – between R32 and 54;
R Lower heating and cooling requirements resulting in reduced fossil fuel use and reduced CO2 emissions;
R Breathability, improved indoor air quality;
R Extremely quiet, good sound insulation;
R Natural curved surfaces and thick plaster-covered walls, create a sense of comfort;
R Reduced burning of straw which is an environmental hazard;
R Reduced use of timber;
R High rating as a sustainable building material;
R Durability – effectively survives earth quakes, tornados, and even fire;
R Good load-bearing capacity;
R Good long-term cost savings through low total life cycle costs over 30-100 years.
Frequently heard concerns with straw bale construction include fire hazard, strength, and rotting. These concerns have been consistently proven to be unfounded:
R Fire safety tests have found straw bales to be more fire resistant than most conventional building materials. Because of the thickness of the walls and lack of oxygen available, it takes two hours to burn through plaster, straw and stucco walls (double the resistance of most wood frame homes);
R They successfully survive humidity and moisture in almost all climates. Protection against water damage is the main concern. Even unplastered straw bale walls have shown excellent resistance to deterioration over long periods of time;
R Pests, allergies and odors have proven to be of minimal or less of a problem than conventional building materials. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are no problems with bugs in straw bale buildings;
R Building codes are beginning to accept this material with specific inclusion in some areas;
R Insurance and financing has become possible now that this material is more recognized as a standard in eco-housing; in fact there are reportedly more than 20 straw bale houses built each year in Ontario, Canada where we built our home.
Cultivating our roof instead of using steel, plastic tiles, shingles, or wood seemed like a good idea. According to the ecological design books I had read, people consider these houses unusual looking, although highly desirable from an environmental standpoint. In fact, if roof agriculture were adopted on a broad scale the positive impact for the environment would be substantial.
Some of the key reasons for selecting a green roof were to be found in the book Living Spaces which we purchased during the design phase:
R Thicker roof structure leads to better sound and thermal insulation;
R Improvement to the surrounding microclimate due to the much cooler roof surface and the moisture given off by plants;
R Increased thermal mass thereby stabilizing indoor temperature swings;
R Absorption of dust and pollutants;
R Retention of 50-70% of rain water and resulting reduction in site run-off;
R Plants provide habitat for small mammals and birds;
R More esthetically pleasing;
Conventional systems linked to the electricity grid are environmentally damaging in a big way. Existing standard systems including coal , oil, gas, nuclear , and large scale hydro exact heavy penalties on the environment including major carbon contributions to global warming from fossil fuels , loss of power in transmissions over large distances, inability to safely dispose of nuclear power waste, dangers of catastrophe with nuclear accidents, and terrible environmental destruction of natural habitats caused by hydro. The future answer will be a combination of super-efficiency in appliances combined with solar , wind and geothermal generated electricity. The latest generation of these systems has proven to be efficient, long lasting and easy to implement in almost any area. Fuel cell technology, which involves the storage of energy as hydrogen, may also provide greater flexibility for both solar photo voltaic and wind power.
Some of the advantages of photovoltaic solar power are listed below:
R Uses silicon, a waste product from the electronics industry;
R Silent operation;
R Solid state electronics with no moving parts results in long-term problem-free operation;
R Flexible design potential for local integration into power grid, isolated systems design or a combination;
R Simple, easy and cost effective to maintain;
R Stable and declining price, while fossil fuel prices are fluctuating rapidly and increasing – especially in the next 25-50 years when shortages can be expected;
R The cost of energy production from photo voltaic may be paid back in as little as 3 years. With a 20 year or more life span, the energy generated far exceeds that used in the manufacturing process.
Use solar power sources, good passive design, efficiency, cooling ventilation, heat exchange, controlled air exchange and insulation to meet your heating, hot water and air conditioning requirements.
All heating, hot water and air conditioning requirements are being met with solar power sources, good design, efficiency, ventilation, heat exchange, controlled air exchange, a wood stove, and insulation.
High quality building design provides a complete heating and cooling system and provide a high quality indoor environment through proper passive solar gain, insulation, ventilation, and sizing.
This system was selected for a number of reasons that include both environmental and health benefits:
R The large concrete mass required for in-floor hydronic heating systems provides the perfect storage medium for passive solar design ;
R Natural heat distribution through radiation instead of forced air through duct work (which has the potential for molds and dust);
R Ability to store and recover heat naturally from passive solar absorption, solar water heat exchange, and water heated by the wood stove;
R Ability to control temperature separately for each room for optimal efficiency and flexibility.
The use of high efficiency, super insulated, high quality appliances throughout was necessitated by the photo voltaic solar power system design . The advantages of this type of appliance typically include better overall design, high quality, durability, and ease of use. The refrigerator uses the most energy of all appliances, because it is in constant use. The second is lighting systems. Third is actually the television, based on American statistics. Fourth are clothes dryers. Obviously these depend on your usage patterns. We decided to focus on the most efficient refrigerator, lighting and clothes washer and dryer systems as well as an efficient dish washer. We have no cable or satellite connection so our television usage is minimal.
One SunFrost fridge was originally planned. A high efficiency conventional Maytag was selected in the end because it provided more space (meaning we would not need a second SunFrost), was almost as efficient (actually it is rated at about twice the 19 cubic foot Sun Frost, although the Maytag we selected is 22 cubic feet of internal space) which we rationalized by committing to taking the reduced cost of the Maytag (about half the price, a savings of more than $1,500) and applying that to extra photovoltaic panels to make up for the extra energy requirements.
An Asko dishwasher was the most efficient we could find at our local discount appliance retailer "Home and Rural Appliances ". The Bosch clothes washer and dryer were the most efficient available we believe. The washer has an "Energuide" sticker that showed a rating of only 189 kwh per year that is off the scale when compared to other washers. It also uses much less water than other washers. The machine also appears to be of a very good quality design and construction so it should last longer.
A microwave/convection oven provides much of the cooking requirements. It is an old Panasonic model. We have justified this because it is one we have had and by not buying a new one we save on the waste. In general microwave ovens are very efficient so we use it for many tasks. As well, this oven provides a convection oven mode which is also quite efficient for jobs that require a small oven instead of the wasted energy of heating a small amount of food in a large conventional oven.
We selected the Creda oven because it was the smallest we could find at our local retailer. It was however big enough to cook a reasonably sized turkey for family dinners. This electric oven is very simple but is a convection oven which enhances the efficiency. In fact, in the first several weeks of use we were amazed at how little time it took this oven to heat up, minimizing any pre-heating requirements, reducing overall cooking times and doing an excellent job of cooking at lower than normal temperatures. Unfortunately this model did not come with any Energuide ratings and we have been unable to get this information from the manufacturer. We selected a GE cooktop because it had the lowest Energuide ratings of those available at "Home and Rural Appliances ". The new standard glass top, fast heating elements have performed well.
Appliances we selected are as follows:
Refrigerator: Maytag 463kwh rated 22 cubic feet size
R Requires only eight solar modules as apposed to approximately twenty four for a conventional unit, or more than half the energy requirements of many other conventional units;
R Well insulated to minimize cooling requirements;
R We considered the SunFrost super efficient refrigerators commonly used in solar powered homes. We selected the Maytag instead because it used only twice the amount of energy while providing 3 cubic feet more space and automatic defrost features. The other rationale was that since it cost less than half the price of the SunFrost we would put the savings into the purchase of more photo voltaic solar panels to make up for the increased energy requirements;
Lighting: Compact Florescent & Low Voltage
R Uses less than a quarter of the electricity of standard incandescent bulbs
R Lasts nine times longer
R Overall lifespan cost of two and half times less than incandescent bulbs
R Less waste produced
R Fewer changes required
R Better full spectrum light provided
Television : Elimination and Reduction
R Disconnected cable and satellite services in order to reduce regular usage potential
R Limit usage to planned video taped programs
R Limit units to one in the basement only
Clothes Dryer: Bosche 189kwh
R Minimize usage by using outdoor clothes line in fall, summer and spring
R Energy efficient compared to competitive units
Dishwasher: Asko 377kwh
R Smaller size reduces energy requirements and water requirements while retaining capacity to clean the same amount of dishes
R Reduced water usage through powerful cleaning mechanism
R Quite operation through insulation
Clothes Washer: Bosch
R Front loading design minimizes water requirements and provides efficient cleaning mechanism
R Uses 30 percent less water
R Uses less electric energy
R Highest efficiency rated for electric unit.
R Small size
R Non-electronic controls
The integration of a greenhouse into the house had always been a part of the dream for our new home. I had visions of growing all kinds of wonderful fruits, vegetables and herbs all year long. Other benefits of the green house include:
R Improve indoor air quality – many plants actually "clean" the air;
R Natural humidification of the indoor air.
Our property offered an opportunity to grow our own food . Through some research, advice from neighbors and friends, and trial and error, we have created an organic vegetable garden that supplies most of our vegetable requirements for the summer and well into the fall. Some of the techniques we use in our garden include:
R Composting food waste as a fertilizer;
R No chemical fertilizers or pesticides;
R Mixed planting to naturally deter pests;
R Rotating crops to minimize pests;
R Selecting plants and seeds that are native to the area;
R No lawns that require any lawnmower except for a mechanical push mower.
R The roof should have earth and natural grasses growing on it for insulation, esthetics, and minimizing the impact of the house on the natural environment.
R Water can be collected from a large roof surface that provides some natural purification through drainage from a vegetative covering (green roof ).
R The living roof or green roof also provides a cooling effect through evapo-transpiration in the summer.
R Use water barrels to provide water for agriculture and garden irrigation.
R Ponds can be created to provide natural habitats, cooling in the summer, and emergency water supplies. Larger ponds can provide an extra source of water for irrigation, fire emergencies, swimming, fish, and wildlife drinking water.
We have integrated photo-voltaic and a wind turbine supply to supply electricity. Leonard Allen of Phantom Electron Corporation supplied and installed our solar /wind power system. The system was composed of the following major components:
R 10 Siemens ST40 all-black 40W solar modules, solar photo voltaic panels
R 1 Xantrex SW4024 4kW inverter
R 1 Bergey XL-1 1kW wind turbine
R 1 SB50 Power boosting solar charge controller
R 2 Sealed batteries
R We selected only the most efficient appliances and only those that are really required to minimize the scale of the photo voltaic system required.
R We've combined the photo voltaic system with wind power to provide a more consistent supply of renewable energy .
R Logs from the lot provided some of the posts and interior façade.
R Locally made concrete blocks were used requiring little timber for forming.
R Parallam PSL wood engineered wood products were used for much of the post and beam construction.
R The north walls were insulated with natural fiber or better known as straw bales.
R Locally made Inline windows and doors were used.
R Other insulation requirements were met with the use of Roxul which is partially composed of lava rock and waste steel slag materials.
R Sand from a hole dug locally was used for much of the grading and concrete.
The orientation of the house was optimized for solar gain using several techniques including:
1) building the two story portion of the structure on the south side to maximize potential solar gain without overheating in the summer using simple awnings
2) orienting the south windows due south with optimal shading for the summer and minimal for the winter
3) extending the solar gain through an open concept design and internal windows to maximize solar penetration for heat and light
4) the layout of the kitchen and breakfast table on the south east to naturally gain the morning sun and the layout of the living room, work rooms, and dining area on the south west to get the maximum daily sun and the evening sunset on the south and south west sides
5) using local straw bales on the north wall with minimal windows and doors to optimize insulation and wind barrier from the north
6) positioning of the house facing south, at the top of a hill, shielded in the south by a forest
We left as much as possible "un-finished" and natural so that it does not require continual maintenance.
R We decided not to paint the inside stucco on the straw bale walls since the natural gray color was quite pleasing. The sponging we applied as the stucco dried left a sand like finish which would have lost some of the natural texture with painting.
R The steel beams and posts which remained exposed indoors were simply sanded down to their natural metallic color.
R Exposed metal brackets inside were allowed to retain their natural rust colors.
R The reveal molding and window frames are a dark metallic and light silver. These two materials naturally contrast and need not be painted.
Minimize the "finishing" in order to put as much investment into the quality of the design , foundation, framework, windows, insulation, passive solar heat collectors and photo-voltaic systems.
R Don't use standard wood, plastic or plaster moulding and base boards.
R Plan the look into the construction materials so that finishing is not required.
R Use conventional building material instead of expensive specialty products. For instance, we used Fir ply wood with a water based verathane for the second floor flooring. This high grain wood looks interesting, provides a warm surface, and is relatively in-expensive.
I plan to work at home when and where possible.
R Use high speed network technology to allow for communications, meetings and information and services exchange using the internet.
R Minimize work for salary or contract pay by spending more time growing food , taking care of children, and minimizing expenses through efficiency.
R Select work which supports the local community and enhances the natural landscape.
R If office work is required then try to negotiate the options of working from home when appropriate.
R Select products and services which are necessary for the local community and provide a benefit for the local natural landscape.
I have read over the years of the need to try and remove all "phantom" electrical loads especially when solar PV systems are to be used. Phantom loads are typically phones where transformers are used, built in rechargeable batteries when charging or devices with clocks that stay on all the time as well as those instant on electronic devices like TV, stereo and other electrical equipment. They are quite pervasive in modern electronics due to the exceptional convenience they provide. Unfortunately this convenience comes at an invisible price. Most of these devices require a tiny trickle of energy to maintain these devices in a "standby" mode. Often no visible indicator will show that the device is on or using energy but they are. Some strategies we use to minimize these phantom loads include:
One of the great joys of this first summer in our new solar house has been a twenty by twenty foot square vegetable garden. In early spring we got my parents out for the weekend, leveled out the area in preparation for a load of top soil from our local garden center. We picked a spot that is protected on the north and east sides by trees. In addition, it is sheltered by the house to the north and west sides. The area gets full sunlight all day. We chose twenty or so packages of seeds from our local organic supermarket, Harmony Market. We erected a fence with the leftover chicken wire from the straw bale construction on the house.
One of the back to the country books we purchased years ago gave us the idea to create growing beds about two feed wide, with walking paths around a foot wide. We also left a foot around the edges. Then we simply read the seed packages a planted as directed once the chance of frost was gone. We even got a bag of planting potatoes and put them in around the outside of the vegetable garden. Over about a month's period we planted romaine lettuce seeds, beans, peas, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, onions, mescaline lettuce and of course the potatoes. The kids helped us plant the seeds more often than not. Some books suggested planting the seeds in a more random pattern. We tried both at different times.
Leigh put leftover straw bale along the paths between the beds. This reduced the number of weeds early on but eventually weeds grow no matter what. We waited and finally some shoots came up. First, we started to enjoy some fabulous mescaline mixed green salads which in fact lasted most of the summer and even into the fall. We found it wonderful with a simple dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper along with some pine nuts. Or for some variety we stole the idea of mixing in organic goats cheese and a raspberry vinaigrette with some walnut slivers, from one our favorite local restaurants Hiding in Hockley.
Then later in the summer the beans and peas became a daily fresh vegetable with most meals. The romaine lettuce was smaller than the grocery species with a lighter leaf, still excellent for a Caesar salad. We battled the bugs with our fingers since we will not use pesticides. The potatoes were wonderful plants, popping dark green leaves that were always under attack from the potato beetle that we'd been warned about. Sadly, the potatoes died while we were on vacation during the first two weeks of July despite our attempts to keep them happy with straw bale supplements under their leaves. Having returned from our vacation and hoping to be able to start enjoying our potatoes their demise was taken quite hard as we couldn't understand what we had done wrong. Several weeks later our children's friends' parents, who are professional landscape artists told us that in fact, if we dug under the soil where the potato plants had been we'd find our long lost harvest! Yes, apparently the potatoes don't grow on the potato plant stems. They grow underground and are safe from harm even after the plant above ground dies. What luck! The potatoes are delicious and we may have enough to last us a few months into the winter.
The success of our very first vegetable garden, the many pleasurable hours plucking out weeds, fussing with the bugs, using straw bale remains as a perfect ground cover, and picking the fresh vegetables for our dinner has been enlightening. Sharing our tomatoes with friends and family has proven a great gift during their time of plenty. The onions have been a wonderful sweet addition to our summer pastas. The kids have also enjoyed the magic of seeing those seeds transform into plants and then food that is more delicious than anything we've ever had from the super market. We all learned a great deal about the food we eat and how precious it is. There is something wonderful about sharing the fresh vegetables from your garden with family and friends on a warm summer afternoon.
As I make the last few edits on this revision of the book the folks from Phantom Electron, Ben and Chris, are installing the photo voltaic solar panels on the roof above me. Next week the wind turbine will be erected on the sixty foot tower. We've started to log the amount of electricity we generate. Monitoring the electrical meter has illuminated how much electricity certain activities use. When we run the clothes dryer for instance the disc in the meter spins so fast it is almost a blur. Just the other afternoon, however, I got to see the meter run backwards as our new Siemens photo voltaic array composed of ten modules, in the middle of the day was able to generate enough electricity for our needs and send the excess into the electrical grid thus moving the meter backwards. It was a thrilling experience. I felt a bit like David fighting the powers of Goliath.
The Bergey XL wind turbine was installed in January 2002. The monitoring thus far indicates that we get lots of power generated from this device especially during those blustery winter days. In our location, on the top of Hockley Valley, we get between 2 and 7 kilowatts per day typically. Ben and Leonard of Phantom Electron Corporation installed the wind turbine during several bitter cold days. Our tower is sixty feet high and uses guy wires to secure the pole.
One of the more confusing matters when it comes to generating your own electricity is how to hook up to the utility grid. Working with Phantom Electron Corporation made this a simple matter for us as they have installed many other systems. Confusion arises because there are several options for making this connection.
The following are questions we've answered many times during the tours we give each year. For a more up-to-date list see our web site at www.NaturalLifeNetwork.com .
Why pebbles along straw bale wall on the north?
R These pebbles serve several purposes.
R Since straw bale walls are not perfectly straight it looks better and is easier to finish by simply laying the pebbles on the floor. Cutting the tile to this edge would not have been easy.
R Below the pebbles we plan to cut holes in the sub-floor to allow the cool basement air to flow up to cool the main floor in the summer when the vent in the skylight is opened.
R The space keeps people/kids from rubbing the walls which can be abrasive.
R It looks beautiful!
Why did you do straw bale only on the north wall?
R Straw bale construction provides a comfortable home. The walls provide R50-R60 insulation values.
R They breathe providing better indoor air quality.
R The cold winds in the winter come from the north.
R The complexity of the other sides of the home made straw bale more difficult although in hindsight we would consider using it.
R Our research showed that there was no reason to be conerned about fire, pests, rot, or any other fairy tale type concerns.
R Our home uses straw bales within a post and beam construction so that the bales are not load bearing. Load bearing straw bale home designs are possible and do exist.
What kind of wood is it that you used for the posts and beams and why?
R We used an engineered wood product called Parallam. The wood fibre is taken from fast growing trees rather than old growth forest products. The engineered nature of the product provided better rigidity and strength for the high roof and heavy weight of a greenroof (that will have eight inches of soil, plus snow at time), not to mention strong winds.
How can I learn how to do my own straw bale construction?
R There are several excellent books books on the subject exist. Building with Straw Bales is one of the best. Contact the experts at Camel's Back Construction - http://www.strawhomes.ca/ . The folks at Camel's back have an email list that lets you join in the construction of a straw bale home as a volunteer. That way you can learn all you need to know to do it yourself.
How much did it cost?
R The cost was approximately $120 per square foot, similar to a quality custom home built using conventional methods and materials.
What is the pay back period?
R We expect to pay back our investments in the home in general within twenty years. Assuming energy prices go up this pay back period may be significantly less.
Are you going to do anything with concrete floors?
R The concrete floors in the Living Room, Master Bedroom, and Basement will remain as they are. This type of flooring (mass, such as concrete, ceramic tile, slate, stone) is ideal for collecting and holding the sun's warmth in the winter. It also transmits the warmth from the radiant in-floor heating efficiently. In the summer, it absorbs the heat so that the air feels cooler. We like the natural look and feel.
What type of wood did you use in the kitchen and why?
R We used bamboo in the kitchen because it looks good and is a type of grass that grows back after being cut down.
What is that big concrete thing north of the house?
R That is a cistern, which is intended to hold rainwater collected from the roof. It has also been installed to allow for filling directly from the well. The cistern will hold water for household use, and also provides a water source in case of fire.
Does it get warm in the summer?
R Surprisingly, most of the house is quite comfortable in the summer. The basement is quite cool, and the main floor area is very comfortable also. The bedrooms upstairs can be quite hot on sunny days. We have plans for a shading structure to be built on the south side of the house, which will shade only the high summer sun, and allow the lower winter sun to shine through. A fan will be installed in the "tower" that will draw the hot air up in the summer also, pulling up the cooler air from the basement.
R The roof is designed to hold six inches of soil and allows us to plant native plants on it. Once we do that this type of roof can be expected to provide increased cooling in the summer up to 30-40% which should significantly improve the 2nd floor temperatures in the summer. In addition, the extra soil will improve insulation levels for the winter.
Does the $400,000 include the cost of the land?
R No, that is the cost of building the house only. It is advisable to own the land outright before beginning construction.
Does the electric utility company pay you for the energy you generate?
R No, Hydro One does not pay us for the power we generate. Our meter often runs backwards, however to date we have never generated more than we use in a month. Under the current regulations, Hydro will not pay us - the best we could expect in any given month is a $0.00 bill.
R We do however save a lot of money. Last year we spent approximately $1,000 on electricity before we had installed the wind/solar power system. This year, based on savings thus far, we expect we'll save about $500 each year.
Can all electricity meters go backwards?
R No, some models run in only one direction (forwards). You should be able to have it switched to a model that does run backwards although that might be an additional cost to you.
Is straw bale safe…fire, pests, rot, strength…can you do it in the city?
R There is no problem with pests, rot, fire or strength. The concrete stucco coating prevents any pests from entering and together with the compression of the bales, provides sufficient strength. The straw bale walls are considered more fire-retardant than conventional stud walls. Since the wall breathes (that is, air and moisture pass through freely), there is no problem with rot. Straw bales are supported by the building code. A 6000 square foot straw bale home was built in Mississauga.
Did you have any problems getting the building permit?
R No, we were fortunate to have a building inspector who is familiar with straw bale construction. There were some issues with central composting toilets and rain-water collection. In the end, the Town allowed both the composting toilets and rain-water collection, but required a septic field to be built (along with one flush toilet so that it would operate properly), and a well to be dug.
Did you have any problem getting insurance?
R Some insurance companies required inspections because of the "unconventional construction" of the home. The only issue they identified was the wood stove, due to an error made by the inspector. He listed the pipe as single-wall, when in fact it is double-wall. We had no difficulty finding an insurance company willing to insure the home at a reasonable rate, with no issues. Our insurance company ended up being State Farm Insurance.
Did you have any problem getting building financing?
R Our bank provided a construction mortgage, although these are becoming harder to get. Because of the unconventional construction, the bank required the mortgage to be insured by CMHC, even though we had a 25% down payment.
How much is the wind turbine ?
R The wind turbine requires batteries , a tower (60 feet in our case), a charge controller, and an inverter (to convert the DC current to AC for use with conventional appliance and to supply to the electricity grid). Our system also included ten Siemens 40 watt photovoltaic solar panels. This complete system installed was $20,000. We purchased our systems from Phantom Electron Corporation - http://www.phantomelectron.com/ . Contact Leonard Allen or Bed Rodgers.
Does the wind turbine make much noise?
R The wind turbine is actually very quiet. In a moderate breeze, you will hear a quiet whisper, and occasionally a mild him from the wind turbine. When the wind is very strong and gusty, you may at times hear a low "growl". Each type of turbine is different. It is best to check out the unit your expect to purchase if you can.
What was most valuable in your research into how to do Natural Living?
R Toronto Healthy House tour
R book Living Spaces – try GrassRoots store http://www.grassrootsstore.com/ or have it ordered from your local book store.
R Architect Martin Liefhebber - check out his new web site at http://www.martinliefhebber.com/
R Solar Living Center in California - web site: http://www.solarliving.org/
R The Solar House book - look for it at your local book store
R Natural Home magazine - web site: http://www.naturalhomemagazine.com/
R Natural Home book series
R Kortright Centre for Conservation - they have a wind/solar power tour and learning facility as well as a large Living Machine.
If you could have done anything different what would it be?
R Reduce the size of the house…reduced cost of construction…keep below $400,000 to take advantage of GST rebate. Eliminate the basement space for the most part.
What should you do if you already own a home since that is the majority of people?
R Renovation of existing home is by far the most important task. First, start by being as efficient as possible…insulate/seal cracks, reorient windows/walls for passive solar design, use straw bale for additions and even replacement of existing walls, improve insulation in roofing, install solar photovoltaic panels with inverter and grid connection ($5000-30,000) you your roof/yard - contact Phantom Electron Corporation - http://www.phantomelectron.com/ .
What are you going to grow on your green roof and how are you going to cut the grass?
R We plan to grow native grasses, possibly setums, and hopefully some strawberries. The intent is to grow vegetation that requires minimal maintenance and watering. We don't intend to cut the grass on the roof. Well, maybe we'll get a goat!
Can anyone create a green roof on their home?
R The green roof is quite heavy, and requires a very strong support structure. Our roof is engineered to support the weight of all the soil, moisture and potential snow.
Can you get any rebates or do any incentive programs exists for solar systems?
R Yes. In our area it is possible to get the retail sales tax rebated. Fore more information see http://www.naturallifenetwork.com/wilson/tax.asp
Why did you decide to have a green roof?
R The green roof will provide several benefits, the most significant being to keep the house cool in the summertime (similar to a basement). It also provides additional insulation to keep the house warmer in the winter. This type of roof helps to conserve the natural environment, providing habitat and food for wildlife. A conventional roof can get very hot, and heat the surrounding air significantly. Finally, the green roof has a natural beauty that is unmatched by any other kind of roof!
What is the grey/tin/silver roof/siding and what is it for?
R The material on the sloping south face is Zinc. Zinc reflects the sun for cooling, and is a natural, long lasting material. It ages nicely, and reflects a spectrum of colors that vary with the angle of the sun.
How did you get a permit to build this house in Mono Township?
R It wasn't easy. We have had to duplicate some of our systems to get around building code requirements. For example, although we will have composting toilets, and want to recycle our grey water, we had to install a septic system, along with one flush toilet so that it will work properly.
Fortunately, the building inspector at the time was open to new ideas, and willing to discuss ways to make our objectives possible. An experienced architect, Martin Liefhebber was able to explain the technologies and methods directly to the Town authorities, and work with them and the builder to develop solutions.
Aren't you worried about pests and fires?
R No, these of no more concern to us than they would be for anyone building a conventional frame house, in fact, the straw bale construction is more fire resistant than frame construction. A special lime compound is applied to the straw, to increase its fire resistant properties.
What are the actual insulation values (R-values) of straw bale buildings and why do they seem to be so much higher than regular construction?
R The insulation value is approximately R43. The R-value comes from the natural insulation properties of straw bale, which is basically just cellulose.
How is a straw bale building constructed – is post and beam the only way to build?
R There are a variety of construction methods that can be used, in addition to post-and-beam. The straw bales themselves can be used as load-bearing walls, without any other framing material.
How affordable is straw bale building?
R Straw bale construction, by itself, is very economical. Depending on the seasonal conditions, you may pay $1 to $4 per bale. Volunteer labour helps to keep costs down too. Other factors may affect the cost, such as the non-standard design of such homes.
Will the house be warm enough?
R Yes, the high insulation, good quality windows, well-designed roof, and ventilation system will ensure a comfortable indoor environment year-round. An EPA-approved wood-burning stove will help to supplement the heating on those cold, cloudy winter days.
How is the sod roof constructed?
R The sod roof is engineered to sustain the weight of the soil, plants, moisture and winters' snowfall. A waterproof membrane covers the plywood layer, which is insulated on the inside. Other special layers are applied over the waterproof membrane to channel water off the roof and keep roots from penetrating. Finally, 8 inches of soil is added, and then planted with "alpine growth" and local hearty varieties that require low maintenance.
Will you have to water and mow the roof?
R No, plants are specially selected to withstand dry spells. They are left to grow naturally.
What are the benefits of a sod roof?
R The main benefit is that it doesn't heat up in the same way as a conventional roof. On a hot summer day, a conventional roof can heat up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A sod roof will maintain a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. This has the effect of keeping the home, and even the surrounding environment cooler.
R Other benefits include reduced rainwater runoff, and good insulation for cold winters provided by a layer of insulation, soil, and potentially snow.
What is "passive solar heat" and how does it work?
R The warmth of the sun passes through low-e windows and is captured by the concrete floors. From there it is transferred to water running through tubing embedded in the floor, and circulated throughout the house.
What are composting toilets and how do they work?
R Composting toilets are like a garden composter, but constructed to decompose human waste using heat, air circulation, and natural bacterias. The resulting compost can be used to fertilize non-edible gardens, and is safe for the environment.
Will the house be difficult to maintain?
R The house was designed to be low-maintenance. Interior and exterior finishes are minimal, and much of it will never require painting or re-finishing. For example, floors are constructed of concrete, which may be expected to last a lifetime, and requires minimal upkeep. With no furnace, there is no ductwork to clean, and no fossil fuel burning needing annual service.
Why did you go to all the trouble to build such an unusual house - wouldn't it have made more sense to build something that most developers build?
R It may have been easier, but not more sensible. This environmentally-friendly construction has long-term benefits, such as lower heating and utility costs, minimal maintenance, and will not be impacted by rising fossil fuel costs. It has a minimal impact on the natural environment, leaving a healthier, sustainable legacy for our children.
Why did you choose the architect Martin Liefhebber?
R We became familiar with Martin's work through the award-winning Toronto Healthy House, which he designed. After a few meetings, it became clear that Martin's experience and creativity would support the project's principles.
How did you find a builder who could manage this project?
R We spoke to several builders, and selected Colin Richards because of his considerable experience, very high quality work, and interest in alternative construction techniques.
What are your plans for the garden?
R Ultimately, we would like to grow our own food, using organic growing techniques and permaculture design.
Why are you concerned about the ability to be self-sustaining?
R The rising cost of fossil fuels, and their effect on the environment had us very concerned about the future for our children and grandchildren. It is well known that non-renewable fossil fuels will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years, making self-sustaining home design a necessity. We want to raise awareness of the feasibility and ease of this type of design, even today.
What are the new building materials you chose and what is special about them?
R The radiant floor heating is constructed of "mass" (stone, concrete, etc.), which collects and stores solar heat. The heat is circulated to other areas of the home by water tubing embedded in the floor.
R The windows are double-glazed, krypton gas filled, low-e and fibreglass framed. This offers insulation, while allowing the heat of the sun to pass through.
R The roof is covered with soil, which absorbs heat and moisture, and insulates.
R Straw bales are an annually renewable resource, and very inexpensive, while offering a high insulation value (approximately R43).
R Bamboo flooring is another annually renewable material, which has the warmth and superior quality when compared to hardwood floors
R The post-and-beam structure uses glue-lam beams, which are constructed of compressed "waste" wood and glue. They are much stronger, and more durable than conventional wood beams.
We've lived in the house for more than a year now. The home we've created has been a constant source of education for us and the kids as we'd hoped. There are still many things we want to do to be more efficient; grow more vegetables, and improve the various systems. All in all it has worked out better than I had ever imagined. From sunrise to sunset the majority of our light, energy, heat and water is supplied by the power of sunlight. The new wind turbine supplies energy frequently during the duller, colder days, a remarkable and fortunate weather pattern in our area.
Building our new lifestyle is an on-going learning experience. We've gotten so much more out of our closer relationship with nature. We've become far more in tune with the amount of sunlight we get each day, the strength and direction of the wind, the materials that earth supplies to our vegetable garden, our need to work as a team to get things done, and a constant feeling that we've got it very good, that we are very lucky.
Curiously since our switch to organic foods, more indoor sunlight, straw bale walls that breathe for better indoor air quality, and concrete flooring for passive solar heat storage (rather than conventional duct work which is susceptible to molds and mildews), we found our family's general health has been improved. This I can only say is our sense as compared to a number of years ago when we lived in a conventional townhouse. Of course this could be due to many other factors. But I know we've got a much healthier home which will be especially important as the kids grow up in this environment.
There is so much you can do to make a difference in the way you live and how that will affect nature . Start today:
Cultivate a sharper and deeper AWARENESS of your connection to nature which will inspire you to achieve a Natural Living lifestyle .
Start eating organic FOODS, and try to eat only vegetables one day each week.
Develop a PLAN which details how you will achieve your Natural Living goals according to your own principles .
Transform your HOME into one that is composed of natural materials, derives power from the sun , and is as efficient as possible.
Make CHOICES which support a harmonious coexistence with the natural world which sustains you. Be conscious of your ability to make real CHOICES each moment of each day. Use your power of CHOICE.
Find ways to make use of alternative TRANSPORTATION such as commuter trains, subway systems, walking, and bicycle.
Be CREATIVE in the way you approach this opportunity to find your way to Natural Living.
Transform your life's WORK to be in harmony with your new Natural Living lifestyle.
And so the process continues. Each day now I review these steps and look for more ways to make my life sustainable. The future is now. If we can envision it we can make it happen.
You awake to the sound of chirping birds as the sun streams through the windows of your bedroom. Sitting up in the soft wholesome smelling organic cotton sheets you peer out through the triple paned "smart" windows sculpted into the straw bale walls. The natural undulations of the earth surround you like a nest. The sun peeks over the tree covered panorama filling the sky with pink, orange and yellow splashes of color on the fluffy layer of clouds on the horizon. The sun appears, a bright fire ball pouring warm rays of golden light deep into the cozy room. Your face is warmed. The sunlight re-energizes you for a new day. The smell of fresh pine forest wafts through the air as a breeze rushes by the small window opening. The chirp of birds, the buzz of crickets, the soft rustling of the leaves softly sing nature's symphony.
You catch a glimpse of a wild deer wandering through your back yard, into your neighbor's clover patch for breakfast. The warm shower you take is refreshingly soft – chlorine-free water, efficiently sprayed through a low flow shower head, from the rain water collection system. The water is heated each day by the solar heater on the roof of your house and stored in an insulated tank, something the Cypriots perfected decades ago. The sun penetrates into the shower stall through the rice paper blinds. The smell of natural biodegradable ingredients used in the shampoo and soap waft up through the vent into the main areas of the home creating a natural level of moisture. The excess water vapor is naturally transferred slowly to the outside through the straw bale walls that "breathe" while providing superior insulation values. In the summer a vent high up in the central portion of the home sucks cool air from the basement through the main part of the home creating a natural cooling system, a trick learned from homes in the Sahara.
For breakfast you join your family for a bowl of organic grain cereal topped with fresh berries from your own garden and filled with fresh local organic milk. The natural flavors seem more powerful than the sweet cereals you remember when you were young, even though the heavy coatings of sugar are gone. The fresh small berries are extremely sweet and full of flavor. Your kids bubble with excitement as they describe the activities planned for school. They will plant some vegetables, build a straw bale green house, and share their nature studies projects in an open air "Nature Festival".
The kids ride their bikes to school with you. You ride your bike to the commuter train service that takes you to your office in the city. Your spouse stays at home some days with the consulting business that services the local business community requirements for employee training on "eco-design " processes and principles . Your company builds integrated solar systems for the condominium development business that is booming as older buildings are retrofitted with your products. The local organic farmers have teamed up with your technology company to provide a prefabricated straw bale building system. These prefabricated straw bale parts replace the antiquated fiberglass stick frame insulation in new and old buildings. With your company's integrated solar cell roofing replacement system and the straw bale walls, new houses can be constructed in just a few weeks with community participation. The new roofing system is often complemented with a recycled plastic compound, derived from the local recycling plant that provides a "green-roof" replacement for the large flat industrial buildings that are being renovated on a large scale for both industrial and creative co-housing communities.
At the local commuter train station a bustle of activity exists as community members, coworkers, friends and family enjoy an organic coffee, freshly squeezed fruit juice and organic grain pastries as they wait for the train. The train station provides an open green-house style courtyard that has replaced most of the parking lot now that people are walking, running, roller-blading, riding their bikes, or taking the fuel cell powered community bus to the train station. The cafes are open all year round using movable green house glazing in the walls. New local businesses have opened including an organic farmers' market, organic grocery stores, book exchanges, natural clothing ware, and an electronic paperless news agency.
The train station has become central to much more than just transportation . The entire terminal is powered by a large photo voltaic power array and four large wind turbines along the perimeter of the old parking lot. The parking lot has been transformed into a small naturalized park complete with biking and walking paths surrounded by native trees, shrubs, bushes, and naturalized grass and wildflower meadows. The sounds of birds and running water can be heard at the far end of the station where the previously concrete encased creek has been returned to its natural state. The people in the station all seem to know each other. They all live in the surrounding community and frequent the markets and transportation offered at this central location.
The office building where you work is located two stations away in what was the industrial sector of the major metropolis that was sprawling into your community ten years before. Now the large industrial warehouse has been renovated and your company's solar roofing cells provide all of the power requirements for the production facilities and offices. The building was expanded upwards with two additional floors that have window systems built into the flooring throughout to provide natural lighting during the working day. The walls of the structure have been re-insulated with a manufactured straw bale wall replacement system that has eliminated the need for any heating system other than in-floor solar water heating and passive solar design innovations that went into the renovation.
Most of the parking lot was transformed into a naturalized park, with condominiums added for the employees who wanted to live near their office. An organic coffee house and organic food store provide the local business and residential community with a common gathering area for events, discussions and street exhibitions, in addition to the organic vegetable, fruit, pasta and grain-based gourmet menu items which they supply. The improved air quality, lighting and fresh food has reduced employee sick days by ten percent. Productivity has also increased by ten percent even though the average employee only works thirty-two hours a week with at least six weeks of vacation a year.
Taking the train home lets you see all of the newly invigorated community villages that have reforested many of the parking lots and roadways that are no longer used by cars. The streets are beehives of activity as people walk to the central squares or train stations for their fresh food essentials each day. Bike and walking trails snake through all the communities. The train is quiet due to the recent innovations in efficient electric motor design that uses ultra-efficient low cost fuel cells to produce electricity with water vapor as the only exhaust.
The bike ride home in early afternoon allows you to stop off at the village perimeter and enjoy thirty minutes of quiet contemplation and reading next to the restored marshes that attract all kinds of native birds which had disappeared from the area just twenty years earlier. The small pond at the center of the marsh reminds you of the pond that Thoreau describes so lovingly in Walden which you are reading for the third time.
As you arrive home, your children ride up on their bicycles buzzing with the thrill of having created a new straw bale greenhouse for their school. It was hard for them to believe that where there had been the outline of a small structure, there now stood a straw bale walled greenhouse complete with solar roofing cells that provided all of the required electricity for the building. They helped to stack the bales of straw and sew them tight together. Next week they would be setting up their indoor eco-biology experiments to see how fast the tomatoes would grow in this northern climate.
For the remainder of the late afternoon, the family plays badminton at the local community center which was built by members of the community during several weekends last spring. The community center construction created great bonds between all members, both old and young, as they could all contribute to the process of laying bales, sewing them stiffly together to form the walls, and then plastering the organic contours of the large multi-story building. Everyone had a corner, wall section, or edge that would be uniquely their own for as long as the building stood . One creative young lad had placed three bales in a row and then plastered them with the middle bale decorated with a chess board. Today a teenager and his grandfather were enjoying a game of chess in the open air of the third floor while others played sports all around them.
Back at home the sun provides the required energy for the electrical systems throughout the house, and enough solar heated water to keeping everyone warm during the night. The family sits down to enjoy a salad from their own vegetable garden, a delicious veggie burger cooked on the super efficient wood burning barbeque, that also provides additional heat to the warm water storage system used for heating the home. The local managed woodlot provides a sustainable supply of wood for the eco-barbeque and new efficient triple-burn wood stoves that are used by some residents for supplemental heat in the winter.
After dinner the children work quietly on their ultra-efficient notebook computers that are connected through the Internet to the school's computer system. The new screen technology provides all the reading reference material, text books and assignments they need in electronic paper form which is larger than conventional paper books with crisper text and plenty of colorful illustrations. Finally, everyone settles down in his or her cozy organically grown hemp fiber bed for a paperless read before going to sleep. The poetry of Shakespeare inspires yet another generation as the night is illuminated by the florescent reading lights that produce warm tones inspired by the suns own rays which power them. Sleep comes easily as images of butterflies flutter through the children's dreams while crickets, running stream water, and critters provide a comforting natural background soundscape through open windows.
Natural Living has spread by word of mouth to communities all over the world. Everywhere the inspiration of your actions according to this new vision has transformed the way people think of living. The result is a world in which poverty has been eliminated, starvation is unheard of, population growth has stabilized, peace has reigned without a single war for more than five years, artistic creativity has reached new levels of inspiration, science has integrated the purposes of nature and humanity, business and finance are thriving for those companies that embraced this vision, government has returned to servicing the needs of the people, the world community has joined together as one and peoples' mental health has measurably improved including overall indexes of humanity's quality of life.
Yes, this is just a dream. This vision comes from a guy with a typical job, and a relatively normal family just like yours. We've been near bankruptcy, failed at some projects, succeeded at others, had joyful periods, made tragic mistakes, overcome great difficulties, been lucky at times, and frittered away the fruits of our luck. However, we have made the shift to Natural Living that inspired this vision. We have made the changes in order to make this vision a reality as much as we are able. Now it is your turn.
Tell others to join us. That is all it takes for this vision to become reality. Let the journey begin now. Seize this moment!
I know this book isn't perfect so any feedback, comments, suggestions, ideas, or thoughts would be welcome. My thinking here was to get as much of what I know out as quickly as possible. Over the next several years I will update the book with your input, things that we learn, and with the experiences of building communities based the ideas of Natural Living. If you have any questions I'd be glad to try and answer them so that they can also be included in the next version of this book. The best way to contact me is through the web site at Natural Life Network – www.NaturalLifeNetwork.com. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com .
My intention is to dedicate my life towards the goals of Natural Living. The main projects this will include are as follows:
Sun Rise – Continue to update, enhance, and improve this book with our experiences, your feedback, and the experiences of the future projects outlined here.
Natural Life Network – Non-profit organization dedicated to communicating, developing and sharing the idea of Natural Living – check us out and join us at www.NaturalLifeNetwork.com . Subscribe to our monthly newsletter Natural Living Journal. There is an online membership application and payment form.
Natural Living: The Wilson Natural Home – A 25 minute documentary that provides an introduction to the ideas of Natural Living as achieved by the Wilson family through our home construction – to order a copy see the order form on the second page of this book or through the Natural Life Network web site at www.NaturalLifeNetwork.com/documentary/ .
BEING GREEN – A feature length documentary that reviews our astonishing accomplishments with sustainable living practices in the past, looks at current projects that provide loads of inspiring ideas and a look the potential for the future of EcoCities. (Still in the planning stage.)
Solar B & B – Provide bed and breakfast accommodations for people interested in learning about and experiencing Natural Living in action.
Natural Living Consulting – Provide consulting services to business, developers, government, education and individuals who want to make the transformation to Natural Living.
The Solar Village – The key concepts of this community development multiply the benefits of Natural Living.
North – Develop a community that supports the principles of Natural Living as a model for the transformation of other villages. Contact me at the email address above for more information.
South – Develop a community in the Dominican Republic in order to develop the application of Natural Living principles in a developing country. Contact me at the email address above for more information.
Natural Living: Around the World – Travel by catamaran around the world in search of the best and most inspiring examples of Natural Living. Document these pioneering efforts for sharing through our web site, a photographic journal book, a documentary video, and presentations on our experiences.
If you actually have made it this far you know what you've got to do next. Get out their and do it! Change things. Make a difference. Good luck!
Breathe Architects + Associates / Contact: Martin Liefhebber
The firm is the award winning architect for the Wilson House. Breathe Architects is an unique design firm with leading edge expertise in ecological and renewable energy systems. The firm combines a variety of interrelated disciplines to develop affordable and environmentally adept housing.
Phantom Electron Corporation / Contact: Leonard Allen
We are innovators, committed to a leadership role in the development and utilization of solar electric technologies in mainstream applications. Our team is building a unique company that is powered by vision... a vision that sees our products providing an avenue for transparent integration of renewable energy into everyday markets.
Kolapore Construction Inc. (formerly C & R Construction) / Colin Richards
Kolapore Construction is in the custom home construction business with a distinct view to the integration of natural, ecologically friendly, and renewable energy resources. Kolapore was the primary builder and construction manager for the Wilson House.
Camels Back Construction / Contact: Tina Therien, Peter Mack, and Chris Magwood
Straw bale construction company. Builders of the straw bale incorporated into the Wilson Home.
InLine Fiberglass Limited
Supplier of the fiberglass windows for the Wilson Home.
Phone: (416) 679-1171
K & M Bamboo Products Inc. / Contact: Ian Jackson
Supplier and installer of the bamboo flooring used in the kitchen area of the Wilson Home.
Phone: (905) 947-1688
A.C.E.S. / Contact: Lyle Jory
Radiant Floor Heating
Phone: 416 463 – 5835
Birch wood kitchen cabinetry.
Supplier of parallam posts and beams use extensively.
InLine Fiberglass Limited
Phone: (416) 679-1171
Quality Rooves and Custom Metal / Contact: Jonathan Wolfe
Phone: (416) 239-2200.
Issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 1992.
World Scientists' Warning to Humanity
Some 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal in November 1992. The World Scientists' Warning to Humanity was written and spearheaded by the late Henry Kendall, former chair of UCS's board of directors.
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
The environment is suffering critical stress:
Stratospheric ozone depletion threatens us with enhanced ultraviolet radiation at the earth's surface, which can be damaging or lethal to many life forms. Air pollution near ground level, and acid precipitation, are already causing widespread injury to humans, forests, and crops.
Heedless exploitation of depletable ground water supplies endangers food production and other essential human systems. Heavy demands on the world's surface waters have resulted in serious shortages in some 80 countries, containing 40 percent of the world's population . Pollution of rivers, lakes, and ground water further limits the supply.
Destructive pressure on the oceans is severe, particularly in the coastal regions which produce most of the world's food fish. The total marine catch is now at or above the estimated maximum sustainable yield. Some fisheries have already shown signs of collapse. Rivers carrying heavy burdens of eroded soil into the seas also carry industrial, municipal, agricultural, and livestock waste -- some of it toxic.
Loss of soil productivity, which is causing extensive land abandonment, is a widespread by-product of current practices in agriculture and animal husbandry. Since 1945, 11 percent of the earth's vegetated surface has been degraded -- an area larger than India and China combined -- and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing.
Tropical rain forests, as well as tropical and temperate dry forests, are being destroyed rapidly. At present rates, some critical forest types will be gone in a few years, and most of the tropical rain forest will be gone before the end of the next century. With them will go large numbers of plant and animal species.
The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious. We are losing the potential they hold for providing medicinal and other benefits, and the contribution that genetic diversity of life forms gives to the robustness of the world's biological systems and to the astonishing beauty of the earth itself. Much of this damage is irreversible on a scale of centuries, or permanent. Other processes appear to pose additional threats. Increasing levels of gases in the atmosphere from human activities, including carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel burning and from deforestation, may alter climate on a global scale. Predictions of global warming are still uncertain -- with projected effects ranging from tolerable to very severe -- but the potential risks
are very great.
Our massive tampering with the world's interdependent web of life -- coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change -- could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.
Uncertainty over the extent of these effects cannot excuse complacency or delay in facing the threats.
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth's limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.
Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth. A World Bank estimate indicates that world population will not stabilize at less than 12.4 billion, while the United Nations concludes that the eventual total could reach 14 billion, a near tripling of today's 5.4 billion. But, even at this moment, one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition.
No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.
We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community , hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.
WHAT WE MUST DO
Five inextricably linked areas must be addressed simultaneously:
We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on.
We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. Priority must be given to the development of energy sources matched to Third World needs -- small-scale and relatively easy to implement.
We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.
We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.
We must give high priority to efficient use of energy , water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling.
We must stabilize population .
This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
reduce and eventually
eliminate poverty .
We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.
DEVELOPED NATIONS MUST ACT NOW
The developed nations are the largest polluters in the world today. They must greatly reduce their overconsumption, if we are to reduce pressures on resources and the global environment. The developed nations have the obligation to provide aid and support to developing nations, because only the developed nations have the financial resources and the technical skills for these tasks.
Acting on this recognition is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest: whether industrialized or not, we all have but one lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are damaged. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. In addition, environmental and economic instabilities will cause mass migrations with incalculable consequences for developed and undeveloped nations alike.
Developing nations must realize that environmental damage is one of the gravest threats they face, and that attempts to blunt it will be overwhelmed if their populations go unchecked. The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty , and unrest, leading to social, economic , and environmental collapse.
Success in this global endeavor will require a great reduction in violence and war. Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war -- amounting to over $1 trillion annually -- will be badly needed in the new tasks and should be diverted to the new challenges.
A new ethic is required -- a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth's limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.
The scientists issuing this warning hope that our message will reach and affect people everywhere. We need the help of many.
We call on all to join us in this task.
UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS
2 Brattle Square
Cambridge, MA 02238
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Web Site: www.ucsusa.org
We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature , universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.
Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life's evolution. The resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all peoples. The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.
The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty , ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.
The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. We have the knowledge and technology to provide for all and to reduce our impacts on the environment. The emergence of a global civil society is creating new opportunities to build a democratic and humane world. Our environmental, economic , political, social, and spiritual challenges are interconnected, and together we can forge inclusive solutions.
To realize these aspirations, we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local communities. We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world in which the local and global are linked. Everyone shares responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world. The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature .
We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community . Therefore, together in hope we affirm the following interdependent principles for a sustainable way of life as a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, and transnational institutions is to be guided and assessed.
1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
a. Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.
b. Affirm faith in the inherent dignity of all human beings and in the intellectual, artistic, ethical, and spiritual potential of humanity.
2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
a. Accept that with the right to own, manage, and use natural resources comes the duty to prevent environmental harm and to protect the rights of people.
b. Affirm that with increased freedom, knowledge, and power comes increased responsibility to promote the common good.
3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
a. Ensure that communities at all levels guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms and provide everyone an opportunity to realize his or her full potential.
b. Promote social and economic justice, enabling all to achieve a secure and meaningful livelihood that is ecologically responsible.
4. Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.
a. Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations.
b. Transmit to future generations values, traditions, and institutions that support the long-term flourishing of Earth's human and ecological communities.
In order to fulfill these four broad commitments, it is necessary to:
5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth's ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
a. Adopt at all levels sustainable development plans and regulations that make environmental conservation and rehabilitation integral to all development initiatives.
b. Establish and safeguard viable nature and biosphere reserves, including wild lands and marine areas, to protect Earth's life support systems, maintain biodiversity, and preserve our natural heritage.
c. Promote the recovery of endangered species and ecosystems.
d. Control and eradicate non-native or genetically modified organisms harmful to native species and the environment, and prevent introduction of such harmful organisms.
e. Manage the use of renewable resources such as water, soil, forest products, and marine life in ways that do not exceed rates of regeneration and that protect the health of ecosystems.
f. Manage the extraction and use of non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels in ways that minimize depletion and cause no serious environmental damage.
6. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
a. Take action to avoid the possibility of serious or irreversible environmental harm even when scientific knowledge is incomplete or inconclusive.
b. Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm.
c. Ensure that decision making addresses the cumulative, long-term, indirect, long distance, and global consequences of human activities.
d. Prevent pollution of any part of the environment and allow no build-up of radioactive, toxic, or other hazardous substances.
e. Avoid military activities damaging to the environment.
7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
a. Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems.
b. Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy , and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
c. Promote the development, adoption, and equitable transfer of environmentally sound technologies.
d. Internalize the full environmental and social costs of goods and services in the selling price, and enable consumers to identify products that meet the highest social and environmental standards.
e. Ensure universal access to health care that fosters reproductive health and responsible reproduction.
f. Adopt lifestyles that emphasize the quality of life and material sufficiency in a finite world.
8. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.
a. Support international scientific and technical cooperation on sustainability, with special attention to the needs of developing nations.
b. Recognize and preserve the traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom in all cultures that contribute to environmental protection and human well-being.
c. Ensure that information of vital importance to human health and environmental protection, including genetic information, remains available in the public domain.
9. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
a. Guarantee the right to potable water, clean air, food security, uncontaminated soil, shelter, and safe sanitation, allocating the national and international resources required.
b. Empower every human being with the education and resources to secure a sustainable livelihood, and provide social security and safety nets for those who are unable to support themselves.
c. Recognize the ignored, protect the vulnerable, serve those who suffer, and enable them to develop their capacities and to pursue their aspirations.
10. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
a. Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations.
b. Enhance the intellectual, financial, technical, and social resources of developing nations, and relieve them of onerous international debt.
c. Ensure that all trade supports sustainable resource use, environmental protection, and progressive labor standards.
d. Require multinational corporations and international financial organizations to act transparently in the public good, and hold them accountable for the consequences of their activities.
11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
a. Secure the human rights of women and girls and end all violence against them.
b. Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic , political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders, and beneficiaries.
c. Strengthen families and ensure the safety and loving nurture of all family members.
12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health , and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.
a. Eliminate discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin.
b. Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.
c. Honor and support the young people of our communities, enabling them to fulfill their essential role in creating sustainable societies.
d. Protect and restore outstanding places of cultural and spiritual significance.
13. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
a. Uphold the right of everyone to receive clear and timely information on environmental matters and all development plans and activities which are likely to affect them or in which they have an interest.
b. Support local, regional and global civil society, and promote the meaningful participation of all interested individuals and organizations in decision making.
c. Protect the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association, and dissent.
d. Institute effective and efficient access to administrative and independent judicial procedures, including remedies and redress for environmental harm and the threat of such harm.
e. Eliminate corruption in all public and private institutions.
f. Strengthen local communities, enabling them to care for their environments, and assign environmental responsibilities to the levels of government where they can be carried out most effectively.
14. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
a. Provide all, especially children and youth, with educational opportunities that empower them to contribute actively to sustainable development.
b. Promote the contribution of the arts and humanities as well as the sciences in sustainability education.
c. Enhance the role of the mass media in raising awareness of ecological and social challenges.
d. Recognize the importance of moral and spiritual education for sustainable living.
15. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
a. Prevent cruelty to animals kept in human societies and protect them from suffering.
b. Protect wild animals from methods of hunting, trapping, and fishing that cause extreme, prolonged, or avoidable suffering.
c. Avoid or eliminate to the full extent possible the taking or destruction of non-targeted species.
16. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.
a. Encourage and support mutual understanding, solidarity, and cooperation among all peoples and within and among nations.
b. Implement comprehensive strategies to prevent violent conflict and use collaborative problem solving to manage and resolve environmental conflicts and other disputes.
c. Demilitarize national security systems to the level of a non-provocative defense posture, and convert military resources to peaceful purposes, including ecological restoration.
d. Eliminate nuclear , biological, and toxic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
e. Ensure that the use of orbital and outer space supports environmental protection and peace.
f. Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.
As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning. Such renewal is the promise of these Earth Charter principles . To fulfill this promise, we must commit ourselves to adopt and promote the values and objectives of the Charter.
This requires a change of mind and heart. It requires a new sense of global interdependence and universal responsibility. We must imaginatively develop and apply the vision of a sustainable way of life locally, nationally, regionally, and globally. Our cultural diversity is a precious heritage and different cultures will find their own distinctive ways to realize the vision. We must deepen and expand the global dialogue that generated the Earth Charter, for we have much to learn from the ongoing collaborative search for truth and wisdom.
Life often involves tensions between important values. This can mean difficult choices. However, we must find ways to harmonize diversity with unity, the exercise of freedom with the common good, short-term objectives with long-term goals. Every individual, family, organization, and community has a vital role to play. The arts, sciences, religions, educational institutions, media , businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and governments are all called to offer creative leadership. The partnership of government , civil society, and business is essential for effective governance.
In order to build a sustainable global community , the nations of the world must renew their commitment to the United Nations, fulfill their obligations under existing international agreements, and support the implementation of Earth Charter principles with an international legally binding instrument on environment and development.
Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.
The Earth Charter is reproduced with permission:
Charter International Secretariat
University for Peace Campus - P.O. Box 319-6100 - San José, Costa Rica
Tel: +506-205-1600 - Fax: +506-249-3500 - Email: email@example.com
Web Site: www.earthcharter.org
discovery that the shadow of a "gnomon"--an arrow stuck vertically
into the ground--mirrored the perfectly symmetrical path of the sun across the
sky is as important to the development of civilization as the discovery of the
wheel. By studying the movements of this shadow people first conceived of the
90° (right) angle--the foundation of
geometry, and ultimately of architecture. A result of this "shadow
science" origin is that most architecture and city street grids are
related to the north-south east-west axes. The ancients also gained great
insights into the potential of architecture to modify the sun's shadow and
Indeed, using the sun as a heat source is nothing new. In XENOPHON'S MEMORABILIA, written 2400 years ago, Socrates observed:
"Now in houses with a south aspect, the sun's rays penetrate into the porticos in winter, but in the summer, the path of the sun is right over our heads and above the roof, so that there is shade. If then this is the best arrangement, we should build the south side loftier to get the winter sun and the north side lower to keep out the winter winds. To put it shortly, the house in which the owner can find a pleasant retreat at all seasons and can store his belongings safely is presumably at once the pleasantest and the most beautiful."
While the Greek house that Socrates described probably lost heat as fast as it was collected, due to convective and radiation losses, the Romans discovered that if the south-facing portico and windows were covered with glass, the solar energy would be trapped causing the internal temperature to stay constant into the night. This simple phenomenon called the "greenhouse effect" is illustrated by the experience of returning to your car on a sunny, cool day and finding it overheated. Today we call the house that uses the greenhouse effect for heating a "passive solar house."
It is a common rule-of-thumb that, compared to a conventionally designed house of the same square footage, a well-designed passive solar house can reduce energy bills by 75% with an added construction cost of only 5-10%. In many parts of the U.S. passive solar houses do not require any auxiliary energy for heating and cooling. Given current and future projected fuel costs, the additional construction cost is recovered quickly. Official surveys show 100,000 passive solar homes in the U.S.(1984), but informal estimates bring to one million the number of buildings that employ some aspects of passive solar design, often south-facing greenhouses.
Figure 1: Potential for passive solar heating in the United States.
The Passive Solar
House has some distinctive design features:
1. In the northern hemisphere most of its windows are facing the south (in the southern hemisphere its windows face north). Solar radiation, mostly the visible light spectrum, passes through the solar -oriented glass of windows or solar spaces, and is absorbed by surfaces of materials inside the insulated envelope of the building. As these heated surfaces re-radiate the energy into the interior of the house, the air temperature rises, but the heat is not efficiently re-radiated outside again through the glass, nor can the heated air escape, so the result is entrapped energy.
2. Ideally, the interior surfaces that the light strikes are high density materials, such as concrete, brick, stone, or adobe . These materials, because of the "flywheel" effect (the ability to absorb energy and re-radiate it over time), can store the energy for constant slow re-radiation, resulting in a very smooth temperature swing curve for the building, and reducing the possibility of overheating the air in the house. In this way a large portion of the houses' heating requirements can be supported by the sun.
3. In the early passive solar houses of the 70's, architects and builders tended to reduce window areas on the east, west, and north sides of the house in favor of southern orientation. This is still the general rule-of-thumb, but the introduction of energy conserving and radiation-modifying films, available in several major window lines (see Chapter 6, p. 57f), enables designers and builders to relax this rule. This is good news on sites with attractive views other than to the south. West windows are a source of high heat gain during the summer, and should be shaded. Generally, the house plan with a long east-west axis and optimized south-facing wall will be the best passive solar house.
4. Passive solar homes tend to be well insulated and have reduced air leakage rates, to keep the solar heat within the building envelope.
5. Since auxiliary heat requirements are greatly reduced in a passive solar home compared to a conventional home, smaller, direct-vented units or a woodstove for extended cloudy periods are often the heaters of choice.
6. Passive solar homes often have "open floor plans" to facilitate the "thermo siphoning" movement of solar heat from the south side through the rest of the house. Sometimes small fans are used to aid in warm air distribution in houses with "closed floor plans".
There are two basic ways passive solar houses gain solar energy, direct and indirect gain. Direct gain houses, considered to be the simplest type, rely on south-facing windows, called solar windows. These can be conventionally manufactured operable or fixed windows on the south wall of the house or standard-dimension insulating glass panels in the wall of the sunspace or solarium. While some of the heat is used immediately, walls, floors, ceilings, and furniture store the excess heat, which radiates into the space throughout the day and night. In all cases the performance and comfort of the direct gain space will increase if the thermal mass (concrete, concrete block, brick, or adobe ) within the space is increased.
Figure 2: A direct gain passive solar house (Design by Dennis Holloway, Architect,
for Ellen and Matt Champion)
J. Douglas Balcomb and his research team at Los Alamos National Laboratory recommend that the mass be spread over the largest practical area in the direct gain space. It is preferable to locate the thermal mass in direct sunlight (heated by radiation) but the mass that is located out of the direct sunlight (heated by air convection) is also important for overall performance. Thermal mass storage is as much as four times as effective when the mass is located so that the sun shines directly on it and it is subject to convective heating from warmed air as compared to only being heated by convection. The recommended mass surface-to-glass area ratio is 6 : 1. In general, comfort and performance increase with increase of thermal mass, and there is no upper limit for the amount of thermal mass.
Remember, covering the mass with materials such as carpet, cork, wallboard, or other materials with R-values greater than 0.5 will effectively insulate the mass from the solar energy you're trying to collect. Materials such as ceramic floor tiles or brick make better choices for covering a direct gain slab. Tiles should be attached to the slab with a mortar adhesive and grouted (with complete contact) to the slab.
In direct gain storage thin mass is more effective than thick mass. The most effective thickness in masonry materials is the first four inches--thickness beyond 6" is pointless. The most effective thickness in wood is the first inch.
Locating thermal mass in interior partitions is more effective than exterior partitions, assuming both have equal solar access, because on the internal wall heat can transfer on both surfaces. The most effective internal storage wall masses are those located between two direct gain spaces.
Figure 3: Internal mass storage walls serve as
north-south partitions between direct -gain spaces (a) and as east-west
partitions between direct-gain sunspaces and north clerestory space (b).
Lightweight objects and surfaces of low density materials should be light in color to reflect energy to high density materials. If more than one-half of the walls in a direct gain space are massive, then they should be light in color. If the mass is concentrated in a single wall, then its color should be dark--unless its surface is struck early in the day by sunlight, in which case its color should be light to diffuse the the light and heat into the rest of the space. Massive floors should be dark in color to store the heat low. Clerestory windows should be located so that the sunlight strikes low into the space. If the sunlight from the clerestory first strikes high in the space, then the wall surface should be light in color to diffuse the light and heat downwards into the space.
In northern climates moveable insulation in the form of drapes, panels, shutters, and quilts often are used to cover the inside of the glass on winter nights to reduce heat loss. Because so much high-angle summer sun is reflected off vertical south-facing glass, heat gain is greatly reduced in the warm season, overhanging eaves for shading may not be as crucial as the early passive solar designers thought.
Since inhabitants will see out through the glass, this technique is good for the site with good southerly views. Some people object to the intense glare in direct gain rooms and fading of furniture fabrics can be a disadvantage. Privacy can also be a problem, since if the occupants can see out through the expanses of glass, the rest of the world can look in.
Besides providing warmth in the winter, a well-designed passive house should provide coolth and good ventilation in the summer. In some quarters there is a stubbornly persistent myth, a holdover from the news media coverage of some of the early passive houses, that overheating in summer is common in these houses.
Architects and builders have discovered that a two-storey solar space or greenhouse, adjoining the main house, with operable vent windows near the top and bottom of the space can be used to create natural ventilation for the house during summer. When the windows are open on a sunny day, the rising mass of warmed air is allowed to escape through the opened top vents which in turn draws in cooler air through the lower vents or through windows in the adjacent house. Called the chimney effect, this principle, employed to cool the Indian Tipi, can also keep your passive solar house cool in any U.S. summer climate without the use of powered fans or mechanical air-conditioning.
Shading devices used on the south side of the house can also help. Pull-down shades or canvas awnings on the outside of the glass of the south-facing windows, solarium, and trombe walls can greatly reduce house heat gain. Deciduous trees and shrubs planted to cast shadows on solar-oriented glazing can also create a micro-climate that is several degrees cooler than surrounding areas. When the leaves drop, winter sun can shine into the house.
A popular direct gain heating strategy is the sunspace. Many homeowners claim this room becomes the favorite space in the house with its spacious outdoor feeling. The sunspace/greenhouse can, if properly designed and sited, provide as much as 50% of the house's heating requirements. In this situation, living spaces are better located on the south side with spaces (like bedrooms) not requiring as much heat to the north. Clerestory windows can be used in larger houses where it is important to get sunlight into the northside rooms.
Figure 4a: One-story sunspaces: winter, sunspace cut off from the house (Section A); winter, sunspave helps the lower story via open doors (SectionB); summer, sunspace helps cool the lower story by pulling in air from the north windows (Section C).
Figure 4b: Two-story sunspace: winter, sunspace
cut off from the house (Section A); winter, sunspace helps heat both stories of
the house (SectionB); summer, sunspace helps cool booth stories(SectionC).
If you plan to include a sunspace in your design, you'll first need to decide on the primary function of the space. The design considerations for a food-growing greenhouse, a living space and a supplementary solar heater are very different, and although it is possible to build a sunspace that will serve all three functions, compromises will be necessary.
A greenhouse, for
instance, should be a comfortable and healthy home for plants. Plants need
fresh air, water, lots of light, and protection from extreme temperatures.
Greenhouses consume considerable amounts of energy through evapotranspiration and the evaporation
of water. One pound of evaporating water uses about 1,000 BTU's of energy that
would otherwise be available as heat.
To stay healthy and free of insects and disease, plants need adequate ventilation, even in winter. There are air handling systems such as air-to-air heat exchangers that ventilate while retaining most of the heat in the air, but these add significantly to the cost of the project. The light requirements of a space for growing plants call for overhead glazing which complicates construction and maintenance, and glazed end walls, which are net heat losers.
There will be some economic gains from reduced grocery bills if you grow vegetables, and certainly there is much to be said for the sense of satisfaction that comes with increased self-reliance and the aesthetics of a roomful of healthy plants attached to your house. The bottom line in terms of energy efficiency, however, is that a sunspace designed as an ideal horticultural environment is unlikely to have any energy left for supplementary space heating.
If the purpose of
the sunspace is to collect solar heat
and distribute it effectively to the adjacent living space, you're faced with a
different set of design criteria. Maximum gain is achieved with sloped glazing,
few plants, and insulated, unglazed end walls.
Remember that you'll get more usable heat into your living space if there aren't plants and lots of mass soaking it up in the sunspace. Sun-warmed air can be moved into the house through doors or operable windows in the common wall, as well as blown through ductwork to more remote areas.
If your sunspace
will be a living space, you'll need to consider comfort, convenience, and space
in addition to energy efficiency.
A room you plan to live in must stay warm in the winter, cool in the summer,
have minimum glare levels, and moderate humidity.
Vertical glazing is the choice of increasing numbers of designers for a variety of reasons. First of all, although sloped glazing collects more heat in the winter, it also loses significantly more heat at night, which offsets the daytime gains. Sloped glazing can also overheat in warmer weather, usually the spring and fall, when you don't want the gain.
The performance of a vertical glazed south wall more closely follows the demands of heating degree days, heating effectively in winter when the angle of the sun is low and allowing less solar gain as the sun rises toward its summer zenith. A well-designed overhang may be all that's necessary to keep the sun out when it's not needed. Vertical glazing is also cheaper and easier to install and insulate, and is not as prone to leaking, fogging, breakage and other glazing failures.
A sunspace designed for living requires carefully sized thermal mass, and, as we mentioned earlier, special care must be taken to assure that the sun can get to the mass. A masonry floor covered with carpets and furniture is obviously not as effective a thermal mass as masonry sitting in direct sunlight.
Once the sun goes down, the same windows that collected heat all day begin to reradiate heat to the outdoors. To minimize nighttime losses and maximize comfort (the human body also radiates heat to a cool surface), you may want to include movable window insulation in your design or investigate some of the new high tech glazings now commercially available
Regardless of the design strategy you choose, there are some other criteria that are important to consider. Much of the following information is taken from The Sunspace Primer: A Guide to Passive Solar Heating, by Robert W. Jones and Robert D. McFarland, (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, New York, 1984).
The ideal orientation for the glazing in your sunspace is due solar south, although an orientation within 30° east or west of due south is acceptable. For maximum solar gain, the glass should be tilted 50-60° from the horizon. Many designers, depending on their design strategy, prefer vertical glazing, or a combination of vertical and sloped glazing.
Vertical south-facing glass has advantages over angled glazing in not having to be sealed against water leakage and in its capacity to reflect unwanted (high angle) summer sun, but its winter performance is 10-30% lower that tilted glass of the same area. (Vertically glazed space, can be used like most other rooms in the house, whereas tilted glazing results in head height problems sometimes). The efficiency of a sunspace that combines vertical and some angled roof glazing will be higher than the vertically glazed sunspace, while retaining the advantages of vertical glazing. Rain and snow will clean the outdside of the tilted glass pretty well, whereas vertical glass has the same maintenance problems as house windows. A two-to-three foot wide edging of pea gravel below sunspace glazing that is close to the ground, will prevent soil from splashing onto the glass, which can reduce efficiency.
Figure 5: Sunspace with sloped south-wall glazing over reverse-slope vent windows (a). Sunspace with vertical south-wall glazing (sliding door), side venting windows, and sloped roof glazing (b). (Design by Dennis Holloway, Architect)
If the sunspace is deeper than it is high, the space itself will trap the radiation, so lighter surface colors are acceptable. Otherwise, the surfaces of heat storage materials (thermal mass) should be dark colors of at least 70 percent absorptance. To give you some perspective on the relative absorptance of various colors, black has an absorptance of about 95 percent, a deep blue about 90 percent, and deep red about 86 percent. Non-storage materials should be lighter colors, so they will reflect light to the thermal mass that isn't in the sun.
The floor, north wall, and east and west side walls are good locations for mass walls, which should be materials with a high thermal conductivity such as concrete, water, brick, adobe, or rammed earth. "Light weight" concrete is not acceptable as a thermal mass material, and concrete is most effective in 4 to 6 inch thicknesses. If concrete blocks are used, the cores must be grouted solid.
Figure 6: Sunspace thermal storage (a) Provide 3 square feet of concrete (b) or 3 gallons of water (c) for each square foot of glazing.
If the masonry floor and wall mass are the only thermal storage materials in the space, three square feet of masonry surface per square foot of south glazing is the recommended ratio. If water in containers is the only heat storage medium used, the recommended ratio is three gallons per square foot of glazing.
Increasing the amount of mass will stabilize the internal temperatures, making the space more comfortable for people and plants. A common strategy is to use an 8 to 12 inch uninsulated masonry wall as the north wall of the sunspace. The wall is left uninsulated so that the heat from the sunspace can be conducted through to the interior of the house.
If the sunspace is
to be used for growing plants or as a living space, a minimum of double glazing
is recommended. Single glazing loses a great deal of heat at night, and will
make the space uncomfortable for plants and people. Movable insulation or a
higher-R glazing system will greatly improve the performance of the glazing.
Either of these options add to the cost of the project, and the obvious disadvantage of movable insulation is that someone has to move it every day , and some designers refuse to use it because of an "objectionalble appearance"--something this industry has not been creative about. On the other hand, it is possible to have the insulation controlled automatically with motors and thermostats, and insulation can provide privacy, summer shading, and increased comfort on cold winter nights.
To distribute the
warmed air from the sunspace to the rest of the house, openings are
strategically placed in the common wall between the sunspace and the interior
living space. Heat is transferred by the "thermosiphoning"
circulation of the air. Warm air rises in the sunspace, passes into the
adjoining space through the opening and cool air from the adjoining space is
drawn into the sunspace to be heated as the cycle repeats.
If the openings are 6'8" doors, the minimum recommended opening is 8 square feet of opening per 100 square feet of glazing area. If two openings are used--one high in the sunspace, one low--with 8 vertical feet of separation, the recommended minimum area for each opening is 2.5 square feet per 100 square feet of glazing.
radically overheat resulting in dead plants and unusable living spaces if
operable vents are not included in the overall design. As we mentioned,
overheating is most likely to occur in the late summer and early fall, when the
sun is lower in the sky and the outside air temperature is still warm during
Vents are placed at the top of the sunspace where the temperature is the highest, and at the bottom of the space where temperatures are the lowest to induce the chimney effect. Thermostatically controlled motors can be installed to open the vents automatically if no one will be home to operate them.
These paired vents should be sized according to the following specified fraction of the sunspace glazing area. The required vent area is a function of the glass slope, the vertical distance between the top and bottom vents (stack height), and the rise in internal temperature over outdoor temperature that can be tolerated in the sunspace. The last column in the chart gives fan sizes that will provide the same ventilation.
Few design strategies offer the aesthetic appeal and practical paybacks that a carefully thought out and constructed sunspace does. In our view, it is money well spent to take your preliminary design to a solar engineer or architect for feedback and a computer analysis. It is much less expensive to make changes on paper than to alter a design once it's built.
The second passive
type, indirect gain, collects and stores energy in one
part of the house and uses natural heat movement to warm the rest of the house.
One of the more ingenious indirect gain designs employs the thermal storage
wall, or Trombe wall placed three or four inches inside an expanse of south
facing glass. Named after its French inventor, Felix Trombe, the wall is
constructed of high density materials--masonry, stone, brick, adobe, or water-filled containers--and is painted
a dark color (like black, deep red, brown, purple or green) to more efficiently
absorb the solar radiation.
Some designers use "selective surface" materials, chrome-anodized copper or aluminum foils with adhesive backing that can increase the absorbtive efficiency of the wall to 90%, compared to 60% for a painted surface. These materials allow the wall to absorb radiant heat, but drastically reduce the amount of heat that is lost by radiation to the outdoors at night.
Some builders have had difficulty getting good adhesion between commercially available selective surface foils and the Trombe wall. According to the July 1, 1985 Solar Energy Intelligence Report, Los Alamos National Laboratory is testing a selective surface paint that may hold promise. If you would like to know more about it, contact the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22161, (703)487-4600, and ask for the report on "Thickness Insensitive Selective Surface Paint." The paint can be brushed or sprayed on, and performs in range of 10-20 percent better than flat black paint.
Heat collected and stored in the wall during the day, slowly radiates into the house even up to 24 hours later. The Trombe wall allows efficient solar heating without the elare and ultra-violet light damage to fabrics and wood trim that is common in direct gain solar homes. Trombe walls also afford privacy in situations where that is an issue.
Perhaps the most useful book on passive solar design for owner-builders is THE PASSIVE SOLAR ENERGY BOOK, by Edward Mazria, who makes the following recommendations for sizing the Trombe Wall: "In cold climates (average winter temperatures 20o to 30o F) use between 0.43 and 1.0 square feet of south-facing, double-glazed, masonry thermal storage wall (0.31 and 0.65 square feet for a water wall) for each one square foot of floor space area. In temperate climates (average winter temperatures 35o to 45o F) use between 0.22 and 0.6 square feet of thermal wall (0.16 and 0.43 square feet for a water wall) for each one square foot of space floor area."
In several of the earliest published Trombe wall houses, small vents were used in the top and bottom of the wall; heated air in the wall air space would rise and pass through the upper vent into the high space of the room, while cooler air from low in the room would be drawn into the wall air space through the low wall vent to form a convective heating loop. This is particularly effective in a building where heat is required quickly. The convective movement of air in the wall results in a significant decrease in efficiency over time. Vented Trombe walls are known to be only about 5% more efficient, overall, than non-vented Trombe walls. Therefore, for residences, non-vented Trombe walls are recommended.
When the term,
"passive solar " was introduced into the language of
professional solar researchers in the 1970's, most people didn't have a vague
notion what it meant. Later, as the term was popularized by the media and
through a large number of public educational conferences, people probably
thought that if they wanted to build a passive solar house they would have to
hire not only an architect, but a professional solar engineer capable of
manipulating very complex mathematical equations on a computer.
Today, thanks primarily to knowledge gained from government-funded research and a large number of completed "pioneer" passive solar houses that we've collected data from, we are at the stage where even a high school student can design a passive solar structure. Following is a composite of recently published information to get the owner-builder on the path to owner-designing the passive solar house.
"solar south" is different from "magnetic
south." The longest wall of the house should ideally be facing due (solar)
south to receive the maximum winter and minimum summer heat gains. However, the
south wall can be as much as 30o east or west of solar south with only a 15%
decrease in efficiency from the optimum.
Figure 7:When designing a solar home, you must locate true (solar) south, not magnetic south. This map shows how magnetic south varies from true south in different parts of the United States.
Design your house so
that rooms with relatively low heat and light requirements, those that get
infrequent use (storage, utility room, garage, e.g.), and those rooms that
generate high internal heat (kitchen) are located on the north side of the
house to reduce winter heat load.
In 1983 J. Douglas Balcomb and the research team at Los Alamos National Laboratory issued a set of direct gain and indirect gain design guidelines for heating passive solar houses located in the U.S. They included information on infiltration rates and selecting R-values for the walls, ceiling, perimeter, and basement. They also made suggestions about what kinds of glazings to use for east, west and north windows, as well as about how to size the solar collection area.
The technique is not a substitute for more rigorous computer-simulated thermal analysis by a professional engineer, but it gives owner-builders a solid basis for the schematic design decisions. It is an elegant if oversimplified tool for deciding on a good mix of conservation and passive solar strategies based on geographical location. The five-step technique has been distilled from theoretical analysis and from data collected at actual passive solar houses.
Figure 8: Use this map to find your conservation factor (CF). (Source: J. Douglas Balcolm, et al.)
Use the following
formulas to determine insulation values and recommended infiltration rates. (CF
is the conservation factor
you selected in the first step.)
Wall R values: Multiply the CF by 14. This is the R-value for the entire wall, includeing insulation, siding, interior sheathing, etc.
Ceiling R-values: Multiply the CF by 22. This is the R-value for the entire ceiling, including insulation, finish surface, etc.
R-value of rigid insulation placed on the perimeter of a slab foundation: Multiply CF by 13. Subtract 5 from this number. Use the same value for the insulation of the floor above a crawl space or for the perimeter insulation outside an exposed stem wall.
R-value of rigid insulation applied to the outside of the wall of a heated basement or bermed wall: Multiply CF by 16. Subtract 8 from this number. Use theis value for insulation extending to 4 feet below grade. Use half this R-value from 4 feet below grade down to the footing.
Target ACH (Air Changes/Hour): Divide .42 by the CF. If the result is lower than 0.5ACH, choose tight superinsulation techniques with controlled ventilation to maintain indoor air quality.
Layers of glazing on east, west, and north windows: Multiply the CF by 1.7, then choose the closest whole number. (If the number is 2.3, choose windows with three layers.) If the number exceeds 3. explore insulating glass and/or movable insulation.
Based on guidance from results of these formulas, select your conservation levels, trying to stay within 20% of the results. Your budget will be your best guide, but remember that conservation pays in the short and long run, so when in doubt, opt for higher conservation levels.
We next compute a
Net Load Coefficient (NLC). To do this, look up your home's geometry factor
(GF) in Table 1 (below). For example, if the house will have a total floor area
of nearly 3000 square feet on three stories, the GF will be 5.7.
Now multiply the GF by your house's floor area. Thus, if the floor area will be 2900 square feet and the GF is 5.7, you multiply these two values to get 16,530. Finally, divide this result by the CF. If your CF is 2.0, for example you would divide 16,530 by 2 to get 8265. This is your NLC.
Table 1: Geometry Factor, GF
Locate your building
site on the following Load Collector Ratio (LCR) map (Figure 9). This will give
you the lad collector ration (LCR) for your home. Note that for each geographic
zone, the LCR is expressed as a range. If your fuel costs are high, select the lowest number.
Figure 9: Use this map to find your load collector ratio (LCR). (Source: J. Douglas Balcomb, et. al.)
To determine the area of the passive solar collector (Trombe wall, sunspace, etc.) for your home, divide the NLC (the number you got in step 3) by the LCR (the number you got in Step 4). For example, if your NLC is 8.265 and your LCR is 20, then your passive solar collector should have 423 square feet of south-facing glazing. You can round this number up or down by 10 percent (so the area could be as small as 370 square feet or as large as 450 square feet.) In hot climates, the areas should be adjusted downward by 20 to 30 percent.
Elements most commonly used in passive solar homes to make maximum use of the sun's heat include direct-gain windows, direct gain glazed solariums, and indirect-gain Trombe walls and mass wall. Each of these elements will influence the design because they have specific requirements.
"Direct-Gain" windows allow sunlight to enter the home directly. Much of the heat from the sunlight should be absorbed by some type of high-density material such as masonry; after sunset, the heat will flow out of this "thermal mass", helping to keep the house warm. Direct-gain windows should be oriented due south, although the orientation may be varied by as much as 30 degrees east or west of south without losing much efficiency. Southerly views from the building site become an important criterion in site selection--you don't want huge southern windows showing you unattrative views. Because many furniture fabrics and carpets are susceptible to fading in sunlight, and because these materials tend to prevent the light from reaching masonry floors where its warmth can be stored, you should keep such fabrics our of direct sunlight.
Figure 10: A large south-oriented glass wall and high vents (a); A Trombe wall (b); A two-story sunspace (c). Thermal mass is shown as solid black and speckled areas.
The direct gain solarium (otherwise known as a solar greenhouse or sunspace) is similar in concept to teh direct-gain window, and the same orientation rules of thumb apply. The typical early solarium of the 1970s projected out from the house, like na addition, and was glazed on the south, east, and west sides as well as the roof. The south wall was typically sloped. Today's solarium has been modified for greater efficiency and typically is flush with the south wall of the house, therby eliminating the loss of energy from the east and west walls. Surrounded by other spaces, the solarium space can be an effective focus for the house, functioning like a solar "hearth". To minimize the overheating common in the early style solarium, the roof is not glazed and the south wall is vertical rather than sloped. The state-of-the-art solarium is sometimes a two-storey space, with French doors opening to rooms on both levels, allowing better circulation of solar-heated air throughout the house.
Figure 11: Orientation to true south in a passive solar house may vary by as much as 30 degrees east or west of south with relatively little loss of overall efficiency (top); A direct-gain system, such as a sunspace (a), floods a space with light, which may cause fabrics to fade. An indirect-gain system, such as a Trombe wall (b), provides heat while blocking the light.
Figure 12: First generation sunspaces (a) usually protruded from the house. New sunspaces (b) are often two story designs set into a house's south wall.
A Trombe wall is a masonry wall with glazing spaced a few inches outside it. Solar heat is trapped between the masonry and the glass; it enters the house by migrating through the masonry. Whereas the direct-gain window and solarium are virtually transparent,creating strong spatial connections between indoors and outdoors, the Trombe wall obstructs views to the outdoors, so it works well on a site where a southern view is not desireable. If you do want a south view, however, yu can place windows in a Trombe wall. Variations on the Trombe wall include half-Trombe walls with direct-gain windows above, and Trambe walls with integral fireplaces. A Trombe wall can also be "bent" or shaped to fit the internal requirements of the floor plan.
Figure 13: Trombe walls can be designed to fit virtually any south-facing wall.
The design of a multilevel passive solar house should take into account the fact that there will be some degree of heat stratification, with warmer upper level spaces and cooler lower level spaces. Thus the spaces on the upper level might include the living, cooking, and family activity areas where most of the waking hours are spent, and the lower level spaces could be used for sleeping. Although this "upstairs / downstairs" relationship seems unconventional to us, it offers a better view from the living space and is ideal for a hillside house with entry on the north side of the house and the north walls of the lower level sheltered by the hill.
The emergence in the
70's of the passive solar house,
in all its variations, was a dramatic display of Yankee ingenuity applied to
the national energy crisis, and our knowledge about the
solar-thermal performance of buildings was extended by a quantum leap. But at
this writing, the political pendulum and its news media has
swung away from passive solar architecture, as the Federal solar tax credits
quietly are put to bed.
With all the current talk of an emerging energy-glutted decade, the potential owner builder may wonder if making an energy efficiency statement in a new home makes any sense. We surely have to see through this cloud to know that energy shortfall in the 70's will pale by comparison to what lies ahead in the 90's. The growing movement of clear-sighted owner builders will continue to show the rest of the population that our living room comfort can, by connecting to our abundant ambient solar energy, release us from the tyranny of tenuous foreign energy supplies.
In a recent interview, Douglas Balcomb, our foremost passive solar researcher-spokesperson, said that the viability of passive solar has become an established fact, and the use of direct-gain spaces, sunspaces, and Trombe walls (in that order) will be with us for a long time.
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