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Your home is for most people the biggest and most important financial investment we will ever make. Where we live represents how we live and to some extent who and what we are. As oil reserves become depleted and climate change looms large, you should feel some satisfaction that you can do something about these things in a big way by switching to a solar house. Whether you decide to renovate or build a new home, you’ll see that, yes, you can do this.
Before we get into how to build or renovate your home, let us take a walk through our solar home to get some idea of what it is like and how it works.
First of all, take a look at where we’ve sited the home. Right from the start we tried to find a location that is protected from the cold northerly winds in the winter. Trees on the north side of the property seriously protect the north wall from much of the impact that these strong cold winds can have by providing a barrier.
First, we'll walk through the process of how to build or renovate using renewable materials created by solar energy. Then we'll tackle you energy bill. Before we do that though we need to get a hands on feel for what this is all about by building a small scale model. So, get ready to build your own solar powered desk. Through this process you'll... Looking at your place with new eyes. Whether you are looking for a new property on which to build or at renovating your existing place some of the easiest and long lasting opportunities exist for reducing your impact. See where natural resources come for free. The sun, rain, wind, woods, flowers, and garden. How can you mimic nature in order to satisfy your requirements for home, food, work and transportation? Think about how your life relates to place, site, area, landscape, environment, climate and community.
Place is a something we may take for granted. And yet, as in nature, we see that every little nook and cranny offers different opportunities and challenges. Sometimes finding and seeing these opportunities takes a new way of thinking. How would a Beaver construct things if this area was suitable habitat for them? What do the plants do to survive? Why does moss grow on the north side of rocks? Can we learn and work with the natural elements to find the best way to blend with each space.
When we look to build for our home or dig the land to grow food there are many ways we can retain the local dynamics of the area. First of all we can try to minimize any impact at all by leaving as much as possible as is. When trees and land are transformed it may be possible to restore or reuse these material. Green roofing and passive solar provide opportunities for this type of restoration of the local landscape. Using the material for parts of the construction or returning them to their natural state can help significantly towards helping the site return to a state of health. When we build we must realize that we are wounding the space and may need to help return it to health.
Natural site features to look for:
Depending on where you live different sustainable building systems may be more suitable.
Not needing something can be the most efficient form of conservation. Higher levels of insulation, better windows, sealed cracks, and reduced levels of demand for energy are where renewable energy starts. This is also the cost effective way to be sustainable. It also may be one of the harder areas as the concept of less, invisible savings are hard for some people to grasp. In my own case the exciting concepts of solar panels and wind turbines actively producing renewable energy intrigues me. In reality, the power of efficiency is the key to holding the holistic concepts of sustainable living together. Without thinking efficiently as nature does we are doomed to fail.
It starts with the amount of space you need. Keep it as small as possible. Rethink every element and wherever possible try to work towards as small of a space for what you really need. The benefits of this type of thinking result in cost saving in every other aspect of your life. The flexibility and opportunities provided by minimizing your footprint at this basic level when applied over the long term are the most powerful. Like investing, the sooner you start, the more you put in at the beginning, the better the long term returns. With efficiency this is the formula. However, the difficulty is in that the investment is in reducing, optimizing and eliminating. This kind of thinking is something we find difficult in our culture of consumption and wanting forever more.
Something we will find very hard is to change our ways of thinking. Efficiency is a natural way built into the universe. It is something that we are only starting to grasp but that has long been a part of spiritual traditions and ancient cultures. It has been the recent revolutions in energy usage patterns, innovations in mechanics, and chemical innovation that has allowed us to go well beyond natural limits. This can’t be sustained. The key is conserving wherever possible, insulating, reducing materials, using renewable materials, and organic products.
Using every means possible to reduce leaks, improve insulation levels, and retain heat naturally collected through passive solar means a direct reduction in what we need to produce to maintain comfort levels. Much of this type of efficiency is not sexy or all that visible but it provides far greater value over the long run.
Once we turn to the active systems like lighting, appliances and heating system these too should be the most efficient and properly sized for the job. Over the long term the more efficient systems will pay for any additional cost that may be involved. Reduced levels of maintenance will typically be an added bonus. Also, efficiency comes part and parcel with quality. Quality is something that people will feel and sense. That feeling of security and comfort will also provide peace of mind and security, such valuable, although difficult to quantify benefits.
Efficiency occurs in natural systems due to real competition. In Europe where energy prices have been higher for longer the use of in-line water heaters is nearly universal. Rather than maintain hot water in a large tank, these systems heat precisely the quantity of water required for specific purposes on demand. These systems are usually fueled by natural gas or propane, however, the efficiency ratings are dramatically better than other tank based systems. Electric in-line hot water heating systems also exist.
Passive Solar Heat and Cool
Perhaps the oldest, simplest, and most effective heating system, passive solar, directly converts sunlight into heat. The heat is most frequently stored in a thick floor or similarly effective storage medium. This is the most direct form of solar energy usage. Passive solar combines to also provide natural cooling so as not to overheat.
Creating a passive solar home starts by selecting the right site that should include access to plenty of sunlight to the south, a wind break to the north, and effective insulation for the home. The passive solar effect works naturally since the sun is much lower in the sky in the winter, and so high in the summer. This combines to increase heat storage in the winter when need and reduce heating in the summer. By combining passive solar with natural cooling techniques the home can achieve a natural balance that eliminates the need for a fossil fuel based furnace or air conditioner. This leads to substantial cost saving especially when considered over the lifetime of the home. The reductions in carbon emissions and other pollutants related to the energy required for air conditioning are staggering. These two elements represent nearly fifty percent of the average home’s annual energy usage. Using passive solar and natural cooling reduces pollution by as much as 90%. Of course all of these numbers are dependent on the area in which you live, level of effectiveness in the passive solar/natural cooling systems, and level of supplemental heating required in the form of a wood burning stove and/or hydronic in-floor heating/cooling system.
(Note: reverse in southern hemisphere)
See the full documentary video (DVD and high quality downloads are available at www.TheSolarVillage.com)