It is through our homes that we have the greatest impact on our health and the natural world. Our homes directly affect our physical health, our relationship with the natural world, our emotional and spiritual well-being and the environment.
As a builder, I have had the opportunity to visit and work on a myriad of dwellings over the years. Additionally, I have had countless conversations with people about their present and future homes, about what they want in a house, about what does and doesn’t work for them. I began to get some sense of what makes a building work and which elements were satisfying to the occupants.
As an environmentalist, I was always interested in minimizing the impact of my work on the environment. As time went on, I began to see that strategies for reducing negative environmental impacts were often interlinked with design principles that promoted good health and a sense of well-being in the residents.
Depending on a customer’s needs and inclinations, I have been able to incorporate different elements of what have come to be called “green building” into different projects. Although it is often easier and less expensive to incorporate these elements when building from scratch, almost all of these approaches can be utilized to some extent during remodeling or renovations.
My big opportunity to put it all together as best I could came when we built our family house. It was quite a learning experience in so many ways. I was at once contractor and customer, and I experienced the construction process first-hand from the viewpoint of the homeowner. And as my most adventurous customer ever, I was also able to experiment with new products and techniques as well as modify the design with much more flexibility than a normal project.
Ever since the mid-’80s when I was active in the remarkable campaign waged by the Coalition for Alternatives to Shearon Harris to prevent the Shearon Harris nuclear plant from opening, I have understood the importance of our choices regarding energy use. Changing our collective approach to residential energy use provides the best opportunities to implement environmentally sound practices. It is an investment that pays off for the lifetime of the building and thus the benefits are compounded. Improved comfort and health are welcome side-effects to the positive environmental impact of reducing fossil-fuel use, although you might just as well turn that around and say that the environmental benefits are the welcome side-effects to health and comfort.
I have lived in a lot of different houses over the years: leaky old farmhouses with little or no insulation, run-of-the-mill ’60s vintage heat pump supplied houses, and, most recently, a mobile home. After living through the four seasons in our new super-insulated home, I am a born-again evangelist for insulation. It is amazing the difference that an excellent insulation job, including thorough air-sealing to prevent drafts and infiltration, can make. Build it tight and insulate it right.
But wait, some of you are thinking, it’s not healthy to build a house too tight. Shouldn’t a house breathe? The real question is, how to introduce clean air and ventilate a house properly to avoid stagnation and excess moisture build-up. Think about clothing. We all want to be able to introduce outside air in behind our clothing sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we want random tears and punctures. We want control, like a zipper or buttons. It’s the same with a building. We want to be able to control the airflow whether it’s with windows or fans.
The best bang-for-the-buck wall and ceiling insulation is cellulose. It’s made from recycled newspapers, costs about $100 more per thousand square feet than fiberglass, and uses only 10 percent of the energy to manufacture that fiberglass does. Due to its consistency, it penetrates all the nooks and crannies in your framing for a superior fill. As a bonus, the flame retardant it’s treated with is boric acid, which is a benign pesticide. So you get higher comfort, no cockroaches, and you can even find haikus in the newsprint flakes sprinkled around your floor after the installers leave.
The other important part is sealing cracks, gaps, and wire or pipe penetrations with caulk and foam. Go through the house several times. You will always find a new gap to fill and you will be minimizing air infiltration and thus moisture infiltration.
Quality windows are a worthwhile investment and will complement the insulation work. I am partial to casement and awning windows because they seal so well when shut, and when they are open the entire window lets in a breeze.
When I designed our house, one of my primary goals was to have natural light in every room. This design goal leads directly to a classic compromise situation of which there are many when building a house. Too many windows in the wrong places can cause a lot of heat or cooling loss, yet daylight is so beneficial.
The first principle with windows is that every house should take advantage of the free heat that passive solar gain can provide as the sun’s rays pass through the window glazing. It is so simple and refreshingly devoid of mechanical components. The house gets oriented generally to the south, a lot of glass is located in the south-facing walls, and the eaves are built to extend out far enough to allow the low winter sun to shine in while blocking the summer sun with its higher arc across the sky. Put some mass behind the windows, like tile, concrete, or stone and you’ve got material that will absorb heat in the daytime and radiate it into the living space after nightfall.
Minimizing windows on the colder northern side of the house will improve comfort and energy-efficiency. But here is where design goals may clash and compromises are called for. My wife, Wanda Sundermann, has her massage office in the northwest corner of our house. It was important to her to have a nice open view to the woods and sky out back. It was preferable to have the pleasant view and the natural light, so we sacrificed a little thermal efficiency there.
A general rule of thumb is that the comfort of a room is enhanced if there are windows in at least two walls. There is a growing body of evidence that we need natural light. It certainly connects us to the outside environment. There are recent studies showing that students in naturally lit classrooms perform better on tests and miss less school than their counterparts in artificially lit buildings. Also, effective daylighting reduces electrical usage.
The interplay of natural light inside the house during the day and through the seasons provides a pleasant changing interior environment. After living in a trailer for 10 years, our family was all in favor of multiple windows and, although windows add cost, I believe the natural light and many views of the outdoors have contributed greatly to our health and well-being.
In addition to the passive solar heating, our other primary heat source is a very efficient soapstone woodstove. During the recent ice storm, our heating system was unaffected and we were as comfortable as usual. Our third heat source is radiant floor heating in my wife’s massage office and adjacent bathroom. Radiant floor heating is typically electric elements or pipes carrying hot water that are installed just below the floor. The floor surface heats up and then the heat rises up into the room. Our system is the hot water (or hydronic) type. Since these two rooms are on the coldest side of the house and extra heat is more comfortable for massage clients, it made sense to augment the overall system with this hot-water heating unit. Also, since this is a unit that we can turn on and leave on, it is our insurance policy in case we are gone for an extended period in winter and cloudy days prevent the house from receiving solar heat.
Another primary design goal was to avoid mechanical air conditioning. After all, people lived comfortably in the South before the advent of mechanized AC. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure I could pull it off but I wanted to try for three reasons. First, going in and out of air-conditioned buildings can be unhealthy and prevent your body from acclimating to the natural temperature. Second, enormous amounts of energy use and related pollution result from air conditioning. And third, to save money.
I was very pleased when my design worked and we discovered that we can live comfortably without a mechanized forced-air air conditioning system. Now I know that there are ample opportunities to eliminate or reduce mechanical air conditioning needs. The techniques are simple and the financial rewards substantial.
Here are the basics that worked in our house. Simply put, the house was designed to prevent heat from entering from the outside and to prevent heat from being generated on the inside. Beyond that, exhaust fans are utilized to suck heat and humidity from the kitchen and bathrooms, ceiling fans provide cooling air movement and a whole-house fan pulls cool air into the house. As I mentioned before in relation to passive solar gain, the eaves extend out two feet and thus block the summer sun from penetrating into the house. We do catch a little morning sun from the east, but it’s not a big deal.
The western sun is the main adversary since as it sets, no eave can block it. We only have two windows that face the west. They are in our master bedroom and are another example of compromising on energy issues in favor of aesthetic considerations. Our main defense against the merciless western sun was to build an expansive porch on the western side of the house. The porch roof extends out so far that only rarely do the western rays penetrate the living room. My office on the southwest corner of the house blocks the southern sun from shining on the porch so it is relatively cool out there in the summer.
On the few extremely hot days, we shut the windows and doors in the morning and retain 75 to 80 degree temperatures inside all day. In the evening, we open up the house and run the whole house fan that pulls in cool forest air and renders the house totally comfortable after even the fiercest hot days.
From April to October, we leave a hatch open in the top of our “tower” that allows hot air to rise up through the house and keeps air moving through the building. (Mold has not been a problem.) The tower is really an old-time belvedere just like the ones on so many old houses in the Piedmont and Coastal Plains. There is much traditional design wisdom–obscured by technological “advances”–that we should rediscover and retain. The old houses had belvederes, trees to provide natural shade and cooling, and wrap-around porches that kept the sun from shining in.
An open, airy design with a minmum of walls and halls contributes to good airflow, easier heating and cooling, and effective natural lighting. Our western porch and our front patio are good examples of connecting the house gracefully to the outdoor environs and make a pleasant transition.
Different floor levels and different ceiling heights create interesting spaces and different atmospheres in a house. Rooms with different light intensity are also pleasant to move through. Our kitchen and dining area on the southeast corner of the house are filled with light during the day. As one walks back into the living room–although there is plenty of natural light to see by–it is a little darker and feels cooler in the summertime, as well as providing a nice contrast to the very bright rooms adjacent to it.
Our house features two stone walls that have practical and aesthetic functions. One wall divides the sunroom from the living room and provides some mass for solar heat to be absorbed into. The other is the hearth behind the woodstove, which absorbs and radiates heat as well. My wife took on the task of building these beautiful walls. They are made primarily of rocks she gathered at a friend’s property not far from us in Alamance County. Also, we finally found a place for all those rocks she insisted that we bring back from trips. So we have mica from a New Hampshire mine, rocks from Cape Cod, red granite from Sioux Falls, S.D., and more embedded in our hearth. Many times I went to pick up her suitcase when she came back from a trip and nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket because she had packed a few rocks for the return trip. She even made a bathroom floor out of small smooth rocks, which is something to behold, and when the radiant floor heating is on is nirvanic to the bare feet.
The living room floor is 1930s heart pine flooring that was formerly the floor of the old Internationalist Bookstore when it was on Rosemary Street. I am honored to have that floor in our house since I knew the founder Bob Sheldon (who was murdered there about 10 years ago) and built bookshelves for him in return for book credit. The flooring wood is amazing–tight-grained and straight as an arrow after all these years and full of beautiful colors and grain patterns. Utilizing salvaged building materials can save a lot of wood and the materials themselves are often of high-quality and beautiful. In addition to salvaging materials on your own, there are outlets that now sell good re-useable buuilding materials.
Most of the interior trim and moulding is crafted from the framing lumber I got from deconstructing the Internationalist. It was a time-consuming labor of love, but it saved using a lot of new wood and it is beautiful, nail-holes and all. The railing on the stair down to the sunroom is made from a piece of Douglass Fir that was a fascia board on a house damaged during Hurricane Fran that my company repaired.
I jokingly call the house a flooring lab because of all the different types of flooring we used. The mudroom has an appropriately colored reddish-orange natural sheet flooring called Marmoleum by Forbo. It’s made from cork flour and jute, gets harder and more durable with age, and has natural bactericidal properties and doesn’t stink like vinyl. The upstairs bedrooms have Armstrong Swiftlock flooring that snaps together with no glue or fasteners. Instant floor, and you can carry away the waste from one room in one hand. It comes pre-finished so you avoid the fumes and the traffic of floor finishers.
We splurged on maple in the kitchen and dining room. Maple is one of the most water-resistant woods. A couple of rooms have 1-by-6 pine flooring, a good, relatively inexpensive locally grown product. There are several types of wood-polymer decking outside. These are great products made from wood waste and recycled plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, etc. Trex is probably the most recognizable brand, but there are other brands which look a lot better. Trex tends to look like wet newspaper after a few months. Fiberon is a nice product and approved for use on wheelchair ramps due to the texture of its surface. I used Fiberon (available from Lowe’s) on my ramp and stairs. I also used Timbertech and Weyerhauser brands–both good products. They never splinter or crack so they are very kid and barefoot friendly. Additionally, we have tile in the bathrooms and sunroom. My office has a concrete slab floor that is acid-stained with a green marbled color that makes a nice, easy-to-clean surface for a construction company office.
We consciously avoided carpet in order to achieve high indoor air quality and make it easier to clean. Although there are now low-toxicity carpets available, most carpets off-gas some nasty stuff. And then there are the dust mites that always live in carpets and feed off our skin flakes. Under a microscope they look like prehistoric monsters, and there are hundreds per square inch of rug. And you would be right in assuming that like all their other animal brethren, they excrete. The air in our house is really clean. I highly recommend avoiding carpet.
Our siding is mounted on furring strips (vertical wood strips to which other things can be is attached) that allow air to get behind the wood and prevent moisture problems. This allowed us to leave the wood natural and not use any toxic stains or paints. At first I tried very hard to get southern yellow pine siding because it is always environmentally prudent to use available local materials, but it is almost all going for pulp and treated-wood products. After nearly every lumber yard suggested I use cypress, I finally said OK because I realized I couldn’t get pine. I had mixed feelings because I had seen stumps in swamps out east where magnificent cypress trees had been, but the wood was beautiful as it turned a warm gold color after exposure to sunlight.
There is a lot I’m leaving out here, but one of my favorite parts to our house is our drainwater heat recovery unit. It’s an elegant four-foot long copper tube that fits in the drain system just below a shower, and it has tightly wound copper tubing around it connected to the water supply line. When hot shower water goes down the drain, it transfers heat to the incoming water supply that is heading to the water heater thus recovering heat that is normally lost. Up to 80 percent of the drainwater heat can be recaptured. This contributes to the efficiency of our solar water heating system, which meets virtually all of our hot water needs for eight months of the year and contributes substantially the other four. Our electric bills are about $20 per month during the summer, $35-40 in the late fall and early spring and rise to around $100 for three winter months. The winter bills reflect the short solar days and the fact that we are often heating water for our radiant floor system during the cold season. Also keep in mind that we have the additional electrical demand of two home offices; we also homeschool, so there is constant activity in our house.
Another of my favorite components is the photovoltaic system that is integrated into the metal roofing. We reduced our electrical demand by using compact fluorescent lights (which use 25 percent of the energy that incandescents do and burn cooler), designing in natural lighting with strategic window placement, and using very efficient appliances. That way our 1.56 kilowatt solar electric system can meet the majority of our electrical needs. We have a battery backup unit so that power generated by our system during the day is available at night. During the ice storm, we were sitting pretty and actually generating electricity while the grid woes affected nearly everyone. It is a real pleasure knowing that most of our electricity usage is not contributing to pollution and global warming and that we are not dependent on the big power corporations.
There are so many aspects to green building and a bewildering array of product choices that promise to be environmentally friendly in the future. My advice is to just do what you can and don’t feel like you have to do it all or do too much. Every little bit will help. Do some research and don’t believe everything you hear. Start with energy-saving strategies and you will be picking the low-hanging fruit.
Mark Marcoplos owns Marcoplos Construction. He completed his home in southwest Orange County in 2001. He is also a columnist for the Chapel Hill News and serves on the boards of the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.