Note: This article was also published in Real Estate Magazine (Mendocino County & Inland Property)
The Mendocino coast has long attracted people interested in exploring alternative approaches to life, from family structures—remember all those communes?—to the houses they build. From school buses converted to bedrooms and chicken coops made into houses, the seeds for an alternative approach to building were born.
Today this interest has grown up, even as many other jurisdictions and interested people in the county and in the country have tried to develop homes that are both healthier to build and healthier to live within.
Today there is much talk about “green building” or “sustainable construction.” But what is it, really? While the experts might disagree about the details, most would agree that the main elements of green building involve: energy efficiency, low-maintenance costs, locally sourced materials, recognition of the life-cycle costs of various materials, and an emphasis on indoor air quality.
To reach these goals, a truly holistic approach is needed—it makes no sense to install a 99-percent efficient furnace, for example, if there is no consideration given to creating an air-tight shell on the house. The three component parts of the design, construction materials, and construction techniques must all be integrated if the goal is to produce a healthy home that sits lightly on the land.
From a design perspective, there are a number of green building principles that should be considered “easily picked fruit.” One such principle is to design for a passive solar orientation. Ideally, this means situating the house with the long axis facing east-west. That allows for larger windows on the south face, permitting passive solar warning of the interior space.
Glazing should be kept to a minimum on the north side, and used judicially on the east and west, to avoid the overheating of interior spaces when the sun is low in the sky. Obviously, this is a guide only—your specific site may have amazing views to the west that you want to take advantage of. The point is to include these considerations, and the recognition of their trade-offs, from the first stages of your design. For example, if you have great views facing west, you may choose a specialty film that reduces solar-heat gain.
Another guiding principle is “smaller is better.” This idea was first popularized by Sarah Susanka in her book The Not So Big House. It was a response to the surfeit of McMansions she saw being built that lacked soul and left their homeowners without a sense of home. She posited that many people would feel much more at home in smaller spaces that emphasized quality over quantity and better reflected the way they actually lived their lives. This means foregoing the (generally unused) formal dining-room and living-room and instead tailoring the spaces for the unique needs of each client.
Another way to reduce the quantity of space, thereby freeing money up for quality, is by letting spaces do double duty. A room that is an office can also double as a spare bedroom. What could be more green than building small? Fewer resources used, less transportation of materials, lower heating costs… all lead to a smaller carbon footprint.
Construction Materials and Techniques
Design decisions work hand-in-hand with the choices of materials used in a home. In choosing materials, it is important to ask a number of questions. What are the up-front costs compared with long-term costs when maintenance and operating costs are included? What materials can be locally sourced and what have to come from far away?
One great example of this is using earth plasters for your home—take the soil from your foundation excavation, and if it is suitable (e.g., has high enough clay content), put it on your walls for a smooth and beautiful earthen plaster. What traditional building materials can be replaced with more benign materials? For example low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints are rapidly replacing the traditional higher-VOC paints. Vinyl flooring, which, from a green perspective, is flawed from cradle to grave—taxi in its production, emitting VOCs in use, and difficult to recycle—can be replaced with Maroleum, a flooring made primarily from linseed oil.
For the consumer, there is an ever-growing array of green products. Homeowners can get kitchen countertops made of concrete, of recycled glass, of bamboo, even of paper! All have their own advantages and disadvantages, and some come with a hefty price tag, but the trend is clear: green products have moved from a niche market to the mainstream.
The final component of an integrated green building approach involves the use of specific techniques to improve indoor air quality, reduce the carbon footprint, and/or increase energy efficiency. To cover these in detail would require a book, but just to give a taste of how green principles affect every aspect of the home, I will briefly mention some of the evolving “best practices” of green building.
FOUNDATION—Foundations require the use of prodigious amounts of concrete, whose manufacture is a contributor to greenhouse gases. By incorporating flash, an industrial waste product, the amount of cement is reduced while a waste product is diverted from the waste stream.
As an added bonus, the flash greatly increases the strength of the concrete. (Flyash is a by-product of coal-fired electric generating plants. It is the finely divided residue resulting from the combustion of ground or powdered coal, which is transported from the firebox through the boiler by flue gases. flyash.sustainableresources.com)
FRAMING—The use of Advanced Framing Techniques reduces the amount of lumber used in framing by judiciously removing unnecessary framing members (extra jack studs, oversized window headers, etc.). When done correctly, it saves not just lumber but also labor, without compromising structural integrity.
WINDOWS AND DOORS—While no one would think of installing a single-pane window in their home, there are many ways to improve on a dual-paned window. Depending on the orientation of the window (i.e., west catching the setting sun or north, just leaking energy), there are a number of films on the glass, and gases within the panes of glass, that are all designed to improve the rather dismal insulating performance of regular glass.
The best-performing windows have an insulating value equivalent to an R-14 wall. (Insulation levels are specified by R-Value. R-Value is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat traveling through it. The higher the R-Value the better the thermal performance of the insulation. energystar.gov)
INSULATION—There are many alternatives to traditional fiberglass insulation. Those interested in natural building will probably be partial to blue jean insulation that is made of recycled blue jean material. From a performance stand-point, however, other insulation options such as blown-in insulation or foam insulation will perform better. The client has to decide if they want a “more” green product that may end up resulting in more energy (possibly fossil fuels) being consumed after installation, or a “less” green product that may result in using less energy after installation, over time.
SOLAR HOT WATER AND SOLAR PV—While the use of solar energy may not be intuitive in our coastal climate, improvements in solar technology and the continued federal tax rebate of 30 percent makes solar a viable and highly green energy source for many coastal homes.
AFTER THE HOUSE IS BUILT—Building an energy-efficient and healthy home is only part of the story. For this reason, many entrepreneurs have introduced green products that range from beds and bedding to air filters and cleaning products. All aim to improve indoor air quality by reducing indoor air pollutants such as VOCs and formaldehyde.
Pushing the Envelope
If green building is considered the reformer of traditional building techniques, then natural building must be considered the revolutionary. Natural building uses unusual materials (think tires, straw-bales, cob) and puts them together in unusual ways. Ideally, the goal is to take a waste product and use it as a building block of your home. Some of these techniques are relatively new (Earth-ships made of used tires), but some resurrect techniques used in earlier eras. For example, straw-bale houses were built back in the late 1800s in Nebraska, where wood was scarce but straw bales were not.
Flash-forward to the late 1970s, with its back-to-the-land ethos, and an enterprising soul recognized a way to resurrect this technique. By taking rice straw, a waste product from rice production, and making especially dense bales, a new building material was created that was user friendly, highly insulating (R-37 compared to R-13 in a normal 2×4 wall), and deeply aesthetic.
Another way to push the envelope is not through adopting atypical materials, but in questioning one of the fundamental premises regarding houses, that of size. Who says that a house has to be 1,800 sq. ft. or 3,800 sq. ft.? If “smaller is better,” then a logical extension of that is “tiny is best.” From that sentiment, the tiny house movement was born.
Popularized by Jay Schafer of “Tiny Tumbleweed” fame, the idea is that all a person really needs can be fitted in two hundred square feet or less. By publishing a number of house plans all designed to fit on an 8 ft. x 14 ft. trailer base, he encouraged people to explore just how much space one really needs. I had the opportunity to build one when a client decided to downsize from her twenty-four hundred square-foot house down to one hundred eighty square feet. We built it in my driveway, and then towed it to her property. While not practical for everyone, it can be a good fit for the right person.
Another approach is that of prefab green homes. This combines the efficiency inherent in prefabrication, with green techniques and products. Two leaders in this emerging field are Blu Homes and LivingHomes. By introducing some of the efficiency of scale that is impossible in a single-built custom home, costs are reduced, allowing the client to invest in various green upgrades. The cost per square foot can be surprisingly low.
For a local project that incorporates many of the aforementioned principles, we need look no further than the Cottages at Cypress Street in Fort Bragg. These twenty-seven homes are all small, ranging in size from 350 square feet to 600 square feet. They are arranged around a central common space and a common building, which includes an activity center (with kitchen), laundry facilities, and a large covered patio. All units have both passive and active solar systems and are net zero energy users, meaning that they produce more energy from their solar arrays than they consume. These homes were also constructed from locally sourced and sustainable materials, and the site was developed to absorb storm water through a grass paved parking lot and bioswales. All units are affordable housing for seniors, and they are so popular that they were all rented prior to opening.
Cynthia Sharon is a general contractor specializing in green building.