Design for Green Living

“The natural building movement is where organic food was 20 years ago,” says Joe Kennedy, co-editor of the new book The Art of Natural Building. “Now we have exponential growth, and we’re riding an intense wave.”

Until recently, natural building was a movement in a diaspora, with adherents working largely in isolation, inspired by such groundbreaking texts as Helen and Scott Nearing’s 1954 Living the Good Life. It began more or less spontaneously in reaction to construction practices that, in the context of the energy crisis of the early 1970s, were regarded as resource-extractive and energy- and capital-intensive.

By the early 1990s, especially after actor Dennis Weaver attracted worldwide publicity by moving into a passive-solar house partly built of old tires and soda cans (an “earthship”), the movement began to coalesce. In 1994, the first Natural Building Colloquium was held, links were made, and green builders began to see their individual work as related to a larger vision. That vision encompasses such disparate disciplines as energy-efficient design (including super-efficient insulation, passive solar features and heat-retaining windows); preservation and use of recycled building materials (from old tires to straw); and such common-sense techniques as shade-tree landscaping and roofs cooled by growing plants. While the movement didn’t begin in the Northeast, it is increasingly strong in green pockets like Vermont, where energy efficiency produces not only satisfaction, but very real cost savings.

Today’s green architects, designers and construction companies are both learning from the past—through studying such basic structures as the yurt and the teepee—and applying the latest technology to save energy and materials. And they’re finding that eco-design is not just for the rich; in fact, it can be very cost-effective.

”[Waste] on building sites often amounts to about 20 percent,” says architect and ecological home renovator Edward Harland. Buildings consume a third of all the energy used in the U.S., says the Alliance to Save Energy.

Alex Wilson, editor of the Brattleboro, Vermont-based Environmental Building News, a national newsletter on environmentally sustainable design and construction, says he’s learned a number of important truths about green construction. “The first lesson was that at least 90 percent of a building’s environmental impacts are determined by the design, so the builder doesn’t really have that much leverage,” he says. Wilson says the primary factors are the size of the house and its orientation (south is best for solar, obviously), the heating and cooling decisions made and the levels of insulation used—all beyond the builder’s control.

Elizabeth Cordero, program director of the Green Roundtable, an educational collaboration between Boston-area design professionals, says that the key points for would-be green builders are to find the right architect and contractor, and to finance the project taking into account the long-term energy savings from green technologies.

Washington, D.C.-based architect Harry Gordon agrees that the planning stage is crucial, and he points out, “Going green can, in fact, save money, particularly when costs are calculated over the life cycle of the building.”

The Vermont Law School in South Royalton invested $3.25 million in Oakes Hall, a new energy-efficient classroom facility, in 1998. Features include natural ventilation that’s restricted to occupied rooms, composting toilets and an “energy wheel” that recovers exhaust heat. “We’re a leader in environmental law, and we wanted a building representative of our values,” says spokesperson Peter Miller. “What makes the building really distinctive is that it was not inordinately expensive to build—under $110 per square foot.” The law school estimates that, each year, the building’s reduced use of oil and electricity means it avoids emitting 161 tons of carbon dioxide, .63 tons of sulfur dioxide and .57 tons of nitrogen oxide.

Also in Vermont, which is emerging as a center of natural building, is the increasingly green Middlebury College. Instead of simply knocking down its old Science Center and creating a mountain of waste, Middlebury took the building down piece by piece. Some 75 tons of wood and 150 tons of steel and iron have been recovered from the site. Crushed glass from the windows will have new life as paving material, and limestone from the faéade will be used by landscapers. The concrete that makes up the bulk of the building is becoming backfill for the school’s new eco-correct library, which will incorporate natural materials, triple-glazed windows and light-control blinds that reduce unwanted heat transfer.

Solar power is an important part of green design, and it is being effectively applied to public schools, says architect John Rountree of Westport, Conn., whose company, Solar Works, launched the Solar on Schools program with roof-mounted photovoltaics (PV) in 1988. Solar Works has installed solar systems throughout New England, from a six-kilowatt system at the University of Vermont in Burlington to a 14.5-kilowatt installation at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Rountree’s initiative is designed not only to reduce energy costs for schools, but also to educate teachers, students and the general public about the benefits of renewable energy. “Currently, PV systems are expensive, but as demand increases prices will drop and eventually solar power will become an option available to all,” Rountree says. Currently it costs $8,000 to $10,000 to install a one-kilowatt home solar system, versus about $5,000 for a new furnace, though obviously maintenance and operating costs are higher with oil heat.

Many other techniques—some ancient, others up-to-the-minute—can enhance energy efficiency and reduce material use. Super-insulating straw bale construction, in which straw is used as a very efficient insulator between conventional walls, goes back hundreds of years, and puts to use a product that is often treated as waste. The urban reuse movement concentrates on retrofitting and remodeling older buildings, rather than wastefully tearing them down.

And then there’s the related science of house reclamation. G. T. Overholt, vice president of his own North Carolina company, Sustainable Living, specializes in buying and moving homes that would otherwise be reduced to rubble because they’re in the way of new developments or too small for upscale property owners. He points out that not only does his work keep many tons of debris out of landfills, but it also reduces the need for new building materials. And, of course, there’s the simple fact that older homes have a unique character that’s hard to duplicate. Many happy owners of these buildings would call it &