Building an eco-home is an exercise in balancing ideals with realities
Of course, there were times during the two years that it took to design and build our solar home, that I almost shared their “it can’t be done” sentiment. My husband, Duane, and I learned early on that when it comes to building an earth-friendly home, weighing alternatives and harmonizing dreams with reality is quite a challenge. And while I’m thrilled with the house we built, it is a modest version of the one we originally envisioned.
Our visioning began after visiting a passive/active solar home that was part of a Real Goods Trading Corporation’s Independent Home Tour. That’s when Duane and I decided to disconnect from the utility grid. Under the guidance of architect Martha Gates, we created a passive solar home—a 2,500 square foot dwelling that uses the sun as a heating source. Sunlight entering through south facing windows warms thermal mass (concrete floors covered with tile, block exterior walls and a brick interior wall) which radiates heat to warm the house. Insulation (R-28 in exterior walls and R-36 in the ceiling) keeps the heat from dissipating through walls. On bright winter days, the sun alone heats the upstairs, raising indoor temperatures up to 70 degrees. The kitchen’s cook stove provides warmth in the evenings and on cloudy days. Downstairs, the Russian stove, a rectangular mass of bricks and mortar, warmed by one fast, hot fire radiates heat for half a day.
When considering resale value (we had lived in four places in the last twelve years), and building code requirements, we resigned ourselves to a utility connected back up heating system. We chose radiant floor heating. Water heated by a gas fired boiler is circulated through pipes in the floors. We connected the boiler to the solar hot water system to reduce its use. Nonetheless, practical, mundane considerations shattered our original dream of being totally off the grid.
We turned to Doug Livingston of Real Goods for help in designing a photovoltiac (PV) electrical system. Before sizing the system, he directed us to reduce our electricity use. We opted for some energy efficient appliances (the SunFrost refrigerator and Staaber 2000 clothes washer) and compact fluorescent lighting. We eliminated other appliances. The mixer and blender gave way to a whisk and a manual food grinder. The clock radio was replaced with a wind up alarm clock. The dishwasher was traded for a double sink.
Despite our best efforts to minimize our energy load, it was cost prohibitive to have a PV system that would meet our needs year round. Doug’s design, which includes 18 solar panels and a battery bank for electricity storage, would get us through spring, summer and fall. We turned reluctantly to the grid for back up during the winter.
We wanted to use many recycled and natural or healthy building materials in the house. But when construction bids came in $35,000 over budget, we pared these back. We replaced the recycled glass tile, natural linoleum and steel kitchen cabinets (a healthy alternative to wood cabinets made with toxic glues) with more conventional materials and eliminated the recycled plastic lumber deck altogether. The alternative energy systems were left intact.
The home that I sit in today is a compromise between big dreams and cold reality. As I look over the numbers on my utility bills, I am reminded that we are not off the grid. But then again, we’re not on it very much. Although financial constraints and practical considerations curtailed the original plans, the house proves that solar power works even during the cold, cloudy winters of upstate New York. And on sunny days, when the house warms and the refrigerator runs without generating any pollution, I can’t help but dream of the possibilities for a greener, cleaner earth.