Archive for the ‘Passive Solar Heating & Cooling’ Category

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Floods and Fires at “Five Minutes to Midnight”: The Spiritual Challenge of Climate Change

October 1, 2013
SweetPeaBlossom

This is a sweet pea blossom. I didn’t need the climate report to tell me that global warming is real; the sweet peas told me. I grew gardens for years in San Francisco, and my sweet peas usually blossomed in late August or early September when the summer fog finally cleared. The vines died by Thanksgiving. But in 2009, the vines lived through the entire winter. In 2010, I had sweet pea blossoms on the table at Thanksgiving!

A confession: I’m terrified.

I know that climate change is happening now, and the knowledge of what that means for humankind keeps me awake at night. Avoiding depression is a spiritual challenge for me.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that said that “the earth was set for further warming and more heat waves, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels, as greenhouse gases built up in the atmosphere.”

Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the IPCC,  says that time is fast running out to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the natural systems on which human life depends. His chilling summation: “We have five minutes before midnight.”

The report is most serious scientific warning to date, stating that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

That old Pogo quote from the 1970’s seems apt: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A Helping Hand to Victims on the Front Range

Recently, I volunteered to lend a hand to Boulder Flood Relief (BFR), a volunteer that is helping to clean up homes devastated by Colorado’s recent floods. In less than three weeks, BFR has cleaned up more than 150 homes — a handful in context of the damage done by the recent floods here. Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management reports that 1,882 homes were destroyed and 17,500 damaged. Most homeowners did not have flood insurance, and neither FEMA nor insurance will cover more than a small fraction of their losses.

The people who suffered those losses are victims of global warming.

Early victims.

As Thomas Stocker, a German scientist who served as a leader of the IPCC group that wrote climate change report said, “As a result of our past, present and expected future emissions of [carbon dioxide], we are committed to climate change, and effects will persist for many centuries even if emissions . . . stop.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council has called the report “a warning bell to the world.” She warns that the impacts are fierce wildfires, drought, floods and storms that will get worse with if we delay.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Our children and our children’s children will reap the whirlwind, the wildfire, the floods, the droughts, the famines. Millions living on coasts will become homeless. The world will see tides of refugees. Wars. Starvation. Disease.

As the social fabric frays, social services and infrastructure will fall apart. Much like the world after the black plague — a downward social spiral like the one that Barbara Tuchman described in her book In a Distant Mirror.

Trash

Ruined belongings from the basement of a house on 1200 block of Columbia in Longmont, Colorado. In an epic flood, the St. Vrain River overflowed its banks and swelled to nearly a mile and half wide. Every home on the block, and many adjacent blocks, had piles of ruined furnishings in front of it.

I have had a personal glimpse of what this unraveling of social infrastructure will look like because I have traveled in third-world countries where the phones don’t connect, the planes don’t fly, the railroads don’t run and there is no health care. The government doesn’t work and there is no such thing as public safety.

The social contract doesn’t hold, and it’s every man for himself. (Too true too often; women and children are disproportionately the victims.)

Start Where You Are

When I joined the Boulder Flood Relief volunteers cleaning up Glenn Wright’s slimy, muddy Longmont basement, it was still stinking from the sewage carried by the flood waters. The job of stripping out the ruined carpeting and wallboard was  as dirty and disgusting as cleaning up a toilet overflow. But, like Wright, I often found myself moved to tears by the efforts of those pitching in free of charge to help their neighbors.

Crisis brings out best in the human spirit, as exemplified by the volunteers and first responders, but it also highlights human folly. On the radio news during my drive to Longmont, I heard a lot about the lack of flood insurance, very little about building in flood plains and almost nothing about climate change! But looking up and down Wright’s street at the heaps of ruined belongings accumulating in front of every house, I knew that I was seeing its toll.

Somehow, the time I spent slogging through the mud and volunteering in the Boulder Flood Relief office gave me some respite from the anxiety I feel in the wee hours — the fear I feel about living at “five minutes to midnight”.

My lifespan will probably cover another 20 to 30 years — not long enough to see the worst of the coming crisis. But long enough to challenge my spiritual resources. And long enough to give me time to try and help those who are suffering now. Maybe even time enough to avert some of the suffering in the years to come.

I wish I knew how to do that.

A Prayer: Let Me Be of Use

I have made a lot of changes in my own lifestyle: making my home more energy efficient, limiting my use of air travel and sharing my automobile. I have also been removing big chunks of my fuel-intensive lawn in favor of a xeriscape.

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The center stone in my xeriscape meditation garden. The words painted on the stone read, “The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.”

To deal with the spiritual challenge, I make a daily spiritual practice of walking in my garden, meditating on the stones that pay homage to all the creatures that lived and died there over the eons — many of them perished due to changes in climate. As I walk, I’m saying a mantra that goes something like this:

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

The changes that I have made in my home and travel habits are a drop in the bucket, compared to what I would need to do to truly live sustainably. So I will continue to make more changes. (Solar panels on top of the house are probably at the top of my list.)

My personal conviction as to what we need to do to save ourselves is to leave all the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. No one is asking my opinion about that, and I’m pretty sure that political and economic inertia ensures that humans will keep on mainlining fossil fuels until they are gone. (Economics – that big lever that prompts individual and social change – makes it very tough just to change one’s driving habits, much less to alter the myriad other ways we all use fossil fuel.)

Climate-Change Related Depression?

As challenging as the change of fuel habits is for me, I find the spiritual fight against depression and paralysis is even more daunting.

I haven’t solved that; I doubt that anyone has.

While writing this post, I did Google my term “climate-change related depression” and found that I didn’t coin the term.  Psychologists for Social Responsibility have written about this problem already. Here’s an excerpt from what they have to say about it:

While it’s impossible at this juncture to predict how climate change will show itself and how people will respond to it, already the planet is experiencing historic levels of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, rising sea levels, and the melting of vital ice resources that have contributed to higher rates of anxiety, depression, conflict, and other behavioral symptoms in Earth’s citizens.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility also include a checklist of “symptoms in response to climate change’s stressors.” I am battling  several of them: anxiety, depression, persistent grief and “avoidance from the awareness of climate change.”

That last one – avoidance – stops with this post.

A Prayer and My Best Prescription

I have learned a few hard-won spiritual and emotional lessons during my decades on this planet. Many of them are related to dealing with crisis, change and managing depression. Here are the anti-depressive prescriptions that have worked best for me:

  • Whatever topic prompts a knot of anxiety in your stomach, that’s the one you must talk about
  • Among best cures for depression and its attendant paralysis are social engagement and helping other people
  • Life’s meaning and purpose is found in putting one’s gifts to use, and people who feel purpose in their lives are happier and at less risk for depression

As I said before, I don’t know quite how to put all this into practice. In times of stressful change, I often remember the words of Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

I’m right here — near Aspen, Colorado and on the internet — and here’s what I have to offer: My gifts include writing, a background in social change, a knowledge of sustainable building practices and the ability to re-design houses in ways that anticipate changes in the human lifespan.

I’m not sure how to bundle all these in a way that is useful, but I am putting out this post as a prayer to the universe, and to all who read these words.

If you know of ways that I may be of use, please let me know.

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To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

- Marge Piercy

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Barns to Bauhaus: Aspen’s Significance in Architecture

April 29, 2011

I have moved from San Francisco to Carbondale, Colorado. As I have explained to my California friends, it’s not in a howling wilderness.

This fine Queen Anne style house, built in 1888, now houses the Wheeler / Stallard Museum and the Aspen Historical Society. Photo by Samantha Toberman.

It’s just down the road from Aspen, home of the famed Aspen Institute, Aspen Music Festival, Aspen’s International Design Conference and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Once a silver mining town, Aspen was reborn after WWII as a retreat that sought to nurture mind, body and spirit. That’s the “Aspen idea,” and it made the little mountain town an international crossroads for ideas, arts and architecture. I have long felt called to come back here.

And so I returned to my home state just in time for Colorado Architecture Month.

I can almost hear my West Coast friends chuckling. Colorado architecture? What the heck is that?

I recently listened to some bright folks wrestling with that very question. The occasion was an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event called “Aspen’s Significant Architecture, Past, Present and Future.”

Aspen Interfaith Chapel, designed by architects George Edward Heneghan and Daniel Gale, pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright in its use of natural materials.

During the evening, Aspen architects Willis Pember, Suzannah Reid and Harry Teague gamely picked out a number of Aspen area buildings that could warrant that “significant” moniker. While applauding their choices, I also found myself fretting over a major omission. Since I couldn’t very well climb onto the stage and add my two cents, I will use this post to nominate a few buildings of my own – and to point out why Aspen and its little Colorado valley have a golden opportunity to play a significant, and even crucial role, in contemporary architecture.

But bit of background is in order first.

A Climate for Change

Christ Episcopal Church, designed by Francis Stanton. The church’s renovation, by Studio B, received three regional awards and will receive a fourth national award in May, 2011. Photo by Raul Garcia.

As Harry Teague told the AIA’s audience, a distinctive regional architectural style usually arises out a combination of cultural influences and climate. Traditional, pre-architectural buildings around the world provide plenty of examples.

For example, Islamic culture – specifically the Muslim prohibition against depicting the human form – influenced the handsome, geometric (and cooling!) tile that adorns homes in Morocco. A Zen aesthetic influences Japanese homes and temples.

Climate gave rise to New England’s salt box houses with their long, asymmetrical, wind-breaking roofs. It was also the impetus behind India’s bungalows. There, people do most of their living on deeply shaded porches that surround a central courtyard. The roofless courtyard creates a “stack effect” that allows sweltering heat to exhale upward and ventilate the home’s living quarters.

Back to the Future

Now, as human activities threaten to undermine the ecosystems that support us, architects who are interested in sustainable building have begun to plumb traditional, pre-architectural dwellings for inspiration. Before modern engineering harnessed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, no one imagined creating buildings that would have to be scaled by elevators or lit by electric lights. Our ancestors couldn’t import exotic materials from afar, or fill their homes with electronic devices, or create landscapes that were alien to the local climate. With no option but to use local materials and to adapt to the weather, they built green and came up with some impressive passive heating and cooling strategies.

Amory Lovins’s energy-efficiency demonstration home at Snowmass. Photo courtesy of Judy Hill Lovins.

At the turn of the 20th century, cheap fuel transformed building technology and gave rise to modern architecture.

Today, residential and commercial buildings, taken together, use 76 percent of all electricity produced in the US. The architectural sector consumes “a whopping 48 percent of total US energy consumption,” according to architect Edward Mazria, author of a ground-breaking 2003 article called “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” In that article, which was published in Solar Today, Mazria argued convincingly that it is architects who hold “the key to the lock on the global thermostat.”

Although still too few of them know this, one thing is certain: our use (and abuse) of energy will transform architecture all over again in the 21st century.

Considering the stakes involved in climate change, I was surprised that the Aspen architects neglected to include Amory Lovins’ green home at Snowmass in their survey of significant local buildings.

I was doubly surprised when the whole issue of sustainability – not just energy, but water, climate and air quality – rated scarcely a mention.

Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus

As Willis Pember noted during the AIA event, Colorado’s vernacular buildings include mining structures, ranches and barns, log cabins, and the Victorians that were in vogue when the 1879 silver rush peopled the place with white folks. (Truth be told, Ute Indians settled the region eight centuries before all this happened. But the Utes lived a nomadic lifestyle and their wikiups weren’t meant to last.)

Given Institute. Photo: City of Aspen files.

Silver mining faded and Aspen, which was first called “Ute City”, struggled through the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, the town was a bit dilapidated, but it still had a newspaper, an opera house, a post office and the iconic Hotel Jerome. The west side was filled with Queen Anne and Victorian homes, and in 1941, a downhill and slalom championship breathed new life into the town. The east side and modern architecture got a big boost when architects Fritz Benedict and Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer arrived in the mid 1940s.

During the 1950s as the Aspen ski resort began to grow, a few Bauhaus-style modern residences were built. Among these avant garde structures were Frederick “Fritz” Benedict’s Hallam Lake residence, built for novelist John Marquand, and the “Waterfall” house he built for D. V. Edmundson. Both houses have been demolished.

Victor Lundy modern house. Photo by VRBO rentals.

A similar fate may soon befall another mid-century modern Aspen landmark, the Given Institute for Pathobiology, which was designed by distinguished Chicago modernist Harry Weese. (It’s owned by my alma mater, the University of Colorado, which wants to sell it – or more precisely, the land on which it stands – because CU is strapped for money.)

Aspen also felt the west wind blowing in from California, picking up influences that ranged from Yosemite’s famed 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge to Buckminster Fullerton’s geodesic domes, plus a dose of Haight-Ashbury-type weirdness in the form of buildings erected by Chip Lord’s Ant Farm avant-garde architectural and media group. They were the folks who planted all those Cadillacs in the ground. (Oh yeah, I’m right at home here!)

Aspen Music Festival tent designed by architect Harry Teague. Photo: Harry Teague Architects.

Among the modern buildings the panel named as being significant were architect Victor Lundy’s house (still standing and used as a vacation rental), the Aspen Interfaith Chapel, the Aspen Bank, the Institute for Physics and the Aspen Institute. The three tents used by the Aspen Music Festival, designed by Eero Saarinen, Herbert Bayer and Harry Teague, also merited nomination.

Among the as-yet-to-be-built modern buildings that promise to be significant is the new Aspen Art Museum. Plans for the 30,000 square foot building have been drawn up by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. (I’m happy to note that the new AAM will be built green, and it will exceed LEED standards.)

Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture

No one asked me, but I’m going to nominate a few more buildings as being significant.

Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, designed by architect Jeff Dickinson.

The first, already mentioned, is the Amory Lovins home. Located in Snowmass, about nine miles from Aspen, the Lovins’ residence was built in 1983 to be an energy-saving showplace. Judy Hill Lovins, who I met at the AIA event, told me that the house recently received an award recognizing it as the spark that lit the international Passivhaus movement. (Lovins’ house is now being remodeled with the goal of burning no fossil fuels.)

Another of my favorite local buildings is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, located about 25 miles from Aspen. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of straw bale building. The insulating quality of the walls creates a deep, contemplative hush inside the house while also providing thermal insulation. The walls can be shaped into curves or angles that hold deep-set windows, and they can be used to create stunningly handsome buildings. I love the Waldorf School’s roof line and the way its angles echo the mountains that surround it.

Rammed Earth house features zinc roofing atop the rammed earth structure, Japanese Zen gardens, eco fireplaces and gorgeous views. Photo via Huffington Post.

My third pick is a rammed earth solar house that captured my imagination when I read about it in a blog called Carrie’s Design Musings.  Designed by Studio B Architects and built by Quentin Branch, it’s the first – and only – rammed earth home in Aspen. Rammed earth building has been around for hundreds of years; to make rammed earth, the builder compresses a mixture of damp earth with sand, gravel, clay or cement.

The process was used to build the Great Wall of China and pyramids in Mexico, and this house is only slightly less humble. It has won three awards and has been featured in Elle Decor, as well as in Carrie’s blog. It’s for sale – for just $10.8 million. (Take a look at the photos in Carrie’s “My Aspen Love Affair” post; the interior by Larry Laslo is also stunning.)

My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley

I have known and loved Aspen for decades. I grew up hiking and skiing in the area. In my teens, I graduated from the Outward Bound wilderness school in nearby Marble. After my first year at CU in Boulder, disillusioned and wondering what Beowulf had to do with the rest of my life, I dropped out to find meaning. I sought it in Aspen, and wound up living the Roaring Fork Valley for a year.

The Holden/Marolt historic barn, owned and maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, houses a ranching and mining museum. It’s available for event rentals. Photo: Aspen Historical Society.

What appealed to me about Aspen years ago is what appeals to me again: the stunning setting, the town’s walkability, its sense of history, its artsy feel and its scale. (The AIA panelists, who included local entrepeneur George Stranahan, builder Steve Hansen, and Amy Guthrie of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission, were chuckling over whether three stories would be too much on Main Street!)

In many ways, Aspen reminds me of Mendocino, California, a small town perched prettily above the Pacific. It’s similarly filled with artists, artisans, hippies and holiday makers, and it has taken similar pains to preserve its Victorian-era architecture. Like Mendocino, Aspen is filled with folks who love the setting, and who by extension, want to preserve the natural environment.

But arguably, what has set Aspen apart is its devotion to ideas. Aspen, and by extension much of the Roaring Fork Valley, is a place where leading thinkers come to converse and solve the vexing problems of our day. It’s a cultural crossroads, a place where Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, Mortimer Adler and Ansel Adams have all come to speak and perform. The place has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates.

That’s why I think that it’s not enough for Aspen’s architecture to be attractive or avant garde. This is a place that matters, a spot filled with people worthy of taking on a significant challenge. And heaven knows, we certainly have one before us.

Sketch of a historic barn on Four Mile Road in the Roaring Fork Valley. I sketched this during a snowy visit at Christmastime. I was wearing gloves at the time!

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Empty Nest Filling Up? Here’s Help.

October 7, 2010

They call it the “Inspired In-Law” but I was more than just inspired when I saw it. I was gobsmacked. This cute little house was assembled in just one day?

Yes, it was. The pieces of this handsome pre-fab cottage were trucked in on Wednesday, craned into place Thursday and then the house was erected that same day. There it was, all put together and sitting in the parking lot at Fort Mason in San Francisco, ready for me to see it at the West Coast Green building festival. And I was inspired when I walked inside. This cottage is awash with sunshine (thanks to great window placement), beautifully detailed, and so well laid out that I could imagine myself living there.

 

The Inspired In-Law Cottage. (Photos courtesy of Larson Shores Architects)

 

While I’m having my own housing issues at the moment, the 500-square foot cottage was meant to solve the problems of folks a bit older than me.

Specifically, what do you do when mom is really no longer able to live alone, but is dead set against going to a “old folks” home? Here’s a relatively affordable alternative. Depending on options you choose, the cottage will run from $50,000 and $100,000. (In the Bay Area, where I live, you can’t buy a garage for that!)

When I wrote about the Inspired In-Law for the San Francisco Examiner recently, my Facebook pal Coral Chang noted, “It would be just as good for when your kids want to move back home.” Coral is right. Given the economy, kids are moving back to the parental nest more often than they used to: a 2009 survey found that 80% of new college grads moved back to their parent’s homes after getting their diplomas. That’s quite a jump from the 63% who did so in 2006.

As for mom and the old folks’ home, I can relate. The AARP’s most recent poll says that a whopping 89% of baby boomers and seniors do not want to move, but rather to stay home and “age in place.” I count myself in the majority on this particular issue.

Whatever the age of the person who’s extending the family, this in law unit can enable everyone to live together without having to live on top of one another.

No matter which of the four floor plans one might choose, the cottage offers up a complete little home with a separate entrance, a living room and bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom.

The Inspired In-Law was beautifully designed by Larson Shores Architects, who created it with an eye to both environmental and human sustainability. Inside, the cottage is finished with handsome and eco-friendly materials and details that promote better light, better indoor air quality, and better mobility.  For example, the bathroom sink is configured so that it can be used by someone seated in a wheelchair, as is the “roll-in” shower. The windows are placed to maximize natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day and improving safety for those with dimming vision.

 

Bedroom in the Inspired In-Law. Furnishings by Room & Board.

 

Among the earth-friendly materials used in the Inspired In-Law’s bathroom is handsome Hakatai glass mosaic tile. (Long-time readers of this blog may remember me waxing poetic over the beautiful colors of their Calliope collection of mosaics.)

Among the green materials used in the cottage are cork flooring – springy and easier on aging knees than wood or tile – and Kelly Moore Enviro Coat paint, which limits off-gassing of toxic VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). Because the builders have avoided products containing VOCs and formaldehyde, the cottage provides a healthier environment for those suffering from asthma and allergies.

 

Bungalow floorplan - one of four possible layouts for the "Inspired In Law."

 

Among the in law’s other green features are a solar energy unit, rain water collection cisterns and a wall garden.

The in-law unit is a pre-fabricated cottage that can be purchased and installed in your back yard.

Given the time needed for arranging utilities, site preparation and planning, the units typically take about a month and half to put in place.

Plans for the four different types of cottages are available online from HousePlans.com for around $3000.

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A Little Reverie

When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now,
Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
When I’m sixty-four?

Sigh. I remember all too clearly when 64 was “many years from now.” And when George Orwell’s “1984” sounded futuristic. Who knows where the time goes?

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No More Senseless Acts of Beauty!

November 19, 2009

I like that bumper sticker that says “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” but it’s definitely not my philosophy. Why can’t beauty be engineered into our lives?

Cho Tansu

Japanese chyotansu. Office bureaus like this one, which is an antique, were used to hold writing materials and business papers. Often choytansu were made from expensive wood.

I often tell people that I am a “decorator” because I find that it helps many folks understand what services I provide. Although an elite cartel in my profession is busy trying to push the little guys out by restricting the use of the term “interior designer”, I suspect that the general public really doesn’t know what the title means.

The fact is, both terms fall short of what of describing what value a person like me brings to a remodeling or building project.

The notion of “decorating” usually involves embellishment – adding colors or patterns only for reasons of visual stimulation and pleasure – to something that is otherwise utilitarian and purposeful. The example that springs to mind is interior painting, adding color on top of walls, structures whose real purposes are to provide privacy, keep out the cold, and hold up the roof. In daily usage, “design” usually connotes something a bit more purposeful or calculating – hence the play on words in the title of the old TV show Designing Women – but neither term really gets at the oxymoron that makes that phrase “senseless acts of beauty” so amusing.

It hasn’t always been so. The languages of many Native American cultures didn’t contain words that could describe the difference between a beautiful, celebratory calabash and a bowl for everyday use. The tribes didn’t need those words. Their values held that each day of life was worth celebrating, and thus, a spirit of reverence should infuse everyday activities.

Antique Eskimo carving

By contrast, you and I can probably think of a dozen words that would describe the difference between a plastic lawn chair and a Barcelona chair. In our throw-away, get-it-done-quick culture, beauty usually is only skin deep. There’s an enormous gulf between products that are intended only to be cheap and convenient – a Chinette plate – and good things – real bone china – that are intended to convey meaning as well as serve a purpose. Why is it that we bring out the “good china” only on two or three major holidays, when we want to ritually celebrate our spiritual values? Don’t our relationships with loved ones deserve quality attention the other 362 days of the year?

Joe Yazzie, a Navajo artist with whom I exhibited years ago in Chicago, told me that he found this ideology incredibly foreign. Joe’s father was what we would call a “medicine man” and his calling was to cure the ills of body and spirit. The Navajo traditionally don’t divide body and spirit as we do, and correspondingly, there’s no gulf between the utilitarian and the celebratory. Like his ancestors before him,  Joe’s father endeavored to unify the realms of body and spirit by making things that were useful and beautiful, and Joe did the same. Joe told me that this practice was called “walking in beauty,” and it was a way of expressing one’s reverence for life.

The practice I’m talking about here has nothing to do with taste or visual style. Native American cultures had widely varying aesthetics. Ancient Eskimo artifacts tend toward the austere, and they can look quite modern to Euro-American eyes. Pacific Northwest tribes, by contrast, tended to fill every space with symbolically significant imagery, so much so that art historians use the term horror vacui – fear of open spaces – to describe their style.

“Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul”

Chilkat blanket

A traditional "Chilkat blanket" named for the Native American tribe that designed them; this one was woven by Tlingit artist. Full-surface decoration is characteristic of most Native American Art from the North Pacific region.

The notion of embodying beauty and usefulness in domestic objects isn’t unique to Native American cultures. It occurs around the world and throughout history,  often in spiritually-oriented communities. Examples from Japanese and American Shaker buildings come to mind.

It’s no accident that a Japanese house communicates a gracefully spare Zen sense of repose. Or that Japanese craftsmen constructed wood furniture so finely that you can find tansu chests, built completely without nails or glue, that are still serviceable despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old! Both are evidence of how Japanese carpenters translated the Zen practice of mindfulness into their work.

The Shakers, whose design sensibility inspired the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, a precursor to modern design, shared a similar point of view. Members of this utopian religious community lived by a motto that described how and why the quality of their work and their religious beliefs were inextricably linked: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

It seems sad to me that we’ve come to the point where beauty could be considered senseless or random.

Architect Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair.

What’s more, to my way of thinking, there’s nothing beautiful about the billions of baubles we bury in the product graves that we call landfills the moment the glitter wears off. (I recently completed a green building certification, and during my studies, I learned to my horror that as much as 50 percent of the junk in our American landfills is waste from constructing, deconstructing, and redecorating buildings!) Grandma got it right: “handsome is as handsome does.”

As the Shakers proved more than a century ago, quality, beauty, and usefulness can be communally joined. The simple Shaker table pictured here was designed to be functional, hence the handy drawer and a drop-leaf that economizes on space while also accommodating another diner. Even though the table is not made from rare or precious wood and does not contain inlaid marble or precious stones, it is prized for its lasting beauty — as attested by the fact that it is currently being sold by the John Keith Russell antiques firm, which has set an asking price of $28,000.

Back to the Future: Quality is Not Optional

Shaker drop leaf table

A drop-leaf table crafted around 1840 at either the New Lebanon, New York or Hancock, Massachusetts Shaker colony.

In 2007, the architectural firm of John G. Waite Associates put together a master plan for the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 1,200-acre site holds 20 historic buildings and has served as an outdoor, living history museum for more than 50 years. Hancock is the site of the beautiful round stone barn that inspired film maker Ken Burns to make his documentary about the Shakers.

The architectural team drew from the Shaker heritage in creating their plans, and they found in the Shakers’ history some very contemporary lessons about community and sustainability. Here’s what Ellen Spear, president and chief executive officer of Hancock Village, told the magazine of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in May of 2007 about how the architectural team was looking to Shaker ideals for guidance:

Spear says she looks forward to bringing the Shaker story to address contemporary issues like peace (the Shakers were pacifists) and building community and sustainability, noting the ways they sited buildings and reused materials, approached construction, and looked at things in a sustainable way. “I don’t think they necessarily knew or named it that, but that’s certainly the approach,” Spear says. “The same with organic gardening and the methods they used. They had tremendous technical innovation that we see within the building and building construction, including a water-power system in the early 1800s. All of those things can address issues that are important to us today.”

Handsome is as Handsome Does

The simple fact is that quality workmanship lasts.

While it costs more at the outset, it costs less over the long run. For example, I could buy cheap vinyl flooring for a 10 x 10-foot kitchen for about $100, while a good quality linoleum will cost around $250. (Many people think that both vinyl and linoleum flooring are the same thing. They are not: vinyl is made from petroleum while linoleum is made mostly from natural oils and sawdust.)  It will cost me at least $300 to get someone to install either floor, so why would I want to spend $550 for a floor that looks pretty much the same as a $400 floor?

The answer lies in the ugly truth about what will happen over the next ten years. That linoleum floor will still look good and be wearing well in 30 years; many elementary schools contain 50-year old linoleum floors that have stood up to generations of rambunctious feet. But that vinyl floor will start to look shabby in about 3 years, and most people replace vinyl flooring after about five years. So the true cost comparison is $550 for the linoleum floor and $800 for the two vinyl floors that I will have to install in the same time period.

The shell of the chambered nautilus.

Then there are off-the-balance sheet costs that go along with that throw-away floor. That cast off vinyl flooring is going to wind up in a landfill where it’s going to do some pretty nasty things, but not before it’s had time to release a lot of toxic chemicals into someone’s home! (I’m pretty sure that vinyl flooring helped trigger the asthma that appeared in my middle years, and studies have also found puzzling links between vinyl flooring and autism.)

To my way of thinking, our homes should be beautiful in the same way that a chambered nautilus shell is beautiful. The nautilus, a squid that lives in a shell, expands its home as it grows. The new chambers not only accommodate the creature’s growth, they also function as floats. The squid can fill the empty compartments with gas that cause the shell to rise or sink in the ocean. The nautilus gets bigger quarters as it grows, adding a new chamber each year. It builds to accommodate its changing needs, following a simple but elegant master plan, and building rooms that accommodate the animal at different ages and stages of life.

Human beings think that they invented universal design, the notion that homes and products should be easy and comfortable to use through our life spans, whatever our state of ability or disability. But the chambered nautilus clan has been putting that idea into practice, with stunningly beautiful results, for millenia!

I plan to occupy my earthly shell for quite a few years to come, and while I do, I will endeavor to practice sensible and deliberate acts of beauty. My ideal is to create living chambers that are as luminously beautiful as those of the nautilus.

Because the chambered nautilus so nicely symbolizes my design philosophy, I plan to incorporate it in the redesign of my logo and my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website at the end of this year. My new logo will be an abstracted version of a chambered nautilus shell.

Resource Links

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The Chambered Nautilus

A spiral staircase at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

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To Arms! Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate!

October 15, 2009

Today is international Blog Action Day – a day when boodles of bloggers team up to write about various social problems. In solidarity of spirit, I’m issuing a call to arms on climate change and asking my loyal readers to “pack some heat” – literally.

we-can-caulk
Not long ago, I wrote Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow, a post about how I harnessed the firepower of the lowly caulk gun to dramatically warm my house and cut my energy bill. I spent about $500 on the whole household warming-and-efficiency process, including the purchase of a low-power convection heater. I saved around $40 per month on my utility bill. Best yet, my humble caulking and sealing efforts added up to something very tangible that I could do to fight global warming.

Best Investment Around – Energy Efficiency!

Recently, I heard Panama Bartholomy, who works for the California Energy Commission, when he spoke at the West Coast Green building conference. Panama said something very witty and quite profound: he compared our attitudes about how to “green up” our energy use — and cut down on what we add to global warming — to the attitudes of teenage males looking at two teenage sisters. We focus on solar technology, the glamorous sister, he said, but don’t spend much time looking at energy efficiency, the smart sister!

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The bottom line on Panama’s presentation was this: when it comes to curbing climate-changing energy emissions over the next twenty years, caulking and weather sealing will save $40 per ton and solar panels will cost $24 a ton!

To underscore the point, Panama whipped out a slide that showed the “McKenzie Curve,” an economic analysis of the costs of a whole passel of energy-greening measures. (That’s where the figures cited above come from.) The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about all this. It was provocatively entitled Packing Heat: The Firepower of the Lowly Caulk Gun. That article included a chart version of the McKenzie Curve; I encourage you to click this link and take a look at the price tags attached to our energy choices.

Act Locally: Start with Your Windows!

While thinking globally about the problem of global warming, I also encourage you to act locally – maybe in your bedroom. You could start by improving the performance of your windows. Most of the windows in our California homes were installed long before energy was an issue. They hold single (rather than double or triple) panes of glass. The glass is not coated for energy efficiency, and it has been stuck into the frame with no thought of sealing the drafts that come in around or through the frame. If those same windows were to be specified now, for a new building, the local housing officials would tell you that they are illegal under Title 24, the California energy efficiency act that applies to new construction.

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

As the image at left shows, most homes bleed energy. You can see the heat leaking around the windows here; it’s orange. There’s also a lot of heat leaking out of the attic, and that’s common too.

Federal figures show that US homes consume 21% of all energy used by the whole country — more than cars,  planes, or even offices — and they waste around 30 percent of that energy.

About one-third of that loss could be stopped by caulking and insulating! In addition, you can cut a good bit of the heat that is lost through window glass by adding an energy efficiency film to the window. These films are actually plastic  covered with a very thin, invisible layer of metal; it’s metal that causes the reflection of heat that gives newly manufactured glass for windows its energy efficiency quality. Here, instead of having the metal added at the factory, you smooth it onto the window yourself after the fact.

I did this myself recently. It was easy and fun. The process involved cutting a sheet of plastic so that it was about 1 inch bigger than my window (which is about 3 feet square), then wetting the window and applying the film with a squeegee. I used a laundry spritzer to apply the water, which was lubricated with a drop of dish detergent. The film slid right on, and I carefully squeegeed out the bubbles, then trimmed the margins with a very sharp Exacto knife.

A day later, when the film was dry,  the film was truly invisible. (I called in my neighbor Alexei, had her look at my filmed window and a twin window nearby, and then asked her if she could see any difference. She couldn’t even figure out why I was asking!) While the visual difference was imperceptible, there was a noticeable tactile difference – an absence of the customary blanket of cold air that hung around the inside of the window.  I could feel quite a difference when I did an unscientific test by placing my cheek about an inch from both the treated and untreated windows.

Ways to Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

There are, of course, sophisticated tools that can be used to find energy leaks in buildings: infrared “guns” and heat sensitive meters that measure drafts. When energy “commissioning” is done on commercial buildings, an engineer runs the HVAC systems with the windows all closed and then measures how and where the pressure changes, and s/he uses a truckload of gadgets to do it.

You’re not likely to try that at home, but I know of some simple low-tech ways to find leaks too. The most interesting one I have heard of was a fellow who rented a fog machine – the kind used in theatrical productions – and then used it to fog up the inside of his house. He kept the windows closed, and after an hour or so, he walked around outside and looked for the escaping clouds.

If you have bigger leaks, you may find them by walking around your house carrying a lit candle, standing here and there, and watching how the movement of air bends the flame. You can also hang lightweight gift wrapping ribbons over doorways and watch which way they bend, then track the breeze back to its source. You can track the breeze by licking your finger, the same way people do to determine which way the outdoor wind is blowing, and then walk toward the cool side of your finger. Not very scientific, but it all works.

Then again, you might just go to the likeliest leakage spots and start plugging away. Your local hardware store will have a variety of weatherstripping and insulation products. I suggest that after you’ve found the holes, you go ask your helpful hardware man (or woman) to tell you the best way to plug them. Here are half a dozen likely places to look for leaks:

Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

Alexei and Nicolette model the ultimate in Eco winter fashion. Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

  1. Around drafty windows
  2. Drafts around and under the doors to outside (seal and weatherstrip)
  3. Through internal doors from rooms you’re currently not heating or using (Use one of those little “draft dodger” cloth blocking devices and close the door!)
  4. Around plumbing penetrations (the holes where pipes go in and out of the house)
  5. The attic – it may be easy to blow in some insulation there
  6. Uninsulated walls  (it’s hard to add insulation to finished walls, but there are some insulating paints. Putting cork “paneling” on the wall can help. There are even insulated tapestries that you can hang on the wall in the winter; that’s something that was commonly done by people who lived in cold climates centuries back. It’s ancestral wisdom that we have forgotten.

Resource Links

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Meet the World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I when I first heard it.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%)!

Grab your caulk gun and start packin’ some heat!

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Spinning Straw into Gold: Straw Bale Houses

October 9, 2009

The Three Little Pigs got it all wrong! Turns out that it was the straw house – not the one of sticks or the one of bricks – that could stand up to all that huffing and puffing. Not only do straw bale houses provide excellent insulation from wind and extremes of temperature, they’re also proving to be surprisingly stable in earthquake country.

An off-the-grid straw bale house

An off-the-grid straw bale house. Photo by David Bainbridge.

That’s one of the curious facts I learned from Jack Ruskey, one of the co-founders of Oryzatech, a start-up that was showing its wares at the recent West Coast Green building conference.  Ruskey, a retired lawyer, grins and says that the day back in 2001, when Oryzatech won a $300,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, was one of the worst days of his life.

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Ruskey’s a folksy kind of guy with a laid-back country style that’s common to several straw bale builders I have met. His bio says that he’s a farmer as well as a retired attorney, so I suspect that this bluff statement is just his way of joshing with the city girl. I take it to mean that the grant opened to door to veritable haystack of work, and closed it on any notion of restful retirement that Ruskey might have been entertaining. For the past nine years, Ruskey and his colleagues have been up to their collective armpits in research about the effectiveness of the funny-looking straw bale block you see here. That research has resulted in the company winning the first US patent protection for Oryzatech’s bale-making advance.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them. The block measures 12”x12”x24” and dovetails with other common construction modules. Each block weighs 30 lbs.

It also turns out the Three Little Pigs story was both right and wrong in saying that the reason the first pig built the straw house was that “it was the easiest thing to do.” Straw houses are easy to construct. The hard part comes when it’s time to invite the building inspector over for a look-see (more about that later, though).

On his fun and informative Straw Bale Trail website, David Bainbridge, a prof who teaches sustainability at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management in San Diego, notes that straw bale buildings are “are friendly to build… Families can work together and even small children can participate.”

“People like these buildings because they are very quiet, fire resistant, energy efficient, strong, durable and attractive,” says David. Another folksy guy, Bainbridge is a friend and colleague of mine at Alliant International University. A founding member of CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, David has been building straw bale houses for many years. He has built them all over the world, including in earthquake-prone China. (Not coincidentally, David is a member of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program Coalition.)

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1929

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1914

Straw bale houses have a true-blue American heritage. They were born on the treeless plains of Nebraska in the 1800’s, but they now are being built around the world, springing up from France and Germany to Australia, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. They’ve spread fast because they can be built cheaply, for just about $2 per square foot. What’s more, they make use of resources that renew quickly (grains grow in a single season whereas trees take decades), and they reuse material that would otherwise have to be managed as waste.

Straw is what’s left after a grain, such as wheat and rice, has been harvested. Oryzatech’s Stak Blocks, for example, are made from rice straw. The company’s odd name comes from the Greek word “oryza” meaning rice.

Before straw bundles can be stacked to make walls, the straw must be compressed into bales. At West Coast Green, Ruskey showed me how the inside of one of Orzyatech’s Stak Bloks looks. It’s not at all what I would have expected. Instead of looking like a bale of hay, the block looks and feels like the surface of a plywood sheet. It’s surprisingly dense, almost like a piece of woostbaleRatPalLR(2)d cut across the grain. Oryzatech makes the block using what it calls a “scalable, low-energy production process.” That means that they do more than stomp on the straw, but the process is proprietary and Ruskey wasn’t talking about it. He did say that the blocks have undergone extensive, independent testing at California Polytechnic University, and test results show that Stak Blocks offer more than three times the thermal value of an insulated 2×6 stud wall. In addition, in an earthquake, they perform better than either wood framing or brittle concrete walls.

Straw bales are usually laid in straight runs, like big bricks. But they can also be bent to create curves and interesting forms. Walls are usually wire meshed or pinned together; Orzyatech has designed a whole system of connectors. Once the bales are stacked, they are often plastered with lime, earth, or cement plasters. The results can be surprisingly beautiful.

Green Benefits of Straw Bale Buildings

David Bainbridge recently joined builder Ken Haggard in publishing a research paper that quantifies the huge impact that straw bale building can make in reducing global warming by “sequestering” carbon. In the newsletter of CASBA, a California non-profit organization whose members are designers, contractors, owner-builders, and people interested in straw building, Bainbridge and Haggard report that carbon can be safely locked up in straw bale buildings for far less than it costs to otherwise dispose of waste straw. Dumping straw bales at sea, for example, would cost around $340 per ton!

BainbridgeGrassGrowing

Author, educator, and straw bale builder David Bainbridge

Bainbridge and Haggard report that in the US, more than 100 million tons of straw a year could be used to build homes. Because the straw in each house would lock up 40 tons of carbon, those houses could capture and annually sequester up to 40 million tons of carbon across the nation. Moreover, each house could reduce CO2 emissions by 500 to 1000 tons over its lifetime.

In addition, Bainbridge and Haggard note that increased straw bale construction will reduce field burning of straw, in turn reducing the production of global-warming gases and reducing smoke-related health costs.

Energy Savings:
How to Spin Straw into Gold

When you factor in the energy savings that owners get from their straw bale houses, it begins to look as though the advocates of straw bale house have indeed found a way to spin straw into gold. Bainbridge’s research shows that well-designed straw bale buildings — that optimize, shape, insulation, thermal mass, ventilation, shade and orientation toward the sun to take advantage of solar heating and climatic cooling — owners can cut energy demand dramatically.

San Luis Obispo synagog

Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo. Photo by David Bainbridge.

The Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo, for example, reduced its energy use 82%! Near cold, snowy Aspen, Colorado, there’s a 6,000 square foot Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork that was built on time and under budget by volunteers and contractors. A passive solar, daylit building, this straw bale building has reduced heating costs by 60% for the school.

Other contemporary, energy-saving, commercial straw bale buildings here in California include the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, the Schwaesdall Winery visitor’s center in Ramona, and the Woken Center at Hidden Villa in Los Altos.

Straw bale house in Maine

Straw bale house in Maine

There are also high-end, architecturally designed straw bale houses being built by specialty firms; given all the classy interior features, costs run up to $200 a square foot. You can find haute couture urban homes in places like Oakland, California and Washington DC, as well as striking do-it-yourself projects out in rural areas of Arizona and Texas.

One of the most engaging of the do-it-yourself projects is the home of Carolyn Roberts,  who wrote about being “a petite, forty-something single Mom with two teenage sons” who found herself unemployed and in need of a place to live. Roberts has written  A House of Straw, a book about her journey to bring her life into line with her green values. On her website, Roberts says that although she dreamed of a simple house in harmony with nature, she had “no carpentry experience, no directly relevant skills… no time, no money, no experience…”  Nonetheless, she managed to erect “an incredibly sturdy, beautiful and well-insulated house that will last for many years.” Not counting the land, her house cost only $50,000 to build.

“I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff”

To finish it, however, Roberts had to pass 23 county inspections! That astonishing number points up the other big reason the story of the Three Little Pigs was wrong about straw building being the “easiest thing to do.” Two of the major hurdles that straw bale builders have faced have been: 1) building codes that have been developed for other, dissimilar materials and technology, and 2) officials who may be thoroughly versed in the codes and regulations, but who have no background in straw bale building.

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Bainbridge says that although “a few people have been discouraged and given up, sustainability and straw bale enthusiasts are a determined lot.” They have put nearly as much effort into educating building inspectors and code staffers as they have into building houses. Straw bale advocate David Eisenberg gave a big push to the much-needed education process when he wrote a series of columns for ‘Building Codes for a Small Planet“, a magazine read by code officials. The two Davids, Bainbridge and Eisenberg, also teamed up to offer a continuing education program for building code officials a few years ago.

“Thanks to the work of hundreds of unnamed builders, to early work by Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, and The Last Straw magazine, the codes have rarely been a stopper,” says Bainbridge. “The straw bale building response to codes has been helped along by many people  – and thanks to all of them – but David Eisenberg, the founder of DCAT (Development Center for Appropriate Technology) and a former builder, and Bruce King, an engineer, have both been instrumental.”

Bainbridge adds, “Several code officials quickly saw the value of straw bale building; they aided the process and provided support by talking to other jurisdictions and code organizations. Building code officials with a farm background usually saw it right away.”

Resource Links

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Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow

June 12, 2009

The winter of 2007 was bone-chilling. Parts of the summer were even worse! Despite energy bills that went through the roof, I repeatedly struggled to type on my laptop with fingers too stiff and cold to accurately hit the right keys.

Infrared image of a house. The colors map the temperature of the building. Those orange spots show that these folks could use some wall insulation on the second floor.

Infrared image of a house. The colors map the temperature of the building. Those orange spots show that these folks could use some wall insulation on the second floor.

But no more! This post will share half a dozen simple, inexpensive solutions to most of that chilling problem. I spent less than $500 on improvements and cut my utility bill by about one-third while noticeably improving thermal comfort.

As regular readers know, my posts usually communicate on both a literal and philosophical level, and this will be no exception. While sharing tips about weatherizing, blocking drafts, and managing heat flow, I will also be talking about the emotional and spiritual challenges imposed by the economy and my stage in life. I have a vision of where I’d like to be in my “retirement” years: I will be providing design services to people who want to remodel their homes to make them more sustainable, more beautiful, and more able to meet the challenges of aging and disability. I hope that this blog will establish my expertise and will eventually bring clients to my company, Comfort and Joy Interior Design, which will be located, figuratively speaking, at the corner of Green Street and Golden Years Avenue. Along the way, I hope this blog opens the doors to professional opportunities to market and write about architectural and interior design products.

My Personal Energy Challenge

Currently, I’m a long way from the allegorical intersection of Green and Golden. I work a 40-45 hour a week job at a private university – for which I’m grateful. A handful of clients have asked for my assistance with small interior design projects, chiefly color consultations and space planning. I care for them in my spare time.

I don’t have much time to spare because I’m constantly enrolled in interior architecture classes that give me 10-plus hours of homework a week. My skills are growing at a prodigious rate, and I enjoy sharing new green building ideas in this blog, even though writing it demands another 4-8 hours of my time weekly.

I’m not complaining. I hate to be bored. I am, however, middle-aged. My peers comment on my “boundless energy” and lowball my age when they try to guess it, but my body knows. My energy is more limited than it was, and it takes me a week, rather than a couple days, to bounce back from an all-nighter. I know that my health and time are finite resources. Still, I probably have 20-plus years of productive work to offer, along with considerable skills.

The c-c-c-cold room in which I sit to type out my blog is a way station along a road that leads to a future that is personally satisfying and socially constructive. I don’t mind some trade-offs, but I don’t want to freeze en-route. Enter Ms. Fix-It.

A Drafty House with a Vintage Heating “System”

My 1922 house fits my personal sustainability plan in a number of ways: it provides built-in social support, it’s located in a walkable neighborhood, and it offers more sun than my previous place. But the single, vintage gas wall register it contains does not a heating system make. Indeed, there seems to have been little “systems thinking” involved in where and how it was installed.

The ancient Hawaiians knew how to use renewable, local materials to build a house with effective passive cooling. This historic building has been reconstructed in a park. When I sat in it, the trade winds pleasantly cooled the interior on a hot day.

The ancient Hawaiians knew how to use renewable, local materials to build a house with effective passive cooling. This historic building has been reconstructed in a park. When I sat in it, the trade winds pleasantly cooled the interior on a hot day.

I live on the second floor of a three-story house. Mason and I are the peanut butter sandwiched in between Alexei’s upstairs flat, and the cars in the ground-floor garage. Mason is fairly impervious to thermal changes, but Alexei and I are delicate blossoms. We suffered from the cold in winter. In the summer, we not only suffered from heat, we also froze.

For those unfamiliar with the place which prompted Mark Twain to remark “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” this may require some explanation. The temperature here never goes much below 40 and rarely above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re so unaccustomed to heat, we’ve been known to dismiss schools when the temperature goes above 90 – the polar opposite of “snow days.” To be fair, though, most of our Bay Area schools, as well as homes and many older business, lack air conditioning. My flat doesn’t have any, and that single wall unit is tucked away in a hall where no one spends much time. Given the right angles in the flat’s floorplan, heat doesn’t penetrate the bedrooms, the living room, my office, or the kitchen. When the summer fog rolls in, dropping the temperature dramatically, my teeth start to chatter. Throughout 2007, I repeatedly mused about putting in a new furnace and forced air heat – a big job with a four-figure price tag – but given the slow economy, my tuition, and my business plans, I decided I couldn’t afford it. Still, my hands felt achingly cold. Drafts numbed my toes when I was brushing my teeth. I slept in a wool cap, flannel granny gown, and knee socks, and I still spent an hour shivering before I could defrost enough to drop off to sleep. There had to be something I could do!

Revelation struck. In one of my classes, I learned that as much as one-third of all heating bleeds out of the average house. This was dramatically illustrated with an infrared photo like the one at the top of this post. As I began to think about why my toes were growing numb, I became aware of a draft across the floor. When I peeked under the sink, I realized that even buying an expensive and powerful new furnace wasn’t going to make much difference if I persisted, to paraphrase my mother’s words, in “heating all of Northern California.”

Here’s what I did to improve climate control in my flat:

  1. Fixed the drafty windows
  2. Blocked the drafts around and under the doors
  3. Stopped the drafts around the plumbing penetrations
  4. Learned to better manage the placement of the heat that we do have
  5. Improved the ventilation for summer cooling
  6. Installed a low-power, convection heater in the office/dining room

I will talk about each of these things in turn, and I will include some photos of my handiwork. But first, I want to say a bit about why this is important enough to merit its own blog post, and one notably shy of pretty pictures. My toes aren’t of any great importance, but the environment that sustains us is.

The World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I. But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

These data, which were compiled by the US government in collaboration with utility companies, were shared in a class I’m taking at UC Berkeley Extension. Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%).

And it’s not necessary! We humans know how to design far more energy-efficient buildings. As my prof Ryan Stroupe pointed out, indiginous people have been building reasonably energy-efficient buildings for most of humankind’s history, and without any help from architects! The Hawaiian dwelling above is a great example of such a building; its breezy design harnesses trade winds for passive cooling – despite the warm climate and a lack of air conditioning, it has a comfortably cool interior.

Types of Fuel
Consumed in US in 2007
  1. Petroleum
    (gasoline & oil) 39%
  2. Natural Gas 24%
  3. Coal 23%
  4. Nuclear 8%
  5. Biofuels 4%
  6. Hydroelectric 2%

Where’s renewable
energy? Wind, solar
and geothermal energy
add up to less than 1%
of the total energy
we use in the US!

Until technological advances made the column-free, cantilevered, sealed and artificially-lit skyscraper possible, people had to use passive heating and cooling and natural light in buildings. Even “old” skyscrapers such as the Woolworth Building, which was the world’s tallest building in 1911, had windows that opened and brought natural light into every office. The massive, modern, glass and steel erections that characterize modern city centers were built at a time when we saw energy as unlimited – it was going to be, in words of a former atomic commissioner, “too cheap to meter.”

The architect’s world view hasn’t caught up with the real world yet. Despite energy shortages, sky rocketing energy bills, and global warming, clients are still demanding and architects are still designing edifices that in Ryan’s memorable phrase “simply bleed energy.”

I can’t do much about the skyscrapers, but I found multiple ways to improve energy efficiency in my flat. Here’s what I did.

Closing the windows

At the top of the post, I said that my energy bill was “going through the roof.” That’s not quite accurate. While I’m pretty sure that Alexei’s top-floor heating energy was going through the roof, the biggest proportion of mine was going out the windows.

A soft, quarter-round pine dowel has been installed so that it protrudes about 3/8 of an inch past the square edge of the window and blocks wind coming in around the casement window, which no longer fits tightly. My index and middle fingers are behind the pine baffle, which has been painted with white enamel to match the window finish. The baffle is squared off above and below the catch to allow it to rotate and engage

A quarter-round dowel has been installed so that it protrudes about 3/8 of an inch past the square, inner edge of the window. My fingers are behind this pine wind baffle, which has been painted with white enamel to match the window finish. The baffle is squared off above and below so the latch can turn and secure the window.

Our bedrooms came equipped with banged-up, wood-framed casement windows that no longer fit tightly. In one case, someone had tried to plug the drafts by sticking black foam weather stripping around the inside of the white frame. It not only looked awful, it didn’t work. The foam was falling away in clumps, and the wind whistled through the gaps left behind.

My solution was to remove the foam and create the wind baffle shown at left. Made from soft, easy-to-trim pine strips, the baffle is painted to look like a part of the original window. I measured and cut five strips of quarter-round dowel to fit each not-quite-square window: one strip for each of the three unbroken sides, and two for the side with the latch. I mitered all four corners and cut flat ends above and below the latch. I then used white glue and finishing nails to hold the quarter round in place, filling both the nail dimples and the imperfectly joined corners with wood dough. (My favorite is Zar Wood Patch because it’s water-soluble, scent-free and dries to a nicely sandable surface.)

As soon as the baffle was installed, I could stand in front of the windows without feeling a draft. (Years earlier, I had found that I also needed to seal the wood-framed windows at my hundred-year-old Downey Street house. In that case, the draft entered through a large gap between the gypsum wall board and the underside of the windowsill. I used Zar to seal that one too, painting the dried wood dough to match the windowsill.)

Window coverings also made a difference. In the guest bedroom, we installed heavy curtains that can be drawn to fully cover the window. Upstairs, in Alexei’s bedroom, we did even better by installing three-layer insulating curtains that have a lining, a heavy fabric layer, and a wind-blocking interfacing layer.

Fixing the Drafty Doors

Several doors in the house were also letting in drafts. I chose to weatherstrip the back door, which is usually kept closed, with an adhesive foam. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t show.

DoorBaffle DoorDetail
Low-tech, but effective! This brown
cloth tube blocks the draft
flowing under the door.

The door to our “watercloset” – the part of the split bathroom that holds the toilet – posed a more difficult problem. The watercloset window opens onto a light well, and when the wind is blowing, it leaks underneath the door into the front hall. (It also sounds like Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the toilet!) One solution would be to keep the window perpetually shut, but that’s not always desirable since it provides the only ventilation to a room that needs olfactory relief.

My husband Mason came up with an easy, low-tech solution. He ordered the cloth device shown here after seeing it advertised on TV. It’s a fabric tube bisected with a lengthwise seam. Each of the pockets formed by the seam holds a styrofoam tube. The cloth-encased styrofoam tubes nestle under the door and block the unwanted draft, but it’s easy to open and close the door with this device in place.

Plumbing Penetrations

After standing in the bathroom draft for many months – trying not to notice that my toes were going numb as I brushed my teeth – I finally got down on the floor and stuck my head under the sink to find out where the draft was coming from.

Drain underneath the bathroom sink is now finished with an aluminum flange that blocks drafts. The blue shading indicates the approximate size of the open hole that I covered with the flange.

Drain underneath the bathroom sink is now finished with an aluminum flange that blocks drafts. The blue shading indicates the approximate size of the open hole that I covered with the flange.

It was coming through a big hole in the wall. The opening was for the sink’s drain, but it had been been so generously cut that I could curl my fingers through the gap and brush my fingertips against the stucco outside.

While the generous size of my “plumbing penetration” was a bit surprising, you will frequently find drafts where drains and water pipes enter the house. It’s one of the most common holes in the building envelope, and these openings are seldom given enough finishing and insulation.

Attending to my drafty drain required a trip to the hardware store where, for a couple of dollars, I bought a round aluminum flange. One side opened with a hinge and snapped around the pipe. It didn’t do the whole job; I still needed to fill in some jagged edges to enable the flange to cover them. I also needed to tack finishing nails around the flange to get it to lie flat against the irregular surface of the wall. This job took about an hour, cost less than $10, and voila! Once again, I had feeling in my toes.

Managing the Heat

After we discovered how much cold had been leaking in under the bathroom door, Mason began systematically closing the door to any room we weren’t using, heating only the areas we were occupying. Directing and managing the placement of the heat heat we did have made a difference. Upstairs, in Alexei’s flat, where the wall heater is placed opposite the door to her guest bedroom. Alexei says that the guest room’s temperature dropped a good five degrees when she began keeping it closed off, while the living room grew perceptibly warmer.

Given all we’ve learned, I’m no longer lusting for a big furnace. That creaky old wall heater is being used more effectively not only because we’re directing the heat flow, but also because we replaced its thermostat with a programmable version. The furnace now fires up a bit before we awaken, and we no longer need to remember to turn it down during the day because that’s automatic. The furnace even knows enough to change its plans on the weekends. All this has helped with the temperature of the house, and also made a difference on the bills.

While the wall furnace lacks ducts that would bring heat into our bedroom, I did discover that our ceiling fan – which we installed to keep the room cool enough for sleeping and to mask background noise – could also be used to help heat the room. The fan doesn’t include a heating unit, but its spin direction is reversible. Rotate it clockwise and it cools; turn it counterclockwise and it pushes down the warm air that collects up by our 10-foot ceilings!

Low-Power Convection Heater

I have found a couple things that help defrost my hands. One is an “Eco-heater” that is wall-mounted and uses a convection current to warm the room. About 90% of the heat comes from the back of the panel; it enters a space between the panel and the wall and creates an up-draft that circulates through the whole room.

Heater1 Heater2
Low-power convection heater
is mounted on white spacer legs,
shown in detail at right.
The panel sits parallel
to the wall leaving an open space
behind it; this creates a convection
current that heats the room.
No fan is needed, so the unit is silent.
Panel can be painted to match
the wall as seen above.

The “Eco-Heater” draws about as much power as four light bulbs and plugs into a regular 120 volt US wall socket: 400 watts at 3.3 amps. It measures 23 1/4 inches square and is 3/8 inch thick. I bought mine from Home Depot. They didn’t have it at the store, but it was available from their website. It cost $129 plus shipping; it weighs about 15 pounds.

The panel was easy to mount and paint, and so far, I’m happy with it. It takes the chill off of the room evenly and subtly; there’s no blast of hot air like with most heaters. I have tried it in cool, but not truly cold weather; Mark Twain’s summer hasn’t quite arrived. I haven’t gotten a heating bill since I installed it. It only draws as much current as four light bulbs, so I don’t expect much increase. After the fog rolls in, I will let you know how the bill looks.

My final warm-up trick comes from my physician. She advised me to get some uncooked, instant rice. I was to put it into a deep bowl, microwave it for a few minutes, and then plunge my hands into the hot rice. Nirvana! If I try to warm my hands with water, the residual evaporation that occurs after towel-drying them cools them again almost immediately; with the rice trick, they stay warm.

Here’s my recipe for a complete chilly-weather cheer up: Wrap cold body in a fuzzy blue Snuggie (see illustration below). Heat rice, insert hands. When hands are warm, settle into a comfy chair, hold a cup of hot chai, and insulate lap with a purring cat. Don’t shake or stir. Enjoy straight up!

Resource Links

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The Cult of the Snuggie!

During the winter of 2007, Alexei and I joined “the cult of the Snuggie.” Very camp, very au courant. To learn about this secret society, watch the YouTube video attached to the link here.

During the winter of 2007, Alexei and I joined "the cult of the Snuggie." Very camp, very au courant. To learn about this secret society, watch the YouTube video attached to the link below.

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