Tag: energy savings

Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces
Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Type
Wattage
Lumens
Lifespan Hrs.
Annual
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.
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Making Floors Concretely Beautiful

By Marcy Tate, Guest Blogger
Guest Blogger Marcy Tate

Most people associate concrete flooring with commercial flooring, imagining the gray floors in warehouses or the super-shiny floors in department stores. However, this association is quickly changing as concrete flooring is becoming an accessible, affordable and beautiful residential flooring option.

The benefits of residential interior concrete floors are vast. From endless design options to durability and low maintenance, concrete flooring is the rising star of residential flooring.

This striking inlaid look comes from a stained concrete floor. Photo credit: http://www.concrete-floors.org

Two myths associated with concrete floors are that they are louder or more echoey than other hard floors and that they are slippery. They are no louder than other hard floor surfaces and area rugs can be used to offset any noise. Concrete installers add a non-slip additive to the finishing of residential floors.

The Benefits

Concrete flooring is a smart and sustainable interior flooring option that offers many benefits:

  • Durability – Concrete floors can last a lifetime if maintained properly. There are no tears, staining, flood damage or signs of wear associated with concrete flooring.
  • Low Maintenance – Depending on the amount of traffic, concrete floors need to be resealed about every two years. This inexpensive process will help ensure a long life for your floors. Cleaning is easy; simply sweep and wash with vinegar or a gentle floor cleaner.
  • Economical – Concrete flooring allows you to save by eliminating the need to purchase an additional floor covering. When you choose concrete flooring the floor slab is the floor covering.
  • Improves Indoor Air Quality – Unlike carpeting, concrete floors do not harbor dust mites. For allergy sufferers, concrete floors can be a blessing.
  • Eco-Friendly – Less energy is used in production of concrete than any other flooring type. No trees need to be cut down and concrete is recyclable. Choosing concrete floors helps minimize waste. Other flooring types create lots of waste, such as the waste from carpet padding and carpet scraps. Concrete floors do not contain harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as many synthetic carpets do.
  • Stamped concrete floor looks much like slate for a fraction of the cost. Photo credit: http://www.jhdecorativeconcrete.com

    Polished concrete floor with matte patterns takes on the look of marble. Photo credit: http://www.trendir.com

    Concrete overlay floor. Photo credit: http://www.concreteflooring.com
    Living in Comfort and Joy is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marcy Tate to this post.Marcy Tate is a home improvement blogger at www.Networx.com. She has been working with concrete contractors for more than a decade.

    Living in Comfort and Joy does not sell advertising and receives no payment from the products and services that appear in its posts. Guest bloggers must meet the journalistic standards of this publication and are solely responsible for the content they write.

  • Energy Saving Capabilities – Concrete floors reduce energy consumption. Because they can make one feel cooler, there is less of a need to use the air conditioning. During the winter, concrete floors absorb the heat from the sun, helping to keep your home warm. Concrete floors work well in conjunction with radiant floor heating systems. These systems get installed under the concrete floor and are energy efficient. They decrease the need to use forced-air heating systems.
  • Cost-Efficiency – The average cost of concrete flooring is more than other residential flooring types but the return is higher as the floor will never need replacement. The higher costs are from the finishing of the floors, often completed by a concrete artisan. The average cost for concrete floor installation (including the decorative finishing) is about $15-$18 per square foot.

Beautiful Design Options

There are literally endless design options. Concrete floor artisans can design and create a floor to your specifications.

There are five ways by which concrete floors are finished:

  1. Polished Concrete – Also known as honed or burnished concrete, polished concrete floors have that shiny, waxed look. This is the most basic type of concrete floor installation. Dyes can be included in the finish to add color.
  2. Acid Stained Concrete – Acid and water are mixed with metallic salts. This method can be applied in a variety of colors.
  3. Scored Concrete – Scored concrete is a popular choice for homeowners who install concrete flooring. Circular saws are used to create shapes and patterns by making shallow cuts in the surface.
  4. Stamped Concrete – This method results in a textured appearance to resemble other flooring types such as tile, wood, stone or brick. It’s often used for outdoor flooring (such as for patios). Stencils can also be used to create distinctive shapes and patterns.
  5. Concrete Overlays – Overlays consist of polymer coatings or overlays onto an existing concrete floor. This option is only for structurally sound floors.

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Resource Links

To Arms! Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate!

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!

Spinning Straw into Gold: Straw Bale Houses

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

I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

Want to see how the light will look before you spend money on remodeling windows, adding skylights, or repainting a room? If the answer is yes, have I got a story for you!

RoomBefore
The room has a nice warm quality when lit with two different sources of artificial light. This is at 4:30 on a summer afternoon. (Note the yellow wood stairs that cover and shade much of the left side of the south-facing window.)

RoomDark
Here's how it looks at noon with the lights off. OK for computer work, but it's hard to read a book. Light comes from the south-facing window and an east-facing door that leads to the kitchen and living room.

I recently built a scale model of my dining room and tested eight ways to increase the room’s natural light. My tests yielded some surprises – insights that I will share in this post.

As you can see from my photos, it’s so dark that, without artificial light, the pink walls in my dining room/office look smoky gray. When the room was occupied only at night, this wasn’t much of a problem. However, as I have moved my design practice into the room, the lack of natural light has become an issue. There are multiple reasons for that:

  • Human beings need full spectrum light for accurate color perception – a fact that makes natural light particularly important for visual designers.
  • Humans also perform better in natural light. Studies show that adequate daylighting can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals. It has even been shown to help raise student test scores and reduce tooth decay.
  • Lack of natural light can impact mood. Like many other people, I suffer from SADS, or Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome, and natural light helps combat these blues.
  • We waste a shocking amount of electricity lighting our buildings during hours when sunlight is readily available. I find this reprehensible for both environmental and economic reasons.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about the first version of this model in A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Daylighting. That post contains much more information about the health and energy benefits of daylighting, as well as summaries of some daylighting strategies that I decided not to test on my model. For that reason, I don’t talk about them here, but you might find them of interest if you’re trying to lighten up your own dark room.

Match Wits with My Model

Before I share the results of my experiments with the daylighting model, I invite you to test your best guesses about what would most help to lighten the room.

Below, I have listed, in alphabetical order, the eight alterations I made to the model, giving each a two-letter mnemonic code. Take a moment to rank these options so that you can compare your predictions with the results of my experiments. (Put the number and code for the strategy you think would make the most difference first, the second-most effective strategy second, and continue until you have ranked all eight alterations in order of expected effectiveness.) You may be as surprised as I was by what worked, and what didn’t add much light to the room.

Here's where the window and stairs are located on the actual house.
Here's where the window and stairs are on my house.

Here are the alterations I tested:

  1. AW – All white – Painting the entire dining room white
  2. CL – Clerestory windows. Cutting clerestory windows through the east wall of the room to admit more light from the living room (wide, short windows located up near the roof where you can’t see through them are called “clear story” windows)
  3. MI – Mirror inside. Mounting a mirror on the sunny, west wall within the room
  4. MO – Mirror outside. Mounting a mirror on the outside wall that reflects the most light in through the window
  5. OS – Open Stairs. Replacing the solid wood stairs with openwork metal stairs that allow light to shine through
  6. WE – Window Extension. Extending the dining room window up to the ceiling
  7. WI -White inside wall. Painting the sunniest wall, the one that reflects the most light inside the room – white instead of pink
  8. WS – White stairs and stairwell. Painting the outside stairs and stairwell white, leaving the room pink

My test results will be revealed at the end of this blog. In the meantime, here’s a bit more information about the model, and some photos of the changes in light produced by various alterations.

The Second Daylight Model

Model
The daylight model; this is the same side of the house that is shown in the photo above.

To make the light in my daylighting model accurately show the changes I wanted to test, I expanded my original one-room model so that it would show both the main sources of light and the features that obstruct it. The expanded test model, the second daylight model, is shown at right. It includes:

  • Yellow painted stairs that block much of window – they can be seen on the left side of the model and also in the dark photo at the top of this post.
  • Door to kitchen – the door is at the center of the model. Here the kitchen is represented only by the tile placed outside the model. This is the same tile that is installed in the real kitchen, and it reflects a surprising amount of light.
  • Living room – the space to the left of the door is the dining room. The main sources of living room light are the  window at the right side of the model and the door into the kitchen. Light from the living room enters the dining room through the door on its east side.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.
Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!
Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

YellowWhiteLanding
Painting the wall outside the window white reflects about the same amount of light as a mirror in the same spot.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.
A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

At the outset, I thought that placing a mirror to catch and reflect sunlight falling on the room’s west wall (right side of the photo) would brighten the room a great deal. One of my fellow designers suggested this idea, and I was eager to try it.

The prof in my Building Envelope class, however, was unenthusiastic. He noted, rather disdainfully, that this smoke-and-mirrors trick would make my room look like every third restaurant in downtown San Francisco!

I was surprised to discover that placing a mirror outside the window – as the photo at far right shows – brightened the room far more than a mirror inside the window.

What startled me even more, however, was the discovery that white painted walls, both inside and outside the window, reflected more light than mirrors in either position! This seemed counter-intuitive, but both experiments with the model and a review of ASHRAE tables confirm it.

ASHRAE is the acronym for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and they have published extensive tables that list the reflectance of dozens of types of building materials and finishes. The reflectance standard for a perfect mirror is 100% (meaning that it reflects all of the available light) and is referenced as a value of 1.0. The aluminum foil I used in the model as a “mirror” is not perfect, but polished aluminum has a reflectance – or “R value” – of .8 to .9, and many mirrors are actually in that range too. So the foil probably gives us a good idea of how much light a real mirror would reflect.

A white masonry wall, according to the ASHRAE charts, also has an R-value in the range of .8 and should reflect about as well as the mirror. My model experiment not only confirms this, it also reveals that the reflectivity from white walls provides a much more even wash of light than the mirrors do. Look carefully at the light on the floor and ceilings in third photo at right and you will see this. In addition, you will see that the painted wall actually reflects light back into the depths of the room better than any of the mirrored options.

The fourth photo in this series shows that the room is significantly brightened when the outside wall, the bottom of the staircase, and the black tar roof outside the window (unseen in the photos here, but visible in the model above) are all painted white. The amount of light reflected onto the ceiling is substantially greater than in any of the preceding photos, and the wash of light to the right of the window reaches deeply into the room.

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

Clerestory windows were invented to let light into Gothic churches on the level above the stained glass windows that line the nave, and today, clerestory windows are often used in green buildings because they offer a great way to get to light travel from perimeter rooms into windowless interiors.

ClerestoryAs you can see from the photos in this post, my room receives a lot of light from the east wall’s door that opens to the living room and kitchen. I had hoped that installing clerestory windows in that same wall would add light to my dark dining room – but it was definitely an option I would want to test before trying it in real life. While it was easy to add the little windows shown at left to my model, adding them to the house might be quite an expensive option. To add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor. That’s not impossible, but it would necessitate reinforcing the wall, and that would add to the cost of the project. Unless the clerestory windows added a lot of light to the room, they wouldn’t be worth the expenditure.

That’s exactly what the model showed. The amount of light the clerestory windows added to the room was negligible – much less of an improvement than I would get from simply painting the east interior wall of the room a lighter color! (You can see the model’s clerestory windows in the photo at the bottom of this post.) So that’s a neat $5000 or so the model has saved me. Painting all of the walls white of course increased this effect.

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

StairsOldNew
The old, solid wood stairs at left. New, pierced metal version at right.

The most obvious barrier to daylighting in this room, of course, is those darn stairs. They not only block the view, but they also shade the window from the wonderful south light that comes into the kitchen and living room, and from light that would fall from the sky directly above the stairs.

Those stairs need to be rebuilt, and I have wondered whether leaving the risers open at the back of the stairs (or alternatively, putting a transparent material at the back of the riser) would significantly lighten the room.  Ryan Stroupe, from whom I was taking a green building course, suggested something even better: what if the stairs were made from a pierced or open metal grating? I tested that option by building a set of stairs for the model out of metal window screen; you can see the old and new stairs in the model photos above.

FullMonty
Here's the model after all eight alterations have been made. The best improvements came from painting the light well's surfaces white, raising the top of the window, exchanging the solid wood stairs for metal stairs that admit light, and painting the interior walls white. You can see that the clerestory windows, at top left side, don't add much light to the room.

My last change was to further open the room by extending the room’s window up as far as possible toward the ceiling. Obviously, this strategy would work best with open stairs and an open top landing.

Grand Finale

Drumroll, please! After all this testing and photo-taking, I can clearly see what’s going to work best, and you can compare your predictions to the results. Here’s how the eight possible improvements stacked up:

  1. Open Stairs
  2. Window Extension
  3. White stairs and stairwell
  4. White outside wall
  5. Mirror outside
  6. White inside wall
  7. Mirror inside wall
  8. Clerestory windows

Interesting, eh? How well did your predictions turn out?

If you’re thinking about improving the daylight in a room, here are some resources that you might find useful:

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NicoLadder

I Can See Clearly Now

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

-Johnny Nash

A Light at the End of the Tunnel – Daylighting!

How is it that I, a person who is highly sensitive to light – or rather the lack of it – works in not one, but two spaces that are as dark as the inside of a pocket?

The presence of sunlight offers amazing benefits to a building’s inhabitants and/or owners. Studies have shown that adequate “daylighting” can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals.

Here's what the window looks like at noon with the room lights turned off.
Here’s how dark my office is at noon on a sunny day lit only by the south-facing window and an east-facing interior door.
Bridgy1
Here’s how it looks a few steps farther back with all of the lights turned on.

I know from experience that a lack of sunlight can cause depression. When I lived in gray and overcast Chicago, I suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). After a move to San Francisco my mood brightened, except during bouts of summer fog. Another move to the border of the sunny Mission District has helped me escape both gray skies and blue days.

Even so, the rooms where I spend the most time are both dark: my home office and my office at Alliant International University. At the university, I’m privileged to have a private office, but it’s an interior space that is wholly dependent on artificial light. My office has no windows. A vertical glass panel beside the door would let in light from the hallway – if there were any. On three occasions, I have been in that office during power failures, and each time, I was instantly plunged into darkness. I found my way out to the hallway – an equally dark space – only with the help of the small flashlight on my keyring!

View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model
View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model, same south orientation as the real window. This shows how much light should be getting into the room - quite a contrast to the real room above.

Frankly, this is the result of bad design. Alliant’s offices were built out only about five years ago, and the folks who planned them should have known better. The offices on the perimeter do have some glass walls, and they do let light. But due to the floor plan, internal walls quickly block the light.

The layout spaces multiple windowless interior offices like mine along long windowless hallways. The halls receive natural light only at the far ends, rendering the glass insets beside the doors pointless. A couple times, when we had extended power outages, the staff wearied of waiting and groping in the dark and went home.

My home office, which doubles as a dining room, is not much better, however. You can see the problem in the photos at the top of the post. I have complained to the management. The manager (me) has assured the tenant that despite serious fiscal limitations, there are some possible options for brightening up this dark space. In this post, I will tell you a little about a model of the room I have built, and how I’m using it to weigh my options for improving the room. Later (perhaps quite a bit later, given the current economy), I will tell you about how my lighting renovations come out.

Modeling the Room

I have created a scale model to test changed paint colors, a light shelf, a light reflection pad, above-head-level clerestory windows, and changes to the reflectance qualities of the surfaces outside the window. Eventually, I will also need to redesign the outside stairs that partially block and shade the room’s one window, but I decided to start by seeing how much I could lighten the room with the easier, cheaper, indoor fixes.

ArtemisiaOutS
The scale model in the garden. The camera opening is facing you and the windows of the room look south, in the same orientation as the actual room. What the window "sees" is that artemesia bush, the view shown in the previous photo.

The first steps in this experiment have involved testing how the surfaces outside the room impact the light and color inside. I’m conducting my tests using the scale model, pictured at right. This little box is made of foam core, which is easy to use, but too translucent for a daylight model in most cases. But in this instance, the interior walls have been finished with the same wall texture, flat pink latex wall paint, and white gloss wood trim enamel, as in the actual room. The paint and its underlayment (rubber cement sprinkled with grainy brown flour to create wall texture) make the foam board opaque.

The real room (pictured at the top of this blog as it looks when lit by artificial and natural light together), is nine and half feet wide, 11 feet long, and has a 10-foot high ceiling. All of this, plus the window and doors, have been replicated in the  model at a scale of 1.25 inch equals 1 foot. The model even includes an appropriately placed picture rail and high baseboards similar to those in the real room.

Why Daylighting is a Bright Idea

With all the lights on, the room pictured at the top of this blog is fairly attractive – and one made even more attractive by my cat Bridget, who is sitting on the table. What’s wrong with turning on the lights, you might ask?

As it turns out, quite a few things. It takes energy to keep those lights burning. As much as one-third of your total energy bill may be going to light your house.

A beautifully daylight room
A beautifully daylit room

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous! To adequately light a space, you need to capture only about 2% of the outside light, and all that’s required for that is proper fenestration. But over the past couple decades, architects, who have been DUI (designing under the influence) of cheap oil, haven’t thought much about daylighting and energy efficiency.

Happily, that’s changing. With buildings responsible for gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel – more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%) – many building owners are undertaking energy-efficiency retrofits. One example is Chicago’s Sears Tower, which has just been rechristened the “Willis Tower” by its new owners.

The Willis Tower, like its glass-box cousins, bleeds energy. This year, it’s getting a $350 million sustainability retrofit that will reduce its base electricity use by up to 80 percent. Like me, the Tower’s owners have little ability to change the building’s basic shape, but they are replacing 16,000 single-pane windows with thermally efficient models and are also installing “daylight harvesting” systems that dim the artificial lighting when the sunlight is adequate. They expect to save up to 150,000 barrels of oil – megabucks – every year!

Green is for Greenbacks

This might be a good place to note that energy costs drive both efforts to improve daylighting and efforts to improve the thermal performance of the building’s envelope. A few months back, in a post entitled “Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow“, I wrote about plugging heat leaks in my house. Last month, I found out how effective my investment of a couple days time and around $100 had been. I received a rebate check from PG&E for reducing my energy use, and that prompted my husband Mason to compare current and past utility bills. A year ago, our June bill totaled $142, and this June it was $49. Since the house was fully occupied both months – Mason is retired so he’s there during the days – and the weather was quite similar, I think the credit goes to mostly to me.

But the financial benefits of daylighting aren’t limited to energy savings. One big box store noticed that the skylit-half of its store consistently showed 40% higher sales than the side that was artificially lit. Wondering whether that might be due to unpopular merchandise or to the way it was displayed, they flip-flopped the store layout, so that the slower-selling products were now under the skylights. To their astonishment, they found that the under-the-skylight sales pattern persisted. This chain is now working on installing skylights in all their stores.

Health Benefits of Natural Light

Natural light also has a positive impact on human health. It makes us feel happier, perhaps because we feel more connected to the environment. We also see a fuller spectrum of color in daylight.

But there’s more to it than that. The depressive impact of SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) – also known as “cabin fever” – is well documented. Studies show that people who suffer from SAD exhibit many of the signs of depression: sadness, anxiety, irritability, lack of interest in their usual activities, social withdrawal, and inability to concentrate. They often suffer from fatigue, lack energy, crave sleep and carbohydrates, and experience increased appetite and weight gain.

Less well known are several studies done in schools, where natural light has been linked to reduced absenteeism, higher test scores, and even to less tooth decay!

Meanwhile, Back in My Office

A southwest view from the daylighting model.
Because the daylighting model is turned about 30 degrees and facing southwest, there's far less light on the right side wall. It's also interesting how much what's outside the window affects the interior color. Compare the color of the walls here, with the San Diego red bougainvillea reflecting on them, with the image above, where the green from the artemesia creates a complement effect that greatly tones down the pinkness of the room.

It’s far easier of course, to orient the windows correctly in the first place than to later attempt to correct the problem – as I will be trying to do with my office/dining room. In my case, the room should have adequate light.

As the daylight model at right shows, the south-facing window gets quite a bit of light. Light also comes through the door on the left side of the room – though not quite as much as this model would indicate. In reality, that door opens into my living room, a space I have not yet added to the daylight model. My living room does have adequate light, but it filters the light that enters the dining room.

The real problem here can be seen in the photo at the top of the post: wooden stairs with closed backs block much of the light that should be entering my office. To fix this problem, I will need to have those outside stairs rebuilt in addition to changing the inside of the room.

What kind of changes can help improve daylighting in this room – or one you want to brighten up? Here’s a list, starting with the simplest and moving to the most difficult and costly:

  • Change of wall color: Light colors reflect significantly more light, and a change to a wall inside or outside can help. I will be repainting some walls inside my model to test this. I will also be experimenting with changing the color of the “ground” surface outside the window; currently, that landing is covered with a black tar roof. I would get more reflection if that surface were a light color.
  • Mirrored wall: Mirrors reflect light; I will be experimenting with putting mirrors on the wall opposite the windows, and also with hanging something reflective outside the window.
  • Light shelf: Light shelves are horizontal panels that are placed near the top of window and used to bounce light into the depths of a room. I’m not sure I have enough direct sunlight to make one work – at least until the stairs are redesigned to let light through – but this, too, is easy to test in a model.
  • Light-deflecting panels hung from ceiling: I have seen these in only one place, the LEED-certified offices of the Energy Foundation in downtown San Francisco. In that office, interior designers have hung a V-shaped panel from the ceiling over a conference table. The angled sides of the panel catch light from the windows and reflect it down toward the work surface, brightening a room that is otherwise somewhat dark. My room is shaped somewhat similarly, and I’m eager to try this approach.
  • Drop ceiling: The best light comes from the tops of windows, at eight feet and above, and windows are most effective when they directly abut walls and ceilings. The top of my window is separated from the ceiling by a two and a half foot margin. The ceilings throughout the house are 10 feet up, and it may be that much of my available light is escaping up into the area above my picture rail. An experiment with the box will tell.
  • Install clerestory windows: Those wide, short windows located up near the roof are called clerestory windows, and they are great for letting light travel from perimeter rooms into interior rooms. Installing clerestory windows probably would let more light travel from my living room into my dark dining room – but it might be an expensive option, because to add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor.
  • Install skylights
  • Install tubular skylights: I can’t add a skylight in my room (because of that upper floor), but some tubular skylights can channel light down inclined paths by reflecting it down a tube, and I might be able to use one of these to import sunlight into my space.

Resource Links

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It was the sun that made ancient Egypt prosperous, and they worshipped that life-giving source of energy. The god Ra, the god of the sun, was regarded as the source of everything.

Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow

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.