Natural Lighting in Home Design: So“lar” So Good

What’s more invigorating than a naturally sun lit space?  A space that allows you to complete all tasks or carry out any activity without turning a light on? How often do you have to turn on a light to see into a dark corner or read a page in a book or magazine? Natural lighting is the key, but more often than not, the architectural design may not have taken it into account. If you’re thinking about installing bubble wrap insulation, you may also want to reduce your dependence on in-home lighting there are a number of options for building a new structure or updating an existing one.

Natural Lighting in New Construction

First and foremost, you need to consider placement of a new home before it is built. Placement is tricky as there are a number of factors that should be kept in mind. You may want to place the structure under a stand of trees to maximize cooling during summer’s brutal heat. However, the placement of trees in relation to your house can also minimize natural solar lighting. Depending on the thickness of the stand, you may consider thinning to allow more light to pass through.  How will your home be affected by shade from nearby buildings, or structures?  If you’re building into a hillside for thermal properties, are you limiting your access to natural lighting?

Keep in mind that in the sun’s light is strongest from different directions at various times of the year. A home placed at 40 degrees latitude receives the most sun from the South in the winter and the least in the summer. The summer sees the greatest solar energy from East and West vertical and horizontal orientations.  To maximize natural light year round, you would want your most-used rooms to have both a Southern exposure window and either a Western or Eastern exposure window. If you want to use deciduous trees on your property to help cool your home, you would want to plant them on the South to ensure you have natural light in winter when the tree is bare but shade the house in summer.1

Alternatives to Maximize Natural Lighting Year Round

  1. Skylights: They help to naturally heat and light your home, reducing energy costs and the need for artificial lighting. Skylights improve ventilation and promote fresher, healthier air indoors.2
  2. Solar Lighting Tubes: What are they? Solar tubes are tubes that run from the ceiling of a room to the roof, where they collect light. The light is reflected down the tube and then diffused into the attached room.3 Though it is not natural light, it is 100% green, it helps increase lighting throughout the year, even on cloudy days and you can adjust the settings with a dimmer switch.
  3. Sunrooms: They are energy efficient requiring no energy at all, providing both heat and lighting.  The design of the glass is created specifically to keep the room warm during the winter and cool during the summer.4 This could also be an area utilized as a year-round green-house of sorts, continuously producing oxygen and veggies.

In addition to proper placement and design construction plans that maximize natural lighting, you can reduce lighting costs by:

  • Turning off lights when not in use
  • Substituting low wattage compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL’s) or LED bulbs for standard incandescent bulbs
  • Installing dimmers to reduce energy use
  • Use timers to ‘leave the light on’ by turning it on just before it’s needed and turning it off when it’s unlikely to be needed again.  i.e. – porch lights, night lights, foyer lamp.

There are so many different options that can be used in structural construction when looking at the maximization of natural lighting. The possibilities are endless as new techniques and technologies are being designed and tested everyday. What does the future hold?

Resources for Natural Lighting:
(1)   Building Placement and Orientation on a Site – (pdf)
(2)   The Green Benefits of Skylights – GreenWerks
(3)   Solar Tubes – EcoBroker
(4)   Sunrooms and Patio enclosures – PorchConversion

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Passive Solar: Passing the Benefits on to You

Sunny skyFar too often we find ourselves struggling to pay monthly heating and cooling costs. Whether you live in the South with high cooling costs, the North where you spend your cash heating your home, or the mid-regions where bills are constant, if not extreme, energy costs can eat away your budget.  Enter passive solar – learn to take advantage of your environment to save energy.

 How Does Passive Solar Work?

The abridged explanation of this approach is the placement of a home in an area that utilizes the sun and various architectural design elements to minimize heating and cooling costs. How? This design uses almost every element of your home from the windows, to the walls, to the floors. Each element acts to store and distribute solar energy to create heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer1.

There are 5 fundamental architectural elements that you would use in this heating alternative, including:

  1. An Aperture or Collector – This is the area that brings the suns rays into the home (ie glass, windows, doors and rooms).
  2. An Absorber - A dark surface that absorbs and stores solar heat (ie a masonry wall, concrete floor, or partition)
  3. Thermal Mass –  Elements that act to store absorbed heat (ie concrete, stone, brick or a water tank)
  4. Distribution Technique-  Using fans, ducts or blowers to move stored heat to cold surfaces in order to evenly distribute the warmth.

    Passive solar home with clerestory windows

    Clerestory windows are the distribution technique in this home, utilizing the natural properties of hot air to rise to create a circular air flow.

  5. A Control Mechanism –  A means of controlling the amount of sunlight being absorbed into the aperture. F or instance, creating some sort of roof overhang that blocks or allows sunlight to enter depending on the time of year.2

Each of these elements needs to work in conjunction with the others to create a successful system.

3 Key Elements for Passive Solar Syste


  1. Window location and glazing type
  2. Insulation and air sealing
  3. Potential supplemental heating and cooling units (depending on location).1

Advantages of Passive Solar

  1. Monetary Savings- A 14% reduction in monthly energy costs can result. This can be reduced to nearly 47%, if the home is properly insulated. Additionally, all heating, cooling and lighting generated by this system is utility bill free.
  2. No Equipment or Appliances Required - Although some may use fans, ducts or blowers to move heat from one place to another, you can create a venting system that uses the natural properties of rising heat with clerestory windows.
  3. No Fossil Fuels needed – Unless you need to use a fossil fuel driven supplement, but this is not required.
  4. Environmental Benefits: It is a completely clean energy source and produces no harmful fumes, pollutants or emissions.3

Cash outlay to go passive solar – the costs associated with this system are restricted to the upfront investment.  You will need to consider installing the proper windows and doors, masonry elements for the absorber and thermal mass, proper insulation and possibly fans, ducts or blowers for the movement of heat from one place to the next. All in all, this is a very affordable and green alternative that will ultimately save you big in the long run.

Check with your builder to see what the cost difference would be to incorporate these elements into your new construction or home addition.  It may be more challenging to work elements of passive solar into a remodel, but it’s still a viable option for long term energy savings.

Passive Solar Remodel Case Studies

The Finch House – Denver, CO, Architect: Thomas Doerr  - Brief with PhotoFull Case Study
Passive Solar FarmhouseThe Story,   Photo Gallery
Compact Urban Dwelling – Berkley, CA, Owner: Randy Eveleigh – Case Study (pdf)
Desert Verde – Taos, NM, Owner: Nan Fischer  The Story (series of posts)

 Resources for Passive Solar Energy:

(1)   Passive Solar Home Design,
(2)   Passive Solar Design, David Darling
(3)   The Advantages of Passive Solar Energy, Bambi Turner
(4)   How to Remodel Your House for Passive Solar Gain, (pdf)

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Minimize Heating and Cooling Costs – Construct or Renovate Wisely

Heating and Cooling Costs - BillsHeating and cooling costs are a necessary expense where we have some control – in today’s economy we all strive to save money in any way we can. It seems that we are always struggling with the high cost of household temperature control devices, such as what is used in heating and cooling. We are either spending a fortune on electricity for cooling or on fossil fuels and wood for heating our homes. However, there are a number of techniques and alternatives that one can utilize to minimize costs.

First and foremost, one needs to examine their home’s insulating qualities. Homes deteriorate and shift from season to season. That being said, over time insulation breaks down and air leaks emerge due to seasonal shifting. Proper weatherization techniques, whether in pre-existing homes or new home construction, are the first step in reducing heating and cooling costs.

Basic Guidelines to Weatherizing Your Home

  • Foam-outlet-insertReplace existing mass insulation or install new mass insulation with high R-values.
  • Caulk and weather strip windows and doors that leak air;
  • Caulk and seal air leaks where plumbing, ducting, or electrical wiring penetrates through exterior walls, floors, ceilings, and soffits over cabinets.
  • Install rubber or foam gaskets behind outlet and switch plates on exterior walls.
  • Dirty spots on insulation can indicate air leaks. Holes can be covered by stapling and caulking plastic around the affected area.
  • Install high-efficiency double-pane windows. (Check for rebates with your energy company on new windows.)
  • Close the fireplace’s flue damper tightly when not in use. A chimney allows warm air to escape if not closed.
  • In new construction endeavors, install house wrap, tape joints of exterior sheathing, or caulking and sealing exterior walls thoroughly, to reduce leaks.1

Reducing Heating and Cooling Costs via your Home’s Environment

When building a new home, or planning landscaping for an existing home, utilizing the natural landscape is an excellent means of cutting heating and cooling costs. Situating your home around green spaces can help reduce heating and cooling costs.

  • Dense evergreen trees and shrubs, north and northwest of the home to serve as a winter windbreak.
  • Shrubs and low-story trees placed to the south and southwest of the home to filter summer breezes to your home.
  • Placement under a large stand of deciduous trees south of your home to provide maximum summer shading while allowing the sun to reach your home in the winter season.2

Building Factors to Reduce Heating and Cooling Costs

When using a passive solar heating system, the placement of a home is arranged to utilize both the sun and various architectural design elements to minimize heating and cooling costs including open spaces between levels that create air flow, walls, windows and floors that collect and radiate heat to interior spaces as exterior temperatures fall. In order for this system to work, all elements need to work in harmony to create and maintain efficiency. Though this system is primarily made to create heat, it can also be blocked to foster cooling during warm months – for example, a moveable roof overhang can be used to block the sunlight that creates the heat.

Savings in cooling can also be made possible through the utilization of these architectural designs:

  • Install high-performance windows, with radiant barriers and solar shades that minimize solar rays from entering the home
  • Maintain proper air circulation through the attic. This will help to prevent the attic from getting too hot and also reducing moisture build-up. This is made possible when air is allowed to enter under the soffits and exit at or near the ridge.
  • Install perforated radiant barrier insulation under the rafters in your unfinished attic – the aluminum in radiant barrier reflects the heat from sunlight back out of your attic space, which means it won’t seep down into the living spaces of your home.3
  • Purchasing and utilizing energy efficient cooling appliances.Check for rebates with your energy company for installation of high efficiency units.

There are so many different ways that you can reduce heating and cooling costs when building or renovating your home. It is all a matter of determining which type of system works best for you. There may be initial upfront costs to adding energy efficient technology to your home, but take a long view and calculate the potential energy savings when deciding which systems are best for you.  (Personal comfort should be a part of the equation too.) This article only touches on the surface of the options available out there and I encourage you to research further to determine which system is best for you.

Check out this video about a well-situated house that takes full advantage of passive solar science: Passive Solar Home Tour

Resources for Reducing Heating & Cooling Costs:

(1)   Weatherization Tips for a More Energy Efficient Home –
(2)   Take Control and Save: a guide to energy saving actions
(3)   Guide to Installing Radiant Barrier in Your Attic -
(4)   Energy Conservation in the Home -

Have you found innovative ways to minimize your heating or cooling costs?

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How-To Determine the Electric Load of Your House

The electric load of the house is the total power consumed per day by all the appliances and electronics in the household. Reducing it means you’ll see energy savings…but how do you figure it out?

While the electric load is based on the wattage or maximum power draw of each appliance in the house, it also takes into consideration the average amount of time each appliance is used for in a day. Electric load is calculated in watt-hours or kilowatt-hours, which describe the power consumption over the course of an hour. Understanding your house’s electric load helps you identify and control large areas of power consumption. It also points to any modifications that may be required by your electrical system.

Know what you want to calculate. This can seem difficult but it’s really not too hard once you learn the terms. Most electrical appliances are rated with watts, while some use amps. To convert amps to watts, multiply the number of amps by 120. You do this because U.S. home electric outlets use 120 volts, and volts multiplied by amps equal watts. The number you want to find is how many kilowatt hours (kWh) you are using. That is what you meter reads and what you are ultimately billed for.

Create a log of what electrical appliances you use and how long you use them at a time. Keep in mind things that you do not actively (or regularly) control like heating or cooling units, water heaters, freezers, and refrigerators. Make a list for 5 straight days of all the appliances you used, to find a good average on each.

Check the labels on your electrical appliances. This is a start to calculate your electric load and is a good way to get an idea of how much power each appliance uses. One thing to remember is that the number on the label is the maximum watts that appliance will use in an hour, so a refrigerator for instance will only use a small amount of power unless the compressor is running at which time it will use closer to the maximum power.

Estimate the amount of watts you use per appliance a day. If you need help for appliances like heating and cooling units, water heaters or other passive appliances, you can find many estimations on the Interwebs.

Calculate the kWh use for each appliance. The formula for kWh is watts multiplied by hours used and then divided by 1000. For instance, a 100-watt light bulb used for 10 hours would use one kWh.

Add all of the kWh totals from your appliances to get an idea of your electric load that you use every day.

If you want to be incredibly specific you can use a watt-meter to get a better idea of how much electricity individual appliances use. A watt-meter will connect between your appliance’s plug and the wall outlet and it will tell you how much electricity the appliance uses over time.

I would also advise that if you want to convert your findings into actual overhead expense you need to either refer to your electrical provider’s monthly statement of phone them to find out the actual charge for kWh. The rate can vary greatly from zip code to zip code. Your bill might have multiple kWh rates (one for “delivery” and one for “fuel”), and in that case you should to add up them all up to get the total kWh rate. Most rates are tiered, meaning the higher your use, the higher the rate. When we did this for The Bungalow we entered our highest tier into the calculator (yes, we have a tiered system), because I realized the energy we could save would also save us money at the highest tiered rate.

Did You Know?

…an electric clothes dryer uses on average 4400 watts?
…a refrigerator can use upwards of 700 watts?
…a dishwasher can use 3600 watts?…a refrigerator can use upwards of 700 watts?
…a laptop computer uses 40 watts when plugged in?
…a 42″ LCD television uses nearly 236 watts?
…a coffee maker uses 900 peak watts?

I bring all this information to our attention as we here at the r(E)volution continue building and refining our solar power needs. We are looking at a grid-solar combination system but it will help us greatly if we choose appliances and light fixtures and the like with total wattage in mind.

What about your home? Do you keep energy consumption in mind? Is your monthly electric bill out of hand? Do you wish you knew how to bring down those prices?

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Building Green 101

Building Green ExtremeI remember well the “green home” of the 1990s. Building Green was comprised of concrete and monochromatic surfaces the models looked more like a cross between a TRON set and minimalist art. They were at best simplistic, ultra modern, and cold. Thankfully the green homes of this century present a number of new options and cozy appeals with their stylish, trendy, healthy, high-performance interiors and inviting exteriors!

Building green (one of those terms that pains me to even type) was once just a dream. It required a huge financial investment as well as a compromise on design and lifestyle. But green building today is more a reality finding a foundation in suburban subdivisions, condo and loft living, and especially tiny houses, offering the homeowners healthier homes both from the environment and for themselves.

And while yes, it does seem a bit insignificant to make your own home eco-friendly when the daily newspapers are splashed with headlines of global warming and tragic oil spills, every little effort counts.

The benefits of building a green home are as diverse as their owners. But perhaps the most obvious is the environmental benefits. Reducing your carbon footprint is an important step toward fighting global warming and conserving valuable resources. There are a number of unsung benefits too.

  • Financial savings – Cost has long been a deterrent to building an eco-friendly home. Price increases in today’s market are only vaguely higher and with tax write offs and long-term savings, the investment is clearly more rewarding.
  • Health benefits – Along with improved air quality and reduced exposure to mold, mildew and off-gassing, green homes also maintain consistent temperatures and humidity levels more efficiently.

But how does one go about building a green home? What are some ways to assure your home is eco-friendly?

Consider your goals for green building.

If you want a green home, look at refurbishing a home or rehabbing one rather than building a brand new one. Of all available options I tend to think that re-purposing an older house is the most eco-friendly because you aren’t tearing down a house, wasting materials, and then consuming new materials. Building green also means considering what you can retrofit: programmable thermostats, low flow shower faucets, dual flush toilets, LED lights, refaced kitchen cabinets, etc. You can also get some great tax credits by going with Energy Star appliances, energy rated windows and doors, solar panels, etc.

Be prepared for change.

No matter where you are in the build process you are going to change your mind on something. This is okay and also why it is important to plan. I suggest making an inspiration book and a detailed budget of smaller expenses like wall plates, kitchen hardware, door handles, light bulbs, etc. If you have all of this planned out and change your mind you have wasted no time, no money, and no resources.

Build according to the sun.

Building green isn’t just about efficiency and recycled materials. It’s also lifestyle; a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, a car-free existence, less reliance on heating/air, food storage, etc. If you investigate and design around a passive solar mentality you are likely to spend less each year on temperature control than you currently do. Likewise on living in a neighborhood that values pedestrians and bicycles. If you can use your car less then you are saving money and energy and not just building green but also living green. And lastly, if your lot is sunny, solar panels are that much more of a viable option!

Be ready for delays and cost overruns.

Permits never come in on time. That is just a construction fact. Be patient and be ready when they do come in. And while you’re being patient, keep saving money. While your budget may seem benevolent now, prices change. The lumber market changes. The cost of raw metal changes. Even in a weak economy the cost of building can be more than anyone bargains for.

Build YOUR home, not the Jones’.

When building any home (but especially a green home) you need to think about what works for your family. Geothermal heating may not make any sense or seem doable for your family. Don’t incorporate it then. However, an alternate material such as clay paint or boiled linseed oil may be well within your comfort. Go for it. Build YOUR house and do what is right for you and your family. Remember, every effort counts.

What efforts have you taken towards building green homes, or renovating an existing home to be more environmentally friendly?

Andrew and Crystal Odom of Tiny r(E)volution

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Loving Your Loo (and other tiny house green plumbing tips)

Copper plumbing systemLet me preface my full post by saying we have not yet plumbed our tiny house. We have drawn out plumbing schematics and we know what goes where. However, we firmly believe in doing quality research before building anything. It is our own version of “Measure Twice, Cut Once.” I have spent much time talking about plumbing options, reading up on the subject, looking at “sticks-and-bricks” plumbing as well as RV plumbing options and green plumbing. The only parameters in plumbing a tiny house are truly the ones you place on yourself. You can go a number of ways which I hope to outline in the next few paragraphs.

The argument I have seen most is this.

Normal flush commode -vs- compost toilet.

The normal flush commode comes with a few stumbling blocks. Among them are:

  • Securing a plumbing permit
  • Plumbing inspection
  • Access to sewer or septic system
  • Plastic, sometimes toxic materials such as PVC
  • Need for a licensed plumber

The upside is that flush toilets seem to be safer. They are cleaner for the more conservative among us. The problem is they cost a lot more to install (consider the pipes). And yes, they are totally possibly in a tiny house, methinks.

Composting toilets on the other hand are becoming far more popular and in most cases look just like traditional flush commodes. They can be DIY projects costing little to no money. However, these DIYs tend to smell, allow the “floating” of fecal matter, and require regular cleaning/maintenance. The more high end composting commodes are available in electric and non-electric models, look almost identical to traditional flush commodes, and are quite clean!

Let’s get a little more in depth though in regards to traditional plumbing, shall we?

Green plumbing and traditional plumbing systems

kitchen drainFresh water supply. RV fresh water systems are typically designed to work with both a fresh water holding tank as well as a fresh water input when available. The holding tank can be mounted under the floor and remain largely out of sight. There is an input for filling the tank that is separate from the fresh water input for the system. The fresh water input has a garden hose style connection. 99% of RV stores sell hoses that are rated for potable (drinkable) water. There is also a 12 volt on-demand pump that can pump water from the fresh water tank when there is no water supply to connect to with the hose. This pump typically has a manual on/off switch that the user turns off when they connect to a fresh water supply by hose. The pump also tends to act as a one-way valve to keep water from the hose supply from getting back into the fresh water tank and flowing out the tank input. When the power connection to the pump is on and you turn on a faucet the pump senses the drop in pressure and turns on to supply water. RV systems have a pressure regulator on the hose input side to protect against uncertain pressure at RV parks and in rural water situations. Systems typically have water filters of various types that can be purchased at most RV and camping supply stores.

Fresh water plumbing. I had not heard of any plumbing other than copper or PVC until about two years ago. It was then that I found out about PEX tubing and I think it is a perfect option for tiny houses as it has the ability to bend and shape according to your interior dimensions. I would recommend (and we will use) 1/2″ PEX (ross-linked polyethylene) tubing including crimp connectors. They are easy to find at box stores and are inexpensive so they won’t destroy the budget. The fittings are brass. What I find most conducive about PEX is that it is very flexible, it is color coded (red for hot and blue for cold) and they fit nicely in the cavities of your studded walls. A great choice for green plumbing.

Drain plumbing. Plumbing for sinks and showers can be pretty much the same as in a regular house. In that vein I would recommend 1-1/2″ black ABS pipe including sink and shower traps. Be careful to wrap any exposed plumbing though to keep it from freezing up during inclement weather.

Holding tanks. In the RV world there are typically two holding tanks; black water and gray water. The reasoning for two is because in some camping situations there may be an option to drain off some of the gray water. In our current living situation we use homemade, non-toxic and bio-degradable cleaning and wash products so we use a simple leech system in which our grey water drains right into the soil via gravel and clay. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with having just one holding tank though depending on what you are going to do with the contents. Some RVs dump their tanks by gravity while other use a special type of pump called a macerator pump. These pumps can be built into your tiny house or they can be portable. They are typically 12 volt pumps too. The advantage of using a pump is that they are capable of pumping the waste water through a garden hose for distances of up to 100 or more feet. They of course can also pump up hill. All of the information – while referencing RVs – can be custom fitted to your tiny house (a homemade RV, if you will.)

Toilets. There are basically two types of toilets you can use in a tiny house. One type is typically mounted directly above the holding tank and has a trap door sort of mechanism that drops waste directly from the toilet bowl into the tank when the toilet is flushed. The second type of toilet has a pumping mechanism that allows the toilet to be remote from the holding tank. There are models available with manual or electric pumps and there are some that work by vacuum action. One distinct advantage of these types of toilets is that they can flush up hill. This means that your holding tank would not need to be lower than the toilet.

Hot water heating. Tiny homes are curious in that some people employ very small, electric, hot water heaters while others prefer larger, propane powered systems. Most tiny homes generally have small tank type water heaters with a tank capacity of 6 to 12 gallons. Tank types are, of course, available for propane, electric or both. There is a large variety of smaller volume tank-less type water heaters available at most box stores (including our current one) that I think would be great for a tiny house.

Hot water heaters are beyond basic plumbing though and If you want to read about choosing a hot water heater you can read more at this link.

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Sustainable Building with Compressed Earth

Adobe bricks - sustainable building materialAn old idea made new again, creating homes from the very elements that make up the Earth.  Sustainable building goes old school.

In today’s society, it is widely recognized that the basic foundation of a home is wood-based. Wood has disadvantages:

  • Wood isn’t uniform in strength characteristics. It is a natural product with knots and flaws
  • Wood  is combustible
  • Untreated wood will decay and is subject to insect damage1
  • Wood is often doused with preservatives, which can be caustic and environmentally damaging

An alternative product that is completely natural, manufactured locally, makes for sustainable building and can be beautifully crafted is a technique called Compressed Earth.

Adobe Brick Production

Adobe brick production – bricks dry in the sun

Compressed Earth Blocks otherwise known as CEBs or pressed adobes, commonly seen in the American Southwest, are made purely from natural elements. Blending a combination of clay, gravel, sand and a stabilizing agent, such as lime or Portland cement, CEBs are uniformly shaped and pressed in a hydraulic or lever arm machine.2 Because the hydraulic method can be costly, the majority of CEBs are pressed with the manual lever arm machine. The quality of manually pressed blocks is slightly less than the hydraulic method blocks.3

Compressed Earth Advantages for Sustainable Building:

  • Local and natural materials
  • The finished building has excellent thermal and acoustic properties
  • CEBs are fire and insect resistant4
  • The thickness of the walls reduce heating and cooling costs
  • CEBs are able to withstand most, but not all, weather and natural disaster incidences
  • Minimal to low maintenance properties for sustainable buildings
  • CEBs are load bearing, meaning no internal supports are required
  • Rapid construction times (structures can be erected in a week)5
  • Cost effectiveness

“Unlike most types of masonry, rammed (or compressed) earth walls don’t need core filling or reinforcing. Nor do they need gyprocking, plastering, painting or wallpapering. This saves money and energy when you build — and goes on saving them for years.”5

Sustainable Building - Adobe Home

Modern adobe structure

The great thing about Compressed Earth is that it can be used in nearly every facet of a home’s construction process. From floors to walls, to basements, to partitions, to closets, to ceilings, CEBs are ideal.

What Roofing Pairs with CEB buildings?

Looking strictly at eco-friendly roofing options, consider metal roofing made from recycled products, wood shingles, recycled rubber or a living roof.6 A living roof in particular is an amazing option. For instance living roofs provide all of the following benefits to a sustainable building project:

  • Reductions in energy costs, particularly by lessening thermal loading during warm months
  •  Storm water management by reducing impermeable surface area and retaining 65-100% of rainwater
  • Increased longevity of roof membranes by blocking UV rays and preventing extreme surface temperature fluctuations
  • Improved air quality since living roofs gather and absorb pollutants
  • Reductions in urban heat island effects by cooling roof surfaces
  • Contributing to biodiversity by providing wildlife habitat for insects and birds
  • Adding aesthetic quality and increased quality of life since living roofs have positive impact on people living and working around them
  • Increasing green space in urban environments

Compressed Earth Block construction is an amazing means by which to create a beautifully crafted home.  Make that home an energy efficient, sustainable building.  It will be cost effective and sturdy enough to withstand some of the harshest conditions Mother Earth can throw at it.

Resources for Sustainable Building with Compressed Earth:

(1)     Walls and Wall Coverings - LSU Ag Center
(2)     Compressed Earth Blocks- Deep Green Architecture
(3)     Compressed Earth Blocks - Meco Concept
(4)     Green Building with Earthen Homes, Pt 5: Compressed Earth Blocks, NanFischer
(5)     Benefits of Building in Rammed Earth - Rammed Earth Constructions
(6)     6 Eco-friendly Options for a New Roof – Green World 365
(7)     Why Green Roofs – Living Roofs, Inc.

Have you considered Compressed Earth as a sustainable building material for your home?

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Sustainable Building Materials – Cork Flooring

Put a Cork in It: Filling in the Floor Gaps with Cork.  Cork isn’t a new idea for sustainable building in flooring, but it’s gaining popularity.

Cork Flooring Swatches

Cork flooring comes in a variety of finishes.

Traditional flooring products are made of non-renewable resources, slowly regenerating resources or man-made, sometimes caustic, ingredients. The majority of residential and commercial flooring today consist of:

  • carpeting
  • cement
  • tile
  • hardwood
  • laminate

Why is cork a better choice?

Holding dynamically diverse properties, cork, by nature, is commonly utilized in the creation of a number of products we use daily. When most people think about cork, they often turn their minds to that pesky plug that stands between them and the contents of a wine or champagne bottle. Other uses are flooring, textiles, clothing, jewelry and crafts.

Cork Tree - Sustainable Building Materials

Cork is the outer bark layer of the cork oak tree which can be harvested without harming the tree itself.

Sustainability: unlike harvesting wood products, the collection of cork is done without destroying a single tree. Taken from the bark of a cork oak tree, cork can be collected from an individual tree multiple times throughout the tree’s life. Harvesting can occur after a sapling reaches 25 to 30 years of age.  Or any time after the trunk reaches a circumference or roughly 70cm. Cork trees are slow growing and can live upwards of 170 to 250 years. Since the harvesting occurs every 9 to 12 years, each tree can be harvested up to 16 times in its life.1

Benefits of cork flooring in sustainable building:

  • Thermal Insulation – cork historically was used in refrigeration applications, such as in the walls of freezers
  • Impermeability – Since the inter-connected pockets of air are truly so tiny and microscopic, cork is considered impermeable yet breathable – which is why it’s desirable for corking wine.
  • Give – the pockets of air compress and then expand again, never collapsing within the product core, giving the cork resilience and memory. It has excelled for use as flooring due to the softness under foot, as it is often recommended for people with back pain who stand on a floor for an extended amount of time.
  • Design Flexibility – the beauty of cork is that it can be cut in numerous ways that enable veneers with different aesthetics to create highly decorative surfaces. Cork conglomerate, a recycled cork material,  is also readily available.  Cork conglomerate is often used in conjunction with veneers.
  • Buoyancy – Cork floats, and has been used as buoys, floating decoys, and as runners for pontoons and other water craft.
  • Slip resistance – cork, due to the softness and bounce-back, is very slip resistant, and has been used extensively on the deck of naval ships.1
  • Beauty – cork offers a natural beauty and organic feel to homes.  It pairs well with bamboo to create style in  a sustainable building plan.

Cost outlay – the price of installed cork flooring ranges from $2 to $20 per square foot depending on the shape and intricacy of patterns. (2) Prices do increase slightly as the majority of cork forests come from the Mediterranean basin, in countries such as: North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco), southern France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. (3) Forests that contain cork oak in the region are threatened by population growth and clear-cutting.

Luckily a viable cork industry could soon be established and flourish right here in the U.S.. The trick is finding the right conditions to allow such an industry to grow. Cork requires minimal rain and nutrition and grows in sandy (nitrogen and potassium rich soils).3 Cork trees are relatively common in the western US as they are cared for and maintained in nurseries. Much of the west coast and southernmost regions of the United States could provide ideal conditions for a successful, nationally based, cork industry. (4) With a little vision a viable, sustainable, locally produced and harvested cork industry could be established that would create new jobs and reduce importing costs.

Resources for Sustainable Building with Cork Flooring
(1)   Cork -
(2)   Benefits of CorkFlooring – Mother Earth News
(3)   Part 1: The Real Cork – Where does cork come from?,  Gabriella Opaz
(4)   Cork Oaks in America –

Have you considered using Cork as a sustainable building material?

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Uses for Bamboo in Sustainable Building

Bamboo: Sustainable Building MaterialWhen you’re considering potential building materials for home construction as a society we tend to focus on two or three commonly utilized and widely accepted building materials: wood, stone or concrete. What you may not realize is that bamboo solutions can be used for much more than just food, musical instruments, medicine, paper and textiles. Uses for bamboo can also include building construction, both in exterior and interior design elements.

Widely used in Asian, Pacific Islander and Central and Southern American cultures, bamboo is a sustainable and sturdy building material. Unlike wood, bamboo (a member of the grass family) regenerates very quickly. It is, in-fact, one of the fastest growing plants in the world, with the fastest growth rate reaching 100cm in a 24-hr period1.

In contrast to tree harvesting, there is simply no comparison to the replenishment rate of growing bamboo. Bamboo can be harvested every three to six years for construction purposes (depending on the species); whereas trees range from 25 years (for softwoods) to 50 years (for hardwoods). It is important to harvest the bamboo at the right time to maximize strength and minimize damage brought on by pests.

Making more use of bamboo for common building practices would allow forests to regenerate and help to prevent future deforestation efforts.

Bamboo Construction Thailand

Outdoor hut built using bamboo in Thailand

There are also a number of other benefits to choosing bamboo solutions over wood including:

  • Strength and Durability: Bamboo is heartier than oak and stronger than steel. It is flexible and lightweight, and is water-resistant, minimizing the risk for warping2 and
  • Affordability: It is easily grown and harvested, making it one of the most cost effective construction materials available2.

A minor setback to implementing the use of bamboo in construction projects arises due to the locations where bamboo flourishes the heartiest. Bamboo thrives in the tropical regions of the world, which can raise prices due to importing costs.  Although farmers are capable of growing bamboo in nearly every climate, creating and maintaining a viable bamboo source requires copying an environment that will allow this sustainable building source to grow and thrive year-round. That being said, a movement has arisen to bring a practicable, sustainable and profitable bamboo growing business to the United States. As Popular Mechanics writer, Harry Sawyers explains:

 “Bamboo has come into vogue as a green, sustainable resource that’s used for everything from cutting boards to clothing to wood floors. But until now, almost all of the bamboo in products sold here has come from overseas. That could change soon, as new planting techniques may lead to millions of new acres of bamboo shoots in the American South.” Some wonder if a plant like bamboo can revitalize farmland on the Mississippi Delta.”3

Establishing bamboo plantations in the US has a wide array of advantages, including:

  • Reducing cost per uses of bamboo
  • Increasing jobs
  • 35% higher oxygen emission into the atmosphere than trees
  • 40% more CO2 absorption than trees
  • No fertilizer or pesticides required for growth
  • Establishing an extensive root system into soils, which in turn draws in and stores double the amount of water into watersheds, thus preventing soil erosion.2

Internally and externally, uses for bamboo offer a wide array of sustainable building solutions.

Greenbuild Bamboo Flooring

Modern construction: apartment unit utilizing bamboo flooring

 Internal Uses for Bamboo:

  • Flooring
  • Support columns
  • Electrical wire coverings
  • Interior walls
  • Eco-friendly products for kitchen and bath

External Uses of Bamboo:

  • Structural frames
  • Corner posts
  • Girders
  • Joists
  • Studs
  • Braces
  • Tie beams
  • King posts
  • Purlins
  • Ridgepoles
  • Rafters
  • Sheathing
  • Roofing
  • Exterior walls

Because of the nature of the plant, it is susceptible to deterioration agents such as insects, rot, fungi, and fire. It is important to treat the structure, inside and out. Untreated, sections of the bamboo would need to be replaced every 2 to 3 years. Some of the best preventative measures include:

“Bamboo poles should be stored horizontally, laid above ground and supported to prevent sagging or bending.  Bamboos should be stored in a dry, shaded and well cooled area, laid in shelving type system with the first layer not less than 50 centimeters above ground level for good air circulation.  Smoking fires or heating bamboo in kilns can protect the canes from insect attack.  Applying chemical coating such as are kerosene, diesel oil containing DDT and varnish can protect the canes from termites, beetles, wet rot and fungus attack.”4

Bamboo solutions are a highly sustainable, cost-effective and beautiful construction material for homes. It can be used throughout the entire structure (inside and out) and if preventative measures are utilized, can last for many years. It is no wonder that Asian and Central and South American cultures have grown to rely upon this hearty grass for so many facets of their lives. One can only wonder what other uses we will find for bamboo as North America adopts an increasing focus on sustainable building.

 Sustainable Bamboo Resources

  1.  Farrelly, David (1984). The Book of Bamboo. Sierra Club Books.
  2.  Benefits of Using Bamboo Versus Other Wood Materials
  3.  Bamboo in America; Glenn Meyers
  4.  The Bamboo House: Use of Bamboo as a Building Materials, Susan Rebano-Edwards

Have you incorporated bamboo into a building or remodeling project?  Tell us how you used this sustainable material, or how you think you might use it in the future.

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Reduce your footprint. Lose the mortgage.

In 2012 alone some 1,342,489 homes were in a state of foreclosure; default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions. The average foreclosure sales price? $175,872. So what does that mean?

That means a number of things the least of them being that over 1 million families were living in a dwelling they never imagined themselves in when they signed loan papers, closing notices, rent checks, and equity forms. It means that according to a 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, at least 1 in 10 homeless people had lost their homes to foreclosure. It means that change is inevitable and already overdue.

Smaller houses – tiny house trailers, earth bag homes, haybale homes, micro homes, cabins, etc – are the long-awaited, but scarcely recognized, solution for those who have become disabled due crippling mortgages and confusing lending terms. They’re also a mortgage alternative for a first time home buyer.

When we began really facing down our consumer debt, our lack of financial options, our desire for a home, and other truths, we quickly realized that small spaces + a little weekend warrior DIY could save the day. Houses built with an emphasis on need -vs- want and simplicity using creativity and inexpensive plans (think rectangle rather than octahedron), translate a lower mortgage. In some cases (as in ours) it means building a small house with no mortgage at all. As Charles Ingalls would say: “cash-on-the-barrel.” Micro homes, if you will, assist in minimizing the major expense of a mortgage or building a house without a mortgage by cutting back on what is excess (like often unused square footage in the home) and focusing on dual purpose items and well-appointed spaces.

But even beyond that small homes mean freedom. What my wife and I figured out is that I was working 60 hours a week so that we could afford a home oversized for our needs, save for a new car that was larger than we could fill, shop at places to buy things we already didn’t have room for, and the list goes on. A small home would minimize our overhead. Minimizing our overhead and reassessing our needs and wants would allow me to cut back on hours at work; hours that could be devoted to our family. There is an obvious exponential pattern in reducing your footprint. Finding a solution that reduces large and overwhelming debt can only bring more financial ease and joy to your life.

Let’s review.

Why avoid a huge home loan or mortgage?

  • Income from a job is not guaranteed. In today’s economy of constant lay-offs and downsizing no job is absolute.
  • The purchase price of a house multiplies anytime the banks want to increase the interest rate. That equals an uncertain payoff schedule.
  • Financial strain and problems cause relationships to fracture, or even disintegrate entirely, from the stress.
  • Want to go on vacation or out-of-town a few times a year? Impossible. The bank still needs payment which means more working in order to pay off a mortgage debt for the next 30+ years.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn’t even account for how carbon footprints can be shrunk by working less, living in less, consuming less, etc. If the work week could be cut to four full time days that would be one more day of car-free living (no fuel used, no exhausted emitted, no oil burned). If your home is the size you need you spend less on heating/cooling, less on furnishing, and less on raw materials (which tend to exhaust natural resources and poison our planet).

Where do I find out more about small homes?

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