What Type of Eco-Home Is Best For You?

If you dream of building with green materials but don't know where to begin, we can help.

| July/August 2008

  • The owners of organic produce distribution company New Harvest Organics combined green building materials--adobe, stone, straw bale and native timbers--to create a home near Patagonia, Arizona, that works with its climate.
    Terrence Moore
  • A house in the grasslands near Walden, Colorado, features straw bale infill walls with a post-and-beam support structure. Locally harvested and milled lumber and straw create thick, highly insulated walls to help keep out harsh winter winds.
    Joe Coca
  • White-cedar shingles made from sustainable managed wood line this Martha's Vineyard home.
    Peter Mauss
  • Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley's simple cob home in Cottage Grove, Oregon, is made of a clay, sand, water and straw mixture. Building with cob allows for arched windows, curved nooks and circular rooms, giving homes a romantic, almost medieval feel.
    Susan Seubert
  • This elegant home near Santa Fe, New Mexico, was made with stable straw bale walls, which were quick to construct and are naturally high in insulating value. The use of straw bale allowed the builders to create a curvy, spiral design.
    Daniel Nadelbach
  • A husband-and-wife architect team created this Charlottesville, Virginia, home using Structural Insulated Panes (SIPs). SIPs create a thermally efficient shell with excellent insulating properties, plus they reduce construction time and the amount of wood needed.
    Philip Beaurline

Building ecologically means living in harmony with a particular place and the systems that exist there. The key is to explore the architecture, materials and methods that will work in your climate. Consider those that support natural heating and cooling, are locally available and will work within your budget, taste and lifestyle. The first step is exploring who and where you are.

What’s your comfort zone?

“Thermal comfort” is about feeling warm in winter and cool in summer. Study the chart on page 63 for appropriate responses to your climate, then look at how your site may influence the available choices. For example, if your property is on a north-facing slope in dense forest, passive solar heating may not be the best strategy no matter what the regional climate is.

All building materials have inherent properties that can support or thwart your thermal comfort strategy. Two important and often misunderstood characteristics are thermal mass and insulation.

Thermal Mass, a material’s capacity to absorb and release heat, is valuable for both heating and cooling. Earthen materials such as stone, adobe, rammed earth and concrete are high in thermal mass. Thermal mass can help moderate your home’s temperature by absorbing heat when it’s hot and releasing it when it’s cool.

Insulation is a material’s ability to slow heat passage—the more insulation, the more slowly heat travels through it. Whereas thermal mass tends to be dense, insulation is light and fluffy; the trapped air pockets do the insulating. Too little insulation means your home will lose heat in winter and gain it in summer.

Earthen homes

Earth, one of the oldest and most widely used building materials, can be highly durable, and it’s available almost everywhere. Earthen walls are usually thick, dense, high in thermal mass and low in insulation value. Because of its clay content, earth absorbs and releases moisture, helping to balance humidity in the home. The cost of building with earth can be dirt cheap if you do it yourself but very expensive if you pay others.



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