Monday, October 19, 2009

Practical, Sensible, Frugal

Last week I picked up and read a recent publication on green building practice, a work by Stephen and Rebekah Hren: The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit (Chelsea Green, 2008). Compared to the previous book I reviewed on this blog on 'green building', Green from the Ground Up, in a post titled Greenwash a few months back, this work by the Hren's is a real breath of fresh air. The work is remarkably free from trademarks and brand endorsements, and while they do look at and assess various commercial products, they do so with an eye less to promotion, but more to their personal experience. The book is fairly well researched, and one of the authors (Rebekah) is engaged in her own solar retrofit business so they do walk the talk.

When I initially thumbed through this book in the local non-profit cooperative bookstore, the passage that caught my eye came early on as the authors related their experiences coming to grasps with the horrors of the world's energy dependence upon fossil fuels, the fact of oil companies often weaseling their way out of paying for oil spills, and growing threats to all of us in terms of climate change: as many have done before them, they pulled up stakes and bought a chunk of land in the countryside, in an effort to become 'independent':

"We built our own passive-solar house out of cob (a traditional mix of clay, sand, and straw), went off-grid, and tried to grow our own food and raise poultry."

This story doesn't go quite where you might expect however,

"Meanwhile we still had jobs back in town and often wanted to socialize there, which meant frequent 40-minute drives. Not long after the elation of successfully installing our photovoltaic panels, getting our cob home past its final inspection and legally moving into our new home, we learned that an automobile uses as much energy while its running as 350 100-watt bulbs! Driving an hour to town and back used the equivalent amount of energy as running our home's electrical needs for a month.

How ironic! We had been been criticizing our friends who refused to replace their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, yet here we are, driving all the time, the worst offenders of all! On top of that, the idea that we could live self-sufficiently out in the woods turned out to be a cruel joke. although neither of us had much of a green thumb, we had assumed it would be easy to grow most of our food organically and with minimal petroleum inputs. Instead we spent a great deal of time doing a halfway job and getting meager returns. The garden became our enemy, and we were shackled to it, every evening, picking bugs and pulling weeds in the blistering heat.

It became obvious we had made a mistake. We'd tried to start from scratch and throw everything out, including the established communities and the infrastructure of towns and cities, and do it all ourselves. Running away to live in the woods isn't an option for most people, and if everyone tried to do it, it would be become even more futile. We were and are convinced that as day turns to dusk for fossil fuels, we must take a good look at our surroundings and learn to live with what we have already built, what we've spent our free fossil currency on: the infrastructure, especially the housing, that already exists in our towns and cities. For us, it was a time to learn from our mistakes and move back to the was time to do things in a way that others could see and emulate. It was time to do it right.

Given my own knack for making all sorts of mistakes, and moving forward from them as best I can, even learning to welcome them (on a good day!), the story of two people who had followed a path similar to my own (see Mud and Sticks, part I and II) and had found the 'good life' not quite what they expected or wanted, who had failed at their attempt to live simply and then managed to maintain their determination, stuck to their beliefs, now tempered by experience, and found another path which works for them. These are compelling themes to me and intrigued me so much I bought the book on the spot.

This book is less about marketing 'green' building as yet another form of consumption, and more about how the average person can take what they have and make small changes, going beyond simple light bulb swaps, to lessen their impact on the planet in terms of carbon emissions. Chapter 1 starts out with a basic analysis of home energy use on the basis of Btu consumption and then moves on to assessing one's own home to see whether it is worth retrofitting/converting to be become less of an energy hog. In itself, the Hrens are engaging in an uphill battle against the dominant paradigm in modern North American culture, the idea sold to us that the route to happiness, the 'American Dream' is one of increasing one's consumption, not cutting back. I recall a comment by George Carlin that, "it's called the 'American Dream' because you'd have to be asleep to believe it", but setting that point aside, the Hrens do realize that one way to sell green building is through an appeal to the green$$ that can be sometimes found in one's wallet:

"...if a two-adult household could eliminate one of [their] cars and instead bike and use public transportation the annual savings would be over $6200!"

"Solar hot waters have higher up-front costs, but once you install one, you see a $20 to $40 monthly savings on your utility bills."

What I like about the way the authors present the information, is that instead of simply preaching what we all should do, they relate how they themselves have made those changes and the combination of their efforts has led to an $11,000 annual savings in their household. Even if the 'small is beautiful', 'less is more' approach remains a hard sell in this advertising-saturated culture where new and shiny is the sexy thing we're all supposed to trample our neighbors down to obtain, the Hren's put forth a message that is sensible, conserving, and thoughtful, and gives most readers, I suspect, the sense that hey, I can do this too!

In Chapter 2 the authors delve into renewable electric systems such as photovoltaics, wind turbines, and microhydro. They convincingly show that the payback and benefit of installing solar hot water systems greatly exceeds that of photovoltaics, and yet still advocate for photovoltaics (PV), if not on a simple cost-benefit analysis, then on a 'moral' one. I'm not so sure myself about the PV option, as from what I've read the amount of energy that goes into producing them, mining and transporting some of the raw materials, exceeds the electrical energy they will produce over their lifetime. Plus there are the recyclability issues and disposal of toxic wastes which associate to many types of PV set ups, and their lifespan appears to be 25 years at best. We already deal poorly with the recycling of computers, so I don't see a massive increase in PV consumption/production as such a great thing.

In terms of the usual 'return on investment' argument about PV's, the Hren's make a good point:

"Tangentially, what else do you demand a payback on that you purchase? Cars, furniture, clothes, food, even fossil electricity? Of course not! You pay and pay and never expect a cent back...why should energy efficiency alone require a payback? Perhaps because capitalist society has so devalued efficiency itself in the drive for growth. Each step you take to efficiency limits the growth for fuel providers, limits the expense of environmental cleanup, and so on. What impetus is there for efficiency besides morality and frugality?"

I'm with them on the morality/frugality argument, though I think one of the aspects to improved efficiency which they do not take up is that of Jevon's Paradox: the proposition first put forward by William Stanley Jevons, in his 1865 book The Coal Question, that technological progress which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. It's an interesting point to consider in regards to the holy grail of improved efficiency, and those that have considered the matter in some detail often advocate for legislated limits to consumption as part and parcel of moves to improved technical efficiency - again, enforced limits to consumption is an idea which does not sell too well at this time. Without those limits however, it would appear to be the case, as one writer put it, that "human consumption habits seem to be ruled by a principle of "waste homeostasis," where the energy savings we get from better technology is used to fund better toys". Still, with some items, like home fridges and washing machines, improvements to efficiency yield positive results, since the amount of use associated to these products tends to remain a constant in a house, regardless of how much power they are using. Also, it ought to be noted that Jevon's Paradox applies primarily to technological improvements which lead to fuel efficiency, not to regulations and policies, corporate or government, which impose higher efficiency standards, as these often increase the cost of use of a given resource.

Anyway, I digress slightly...

Later Chapters of The Carbon-Free Home deal with appliances, lighting , heating, refrigeration, domestic hot water, cooling, rainwater collection, etc, and in each case the format is much the same: an introduction of the topic, an account of the Hren's personal experiences in that area, and then a detailed look at the various alternatives which confront the homeowner. In many cases, simple changes in behavior, such as detailing which washing machine or dishwasher settings are energy or water hogs and best avoided. Sometimes the solution is to buy a more energy efficient appliance, as the savings pay for themselves - sometimes it s a matter of adding extra insulation to your fridge or constructing a simple low-cost evaporative cooling box. The 36 projects detailed in the book are well within the reach of the average person, in terms of difficulty and the specialized tools required. I like the empowering, DIY approach the Hren's advocate.

In the section of the book which deals with heating and cooling, systems which, on average, consume 47% of the homeowners annual energy budget, the authors make the point that vinyl framed double-glazed argon gas filled windows are not all they are hyped to be:

"While double-paned windows are more insulative than existing single-paned windows, the difference is quite small, raising R-values [from] R1 to R2 generally. Oftentimes they are very expensive and degrade the historic integrity of the homes where they are installed. Many are made of vinyl, a product that lasts only about 20 years before severely cracking when exposed to ultraviolet light, compared to wood or metal windows that can last for 200 years or more when properly cared for. In addition, the seal around the double-pane is made of synthetic rubber that also lasts only about 20 years before it cracks and all the argon between the panes dissipates, resulting in condensation between panes and loss of visibility. In our opinion, replacing a functioning window that could potentially last many decades if not several centuries with a window that will be defunct in 20 years is planned obsolescence designed to sell as much product as possible. It is inherently energy inefficient and not viable in the long run."

I think they are right, though I would hardly consider a single pane glass window for new construction. The solution they put forward for dealing with leaky windows is to seal up windows which are 'openers yet rarely opened', and then to retrofit other windows in the house with storm windows, along with insulated curtain and shutters. Windows with sealing insulated curtains achieve an R-value of around 7 or 8, and provide excellent sound-deadening quality as well, the authors point out.

In regards to insulation the Hrens point out that it is far and away the most important thing homeowners can invest in, and note that worrying about which types of insulation are 'green' or 'sustainable' is a bit moot considering that despite the energy intensive or environmentally-polluting nature of most insulation product manufacture, the energy-savings realized by improved insulation more than offsets the downside. While I agree with that, I still have reservations about large scale production of certain types of insulation, both in their environmental impacts and their health impacts for the installer, and don't see them all as essentially equivalent in that regard.

Refreshingly, the Hrens devote a section to making light clay straw as a cheap and natural, locally-sourced and low impact material for alternative insulation. Hooray!

The later section of the book tackles issues in rainwater collection and water use, as well as a truly critical issue - dealing with our shit. Literally I mean. The book ends with a consideration of plants and landscaping in relation of improving energy performance of the home, and how we might make different transportation choices to reduce our carbon footprint even further.

All in all, The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit is a work I really enjoyed and I have added it to the 'Worth a Read' list at the lower right of this page. The reader may also wish to petition their local library, as I did, to have the book added to the local public collection so that the information might become more widely available. It's not an expensive purchase - following only one of the solutions the Hrens propose in their book would easily pay for the book, if I might have a little fun with the 'return on investment' point.

Thumbs up from me.


  1. I live in a 50's house with bascily zero insulation. It's rather embarassing (considering I'm a architect) but with ecomonics the way they have been it's something I have to live with for now.

    I totally agree about PV systems. When I've looked at them in terms of project usage, the cost of the equipment is rarely recouped over time. Solar hot water on the other hand, as you point out does indeed work quite well.

    Greywater systems have been in use in Europe for quite a long time. I remember back in England while at university going to a showroom that displayed green technology including waterless urinals. In the UK, gutter runoff is collected and is reused where as in the US it just soak into the ground.

    As far as windows are concerned, I wouldn't recomment a vinyl widow to my worst enemy.

    I'm going to go see if I can get that book locally.

  2. I'd be interested to hear your impressions of that book if you did end up locating a copy.



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