Book Review: Alex Wilson's Your Green Home
For over fifteen years Alex Wilson has been writing Environmental Building News for professionals interested in green building. With Your Green Home, Alex has distilled this wisdom into a useful and readable guide for the general public.
This is not an easy task; there are so many choices and trade-offs to be made. The author knows that the greenest house is the renovation in a city or town, but that his audience is most probably building a new house on a greenfield site in the country. He then points out that building smaller is better, and that money is better spent on good finishes and detailing than on space one really doesn't need, and that hiring a good architect can lead to better design and space utilization, getting more from less. He suggests placing the house in the corners, or the worst part of a property, to preserve its best features, and hiring a landscape architect up front to help with the siting. After all these cries in the wilderness are out of his system, Alex gets down to the business of building the green home.This is not a book about design; there are no plans or details, only a vague favouring of conservative and vernacular styles and dislike of newfangled technologies or modern: "will your home's style remain popular enough that it will be maintained properly and live to celebrate its centennial? Not too many geodesic domes from the 60's are still standing...."
It is a very thorough explanation of what the issues are in green building, why they are important, and then a non-judgmental analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the materials and methods that go into a home. It is not exhaustive or detailed; it is designed to give the non-professional an understanding of the issues and choices.
Yet as a professional there was still lots to learn; After years of hearing that radiant flooring is the green way to heat, (and trying to integrate it into prefab housing with marginal success) Alex says that
"For a number of reasons, radiant floor heating is usually not the best choice; it's a great heating option for a poorly designed house.... For the radiant floor system to provide enough heat to feel warm underfoot (the feature everybody likes with this system) its going to be cranking out more heat than the well insulated house can use, and it will likely cause overheating. A radiant floor heating system also has a very long lag time between when the heat is supplied to the floor and when the slab begins radiating heat....If there is a component of passive solar heating in the home, it will cause overheating because you can't turn off the slab when the sun comes out."
Alex suggests that building green doesn't need to cost more than conventional, even though most green building materials cost more than conventional. He justifies this though a series of strategies, (build less, look at life-cycle costing and operating costs,) and warns that green design costs more too, as "it takes more time to design a compact, energy-efficient home that sites lightly on the land"
Here I think he is over-optimistic; building green is going to cost more, just building without vinyl costs a lot more. Building smaller doesn't save as much as it should; to paraphrase Woody Allen, 80% of the building cost comes from just showing up- the fixed costs, delivery costs, machinery costs are almost the same for a small building as they are for a larger one. Lot levies, service connections and septic systems are the same regardless of size of house, which is why builders tend to build bigger every year, square footage is cheap to build. We have to make a conscious choice to build with a smaller footprint, less embodied energy, and lower energy consumption because right now we still have gas and electricity available for low grade jobs like space heating; in twenty years we may have to save them for more important things. Building green does cost more, and it is a price we have to pay.
Alex concludes that "the intent of this book has not been to overwhelm, but rather to help you think about issues that can help you and your family live healthier lives with lighter impact on the environment." He succeeds brilliantly.::Your Green Home: A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly New Home by Alex Wilson, New Society Publishers; Printed on 100% post consumer recycled paper.