Building Green: Energy Efficiency and Aesthetics From The Same Materials (Part 3)


Last week I discussed the importance of orienting the majority of the windows of the home to the south (if you live in the in the northern hemisphere). This adds nothing to the cost of the home and can make it dramatically more energy efficient in the winter.

Another element that adds nothing to the cost (and will even save you money) is to build the home only as large as is necessary. With a smaller footprint there is less space to heat and cool, and fewer materials and resources are used, which keeps more money in your bank account.For example, compact homes require less money to be spent on the electrical system. Shorter plumbing runs will dramatically reduce construction costs, and the hot water will have to travel a shorter distance from the heater to the appliance, thus saving both water and the energy needed to heat it.

A small home means more attention and money can be spent on the details. These accents—such as higher quality wall finishes, trim work, natural floor materials, hardware, shelving, window seats, and higher-quality windows—will all make for an aesthetic living space that square footage alone can not achieve. Smaller rooms have a more intimate feel, yet can still feel spacious due to window and door placement.

During the design phase, I found it helpful to picture how my home would look with no furniture in it at all. I noticed that many standard homes built today feel hollow and empty until they are filled with possessions. Smaller rooms that have window seats and window shelves (a free bonus with straw bale walls), and floors of stone, brick, stained concrete, or recycled wood can be quite pleasing even before you move in. This is not to say that furniture should be avoided. It is just to keep you thinking in terms of making the structure itself beautiful. Future articles will focus on materials that will aid in achieving this goal as well.


In my home, the living room and dining room are both open to each other. A soft divide is created with a low adobe wall, a bookshelf, and a raised floor in the living area. Either space on its own would feel too small, but because they are open to each other, both rooms feel spacious while reducing the square footage. The area below the raised floor is storage that is accessed by removable panels.

Larger homes are actually easier to design as little thought needs to be put into getting from room A to B. If you run into a problem, just add a hallway and you are done. In the long run, this is not cost- or energy efficient. Whenever possible, eliminate hallways and concentrate on how rooms can flow from one to another. Do you need both a family room and a living room? Possibly not. Think about where you spend your time, and design accordingly.

When designing my home, I also drew inspiration from studying sailboat interiors. These vessels are compact, self-sufficient, environments—complete with sleeping, living, and cooking areas. In addition, they have their own self-contained plumbing system and electrical supply. I will discuss this more in the next column.

See also: Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10, part 11, part 12 and part 13.

[This has been a guest post by Ted Owens, a green designer and filmmaker. More details on green building design and construction can be found on his website and in the Building with Awareness DVD and Guidebook. -Ed.]

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