Eight Ways to Build a Better House when They Start Building Houses Again

bloomberg house for sale photo

James Russell, architecture critic for Bloomberg, should have been at the Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design after the age of Oil conference last week, because he certainly has the right idea. He concurs with this writer that the solutions for building in a world with expensive oil won't be high tech but simple and logical, things we have known for centuries and have just ignored. He writes:

Americans finally may have understood the relationship of oil supply and demand. If you want fuel to be cheap, you have to use less of it. For all the talk of achieving energy independence through drilling, solar or wind, it's conservation -- even without a concerted, coordinated national effort -- that has proven to be the quickest route.

That's why green-design efforts won't stop, especially in the heating-oil dependent Northeast.


A LEED Platinum home with ground source heat pump, black shingled roof, two car garage and impermeable driveway.
Homes designed today can be much more efficient at low cost. Whether they're high-tech or old-fashioned, houses with awnings, porches and carefully placed windows can harvest natural breezes for cooling. Just shifting the primary orientation from east-west to north-south keeps summer's roasting sun off glass and lets windows grab winter heat. It can knock several percentage points off fuel and lighting bills.

Backyard windmills, solar panels and planted "green'' roofs are chic, yet walls covered with shading vines offer most of the benefits for much lower cost. Floods and droughts are becoming more common, so cisterns, water-sipping plants and driveways that absorb rain will likely go mainstream.

He is dead on. Throwing tens of thousands of dollars on photovoltaics and heat pumps is sexier than insulation, but has its own embodied energy. Heat pumps require electricity; insulation doesn't. More in Bloomberg.

Lets look at some of the simple things one can do to build a better house without having to spend a lot of money on complex technology:

Put up Awnings

chorley park awnings photo

Canvas awnings enjoyed widespread use in the days before air conditioning. They were found on many residential buildings on the east, west, and south facades to shade the apartments from the sun. What could be more logical? Instead of paying to cool, why not keep the heat out in the first place? Awnings: Time to Bring Them Back

Plant a Tree

thome crescent photo

A deciduous tree planted on the south side of a house is the ultimate passive solar system; it shades in summer and lets the sun through in winter. Big Steps in Building: Plant a Tree

install a Permeable Driveway

porous paving photo

One only has to step outside onto any parking lot to understand the meaning of "heat island" as pavement across the continent becomes too hot to touch. Asphalt is a fossil fuel product, it retains heat and is impermeable- a little rain and all the dirt, pesticides oil and dog crap wash into the storm sewers and waterways. Porous pavements let air and water pass through, filtering pollutants on the spot. Porous Paving: Open Cell Concrete Block

porous paving geocells photo

Grasspave from the appropriately names Invisible Structures, is a plastic mat that is rolled out onto a prepared bed, filled with appropriate landscaping, and you let it grow. Porous Paving: Geo-Cells

franke driveway image

Just be careful where you do it- some cities don't like porous driveways. Don't Rip Up Your Driveway in North York and Paradise Unpaved: Franke James' Driveway One Year Later

Collect Rainwater

rainwater butts

We have noted previously that in the UK rainwater barrels are called water butts, so we suppose it was inevitable that somebody was going to design this. Put a Double Entendre in Your Garden

Just be careful where you do it; some states make it illegal. Utah Officials: Keeping Rainwater Is Illegal

Use your Gray Water

gray water tap photo

Put a gray water recovery system in every new house and retrofit any house where the owner wishes to have a lawn irrigation system. Big Steps in Building: Install Gray Water Recovery Everywhere

Use natural, Not Mechanical, Ventilation

ny tenement light shaft photos

in northern cities like New York, even the cheapest tenements were required by law to have natural light and ventilation to kitchens and bathrooms. Sometimes it might be little more than a slot, but those were the rules. Then the electric fan was accepted as a substitute. Lightwells and light slots disappeared as powered technology replaced windows. Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory

Don't Make Light When You Can do it Naturally

solatube photo

The most efficient use of solar power is lighting. Sunlight is already light, no energy is lost in conversion to or from electricity. Thus the success of windows and the more moderate success of skylights. But What if you need the light to get somewhere not directly connected to the outdoors. What if there's three feet of insulation between your wall and the outside, as there probably should be.Piping Light

Want More? See all of our Big Steps in Building.

And Ted Owen's series on Building Green: Energy Efficiency and Aesthetics From The Same Materials (Part 11)">Building Green

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