This week for ecology lab we traveled to a natural house made by Design Coalition Architects in Madison.
Aside from the goofy looking (but meticulously calculated) overhangs on the sides, it looked like a fairly traditional home. But, after our tour (3.5 hours and 6 pages of notes!) we were all assured that this house was very far from standard! This, hopefully is a fact about houses that will change in upcoming years.
The architects on this project really thought of everything. From the location (close to the city, family, and work for biking or public transportation), to the porous driveway (that allows water to percolate into the ground and reenter the groundwater instead of runoff or erode), to the to the high tech Air Core floor.
This house had so many inspirational ideas for builders or anyone looking to improve and upgrade their home.
I’ll start with the fact that nearly all household materials were recycled. Sinks, tiles, counter tops, roofing, cabinets, insulation, appliances, you name it. Even better, we didn’t even notice. It seems that recycled or “second-hand” has a bad connotation, but all this stuff looked pretty nice. Lou (the homeowner and architect), told us about the re-store which sells recycled materials such as the ones that can be found in this house. Another great source for green (non-toxic, sustainably made) household materials that I’ve heard of is Grow and Make. Although sites like Grow and Make can insure that its products are safe and chemical free, Lou couldn’t, so he’s found a sealant called, Safe Seal, to prevent any chemicals that might be in his recycled cabinets, for example, from escaping into the air or onto his plates!
Next, Lou told us all about the amazing insulation and thick windows (tripple glazed) that help make it so the house requires very little energy to heat/cool. Most importantly, the insulation was completely non-toxic (made from recycled denim!) so we got to touch it too. I don’t think anyone would do that with fiberglass! This insulation, combined with straw-clay walls, contributes to a greater R-Value, or the measure of thermal resistance, of the house.
These walls, paired with the passive solar heating system utilized by the house helped Lou and his wife keep their energy bill nicely around $400 a YEAR.
Passive solar just means that they utilized the sun to moderate the temperature in their house. Lou explained this novel idea and I wasn’t sure whether to be dumbfounded at how genius it is, or just say “duh!” (why don’t we all do that?!). The house had large south-facing windows and tiny northern side ones. It placed rooms like the kitchen, living room, and bedroom (that need heat) next to these south windows, and uninhabited things like closets, stairs, and storage on the north side. Smart right? ($400/year smart!)
I could go on for quite some time with all the stuff I learned, but I’ll just throw in a few highlights:
1. The high-efficiency boiler (and tankless waterheater)
2. The low-flow water appliances
3. Rainwater Cisterns
4. PVC-free Plumbing
5. Nothing plastic!
6. Certified sustainably harvested wood (which is now sold commercially at Home Depot and Manards)
7. Natural cleaning products (some homemade)
8. Cork flooring upstairs
9. Vent roof (aids the passive solar system)
10. Framing that uses much less wood but is just as sturdy
The clear theme was sustainablility and “embedded energy.” Nothing was complicated, but everything was well-planned. Lou and his team took the time to ask important questions, and came out better in the end because of it.
How did this get to me? How long will it last? How close is this to its original form? What went into making this?
I loved his idea of sustainability too. They decided not to install a solar panel system, but they put all the wiring into the walls so that if the next person wanted to install it they could without tearing out the walls. He explained that to be really sustainable you have to think about what is good for you now as much as what will be good in the future. While solar isn’t necessary in Lou’s house now, there are contractors and engineers nationwide who are working to make solar more practical and affordable for other families. (Lake Eerie Electric comes to mind for families in Ohio or Michigan. Check them out!)
This house was an inspiration for my future house and gave me a better idea of sustainable thinking. The green and environment part of it was cool, but what struck me was how humanitarian the house was. It embodied community, concern for other workers, and learning… so it was just neat to see all the thought and true concern that went into a really cool finished product, instead of just a financial focus like we’re so used to seeing. The more I learn about the issues in our homes, buildings, ecosystems, cities… the more I appreciate the innovative ideas at places like Grow and Make, Lake Erie Electric, Grist and so many others who dedicate their careers to thinking of new, creative, sustainable ideas to help us all and improve this crazy world we all share.
Anyway, if you’re in Madison and have the opportunity to check out some Design Coalition projects, I would recommend it. Seems like those people have a lot to teach and I’m AMAZED at how much there is to learn!