• Building With Awareness Blog

A Picture of a Straw Bale Home In Spring

This is a springtime view of my straw bale house that is featured in the “Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home” DVD and book. Click the image for a larger view. While riding my recumbent bicycle home from the office the other day, I was caught by the reflections in my neighbor’s flooded field. They recently planted a citrus orchard and garden and were irrigating late in the day. I grabbed my camera to capture the soft glow of a typical New Mexico sunset. When living in a straw bale home, Spring is the time to remove the insulation panels from the skylights (to prevent heat loss in winter) and to turn off the pilot light of the backup radiant-floor heating system (despite some nights that still dip into the 30’s, the home does not need backup heat at this time of year). The rainwater cistern is 80% full due to recent spring rains. This will supply enough non-potable water until the summer monsoon season begins in a few months. The photovoltaic electrical system generates more electricity in the Spring and Fall due to the fixed angle of the PV panels to the sun. It is also time to put the window screens back up as they are removed every Fall to maximize the amount of heat entering the windows from the low-angled winter sun. The warm earthen tones of the home’s walls come from the mud plaster finish. The small workshop to the right is made…

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Product Review: “Gossamer Wind” Energy-Efficient Ceiling Fan For A Green Home

The Gossamer Wind Ceiling Fan is EnergyStar rated and incorporates an advanced blade design that greatly improves energy efficiency. I always stress that the design of a green home must start with the passive-solar-design elements before even thinking about the mechanical systems. If you focus on the overall efficiency of the entire building, you can then reduce or eliminate the electrical/mechanical systems—such as heating and cooling.  My straw bale home is designed to stay comfortable on hot summer days without the need for a conventional air conditioner. This is accomplished by careful window placement to prevent solar gain in the summer, well-insulated straw bale walls, R-55 cellulose insulation in the ceilings, and the use of interior thermal mass walls.  When the overall building is designed properly, you may find that you only need to reduce the interior air temperature by a few degrees—instead of twenty or more degrees. A ceiling fan may then be all that is needed to make a room feel comfortable. In the case of my straw bale house, a conventional air conditioning system would not only be unnecessary, it would also greatly increase the cost of the off-the-grid photovoltaic system that supplies all of the electricity for the home. The Concept of the Ceiling Fan Ceiling fans have made a comeback due to their energy efficiency. They were invented in the 1860’s to 1870’s and were the standard method of making buildings more comfortable for decades.  By the mid 1950’s, electric air conditioners began to appear…

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The Pros and Cons of Straw Bale Wall Construction In Green Building

Following are some pros and cons of building a straw bale house. Like any building material, it is always best to evaluate your needs and your goals before committing to a particular material. Green building offers a wide range of options in achieving energy efficiency. When appropriate for your project, straw bale construction has many benefits. Advantages of straw bale construction 1. Straw bales are made from a waste product. Once the edible part of the grain has been harvested (such as wheat or rice), the stalks often become a disposal problem for farmers. By bailing the straw, a new life is given to the material. The farmer makes some money by selling the bales and the homebuilder gains an excellent insulation and building material. 2. Homes insulated with straw bale can have insulation values of R-30 to R-35 or more. The thicker the bale, the better the R-value. 3. Straw bale walls are at least eighteen inches thick. This adds aesthetic value to the home as thick wall are expensive to achieve with conventional construction. The thickness of the wall helps to reflect sunlight throughout the room. 4. Due to the thickness of straw bale walls, every window can have a window seat or shelf. This becomes both an aesthetic and practical design element.

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Urban Green Living: Downtown Loft Green Makeover, Part 1

The greening of this downtown loft apartment will be a topic in this new series on how to adapt older buildings to higher ecological standards. In my DVD video and book, “Building With Awareness,” I show the design and construction process of building a green home from scratch. With an emphasis on green building materials and the benefit of having complete control over the constructions process, you can see each stage of creating an energy efficient home from the ground up. By using a variety of natural materials such as straw bale, adobe, and earth plasters, it is possible to build an extremely green home with off-the-shelf components. For those who have the opportunity to start with a clean slate and an empty piece of land, this is an efficient way to go. But what if you need to buy or rent a home that is already built? What if you desire to live in a city and the ability to use less-conventional materials is limited? After all, retrofitting existing buildings and homes will be an even larger industry than building new green structures. Millions of homes already exist and the majority of them need to be brought up to better energy efficiency standards.  How do you improve energy efficiency, lower your power bills, and limit your carbon footprint?

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Green Building: A Jumbo Jet Becomes A Hostel and a Local Landmark

This retired 747 aircraft was turned into a green building by refurbishing it has a hostel. It is now permanently parked at the airport to house weary travelers. Even the cockpit was converted into a double-bed suite. I love the novel ways that items destined for the scrap heap become something new and different. This recently completed Jumbo Hostel (located in Stolkholm Arlanda, Sweden) is one of the most novel examples of green building that I have come across. I consider this green building because the major structure of the hostel was once a 747 Jumbo Jet. It is made of durable materials, had reached the end of its intended life, and now as been recycled to house travelers at the airport. A good green building should also be of a visual design that is appropriate for its location. Given that this hostel is located right at the airport, the aerodynamic shape is perfect for the setting.  There are 25 rooms in all with a total of 85 beds. Even the cockpit was turned into a double-bed suite. The renovation of the aircraft had to meet the same building codes of any structure. The left wing can be walked on and is an observation deck for observing other aircraft at the airport. For more information: http://www.jumbostay.com via: http://www.latimes.com

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Determining the Actual Power Output of Photovoltaic (PV) Panels For Green Homes

PV solar panels mounted to a pitched metal roof of a straw bale house. The “real world” output of a PV module can be much lower than what is stated by the manufacturer. Photovoltaic panels generate clean power by converting sunlight into electricity. This article will talk about the actual—verses the rated—power output of photovoltaic panels. Do not assume that a PV panel rated at 170 watts of power will actually give you that amount. It will probably be closer to 150 watts per panel. Because of the difference, care must be used when sizing the system for your electrical needs. Otherwise, you may find that you are generating less power than you need. Designing a photovoltaic system for your green home starts with using energy efficient appliances and lighting inside the house. My rule of thumb is that it is cheaper to buy a new EnergyStar-rated refrigerator for under $1,000 than to spend an extra $2,000 on photovoltaic (PV) panels to power an old, inefficient refrigerator. The same goes for other appliances—particularly those that get a lot of daily use such as televisions. The photovoltaic system for my small straw bale home (featured on the BuildingWithAwareness.com website and DVD video) cost around $12,000 in equipment. Without carefully choosing the most efficient appliances and  lighting, the cost would have been dramatically higher. 

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