Kevin Dickson was an early convert to solar energy. He earned a bachelor of science degree from the Colorado School of Mines in 1977, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and solar technology from Colorado State University in 1979. In the early 1980s, he was involved in hundreds of solar thermal systems and received several design patents.
Thirty years later, Dickson’s focus is on net-zero energy home design, and to that end he writes a blog called Green Building in Denver where he comments on a slew of products and issues involving energy-efficient construction.
He makes no bones about the blog’s local bent. He offers, for example, a number of suggestions for energy code improvements for his community and comments regularly on policies of his local electric utility. Given that one aim of sustainable building is to make structures appropriate to their specific locales, making the blog local seems completely appropriate. The site would be a boon for anyone in a similar climate zone, if not right in Denver.
You don’t, however, have to be from Denver or Colorado to take something away from Dickson’s blog. His reach is broad enough to welcome in just about anyone with an interest in energy efficient design. If he finds something of interest elsewhere, he’ll report on that, too.
Dickson lives in a “near zero energy home” himself, so he can speak from personal experience on the pros and cons of various low-energy strategies (for a detailed look at the house, check the blog entry from Oct. 6, 2008). And to his credit, when something he’s tried doesn’t work he’s happy to say so.
And yes, he’s the same Kevin Dickson who’s a frequent contributor to the GBA Q&A forum.
Here are some excerpts from the blog:
On radiant-floor heat
Radiant floor heat is considered by many to be the most comfortable method of delivering heat. Even zero energy homes need a source of backup heating. Therefore, radiant is often the choice in high end custom homes, when cost is trumped by comfort and “sizzle.”
After building and living in a near zero energy home now for three years, we have learned that radiant heat is quite comfortable when it is on. The trouble is, the solar and superinsulation aspects of the house prevent it from coming on very often. In fact, it hasn’t been worth the extra cost of the system (about $10k more than a forced air system), and we wouldn’t do it again.
Additional challenges with radiant floor heat:
- A completely separate ducted system is required for summer air conditioning. A swamp cooler in Denver is by far the best choice (it typically won’t use ductwork).
- In order to filter, humidify, and ventilate, a separate ducted system must be installed. (Now add $5k to the above $10k).
- The heating system is at risk of freezing in extreme conditions with a power failure.
On the importance of low-maintenance features
Sustainable Housing can be defined as housing that conserves resources as much as possible.
What’s the most important resource to the average person? Their MONEY. Therefore, new green built homes should not only aim for zero energy, but also for zero maintenance. Life’s too short to paint siding.
On electric cars (from 2008)
OK, you gotta keep your old clunker running 2-3 more years until the GM Volt is released.
Current estimates have the Volt going about 40 miles before a little gas engine kicks in to increase range. Five more years of battery development will increase range enough to wean us from gas entirely.
As we all have hoped, technology will get us out of this mess, and please note that the free market economy is what encourages innovations. Government incentive programs should be used sparingly. Case in point, the laws that encouraged ethanol production have affected food prices. It’s hard to predict unintended consequences, and the free market is smarter than any of us.
Why slab foundations are good
The conventional wisdom in cold climates for basements (since we stopped hand-digging them) has been, “If you need to go down 4′ for a crawl space foundation, why not just dig another 4′ and throw in a basement?” The marginal costs are very low per square foot, definitely less than building the second floor…
My cost analyses, however, are showing me that a frost-protected monolithic slab is more cost-effective than a basement as long as the land is cheap. Once the price of land reaches about $20/sq. ft., then a basement may be required by the home-buying market. In other words, the neighborhood is so expensive that the buyers expect the extra square footage of a basement.
The tipping point in favor of slab-on-grade over crawl space is that the slab can be the finished floor. Stained concrete is still trendy, bulletproof, and saves at least $3/sq.ft. on your floor system.
On a rating system that really works
I’ve finally found my dream house rating system, which is just like an EPA rating label for an appliance or a car.
I’ve been saying for years that as consumers get more educated about energy efficiency in homes, the demand for efficient homes will increase, and the selling price of those homes will increase.
Well, I’m tired of waiting*, so this rating system gives the consumers what they need to know NOW.
NOTE: this is a rating system, and by definition, can only be measured on a house that has been built. This will prevent the most insidious types of greenwashing, like advertising a LEED rating before the home has been built.
There isn’t any “embodied energy” rating here, but I think a third scale for that would start making this rating system too confusing. The embodied energy of a low energy new home is small enough to be ignored for now. If and when a carbon tax is implemented, that will be reflected in the selling price of the house.
*I realized that until Realtors understand this stuff, most consumers have no hope. I haven’t yet met a Realtor who really understands the difference between a KW and a KWH.