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Q&A Spotlight

Is Green Building for Everyone?

What about homeowners who like fresh air and minimal mechanical systems?

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Is this a house for “real people”?

This 6,800-sq.-ft. house in northern Massachusetts was designed by Maria Hars' father for a family of six. Hars doubts that contemporary green design are as successful as this one in matching the lifestyles of their occupants.
Image Credit: Maria Hars

Is this a house for “real people”?

This 6,800-sq.-ft. house in northern Massachusetts was designed by Maria Hars' father for a family of six. Hars doubts that contemporary green design are as successful as this one in matching the lifestyles of their occupants.
Image Credit: Maria Hars

30 years and still going strong

Built 30 years ago in Groton, Mass., this passive solar home has lost none of its original appeal.

Is green building too narrow in focus, suitable only for people who keep the windows closed and let mechanical systems regulate temperature and humidity? What about people who like fresh air, even in winter, and are looking for minimal intervention from mechanical heating and cooling equipment?

That seems to be at the heart of a question from Maria Hars, a GBA reader who lives in a passive solar house built 30 years ago in northern Massachusetts.

“I keep my bedroom window open 24/7,” she writes in a Q&A post at GreenBuildingAdvisor. “I love the smell of the outdoors and the fresh breezes from the fields. In the winter I have blankets that keep me warm with the window open. I turn down the thermostat to almost off in the winter and off the rest of the year.

“In the winter I sit in front of the southern windows & feel the warmth of the sun on me (I wear short sleeves). At night or cloudy days I wear warmer clothing. In the summer the windows are shaded from decidious trees (no a/c) with 30″ roof overhangs. The house stays cool.”

Her question: with all of the building science and advanced materials at our disposal, how should a house be designed and built for “real people” like her?

That’s the subject of this week’s Q&A Spotlight.

You already have the right house

To GBA senior editor Martin Holladay, Hars already has it figured out. “It doesn’t sound like you have any problems,” he writes. “Keep living in your house and be happy.”

Mike Collignon agrees, but he also wonders whether mass-market home buyers are ready for the connection with nature that Hars seems to embrace. “No offense, Maria, but you have an uncommon home,” Collignon says. “The mass market needs to rely on building science to guide them when solar orientation isn’t ideal, or builders will only use 2x4s, or there aren’t trees to provide optimal shading, etc. Some people who have small children aren’t going to leave their windows open through a New England winter, unless they like visiting their pediatrician. We’re seeing an increasing need to incorporate allergy or health concerns into the indoor environmental design.”

Collignon thinks the design might work for others, but adds that he’s willing to bet many others would want or need something different. “Most of our country’s people choose to keep their windows shut and thermostats set for maximum comfort year round,” Thomas Jefferson adds. “It is almost taboo to suggest people should do otherwise, so the focus instead must be thermal enclosures and mechanical systems that operate efficiently.

“I like to point out basically what you have described, that anyone can choose to use minimal climate control in whatever house they occupy if they just embrace the natural climate of the area,” Jefferson says. “Of course that’s easier to say if you live in a mild climate, as I have for many years.

Is cold air healthy for kids?

No doubt our forbears often lived in cold, drafty houses, and Collignon seems to be suggesting that intentionally subjecting young children to those conditions could make them sick.

Paul Brazelton wonders whether that assertion is backed up by anything more than the “common misconception” that low temperatures can induce colds. “I know the Dutch, Danes, and other Northern Europeans have their children nap outside year around, even as babies,” Brazelton writes. “I also know that the ‘normal’ temperature for a home (70°? 72°?) is a new concept, and that humans have lived and thrived for the vast majority of their time on this planet with wildly divergent temperature ranges.

“That nitpick aside,” he says, “I’m glad this is being discussed. Even without the benefits Maria enjoys with her current house, everyone could learn to lessen their impact by adapting to the season.”

Collignon actually offers his opinion based on the advice of two different pediatricians, who suggest keeping the temperature range between 70° and 74°F for the first six months of a child’s life.

And the debate could be more than academic, Jefferson says, “because it now appears likely that even in the USA we will fairly soon be re-learning to live with less energy, and less strict climate control would naturally follow. Maria’s original post describes some common sense methods of staying comfortable year round without much brute force from mechanical systems.”

From humble beginnings

John Brooks sees certain similarities between photos Hars posts of her house and the house that Holladay built in 1974, which he calls a passive solar “hippie house.” Holladay scavenged windows from the local dump, used old telephone poles for the foundation, and spent $9,000 on lumber, roofing and nails.

Hars’ 6,800-s.f. house, built by her father for $51 a square foot, incorporates quality materials and design, and veering off into a comparison of the two seems to be missing the point, she says. “I am asking you to design and build me a house that fits my lifestyle,” she says. “I am your client. I like my windows open, I love the sun, I love fresh air. Now listen to what I want and design & build around my wants and needs.”

Actually, says Brazelton, Hars’s question is getting answered, just not directly. All houses should be built to perform well, taking into account insulation, solar gain, siting and air quality, he writes. “If someone wants to open a window in the middle of winter, the house will still perform far better than an average mass-market one. If you want to use your heating or cooling system sparingly, even better! Your house uses less energy. Perhaps your preferences balance each other out?”

Our expert’s opinion

Here’s how GBA technical director Peter Yost sees it:

A couple of years ago I did a somewhat whimsical presentation for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) on the future of housing, or where housing might be in 2030. I prophesized three things: one, we would be living in much smaller spaces (or maybe mainly occupy a “core” in more extreme climates during those extremes); two, we would be looking for ways to “condition” (make comfortable) people or occupants instead of spaces; and three, number two would allow us to greatly relax temperature regimes in homes, letting them drift with outdoor conditions a heck of a lot more.

Another story: a colleague who has been in the awning industry for four generations told me how the introduction of central air conditioning killed the awning industry for many years. Cheap energy brought a mechanical solution to poor solar design, replacing a passive window attachment approach, like the awning.

You still need building science in high performance, well-designed, largely passive homes, but “homeostatic homes” (if there is no such term, I just coined it) make the science a lot tougher, for sure.

In short, I agree with Maria Hars: design homes right, relax your thermal comfort standards and/or increase your wardrobe flexibility, and your shade of green gets a lot deeper!

11 Comments

  1. John Brooks | | #1

    1974 "Hippie House"
    Martin,
    I think your 1974 house had "charm".....
    not exactly an extremely simple shape that you seem to encourage now-a-days.
    Now-a-days you seem to frown on dormers and "bump-outs"

    Is that an observation tower? A "crows-nest"? A ventilation chimney?
    What became of the house? Is it still standing?

    I think Albert Rooks was correct recently when he encouraged us to develop details that can accomodate the not-so-simple and the whimsical forms.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to John Brooks
    John,
    Yes, the house is still standing. Yes, it has charm. The tower is a whimsical feature. Visiting children seem delighted by the house, which has several ladders, lofts, and cubbyholes to play in.

  3. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #3

    Yes, green building is for everyone...
    Green Building, as in Sustainable, energy efficient and healthy building, is the way to go. I doesn’t matter what climate zone you live in; you need to practice passive solar design, tight envelope, good water and moisture management, efficient HVAC system and IAQ, sustainable and low VOC material selection, and good homeowner education and maintenance plan. Only then, if you like to live with windows and doors open and let the fresh air come in, you are doing so by choice.
    It’s worth noting that some folks choose to live mostly in a conditioned and filtered air, and others have respiratory problems and allergies that may prevent them from living “alfresco”. All those are considerations taken by good home designers and builders who work for individual clients or a spec. market.

  4. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #4

    Comfort range
    Check out Steve Mouzon's take on appropriate comfort ranges: http://www.originalgreen.org/blog/4---the-expanded-comfort.html I like the way he explains the concepts and range of human comfort and how he manages it personally. Similar to how Maria Hars does, and something I seek to do in my house. I am regularly amazed when I have my windows open on beautiful days to hear my neighbor's heat pump cranking away for much of the day.

  5. Frank R | | #5

    comfort range
    I am sorry, but the "expanded comfort range" blogs are just goofy. Yes there are people like Marie who like open windows and don't mind when it's 40 degree's in the house. People can survive in houses with low temperatures during the winter and high temperatures during the summer. However, the vast majority of people like COMFORT. The like it so much that they are willing to pay for it. They buy thermostats, air conditioning, radiant floor heating, etc...for COMFORT. If the real goal of GBA is to reduce energy usage for average folks, you will not convince them that wearing three sweaters is required to save energy. However, you can sell them on that fact that thick insulation, air sealing, triple pane window etc...won't just save energy, it will make them more comfortable. Selling comfort with energy savings will work.

    PS Maybe I am wrong but Marie's original question seemed a bit self serving. She lives in a 6,800 sqft house with a pool. If she really is intrested in being more green, she should subdivide the house and infill the pool....

  6. TJ Elder | | #6

    Agreeing with Peter Yost
    I agree that it makes sense to "condition" the people rather than the space, at least to some extent. Think about this for a second: you don't need a sweater to be 6" thick or 12" thick to stay warm in the winter. The reason it takes that much insulation to keep heat inside a house is the surface area is greater, and heat loss is proportional to surface area. Wearing a sweater (just 1/4" thick) keeps the heat where it's needed.

    I predict the attitude Mr. Robertson expressed (above) will fade away as energy becomes less available and people come to their senses about what it takes to enjoy life on this planet. It does not take thousands of gallons of heating oil to have a good life.

  7. Buildingwell .org | | #7

    Agree - Green Building (Living) Is For Everyone
    Certainly agree with Armando that green building (and more widely green living) is for everyone. Green building isn't specifically all the high-tech and building-tight new construction practices. It's the method of building, renovating and living in a more sustainable fashion that works with your locations and needs.

  8. Jack Woolfe | | #8

    cool house temperatures

    I am sorry, but the "expanded comfort range" blogs are just goofy. Yes there are people like Marie who like open windows and don't mind when it's 40 degree's in the house. People can survive in houses with low temperatures during the winter and high temperatures during the summer. However, the vast majority of people like COMFORT.

    I was told by someone who recently moved to New Zealand that it is very common for folks to have their houses heated only to 40 or 50 degrees F. Maybe a 70*F indoor temperature average is culturally determined, not some biological imperative? Or maybe Kiwis like wearing wool...

  9. Wendy Jackson | | #9

    Is Green Building for Everyone?
    The title of the article drew me in, but I lost it when I read that Maria's house is 6,800 square feet. Is she living in this enormous space by herself? Now I understand why she is puzzled by the movement to build greener to conserve energy and resources. I DO understand her need to have less precisely controlled indoor air. I have the same mindset. I love fresh air. That is part of why I chose carpentry as a career - I love the outdoors. Cold, hot, rainy, sunny - you'll find me outside doing stuff. It is beyond my understanding that people can live their lives in enclosed conditioned spaces. Where allergies or asthma are concerns, that's different.

    What really puzzles me is the fact that we attempt to tighten our houses and condition the air to the point that we must include mechanical fresh air exchangers. ??? What ever happened to opening a window?

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Wendy
    Wendy,
    You asked, "What ever happened to opening a window?" Opening a window works well when the temperature is above freezing. When it's 10 or 20 below zero,however -- not so well. At that point, all you are really doing is letting (expensively) heated air escape outdoors and putting your pipes in danger of freezing.

  11. Troy Farwell | | #11

    Vested Interest
    One thing to keep in mind - designers and engineers will always use design and engineering as the route to a good solution (I am one...). I see two movements, one positive, one negative:

    Positive: Working with the environment. Siting; orientation; utilizing passive methods. Also, the focus on good building practices is great. Lot's of great work here is going on by some smart people.

    Negative: Over-engineered, expensive systems (cost now and maintenance later); non-proven products; and a fair amount of hype. The people selling the new products, writing the articles, getting master's degrees in "green" have a vested interest in perpetuating a lot of this. I don't see it as all bad - they are trying to make a living. I have a vested interest in my industry - but the key point is I'm not pushing it as the moral high ground either. This, like all other industries and movements will have its scientist, prophets, martyrs, hucksters. It will also have it's fair share of goofiness (cold air is bad for your health, and the earth is flat).

    As for me, I have no desire to spend most of my time in conditioned spaces. My goofy belief is that it leads to both physical and metal health problems.

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