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!