Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cape Wind Gets Approval from the Federal Government

I read today in my local paper the Cape Wind Project gained approval from the Feds to proceed off Cape Cod. I understand there was immediate threats of lawsuits and further action. I hope this gets sorted out and this project can proceed. My guess, if this can happen, it will be helpful for other projects where clean energy, aesthetics, passion and a myriad of other issues come together. Of course, as they say in tight competitons, it's not over until it's over. Read more about it at CNET. Let me know what you think about this decision. See also the newscast found on YouTube.

It resonates close to home for me as I live in Vermont amidst a beautiful, scenic landscape with many oppourtunities for wind and solar energy and lots of challenges as well. All I want is to retain the historic, quirky character of this wonderful state while keeping our eyes and minds open to the realities of needing to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and see alternatives in the clean energy economy. I'm not sure how to get it done but examples like Cape Wind at least offers hope the conversation is continuing to the next step. This I believe benefits us all.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Downsizing Options_The Real Goods Solar Home

What kind of house can you afford when you retire and want to have more predictability in your monthly expenses when living on a fixed income? Do you remain in your rambling family home with its many bedrooms to be used by your now adult children and their family only occasionally? Do you really need that 3,000 or 4,000 square foot home any more? Can you afford to heat it when you can't predict what fuel oil, natural gas or propane will cost next year or five years from now?

A strategy many empty-nesters often consider is downsizing perhaps to an efficiently laid out 1 to 2 bedroom cottage like home. One way to make your monthly expenses more predictable is to yes move to a smaller home but on top of that consider a small highly energy efficient green home, whether built new or gently used and renovated to green standards helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. By moving up to small you will help your bottom line over the long term. Another aspect of this is moving from car dominated suburbs to the more pedestrian oriented communities. Having access to downtowns with their mix of services, people and resources is kinder to environment as well and often goes hand in hand with other strong communities.

One company filling this need for a small, affordable built new modular or plan home is Real Goods Solar Living from Boulder Colorado. As well as offering renewable energy systems for homeowners to add to their homes it now offers a solar kit home which comes in 1 and 2 bedroom sizes with various Solar electric system options, whether on the grid or off the grid. It also offer energy star appliances and an option for a composting toilet along with low-water use fixtures. The homes offer single level living within an extremely compact floor plan, essentially a 27' x 40' box. You can view more about their offerings at the product ordering part of the site. You can order it systems built which I understand as being modularized into distinct field assembled components or you can order architectural plans to modify with your own architect and builder.
From my perspective, The Real Goods Solar Home solution offers a great choice for homeowners looking to downsize, or build a first home with plans for future additions etc. Many companies offer this kind of solution like this though and I'll mention them in future posts. However, when considering buying a home like this it is important to examine the details. One area which concerns me is making sure to optimize or right size the level of building insulation, heating system and specifying the right amount of PV's to fill your solar electric and solar hot water needs.

I feel the level of insulation in the Real Goods home doesn't go far enough. The R-21 walls, R-49 ceiling and code compliant flooring insulation might be great for Colorado but they don't really help homeowners in colder climates like ours in the Northeast. In comparison other's such as Building Science Corporation recommend higher levels of insulation to further lower energy loads. See the Building Science Corporation's website for their recommendations and a little more about the European Passiv Haus an even more super insulated home concept.

"The Typical BSC low-energy home uses a minimum of r-5 (U=0.2) windows (triple glazed, low-e, warm edge spacers), R-10 sub slab insulation, and R-20 wall insulation in a conditioned basement, R-40 above-grade walls and R-60 ceilings (The "5/10/20/40/60" approach)." Both the BSC Low-Energy House and the Passiv Haus have higher insulation standards the Real Goods Solar Home, especially relevant in the cold climate region of the northeastern US. Perhaps the Real Goods folks could offer a Version 2.0 for our climate up here in Vermont.

From a practical viewpoint, installing more insulation further reduces the size of the heating system needed and the amount of PV's to provide solar electricity and hot water. PV's are expensive equipment to buy whether building new or renovating. Adding insulation isn't terribly glamorous and while largely invisible it is a more affordable choice helping to lower overall energy costs to the homeowner and optimize building systems and hopefully reduce first costs of construction and equipment. This process is called integrated building design. It takes collaboration and a willingness to work together to achieve homeowner's goals.

Please be aware buying a set of plans to build your own or a systems built home to assemble on site is only part of the story. Real Goods provides a online brochure which points out the home will generally cost up to $200,000 before purchasing land. But be wary of focusing too closely on this amount as every homeowner's situation is highly variable.

See The brochure identifies all of the other variables which go into building a new home, especially this kind of home. No kidding, there is a ton of complexity in building a low-energy renewably powered home. This complexity is the reason why it's important to work with an architect and a builder and their team of sub-contractors and consultants. It will pay off to you in many tangible and intangible ways.

Regardless, it is important to note how important it is for the building industry and the mainstreaming of the Green Movement to have companies like Real Goods offer the saavy green focused homeowner a turnkey concept like this with an eye to more predictable long term energy costs and reducing ecological impacts. Thanks Real Goods for offering consumers your Solar Home! And if you ask them about wanting additional insulation, I'm sure they'll at least talk with you about it.

(images are courtesy from the Real Goods Website to provide visual support to this post)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Water and renewal_On memories, architecture and biophilia

One of my favorite memories as a young man was the day I went fishing with friends in Walden, VT. We found a small trout stream and went to various places on it looking for the perfect fishing hole. It was a warm sunny summer day. The place I found vividly remains in my memory. The stream was about 10' wide and was covered in a shadowy canopy of trees offering comfort from the hot sun. You could feel the coolness of the running water and hear it burbling over rocks, fallen trees and the like. You could see trout rising to the surface nibbling on flies, rippling the water with concentric waves. After a while I lay down on my belly, setting my rod to the side and just watched and listened in a reverie of sorts. This randomly found place fully engaged my senses and feelings of wonder where at one point the hair on the back of my neck raised up in response.

Years later I have come to understand this experience as a turning point of my life and an awakening of a deep set recognition of the importance of nature and her living systems. There is even a term for it, Biophilia. EO Wilson developed a theory called the Biophilia Hypothesis, which suggests there is strong link between human beings and living systems. That there is an innate preference for things in and of nature by humans. I have come to believe there is a strong connection between harnessing natural forces and creating memorable, lasting architectural experiences. They work hand in hand to strengthen and enhance a sense of place and a lasting connection to those whom experience it. And often, quite sadly, this sense of connection is missing in our daily lives.

In the buildings and places I have been part of designing with our team and our clients we have sought to bring the out of doors indoors, bringing the kinesthetic, sensual experiences of living systems into the everyday shelter of our homes, our worklives, our places of play and community.

This stream side moment long ago was just such an experience of Biophilia. This moment of immersion speaks to the trans formative power of water and the place it has in our lives. We come from water at birth and water is fully part of our lives thereafter. This stream formed an outdoor room providing a deep sense of shelter, it activated my senses of sight, sound and touch and smell. The earthy loam of the soil, moist to the touch combined with the rough hardness of stream side stones and smell of the moss and fragrances of plants created a total kinesthetic experience. Bringing people in touch with their senses as I experienced along the stream offers a a path to follow or a potent example of biophilia to foster memorable and long-lasting experiences of place and space.

EO Wilson's Biophilia Center at Nokuse Plantation offers a nature center experience attempting to harness the theories he's developed over his career creating a physical, transcendent multi-faceted example for generations to come. Here's fourth grader's teacher's testimonial after visiting.

""Without this Center our students would not have had these chances to open their minds and spirits to nature in the most up close and spectacular ways. Just listening to their conversations sparked by these opportunities I can tell you that lives are changed. Our students are passionate about the world in which they live and for which they will, one day, be responsible. It has been a priceless time for them and one that will have far-reaching benefits for many.”

- Anna Hull, Patronis Elementary Fourth Grade Teacher

Need I say more.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Green Building Advocates in Philly_Expanding Green

I read this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about green building advocates in Philly and the continuing buzz about efforts there to bring sustainability more in the forefront of doing business rather than the background. As we head further into spring and the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Earth day it's good news to read about the continued growth in the green movement in nearby cities and communities.

Given our Vermont perspective of small is beautiful and unique, it's important to be reminded there's a much larger world out there than what we see here in our verdant green mountains. It's large, messy and in trouble. It's easy to fall into a myopic mindset thinking and conceiving of only the scale we know here in Northern New England. It's important to expand our thinking to scales beyond our own frame of day to day understanding.

It's great to read about the large commercial real estate properties being affected for the positive by going "green" and how its starting to figure into corporate bottom lines, PR and Marketing. Maybe there is something we can learn from each other, small cities to large and vice versa? I know Vermont has been an early adopter of many aspects of the green movement but we can't rest on our laurels and extend our impact without expanding the conversation and learning from other efforts elsewhere.

Please check this article out and let me know if this has any impact on you?