First published 9/17/15
Building a highly efficient ‘green’ home is something that I thought about for many years before it actually happened. I never formally studied architecture or building science, but I dabbled in researching the topic for a decade. I remember that I was absolutely inspired when I first came across some of the designs for highly efficient homes from the 70’s, especially some of the passive solar designs of that time. There were terms like Trombe walls, usage of large water tanks for thermal mass, ‘earthships’ with greenhouses inside the home, and more. There was a great deal of experimentation going on in building innovative and green homes for the future, with the hope of drastically reducing the amount of energy that it takes to both build and run a home. This experimentation really was necessary, because as I read further, I came across the critiques of all of the things that didn’t work, causing things such as mold and massive overheating in the summer. While there were a lot of interesting ideas here, clearly I was going to need further inspiration elsewhere. And I did go on to find further work on passive solar design done much more recently, that has distilled out some of the best design principles to take advantage of that free energy source, the sun.
More recently, I came across Passive House, another green building design philosophy that focused almost exclusively on reducing the amount of energy used in a building (Passivhaus in its original German). By focusing on energy reduction, the building envelope becomes the prime target. Massive amounts of insulation, compact shapes with a minimum of surface area, triple-paned windows, high airtightness, these are the things that allow heating (and air conditioning) loads to go way down, and as I read in multiple places, a house that can be heated by only a hair dryer. As for electrical loads, there are now efficient appliances and mechanical systems that, in conjunction with a well built shell, bring a certified passive house down to as little as 10% of the energy use of a typical home.
The third major strand that we needed to bring together for our project was renewable energy, so that we could build a home that was off of the grid. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on your perspective), the property that we fell in love with was very far off the beaten track, so far off that it would have been prohibitively expensive to bring in power lines. It was both going to be cheaper, and much more interesting for me, to build a home that was completely off of the grid. Today is a very exciting time for renewable energy, with solar panels dropping precipitously in price, new types of batteries just becoming available that are more powerful and reliable as well as less expensive than those that came before. I am not alone in thinking that renewable energy is the future, and it is quite a ride to see that future arriving and to be a part of it.
Finally, there was the architectural style to consider. It is possible to build an efficient home in any style that allows for a relatively compact building shape, and I was drawn in particular to some of the contemporary styles. I have seen a certain style of home described in some places as “contemporary mountain” that have stylistic elements that we drew from, including a single pitched shed roof, deep overhangs, use of lots of larger dimension wood, and a close alignment to natural surroundings. My impression is that this style is currently most popular in the Pacific Northwest. I’d say that the single home that provided the greatest inspiration for style came from Nils Finne of Finne Architects, and a home that he built on the shore of Lake Superior.