Pink is Green

Real Estate Agent with Healdsburg Sotheby's International Realty

Making It Right is a wonderful idea for rebuilding New Orleans Lower 9th Ward. The Pink Project's concept of building 150 eco friendly homes is a brilliant way to combine reconstruction with education about the planet's ecological and climate balance. The web site illustrates many specifics of the New Orleans design and appliance decisions. The designers made some very good choices for homes that have to be both affordable and sustainable. For today's market they are doing exactly the right thing.

On the other hand if money were no object my guidelines wouldn't change but my product and design choices would. My design principles include low energy use, low water use, low waste, local materials, and an effort to respect the site. The recent Solar Decathlon on the national mall featured dozens of entries that were all highly efficient and innovative. They proved that creating an energy efficient home is technically very realistic. I'm going to talk about five things I would do to make my building lovably sustainable.

Clerestory and overhangI would design from the top down. The roof is out of sight to people inside, but it is capable of generating more than enough electricity and hot water to power the house and heating systems. Smart roof design would also add daylighting and ventilation to encourage summer cooling. My preferred shape is about a 3 in 12 pitch roof with a clerestory at the ridge. The illustration on the left shows a classic passive solar roof layout with clerestory. My design would cover the south facing roof with a combination of photovoltaics, active solar water heating, and a few small skylights. Today's PV systems can reliably produce one peak kilowatt for each 100 square feet of panel. On even a modest sized house designed like the illlustration there would be room for at least 600 square feet of well-positioned panels resulting in peak power generation of 6 kilowatts, more than enough for residential use.

It's very important to solar perfomance to design an overhang above the clerestory that lets in winter sunlight deep into the building but blocks the sun in the summer. These pictures show the Zion Visitor Center

Seasons dictate the building envelope. Hawaii, Florida, and Louisiana all have great solar resources and residential needs for hot water and electricity. However, they don't have much call for massive wall insulation and triple windows to keep our blizzards and Arctic winds. The roof design would work anywhere in the world, but the insulation beneath it and the walls that hold it up have to be matched to the climate. In my part of northern California, I would use at least R-40 in the roof and R-19 in the walls. In Minnesota I would bump those up at least 50%.

Anasazi cliff dwellings as early passive solar designIn addition to the insulation levels that define how stingy your building is about giving up heat, the building envelope can have varying degrees of thermal mass. That's a term that refers to materials that work like batteries for heat (or cold).  Typical materials would be slab floors or concrete walls that are directly exposed to sunlight in the winter. They absorb heat while the sun is shining on them and give heat back during the night and evening. They are extremely useful for moderating temperature swings. People have been using thermal mass and passive solar energy intiuitively for thousands of years in places ranging from the Anasazi cliff dwellings to traditional adobe construction in the American southwest. 

The key difference between early architecture and today's designs is that we have figured out that insulation should be added outside the masonry rather than inside. Many of today's rigid foams are sustainably produced and serve as excellent thermal components of our building envelope. My "spare no expense" house is going to have reinforced concrete faced with stone and thick concrete block/stucco in areas where I want a more traditional plaster appearance. These thick walls will be covered with 4 inches of polyisocyanurate foam which will be covered with stucco. The overall wall assemly will be between ten and 12 inches thick, earthquake and fire resistant, and immensely quiet and stable in temperature. Almost all the materials can be locally produced. If I was building in a more tropical area, I would opt for walls with less insulation, limited thermal mass, and much more ventialation designed into the building.


The floor closes the shell Once we have something to stand on we will have completed, in reverse, the construction process for a house. I like a softer floor than I can get with a slab and I like running plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. in the ample crawl space under the ground floor. I'm going with an R-19 insulated floor assembly built with Trus-joists and plywood or OSB. All of these materials make use of smaller and waste lumber that is more typical of our third and fourth generation forests. If you want a VOC or formaldehyde free house you could look for alternative plywoods that feature less outgassing.

Graphic of wood as a green resource from The Athena Institute

Wood as sustainable

Windows and doors open the shell to the world. I'm a traditionalist with windows. I like standard casements, double hung windows, awning windows, and operable skylights. I am fond of the look and feel of wood windows and would probably go with whichever of Pella, Anderson, Marvin, etc. I could find most readily in my area. I have made my own windows before and it's way too much work.

So, to recap, the first five things I would design into my sustainable dream house if money were no object.

1. A great roof design with extensive photovoltaic system
2. Thermal mass of aesthetic delight throughout the building
3. High levels of insulation at roof, walls, and floor.
4. Raised wood floor with easy access for upgrading building utility systems.
5. Great operable windows, doors, and skylights.



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Diane Aurit
LKN Realty, LLC - Mooresville, NC
Lake Norman Real Estate

Congratulations and well deserved!  I have learned so much by reading posts like yours!

Dec 21, 2007 12:27 AM #10
Michael Eisenberg
eXp Realty - Bellingham, WA
Bellingham Real Estate Guy
Great job Dave, intelligent design is what it is all about and yours is
Dec 21, 2007 03:50 AM #11
Angie Vandenbergh
Crye-Leike, Realtors - Memphis, TN
A Crye-Leike Blogger
congratulations on placing 1st place in the contest with this post. Good information here.
Dec 21, 2007 04:44 AM #12
Lane Bailey
Century 21 Results Realty - Suwanee, GA
Realtor & Car Guy
Congrats on the win.  You have a very detailed post and excellent ideas.  So, when are you going to build it... or did you?
Dec 21, 2007 06:13 AM #13
Mary McGraw
GLREA - Rockford, MI
2015: Solar Energy Is Still A Simple Machine!
Congrats Dave! I love your post. Your idea of designing from the top down is terrific! You have added to my knowledge base! I can't wait to learn more from you!
Dec 21, 2007 06:59 AM #14
Dena Stevens
Rocky Mountain Realty - Canon City, CO
Putting The Real Into Realtor Since 2004
Great job!
Dec 21, 2007 07:04 AM #15
Joan Whitebook
BHG The Masiello Group - Nashua, NH
Consumer Focused Real Estate Services
Dave - congratulations on your first place win!  This looks like a wonderful plan for a home!
Dec 21, 2007 01:02 PM #16
Bonnie & Terry Westbrook
Westbrook Realty - Ada, MI
Grand Rapids MI Real Estate
Congrats Dave on winnng the contest - your entry certainly deserved to win with the top down planning and many details. I'm bookmarking this for further study.
Dec 21, 2007 03:01 PM #17
Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089
Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers - Haiku, HI
Maui Real Estate sales and lifestyle info

Hi Dave, congratulations on your entry.  It sounds like we're on the sane track as far as green housing goes.

Happy Holidays!

Dec 21, 2007 04:49 PM #18
Dave Roberts
Healdsburg Sotheby's International Realty - Healdsburg, CA

Thanks everyone for your kind comments. Your support and encouragement are what make ActiveRain such a great site to participate in. For those who are curious, I have built homes like this. Using high levels of insulation and thermal mass a home can stay comfortable year round with very little heating and cooling. Our daily activities of cooking, bathing, laundry, etc. generate plenty of heat to warm a house in moderate climates. I'm in Northern California where we rarely freeze in the winter and cool off every night in the summer. It's a different story in other parts of the country.

One of the biggest challenges for builders is working in hot and humid climates where shading and ventilation alone don't do enough to make houses comfortable by today's standards. Obviously plenty of people lived in Atlanta and New Orleans and Houston before house cooling was common, but they suffered through the summer. Making matters worse, the Heat Island effect created by paved roads and parking lots combined with energy use has made metropolises like Atlanta up to 7 degrees warmer than the surrounding areas. If you add a couple of degrees of global warming on top of that, we're dealing with temperatures ten degrees hotter than our early 1900 ancestors. That's a real green challenge.

Dec 21, 2007 04:50 PM #19
Jim Dunlap
Roberts Realty - Yucca Valley, CA
A very good insight to progressive building designs.
Dec 24, 2007 03:55 AM #21
Anthony Saunchez
Campa Properties - San Bernardino, CA
How can we be of service
Love this post and congratulations. I have always been fascinated by solar and other forms of alternative energy.  
Dec 24, 2007 04:37 AM #22
Karen Anne Stone
New Home Hunters of Fort Worth and Tarrant County - Fort Worth, TX
Fort Worth Real Estate
Hi Dave:  Thanks for sharing this extremely well thought-out post with us.  Lots and lots of really great information and ideas.  If only more people would use this information to save energy, so much energy could be saved.  Thanks again, and have a Merry Christmas !
Dec 24, 2007 04:46 PM #23
Wayne B. Pruner
Oregon First - Tigard, OR
Tigard Oregon Homes for Sale, Realtor, GRI
This is a worthy effort. I hope it does the area some good.
Dec 25, 2007 08:10 AM #24
Diane Bell, Hilton Head Real Estate, Bluffton
Charter 1 Real Estate, Hilton Head, Bluffton, SC - Hilton Head Island, SC

While I don't really understand the mechanics of this type of building, sure makes sense to me to be eco friendly.  I've followed Brad Pitt on television and certainly respect his endeavors.  Now if more celebrities would spread the wealth, wouldn't that make a huge difference!


Dec 25, 2007 10:05 AM #25
Dave Roberts
Healdsburg Sotheby's International Realty - Healdsburg, CA
Diane, what has always intrigued me about energy efficient building is that our ancestors knew all about this and designed for climates and specific locations. It's only with the coming of "cheap" energy that we started forgetting about the lessons our society has always known. One example I like is today's cool roof. It's basically a light colored roof designed to avoid heat buildup when the sun is overhead. Builders in hot climates like Florida were using white roofs up until the fifties when cheap air conditioning made it easy to cool a house without thinking about design. Most of the energy efficiency principles are plain common sense. 
Dec 25, 2007 03:01 PM #26
Eva Armstrong
Environmental Visions - Tallahassee, FL
Environmental Visions

Dave - great post!  Well thought out - detailed and makes sense!  Congratulations!  I hope you get to build this dream house some day!

Dec 26, 2007 10:10 PM #27
Joe Cline
Affinity Properties, Inc - Austin, TX
great post! As a relative newbie to green building can you recommend some resources where I can do some research about building and living green? I've got a few books coming from Amazon, but I'd love to know what resources you think highly of. 
Dec 28, 2007 09:09 AM #28
"Tommy" Decebal
HomeSpector Inc. 516-851-5833 - Farmingdale, NY
Adamescu Long Island NY MASTER Home Inspector

Wishing You HAPPY HOLIDAYS and Best Wishes for A GREAT YEAR 2008.

New York Certified Home Inspector Long Island NY Tommy   Nassau/Suffolk/Queens Home Inspections
Dec 28, 2007 03:01 PM #29
Dave Roberts
Healdsburg Sotheby's International Realty - Healdsburg, CA

Joe, that's a great question that catches me without a great answer. I've been in this field for so long that I have lost track of good resources for someone just starting out. It's a great idea for a longer post and I'll try to get to that in the next week or so. In the meantime, a useful way for you to think about the field as a whole is to look at some of the categories and let your natural interests help figure out whta to study first.

Some of the logical topics are:

1. Designing and building to use less energy.

2. Choosing building materials that require less energy to manufacture, are recyclable at the end of their natural life, and don't deplete key resources in their production.

3. Living green would include shopping for local products, reducing automobile and energy usage, and trying to conserve water.

Within each of those three areas are many detailed topics like organic gardening, grey water design and use, etc. Doing a google search on any of these topics will bring up many, many resources that will get you started. I'm delighted that you are getting involved and look forward to sharing more thoughts on this in the future.

Dec 28, 2007 05:53 PM #30
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