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My Green House

As published in the Edible Ojai - Spring Issue 2008

You can't turn your head these days without seeing some hot young star on the cover of a magazine touting their green lifestyle.  Al Gore's got his movie.  Oprah will tell you how to live green.  I think Demi Moore is green.  But WHAT does all this mean?    

Whether you believe in global warming or a looming oil crisis, no one can tell me the world isn't a dirtier place than it was 50 years ago when I was born.  Population has boomed from 3 B to 6 B.  We use more stuff and throw away the trash.  The built environment - homes and commercial buildings are a huge part of the waste cycle - not only the resources used to build and remodel but the energy used to heat, cool and electrify them.   So as far as I am concerned, any way I can contribute to building a home that uses less energy to build, less energy to operate and promotes a healthy, less toxic lifestyle, the better.

California homes drive me nuts! 
Here in one of the finest climates in the world, our homes don't take advantage of it.  Watching the kids play soccer one Saturday morning in the blazing Ojai sun, I turned to my wife and said what's wrong with that picture.  The line of homes behind the soccer field - typical of the 50's - 70's track homes - all had black roofs!  Black roofs - how much sense does that make in the hot sunshine of southern California?  All those attic spaces - most likely un insulated - are heating up to 160 degrees - ready to heat the homes through the night! And how do we handle that? Crank up the AC!  God bless cheap man made energy!  

I have been fascinated with building since I was a kid.  Working as a custom home builder for over 25 years, I have built Craftsman, Cape Cod, Tudor, Spanish, “Traditional” (whatever that means), and many other styles.   When my wife and I decided to build a house in Ojai, all kinds of ideas had been incubating in my head for years.   Green building, to me, means building a house that works with its environment versus a particular architectural style.   An igloo or a log cabin was originally conceived as an environmental response.  Many of the types of homes I have built were designed in a particular architectural style rather than as a response to the environment.   We wanted to build a home that worked with our environment and was pleasing to us without using a historical style.

What works for a home in Ojai? It's hot! A lot! It's also pretty cold for a few nights and when we do get rain we get lots of it.  Our land has beautiful mountain views and a regular breeze moving up the hillside from the south west.  We want to take advantage of the California sun for making our own energy.  We want a comfortably warm house on those cold nights and shelter from the hot sun for the rest of the time.  We want to conserve water and energy.

Probably the most important "green" consideration for a new home is the orientation on the site.   Once set in stone - so to speak - a house opens itself to the rise and set of the sun, the direction of the prevailing breezes and flow of the water.    "Passive solar design" suggests placing the long side of a house on an east west axis, allowing appropriate roof overhangs to shade the hot summer sun while letting the low angle of the winter sun come into the house.  The sun can also be used to naturally light a house instead of electric lights.  Prevailing breezes can cool a house in the summer or freeze it in the winter.  A narrow house can allow both light and air to flow through whereas a wider house might require more energy to light and ventilate.  Water flow both from the site and the concentrated water from roof drainage can either be used effectively to irrigate the land and replenish the water table or be flushed out to sea collecting street pollutants along the way. 

Our home started as a simple 20 x 60 foot rectangle set approximately 35 degrees off due north.  Not following the conventional east west philosophy, this angle allowed us to shield the western side of the house a bit better during the peak hot times in the afternoon.  Ojai sun rises a little later (due to the mountains) and temperatures peak after noon.  A fabulous view of Chief Peak also fit into the plan.  The single plane of a shed roof (a single slope in one direction versus a gable roof that has two slopes to a peak) with its silver colored standing seam metal covering, reflects the heat of the sun.  And, it provides an excellent place for solar panels.  On the interior of the house, this shape also allows high windows on the north side of the house to draw hot air out through the convection created by hot air rising.

The house looks big!  Partly because of the big open sided shed roof which also covers an exterior deck area, but also at 3300 square feet, it is large.  Most would say a smaller home is greener, but by using two stories the footprint (size of the space where the house touches the ground) is half the size of an equivalent one story home.  This conserves resources by using half the concrete and roofing material as the same size single story house.   The smaller footprint also disturbs less of the existing ground - less excavation - less embodied energy.

Solar Panels
We utilizes both solar electric and hot water panels.  Our California sun provides excellent opportunity for taking advantage of this source of clean energy.  The "photovoltaic" panels convert sunlight to electricity and the hot water panels heat water for household use as well as heating the floors.  Both of these technologies are quite simple in concept.

Heating and Cooling
We use both "passive" and "active" design to heat and cool.  Our "cool roof" design keeps the heat from transferring into the house while the R 30 insulation keeps the cool or warm air in.  Extended overhangs also shelter us from too much heat gain in the summer months.  And, the air flowing through the house also keeps us cool.  By building the house on a concrete slab, we are able to include radiant heat (tubes carrying a heated liquid) in the floor.  By hooking this system up to the solar hot water panels, we utilize the sun's power to heat the house in the winter.  When the radiant is not in use, the concrete floors provide a cool thermal mass that helps cool the house.  Additionally, for those over 100 degree days, we added air conditioning.  But instead of conventional air conditioning, we are using a high efficiency, mini split system.  This system developed in Japan, individually cools or heats each room, which itself is efficient because most systems are set up to cool/heat a whole house.

To use water efficiently, we are using several different techniques.  All of our plumbing fixtures have low flow heads and aerators which are common.  The new toilets in our house are “Two Button,” developed to use half the water for #1 as for #2 - so to speak!  We store rain water in tanks and use beams in the landscape to retain the storm water from running to the street.

Most importantly we used natural day lighting – which of course uses no man made energy – by having windows on at least two sides of each room.  This also fits into the natural ventilation plan.  Additionally we are using LED lights which go a step beyond fluorescent lights.  A 60 watt incandescent bulb (typical light bulb) lasts about 1000 hours and uses 65% more electricity than a comparable fluorescent which lasts 10,000 hours.  An LED bulb can use 80 - 90% less electricity than an incandescent bulb and can lasts 100,000 hours.  That's 4166 days for an LED vs. 42 days for an incandescent bulb.  LED lighting fixtures are just starting to become available for residential use.  Currently used for street traffic lights, commercial signage and other uses, these lights have been around a long time but haven’t reached the homeowner market.

What's not green !
A project can always be "greener."  We could have used FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood from responsibly managed forests.  We could have built a straw bale house ... the list goes on. 

Most people building a custom home get so overwhelmed with the plans, permits and building complications, that early green intentions get dropped pretty quickly.  It's important to key on at least a couple of items.  Even a simple green plan can be effective.





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