Little Green Houses For You And Me
September 27, 2019 11:28 AM   Subscribe

"In a theoretical Green New Deal, both zero-energy and passive-house standards could be implemented to ensure that all new construction would be ecologically sustainable. Advancements in architectural thinking and building construction—limiting the use of unsustainable, energy inefficient, and carbon-intensive building materials such as glass curtain walls, concrete, and building materials derived from petroleum, and increasing the use of consumer technologies like composting toilets—could further reduce architecture’s carbon footprint. Architecture already has the means and technology to make this happen. It also happens that the results look good." How A Green New Deal Could Transform Our Homes (Curbed)
posted by The Whelk (14 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Stemming the tide of climate change requires systemic action; it can’t be done just by omitting the straws at restaurants or carrying a tote bag.

I wish they would leave jerky comments like this out. I mean, unless you mean you are going to literally bulldoze every single home and glass curtained office already built to meet your climate goals. I mean the US is currently building 1 million single family houses (the ones with lawns/ etc) a year, 75 million are already in existence. That's a lot of re-purposing, and not everyone who owns a home wants to be a victory gardener.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:46 AM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

But I think that you can have systemic action without bulldozing people's houses, and they reference some of that already. Sure, developers are still building single-family homes, but local governments are taking steps to create that systemic action to the extent they can without federal (and sometimes state) support. San Jose just banned natural gas lines in new construction. Localities can require LEED certification or other qualities in new office buildings. Office buildings are forever going up and coming down; making forward-facing differences in that construction will make a difference.

On a more personal note, I'm really excited about this kind of thing because bowties spouse and I just bought a single-family home. We really tried not to. We wanted a condo, but (at least in the overheated DC-area market) they aren't financially viable or sensible around here - $600/month in condo fees was on the LOW end of what we looked at. So, we got an old house near a train station in a streetcar suburb, and are beginning the long, slow, agonizing process of getting it off of natural gas, insulating it, retrofitting it with modern windows, and replacing the turf lawn with rain garden and native habitat to reduce storm runoff and support pollinators and birds.

We're really lucky, because our city specifically supports these activities through permissive ordinances and some subsidies/refunds, and our state allows us to get all of our electricity from 100% renewable sources, but even if it was less convenient we'd be doing the same. No, windows and weatherstripping and getting rid of our gas furnace aren't going to singlehandedly slow climate change, but we're comfortably middle-class and feel like if we can do things like rely on transit 90% of the time and reduce our home's overall carbon footprint (and frankly, comfort level - I've lived in some DRAFTY apartments), we should. Especially because so many other people can't. We need big structural change. In the meantime, I'm trying to walk the talk as much as I can manage.

I can't wait to see more places update their building codes to mandate sensible, energy-efficient architecture and building methods.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 12:03 PM on September 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

This article needs a lot more meat on its bones. Some thoughts I had while reading it:

1. Not everyone is going to want to live in multifamily units closer to the city; those that won't will still need cars and still want to put them in garages. So we won't be getting rid of "snout houses" across the board.

2. You don't have to have a veggie garden. This Old House just had an episode featuring microclover, which is a nice, aesthetically pleasing, nitrogen-fixing alternative to grass. Other options; native plants only or butterfly/pollinator gardens. And a compost pile in back.

3. Have composting toilets come that far? Last I heard, they were still pretty unpleasant to deal with. Would be nice to get there eventually though.

4. Rain barrel/gutter systems.

I want to buy or build a house that is energy-efficient. It doesn't have to be zero anything, I just want it to not leak heat like a sieve or waste water, work well with the local geography/weather, and be surrounded by native plants. I want that to be the norm, not a weird affectation.
posted by emjaybee at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

If what you care about is carbon emissions, I get that electric heat is cleaner than gas heat. But it’s way more expensive, and if your city buys their electricity from the coal-burning TVA, then it’s much less clean to burn coal at 30-40% to turn it into electricity to then turn into heat than it is to burn natural gas at 80-90% to turn directly into heat.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:16 PM on September 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

building-code-mandated composting toilets seems like an absolute nightmare, a perfect republican talking point. especially in parts of the country that have plentiful water.

it seems like most green construction techniques would improve quality of life for the people living in the buildings — it’s just that they cost more than the cheapest possible options. seems better to focus on mandating these in my view.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:03 PM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Electric heating should mean heat pumps which turn 1 kWh of electricity into 3-5 kWh of heat transferred in (or out). But to be practical, the house must be properly insulated first.
posted by anthill at 1:11 PM on September 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

if your city buys their electricity from the coal-burning TVA, then it’s much less clean to burn coal at 30-40% to turn it into electricity to then turn into heat than it is to burn natural gas at 80-90% to turn directly into heat.

The great thing about electrification is that once you've done it, your house gets greener as fast as the electricity company does, at no extra cost. Investing in new natural gas infrastructure, on the other hand, creates both demand for more fossil fuels directly, and it creates an extra expense and barrier that must be cleared later.

Electrify Everything:
Electrical grids are giant levers that can move the environmental needle on hundreds of millions of distributed technologies at once. Every device, appliance, or vehicle that runs on electricity benefits from the grid’s every incremental improvement.

With a tech that runs on liquid fuels, the only opportunity to reduce carbon emissions is at the end of the lifecycle, when it is replaced. With tech that runs on electricity, improvement is continuous — and far, far faster.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:17 PM on September 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Ah, good call on the heat pumps. That appears to make it much closer (often even better) depending on region. I had looked at the energy cost when I was looking at electric zone heating, which doesn’t have the same efficiency.

So, uh, never mind.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:19 PM on September 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

This last year, I've gotten solar panels and a geothermal heating/cooling system (replacing a very old oil boiler and no AC at all). When I have the money, I need to reinsulate the whole house.

As for what to do with the two acre yard, we're still taking stock (we like to maintain space from people). We plan at the very least to surround the parameter with fruit and nut trees and bushes. We're still taking stock of the options.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 2:28 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

There's significant low-hanging fruit in retrofitting existing housing, beyond the typical blowing in insulation and double glazed windows.

For example, got a room that you would not mind being 1 foot smaller? Drop in an interior straw bale wall in front of the exterior wall. This will double or triple the insulation of that wall at least; some estimate more like 6x more insulation. Also a box of a room can gain natural curves, window nooks, etc.

I've seen this done in a 100% passive solar house that used this to bypass all the mess around building codes, since it's built to code just with straw bale inside.

Another one, if you have a room that gets too much sun in summer, grow a grape arbor above the window, to naturally block sun entry in summer and let the sun through in winter. Maybe add some thermal mass where the sun reaches, if the building structure allows.
posted by joeyh at 3:57 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

New home regulations in Australia are pretty strict in this regard - all new homes go through energy efficiency modeling to calculate the total energy (kWh) of heating / cooling energy it would require to maintain a habitable temperature through the year, and the home can only get approval if it hits 6 stars out of 10. The stars are on an exponential scale - each star increase halves the energy requirement. So a 7 star home will need half as much energy as a 6 star home. The modeling takes into account material use, angle of sun and shading, location and size of windows, wall / roof / foundation insulation.

Apparently almost all homes built before 1990 score 1 star on this scale. I managed to get my build up to 7.5 stars.

All new homes also mandate that you use non-potable water for toilets and garden use - definitely no drinking water for those - and encourage you to also use non potable water for laundry.
posted by xdvesper at 7:45 PM on September 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Doesn't look really exponential according to Wikipedia, xdvesper. I'd call that political exponential.

The US has an Energy Star building rating that's based on the median energy use of buildings of a type across the country. Amazingly, there is no available number for a single family home, but for an apartment the median is 60 kBtu/ft^2, less than 1 star on the australian scale.

My earth-sheltered, passive solar heated + quarter cord firewood/year house with single pane (salvaged) windows is 1/10th the US median apartment energy use. It was constructed in the mid 90's.

My feeling is I could get it down to half the wood with double glazed windows. But I'm planning to try insulated Kume curtains this winter, which might be almost as good.
posted by joeyh at 8:48 PM on September 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I lived in Massachusetts we double-insulated our house and installed an ultra-efficient tankless boiler. Every single contractor we dealt with along the way tried to convince us to do things the dirty, cheap, "easy" way. It sucked.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:30 AM on September 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

One (tentative, in progress) success story of US government emissions control regulation is the EPA's high efficiency wood stove initiative. You would think that big government coming into Kentucky valleys and banning the sale of inexpensive wood stoves would feed the routine reactionaries. The usual suspects tried to raise shit, but it hasn't taken off, maybe because:

1) chopping and hauling wood is hard work so if a stove uses 30% fewer cords for the same heat, it's obviously better
2) 'rolling log' smoke out your chimney isn't a sign of fuck-you masculinity, it's a sign you don't know how to make a fire
3) wood smoke haze filling mountain valleys is locally toxic so it's cities/counties that are leading the way.

Unfortunately this doesn't apply to oil and cars... but, like acid rain, it is something to point to for past (and in progress) successes.
posted by anthill at 12:10 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

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