Sustainable building

After the previous couple of books on the sustainability crisis I picked two books dealing with the same general topic on a highly individual level, yet in a field that is responsible for as much as 40% of the global greenhouse emissions: buildings. Now, I would at some point love to build a sustainable, comfortable and durable home for our family (after deciding on some minor details such as what country to build in ;)) so it was time to dig deeper into the terrain and learn a little bit more about construction.

As the first resource, I chose Green from the Ground Up: Sustainable, Healthy, and Energy-Efficient Home Construction (a builder’s guide)” by David Johnston & Scott Gibson. It proved to be an excellent in-depth introduction into the topic, covering a wide range of topics from the basics of efficiency and thermodynamics to all aspects of a house from the foundations to landscaping. It packs a whole lot of good insights and information into its 300+ pages.

It very quickly becomes apparent that most buildings built during the age of cheap energy are, to put it simply, built very badly. Not only does it make no sense for houses to look the same everywhere despite climatic differences, but just about every aspect of your typical, run-of-the-mill house is, to a greater or lesser degree, flawed.

The bad news? All this means having things such as unnecessarily high (and increasing) heating & cooling costs, poor indoor air quality and buildings that are not durable. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be like that – we know how to build good, comfortable, healthy, and sustainable homes that don’t break the bank. One just needs to put some effort into not taking the path of least resistance – a path that is often justified simply by the much-too-common phrase of “this is how we always do this”, conveniently neglecting to notice that in fact the poor building practices are a relatively recent phenomenon.

As Green from the Ground Up is a relatively US-focused book, I thought it’d be good to get some local Australian perspective into things as well. This led me to another excellent publication, Your Home: Technical Manual – Australia’s Guide to Environmentally Sustainable Homes”. The book is a joint initiative of the Australian Government and the design and construction industries and is an already-out-of-print publication. Luckily it is accessible, for free, online at http://www.yourhome.gov.au/technical/index.html. While this publication covers many of the same topics as Green from the Ground Up, the books complement each other very well. Where one is missing details, the other comes to the rescue. And, of course, Your Home: Technical Manual brings in the valuable Australia-specific expertise and data. (Note: the Australian government also publishes the Renovator’s Guide and Buyer’s Guide that are more geared towards those renovating or buying an existing home, respectively.)

I learned a great deal reading both books; not only did I gain some vocabulary I have been missing (i.e. I now understand what lintels, jack studs, jamb studs, SHGC, R & U values etc mean), I learned a lot about building techniques, solutions and things to consider. For example, with the vast majority of houses in Australia being light timber-framed, it was enlightening to understand the other available options, from rammed earth to straw bales and AAC. Timber framing loses out to the other techniques in many respects. It was also interesting to see that many seemingly simple systems in the house are surprisingly nuanced; I did not, for example, previously know that it’s perfectly possible to have (and even retrofit) an on-demand hot water re-circulation system that returns still warming water to the tank instead of allowing it to go down the drain. Nor did I know drain water heat recovery is a relatively simple thing.

Both books are highly recommended for anyone interested in how residential houses work as a system and how to design and build houses that are comfortable, healthy, cheap to run while building them in a manner that is environmentally as benign as possible. While neither is a guide to building a ZEH (zero-emissions home) or an off-the-grid home per se, both offer invaluable advice towards achieving either goal.

As one reads such books and notices there are countless of things that could be done vastly better than they are now, it’s easy to become discouraged at the sheer extent of changes that could and should be made (just like many see fighting climate change or the energy decline as intractable problems because they are “too big” or “too complex”). There is a certain tendency to give up altogether. However, it’s important to realize that not everything has to be perfectly designed or executed for the changes to matter; the house not being perfectly aligned for the sun or lacking just the perfect bushes to direct the summer cooling breezes through the house doesn’t make the other efforts any less significant. On the contrary, the abundance of improvements possible should encourage us to give them a go, rather than to discourage.

Far too many solutions in current buildings disregard all or most “green” advice and choose form over function, cheap building costs vs cheap lifetime costs, and easy vs better. I could easily give a long list of badly designed things in our current, brand-new, compliant-with-all-new-codes home – I’ll tackle some in later posts, but it goes to show two things: first, building codes are woefully lagging behind needs and second, there are no shortage of improvement targets to start from.

Armed with all this information and with more to come, I hope I at some point get to avoid making most of at least the most common mistakes. What is exciting about green building in Australia is the huge potential; in the temperate climate of metro Melbourne, it is relatively easy to utilize methods such as passive solar heating, solar hot water heating, solar PV for electricity etc to accomplish even a ZEH. Try doing any of that solar-stuff in Finland and you’d be pretty miserable for most of the year.

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