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Scott Adams On the Difficulty of Building a 'Green' Home 482

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-not-easy-being-green dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Scott Adams built himself a new house with the goal of making it as 'green' as possible, and detailed his experience for those interested in following in his missteps. Quoting: '... So the architect — and later your building engineer, too — each asks you to sign a document saying you won't sue them when beavers eat a load-bearing wall and your entire family is crushed by forest debris. You make the mistake of mentioning this arrangement to your family, and they leave you. But you are not deterred because you're saving the planet, damn it. You'll get a new family. A greener one. Your next hurdle is the local planning commission. They like to approve things that are similar to things they've approved before. To do otherwise is to risk unemployment. And the neighbors don't want to live next to a house that looks like a compost pile. But let's say, for the sake of this fascinating story, that everyone in the planning commission is heavily medicated with medical marijuana and they approve your project over the objections of all of your neighbors, except for the beavers, who are suspiciously flexible. Now you need a contractor who is willing to risk his career to build this cutting-edge structure. Good luck with that.'"
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Scott Adams On the Difficulty of Building a 'Green' Home

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  • by alexschmidt (1026034) on Monday August 23, 2010 @09:56PM (#33349924)
    "Pioneers usually end up with arrows in their backs" I wish you all the best.
  • George W Bush did (Score:5, Informative)

    by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:04PM (#33349992)

    Seems the much maligned president owned, with little fanfare, a rather "green" home. Passive solar heating, natural cooling, geothermal energy, modest size, rainwater collection, nature preserve, all made for a model environmentalist domicile. (This in contrast to the fast talking "green" showman whose mansion burned 20x the national average.)

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:25PM (#33350140)

      Seems the much maligned president owned, with little fanfare, a rather "green" home. Passive solar heating, natural cooling, geothermal energy, modest size, rainwater collection, nature preserve, all made for a model environmentalist domicile. (This in contrast to the fast talking "green" showman whose mansion burned 20x the national average.)

      The natural conclusion being that we need to stop listening to the showman and start listening to the guy with the green home and the environmentally unsound public policy?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Nutria (679911)

        The natural conclusion being that we need to stop listening to the showman and start listening to the guy with the green home and the environmentally unsound public policy?

        Or stop the cognitive dissonance by looking at reality: AAG (Albert Arnold Gore, Jr) preaches pie-in-the-sky impracticality but builds an energy-sucking mansion. OTOH, GWB has the money to build an eco-friendly house yet knows that a large, industrialized society needs a continuous flow of "industrial-sized" energy.

        My problem with W is t

      • by Shivetya (243324) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @08:22AM (#33353438) Homepage Journal

        People who tend to tell others how to live rarely live as such. Those who live right tend to not brag about it. You have the cynical conclusion. The natural conclusion is to live like the guy with the green home and ignore the guy in the mansion.

        I would love to see a President with a sound environmental policy, however what one person declares as sound another dismisses as not enough. Bush did fine considering the history of our past Presidents. Some areas are flash points for one group or another and both will use such to disclaim any leader.

        No, given what we know about the two men in question, I would invite the guy from Crawford over to dinner, more than likely the other guy wouldn't even deem to acknowledge the request.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Red Flayer (890720)

          No, given what we know about the two men in question, I would invite the guy from Crawford over to dinner,

          And after all, that's what our national leaders should be -- people we'd like to have dinner or a beer with, people we'd like to go to a ball game with.

          WTF? Who cares if Gore is more of a self-righteous prick than Bush -- it's the issues that matter.

          Fucking "conservative" charismatics -- they're why this nation is going to hell in a handbasket. They get the masses to vote for them on bogus wedge iss

    • by k8to (9046) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:25PM (#33350142) Homepage

      Must everything be partisan?

    • by Stargoat (658863)

      I'd like to know more about geothermal heating and cooling. [geocomfort.com] This technology seems relatively affordable, durable, and best of all - simple. Why don't more people use it?

      • Re:George W Bush did (Score:5, Informative)

        by mprinkey (1434) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:58PM (#33350314)

        I've had a geothermal heatpump for almost 10 years. My parents for even longer. They are great, especially in harsh heating climates. We live near Pittsburgh, and they have proved quite affordable. Local contractors have really just started installing them...I had to really look around to find an installer. Most HVAC guys don't want to have to mess with a well-drilling sub and a maybe a backhoe sub to trench from the wells to the house. It is a lot more work, compared to an air-source unit...and far messier! Install an air-source unit, you will get a few holes in your foundation for coolant lines and power to the compressor unit...and then the normal ductwork, air handler inside and the air-source unit sitting outside on a drop-down concrete pad. If the ductwork is in place, it is a 1-2 day job.

        With geothermal, (if it is done right) you will have a dozen or more holes in your foundation for the in/out of the loops from each well into a manifold in the basement. You WANT that manifold in case one of the wells dies. You will have trenches from the foundation to the wells...and the wells need to be 10-15 feet apart, so some significant part of your yard will look like hell. Mine took about two weeks to complete because the well driller broke down on the fourth well. And the backhoe operator came *this* close to putting the bucket through my foundation wall. It is a monstrous headache to do a retrofit install, but for new construction, it would be a bit easier. In any case, the cost for the loop install can be a back-breaker. The geothermal units themselves are IMO overpriced too, due to lower production volumes.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by stewbacca (1033764)

          I live in Texas. Please explain what this "basement" thing is. It sounds great.

      • Probably because cheap is relative. We specced a system for our house which is actually sited well for a geothermal loop - on volcanic clay with a lot of water flow (not sited well for many other things including structural stability, but that's not germane here).

        Close to 50,000 grand to heat a 2200 sq. foot home. A lot of that cost was due to retrofitting and if I was building a house I might think about using that system (as well as shooting myself). Considering we heat with wood for a cost of about
    • Re:George W Bush did (Score:5, Informative)

      by Calroth (310516) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:46PM (#33350252)

      (This in contrast to the fast talking "green" showman whose mansion burned 20x the national average.)

      http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/gorehome.asp [snopes.com]

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by zippthorne (748122)

        I love the "mitigating factors" such as "the gore home is four times the size of an average home." As if... To be greener, we should all get bigger homes? Brilliant!

        • Re:George W Bush did (Score:5, Informative)

          by Reverberant (303566) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:22PM (#33350452) Homepage

          I love the "mitigating factors" such as "the gore home is four times the size of an average home." As if... To be greener, we should all get bigger homes? Brilliant!

          How about quoting the rest of that sentence: "it's about four times larger than the average new American home built in 2006, and it essentially functions as both a residence and a business office since both Al and Tipper work out of their home." And by business office, that means an office with staff. They could get a smaller home and outside office spaces, but that would use more energy (plus the energy required to get to/from work).

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by SuperKendall (25149)

            Essentially functions as both a residence and a business office since both Al and Tipper work out of their home." And by business office, that means an office with staff.

            So what? You can easily fit a "staff" (which I note you leave undefined, and could easily be one person, part time) in an average sized family home while still living there.

            Gore is rich, so he bought and lives in a giant house. I don't see anything wrong with that but it obviously means the environment is not as important to him as Bush,

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Every single one of them would be just as much a problem if he were building a regular home. Or even buying one.

    It is stressful. Unless you have enough money to just throw out a check and not worry, you're going to have problems.

    From the roof to the foundation, and even in the ground. You won't know what's going to go wrong, but something will.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by iamhassi (659463)
      "Every single one of them would be just as much a problem if he were building a regular home."

      But isn't building any home not "green".

      By building a new home they're creating all new materials and you're using up more land while real estate prices are the lowest they've been in 30 years.

      Isn't buying an existing home sort of like recycling? You're taking something that already existed and reusing it, isn't that what recycling is?

      And after you have your existing home you don't just rip everything
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by RichiH (749257)

        It's easy to calculate this. The people I know who built/renovated houses did calculate it. It comes out as a net gain, both for the environment and the wallet. Yay for science.

    • by mellon (7048) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @02:06AM (#33351412) Homepage

      The frustrating thing about reading Scott Adams' article, though, is just how many mistakes he made. Siting his house without planning for solar gain. Not hiring an experienced energy consultant. Not hiring people who knew what they were doing, basically. Building a green house is difficult--you have to do a lot of research. Unfortunately, very few builders know how to build one. But there are builders who do it for a living. So if you want a green house, and you don't want to build it yourself, hire one of *them*, not some builder who doesn't know anything about it and thinks it's a bad idea.

      The whole sad saga of the attic fan was the worst of it. Has he never heard of a vented roof? A cupola to draw wind up, or a peak vent that does the same? Most green building techniques are just what everybody did before air conditioning was invented. Back when you couldn't cool a house with refrigeration, you *had* to make it energy-efficient, because the only thing cooling the house was going to be whatever passive environmental system you were able to come up with.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by CAIMLAS (41445)

        +1, pretty much smack-on-the-nose with the "use old techniques".

        Even without electric attic fans, there is a lot that can be done for cooling with things like the outdoor trees, good ventilation, and thermal mass. Throw in an attic fan, and heating and cooling an older house is usually not a problem. (I lived in one built in 1918 in NY; it was rarely hot in the summer due to the design.)

        Many old farm houses are a perfect example of this: stone walls with faulted ceilings and a couple large windows in the ki

  • Modular (Score:5, Interesting)

    by istartedi (132515) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:11PM (#33350048) Journal

    They should build green modular homes and deliver them all over the country. A modular home is not a trailer. You can afix it to a permanent foundation, although in many parts of the country you shouldn't do that either.

    Much of California, for example, in its infinite government insanity, will not allow you to live in a trailer even in a rural area. Why would I want to live in a trailer, praytell? Well, it'd be nice to think that the next time a nearby hill caught on fire, you could, you know... maybe at least have a fair chance of MOVING THE HOUSE OUT OF THE WAY. Instead, the county insists that you 1. Build a really expensive house and then 2. Permanently cement it to something that will eventually blowtorch it down, wash it away, or shake it apart.

    Invariably, when fires occur they strip away trees and reveal more "illegal substandard housing" than anybody ever realized existed. These would be "people who had the right idea". It makes a helluva lot more sense to build a *shack* up there than anything more expensive. If you try to do that, the county will FINE YOU. IMHO, it's the county government that should be fined. If only we had a government by the people, for the people...

    • Re:Modular (Score:5, Funny)

      by nmb3000 (741169) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:49PM (#33350262) Homepage Journal

      Much of California, for example, in its infinite government insanity, will not allow you to live in a trailer even in a rural area.

      Pretty simple, I think. California has enough problems on their plate with earthquakes and wildfires. They don't need additional natural disasters to worry about -- and everyone knows that trailer parks attract tornadoes.

    • Re:Modular (Score:4, Interesting)

      by OutLawSuit (1107987) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:54PM (#33350288)

      I think you'd have a different perspective on trailers if you lived in the South. They're all over the place due to how cheap they are. They're meant to used on a more temporary basis but people continue to use them as their permanent homes. As a result most trailers are in poor condition and would literally fall apart if you attempted to move them. At that point they're just an eyesore and detract from everything around them (including property values)... That's the real reason they're not allowed in most cities.

      Modular Homes are completely different and are meant to be used as permanent structures, hence they have no axles. Due to how controlled the factory environment is, you'll often times get a better quality modular house than you would a conventionally built one.

      • by dgatwood (11270)

        They're all over the place in California, too. By my estimation, there are probably 4-5,000 units in Sunnyvale alone (assuming those parks on the other side of Lawrence are on this side of the city limit... not sure. If I'm right about that, then if the average household is 4.3 people then that's something like 10-15% of the city living in mobile home parks....

        The difference is that in California, the mobile homes are built much better than the ones you see in the South. Instead of 2x4 walls on the outsi

      • Nobody wants to live in a trailer. They are cheap and provide a roof and four walls. Would you rather that people who cannot afford to buy a house go homeless? Or is it better to finance everyone so that even people who cannot afford a house can get one? We all know what California's answer was.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by sjames (1099)

          Exactly. People who complain about other people living in trailers need to either cough up to buy them a house or shut up.

    • Re:Modular (Score:4, Informative)

      by lawpoop (604919) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:58PM (#33350322) Homepage Journal

      They should build green modular homes and deliver them all over the country.

      I think this was the idea behind Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house [wikipedia.org]

    • by khallow (566160)

      Well, it'd be nice to think that the next time a nearby hill caught on fire, you could, you know... maybe at least have a fair chance of MOVING THE HOUSE OUT OF THE WAY.

      I strongly doubt that due to two obstacles. First, it's hard to get the proper moving equipment. I imagine if this became popular, then you'd have to compete with everyone else to get yours moved first. Second, who's going to risk their lives moving your home?

      There's two alternatives. First, a recreational vehicle. It has the advantage of being inherently mobile and some of them are pretty posh. The key drawbacks are that they're high maintenance, the manufacturers often go in and out of business, and th

  • Wealth (Score:4, Funny)

    by gmhowell (26755) <gmhowell@gmail.com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:13PM (#33350064) Homepage Journal

    I'm guessing he's not as wealthy as I suspected. If he had real money, he would speak with some manservant and say "take care of this". A few months later he would enter his new green space. I guess being able to say "I'm Al Gore bitches!" carries a bit more sway than being the inventor of Dogbert.

  • This reminds me of an interesting problem LEED buildings often have with humidity and gas concentrations--and, in general, what is loosely described as sick building syndrome. Sealing a building to that point of efficiency might be green, but it isn't healthy for its occupants.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_recovery_ventilation [wikipedia.org] They're becoming increasingly common, particularly in colder climates. In Alaska, many newer homes are so well-sealed that a full air exchange in the house can take days. Properly sized, an HRV can provide just the right level of fresh air, and has the side benefit of recovering some of the heat. (Recovering some of the heat is important! Many areas of Alaska rely primarily on oil for heating. The Anchorage area has an extensive natural gas distri
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by MDillenbeck (1739920)
      Which is why you use an air exchanger. In and out ducts are overlapped, allowing for passive heat exchange to occur (hot air vented in the winter warms the incoming air, cold air in the summer warms the incoming hot air). This actually improves air quality as you are turning over more CFM in from your house than in a traditional construction, all while recouping some of that energy you spent in heating and cooling.
  • by assertation (1255714) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:23PM (#33350126)

    You don't need a perfect high tech green house.

    We could get a lot of bang......for very FEW bucks just using power strips, replacing incandescent light bulbs, drinking tap water and shopping with resuable backs.

    Those things aren't enough, but if you could get large numbers of people doing them......and these things are cheap enough to get people to do them, it would be a huge impact

    • but they're nibbling around the edges. The key is energy consumption. Light bulbs are a part of it, but here are some others.

      One time ideas:
      * Refrigerators. When you get a new one, get a really efficient one. Then, get rid of the old one -- or old few in your basement or garage. The old ones use an incredible amount of electricity, both because they were less efficient to begin with and because as they age they often fail in such a way that they don't cycle properly, resulting in even higher en

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by drinkypoo (153816)

        Here's some things you can do without compromising your lifestyle:

        1) If you must drive, as your next car, buy a turbo-diesel. They get better mileage and diesel takes 60% as much energy to produce as gasoline.
        2) In the summer, add mylar to windows to reflect sunlight and trap cool air. In the winter, add clear plastic to windows to permit sunlight and trap warm air.
        3) Get a canister water filter instead of drinking bottled water. Suggesting that people drink tap water is suggesting that they poison themselv

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by assertation (1255714)

      Another cheap green thing to do that makes a big difference is observing the "Meatless Monday" trend.

      I don't remember where, but I read an article stating that going vegetarian just one day a week did more to reduce pollution (and was far cheaper) than being a "locovore" ( eating only locally produced food) all of the time.

      Enjoy your burgers, it is just one day a week.

  • by afabbro (33948) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:33PM (#33350172) Homepage

    Every single problem he mentions would be the same problem if he was building a "non-green" house. Lack of controls convinces him that he's suffering something out of the ordinary.

    Lack of controls also tells me that after an eclipse, the reason the sun returns is that we beat tom-toms.

  • ... where the hippies and lawless build homes. Or something like that. Seriously, the entire state is almost without building codes of any kind. Buy at your own risk, certainly, but build however you feel like it. Lacking his ability to move, why not just build a "green" mobile home. As long as it's not permanent, you can camp on your land and have little to worry about.
  • by dominion (3153) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:48PM (#33350260) Homepage

    There was a TED talk that outlined recently why building from scratch is rarely "green". Especially when you're talking about building a big, opulent "green" mansion out in the middle of a posh suburb with a huge acreage.

    People (especially the wealthy) may not want to hear it, but the greenest option is to renovate an existing structure in an urban center. Just like buying a used 1992 Honda is more "green" than buying a brand new Prius.

    Building new may make you feel better about yourself, but it's definitely not the best option for the environment, by far.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      But buying a Prius doesn't tell everyone I'm green. If the point of being green was truly to conserve then we would see much different fads. The point of being green, to the masses at least, is to sooth your own conscience while at the same time showing everyone else how 'good' you are.
  • You want to go extreme green but not buy an existing house? Try a truly modular home [i-domehouse.com]! I know it is extreme (styrofoam housing?!?), but imaging using a traditional home down payment to buy a small country plot and plop down a bachelor(ette) pad. No mortgage to pay, only property taxes - and then save up until you can build something as your needs grow. If I could do it here in the US, I'd seriously consider it (and if I didn't have a wife who wants a big house, of course).
  • This guy is off his rocker and mixes up "Sustainable Housing" with "Natural Building Materials" and overuse of PV panels.

    Sustainable housing provides a way to live well without requiring lots of expensive resource use.

    There are many styles of housing with many different construction methods to achieve the goal of Good Living with (Considerably) Less Reliance on Resources.

    Resources are things like land, energy, water, construction materials, time, money. Good living means different things to different peopl

  • Wanna Build green? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jameskojiro (705701) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:58PM (#33350324) Journal

    Build the whole damn house underground so that you need no AC or heating and grow native grasses over it. Problem solved.

  • by fermion (181285)
    This seems like PHB logic. PHB hears of a hot product, reads a few articles on it, then demands a similar product from a team that has no experience in it.

    I also can believe there are people out there that know how to build this stuff. The trick is to let the experts help meet your needs, not spec the finish product in the design brief. This is another PHB mistake.

    For example, roof gardens are not huge deal. One I have seen is to use a shed roof with a low grade, possibly with a partially finished fla

  • by BLKMGK (34057) <morejunk4me&hotmail,com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:01PM (#33350342) Homepage Journal

    I did some work on my home - added a second story etc. while living in it - an adventure for sure! I learned some things. For one my contractor was a good ole boy who was so honest it wasn't funny. He did it ALL without a signed contract and he stuck to his original price despite having to wait a YEAR to begin! It took a year to get permits and to get the damned architect to properly do the plans, we waited on weather some too. Jackass architect drew in 2X4 walls and not 2X6, not noticed by me till they were banging nails - grr. The first few sets of plans were a joke and the very first time my contractor caught a GLARING error before he even got out of their office. The architect hated my contractor but my contractor knew how to build and was catching all sorts of errors. Thankfully he worked around the ones in the final plans just fine.

    So, I wanted to do some odd things my guy hadn't seen before. For starters I had a specific toilet in mind. You know, a low flow toilet that WORKS! Toto Drake for those wondering - just wish it had more water in the bowl so keep a brush handy. He thought it was silly to want a specific toilet and darn it the thing cost MORE. Wow, it works he finds out. Guess who now has two in HIS home :-) I wanted "solar tubes". What in the world are those he wonders. Well the guy puts them in and wow, lots of LIGHT from outside. My contractor thinks this is pretty cool - don't think he's bought any yet. I wanted a tin roof. Now he's seen these and he's had them done. I had a good quote from a guy but when the guy came out to look over the job he made the cardinal sin of ignoring my contractor - this pissed him off. My contractor got his buddy on the phone and shaved multiple thousands of dollars off the price just to spite this jerk - likely burned a favor. Took the guys maybe two hours to put up that roof too. Rolls off the reel through an extruder and up go the panels onto the roof. I wanted spray foam insulation too. Why would I want that? Well the downstairs leaked like a sieve and I wanted it quiet. Research I found said to spray it under the roof decking and make the attic a controlled space. Contractor and roofing guy not happy, insulation guy not so sure. Govt. studies say this saves money bigtime but if the roof decking gets too hot and fries I'm out big bux. Never mind that Govt study was partially conducted in Florida. I relent but I still have the stuff in my walls and attic - it rocks! My contractor also does Tyvek wrap, rigid foam with foil, and the insulator guys sealed every nook with caulk too. End result is awesome but pricey. Insulator says they never do this in homes but in businesses all the time. A/C and heating guy nearly passed out when I told him what we had for insulation - my heat pump doesn't have to work at all but is sized for efficiency. Tankless hot water heater and softener system. Why would I do that? Well endless hot water for the big tub I had installed and the efficiency is off the chart compared to the previous somewhat new water heater. Literally - the two charts don't overlap the new one is so good! I wanted good windows - Pella is what I chose. All sorts of coatings and stuff. I had gotten a ballpark at a homeshow on price. Pella only sells through regional dealers if you buy their good stuff - price is sky high. My contractor is NOT happy and talks them down a couple hundred per window. Love this guy! I get a seriously good attic trap door with insulation and gasketed seals - everyone thinks I'm nuts till that sucker goes up and seals like a drum. I wanted good temp compensating shower fixtures - I buy them online for way less than local. Plumber freaks at the puzzle he has to build to plumb it. I use a local tile and granite guy instead of a big box store or boutique bath place. I save TONS and the guy is very happy to have my business - I've been back for more stuff twice.

    So in the end I saved a bunch and obviously went over budget. Every single time I wanted to do something "odd" I got questioned and quizzed. If you aren't

    • my heat pump doesn't have to work at all but is sized for efficiency.

      Erm.. It's one or the other, usually. Are you sure you've got the right size heat pump for your situation?

    • by BLKMGK (34057)

      Funny, I see Scott preaching about radiant barriers. that's different in some aspects to what I wanted to do with spray foam but not so different in the possible issue of cooking the roofing surface and plywood. I may still do this myself with some rigid foil backed foam tacked up under the roof. It wouldn't be super expensive but hot as hell to install! This is one area I really want to investigate in the future. That and spray foaming my damned crawlspace but if I do that access to much of anything under

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mrchaotica (681592) *

        Funny, I see Scott preaching about radiant barriers.

        I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure your tin roof is a radiant barrier.

        spray foaming my damned crawlspace

        Have you considered insulating the crawlspace walls instead of the floor (i.e., making the crawlspace conditioned space, like you did with your attic)?

  • Having helped build a couple of straw bale constructed homes are the way to go in my opinion. Both of the houses I assisted with take nearly nothing to heat and cool. One of them has been standing for over 18 years now and totally off the grid the entire time. It is not a shoe box house either it is greater than 2000 square feet. In fact the only thing we used in that house that was not recycled was the stucco finish and the slab it sits on everthing else was salvaged. These two homes however where construc

  • by NicknamesAreStupid (1040118) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @12:36AM (#33350898)
    Their carbon footprint is the size of their feet. They recycle things, like food, that are not considered recyclable. They are the model of future green. They are also the fastest growing segment of the population.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by HeckRuler (1369601)
      Ok, so I had an insightful chat with my wife the other day. She's "green conscious". A recycling nazi, buys CFLs, wants an electric or hybrid car, buys organic*, even bought me an electric mower (thanks honey), but still bought a biggish house, wants a big TV, and is getting fancy furniture. Kinda the stereotypical greenie. She had a hard believing this thing she read where the slums of Bangladesh are the greenest urban environment. So I explained that it's all about absolute consumption. I got her to kinda
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:03AM (#33351084) Homepage Journal

    I bought a house in the NYC suburbs last year, gutted it, and renovated it to conserve energy. I basically sprayfoamed the walls, floors and roof really thick, use all CFLs, install some really cool smart ventilation devices, and did some other stuff that was a lot more minor like buy the most efficient appliances. I cut my energy use down to something like 1/6th the average in the area per square foot, even though I left the ceilings open into the attic (which lets heat rise away from the lower level where we can feel it). I didn't need any permits or any "experimental beaver" tech. It took some imagination, analysis and choosing between different ways of doing things, but like any engineering project I just had to be careful thinking of how the individual consequences added up to system performance. Ultimately it was a big investment, but it'll pay back in under 5 years. Even at current energy prices, which since they're going to go up will probably be closer to 3 years; after that we'll be netting income equal to what we'd have paid the utility monopolies instead.

    I don't know what Scott Adams' problem is, especially in California where there's little weather and the climate is so mild, and green construction industries are everywhere, along with referrals and reviews of them, and plenty of state funding. Maybe he's only as good at actual engineering as he is at being funny, which he hasn't been since a decade ago, when he was a better cartoonist than an engineer.

  • Rammed Earth (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jjohnson (62583) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:13AM (#33351150) Homepage

    Many old construction techniques hold up surprisingly well in modern terms for both comfort, durability and cost. Rammed earth [wikipedia.org] is a technique going back millennia, and rammed earth structures still exist today. The Great Wall of China is one example (rammed earth core, faced with brick), but there are others [wikipedia.org].

    Briefly, you dump properly pulverized soil into the same sort of mold into which you'd pour concrete. Soak it with water and use a pneumatic tamper to compress it 50%, then repeat in layers 5-10 inches thick. Like concrete, it cures over time, and has about 25% the structural strength--more than sufficient for small and medium sized structures. If you're in a wet climate, you apply a sealing coat, and you're done.

    Like concrete, you can reinforce it with rebar to make it earthquake-resistant. The material itself can come directly from the site where you're building. It's fireproof, soundproof, insect-resistant, and has similar thermal properties to brick or concrete. There's basically no waste. As a building material, it's an environmentalist's wet dream.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Actually there is a recent (last 30 years) development that is an improvement over rammed earth and only marginally more expensive. That is cement-mud bricks. Using a little bit of cement mixture in mud allows the development of bricks suitable for building a small structure that will withstand the elements very well and does not require the sealing coat to protect against water in a wet climate. Sorry, I do not have the details anymore, but it is a building process used by some aid agencies when working wi
  • by ledow (319597) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @04:50AM (#33352336) Homepage

    The only thing that ever matters in these kinds of projects, the only thing WORTH measuring, is how long until it starts to pay for itself. Not the electrical system, or the "money saved" on your normal use, but the time until you're actually in profit on the venture as a whole.

    It's a crass and crude measure but the money invested into getting something like photovoltaics, underfloor heating, etc. is directly related to the difficulty of manipulating the raw materials, the cost of extraction, the rarity, the difficulty of transporting them, installing them, the environmental impact they have (via taxes, subsidies, etc.). Marble floors, stone walls, etc. have wonderful properties but require you to move tons of stone cross-country (and even across continents). Photovoltaics contain some rare minerals, require lots of energy to manipulate, produce, dispose of and maintain, etc.

    If we're talking houses then if you can't have the systems pay themselves off in less than 25 years, you're wasting your time. In 25 years, you could have bought and paid for any house you could afford, that would almost certainly sell for more than you bought it once your mortgage term is up (and thus provide overall profit even with your monthly mortgage expenditure), even despite interest accrued, ongoing maintenance and everything else - the house would "pay for itself" and any environmental damage that you incurred that wasn't directly related to its construction (i.e. I assume you bought a house that already existed, not have one constructed especially). Also, you could live in it and not have to worry about maintaining a roof garden unless you wanted to, or finding specialist contractors when your one-off heating/cooling system goes wrong.

    If your super-duper green house, or your super-duper energy production system, doesn't start turning an *overall* profit in less than 25 years, you're wasting your time and actually COSTING more energy than you're saving - in planning, analysis, trips to the city to find an engineer / consultant / whatever, maintenance, replacement, time-wasting, application-lodging, construction etc.etc.etc. Although theoretically perfect solar systems can turn profits in certain parts of the world relatively quickly, this isn't true of a VAST proportion of other things that are necessary. The energy used to BUILD a new house? Hell, that's not small - and if you paid for that and then hope to get that money back by later selling the house, or on savings on unnecessary utilities, all you've done is sold your green credentials for cash on the first step anyway.

    In the end, the places and people that are the greenest are NOT those putting HVAC systems in their houses at all, or even understand how a photovoltaic works. It's the people living in countries where the problems of heating, cooling, water supply, etc. were solved MILLENNIA ago and they still retain elements of that culture. Most of them are farmers. Most of them live in white-covered buildings constructed from local stone. Most of them have shutters on their windows. Most of them have land on which they can grow their own food and not have to transport food in little metal tins from foreign countries to survive. Most of them have simple solutions like wells, wood-burning stoves, their own animals and crops, houses constructed in such a way that the roof-patio is about 40 degrees C hotter than the wine cellar for most of the year. Most of them live in houses that have almost literally been maintenance-free for the last 2-3 hundred years and are likely to last at least that again.

    They have electricity and televisions and, yes, they probably could generate their own but they know it's unlikely to produce any return on their investment unless they get it absolutely, perfectly correct and even then that it's "cheating" and not really being green. Hell, some of them might even have water mills on a local water source and still the investment in copper cabling, electronic safety systems, generators and electric lighting/h

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