Building Green

“… it’s not the materials but the builder that makes a building green”

Clark Snell,Building Green

I first saw a preview of Building Green (I think it was on Google Books) and wasn’t impressed by it. Then Ina & Sabin introduced us to it and loaned us their copy and I was really surprised by it. I have been immersed in the book and gained a lot from it. It doesn’t mention hemp-construction in any way. It does cover many other green building techniques and materials. But most importantly it is written with an appeal to common sense and with plenty of educational images which demonstrate that common sense really does work. Though I will probably not be using any of the building techniques mentioned in this book directly, I will be using a lot of my own judgement to make design & engineering choices and relate to solutions offered by professionals.

To me, the spirit of the book is best embodied in this quote which I have frequently brought up in conversations since it came to me:

“One the biggest sources of our environmental woes is the constant and polluting movement of humans about the planet. To create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes a longtimeto build healthy soil to grow food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of a house’s cooling strategy. These things simply won’t happen if you aren’t sufficiently seduced by your home to stay there for the many years it will take to turn it into a real place that nurtures both its inhabitants and the environment. A “green” house, then, needs to be beautiful, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child.”

As someone who has lived in rented apartments and houses all of my adult life and am now heading towards creating what may be our first and only house in this lifetime I can completely relate. I have been a tourist in most of the places I’ve lived – never quite made it to become a resident of the place.

3 Steps to Electricity Independence in Romania

Though living off-the-grid is tempting it probably isn’t as ecological as you may think it is. Electricity is an infrastructure that is best provided through collaborative systems instead of independent ones. It is unfortunate that so much of it is generated with an unnecessarily high ecological price – which is good enough reason to want to do it better on your own.

Being off the grid isn’t necessarily a smart financial choice either (at the present) because a completely independent system is still so expensive that it may never really repay itself (taking into consideration your level of consumption and price of grid electricity). Living off-the-grid is morally better but necessarily financially better.

Step 1: On The Grid

There are enough challenges and expenses when building a new house. Getting off-the-grid doesn’t need to be a top priority. If you are building a home and can connect to the grid then consider starting connected to the grid. You can design your home so that eventually it may be completely off-the-grid but you don’t need to implement it right away. You can designate places for photovoltaic panels, for wires, for batteries, converters, etc. but you don’t have to install them right from the start.

If, like us, you are building your own home then you will need a reliable source of electricity during construction. If you don’t have a grid-connection then you may need to bring a generator on site instead.

Step2: Self Generated

The next step, when you are ready for it is to start generating your own electricity. You should start with the natural resource that is most available to you. In the area of Cluj the leading sources are probably sun and water (if you’ve got running water on your property with enough altitude difference to generate the needed flow). If you are living in the mountains you may also have wind power available to you, yet it seems that commercial wind-powered generators are prohibitively expensive. In addition to the generating source (such as solar panels) you will need converters to convert and regulate your source current into 120v so it is compatible with all of your existing appliances.

It’s comfortable to do this while still connected to the grid because your self-generated electricity is backed- by the grid electricity (though you will need a grid-tie system to connect to the grid). If, for example, you rely on solar power then on cloudy days you still have all the power you need from the grid. If you generate more electricity then you consume then there is a good chance that your electric company will buy it from you. So in the end you may still be benefiting from grid-electricity but your bill will be zero or the electric company may pay you.

An efficient electric generating system and a low consumption home can generate a monthly revenue for you – so you may want to consider staying in this configuration and not going off the grid.

Step3: Off The Grid

To go completely off the grid you need to add to your electrical system a battery array. Batteries store energy when it is generated and make it available when it isn’t. If, for example, you rely on solar power then you will need batteries to supply you with electricity during the night when your solar panels are not providing you with electricity. Good batteries (that will work for 20 years) are initially very expensive to install. You may need additional converters to integrate them into your system and you need to be careful and monitor their use when your sources are not generating electricity  (more on that in a separate post).

When you go off the grid you are completely on your own so regardless of any expenses (and potential losses) involved in doing so, make sure you are ready to be on your own (for example, in our house we are planning heating and hot-water systems that can operate at least basically when there is a power-out).

2 NGO’s and a Peasant Meeting

Last week we met with two inspiring organizations with whom we hope to collaborate in the process of creating our home here in Romania.

Habitat for Humanity Cluj

The first meeting with with Habitat for Humanity Cluj (English website, Romanian website) who’s mission is to provide decent housing where currently housing conditions are very poor. Here in Romanian they have a few house templates that they can build in a few weeks. They organize volunteers from around the world to come and partake in a quick and efficient building process. They also provide home owners with a  zero-interest loan at very small monthly payments (over as long as 20 years) to fund the costs of construction materials.

Our hopes are to both gain from their building experience here in Romania and to offer a shared learning opportunity on the benefits of building with hemp. We believe that hemp-lime construction can be a wonderful alternative with the benefits of simpler construction, better housing (insulation, air quality, durability) and ecological. A win for the organization, for residents of their houses and for the planet.

Eco Ruralis

Our second meeting was with EcoRuralis (English website, Romanian Website) who’s mission is to support traditional Romanian peasants (who represent ~50% of Romanian population) in the face of external forces of industrialization and commercialization (mostly originating from the EU) that threaten their survival and prosperity.

I realize that mission statement may sound petty and remote to non-Romanians so let me give you an example. It is now absurdly illegal for Romanian peasants to sell their traditionally developed and evolved seeds (over hundreds of years). Legal and commercial standards are pushing to replace traditional seeds with genetically modified industrial seeds. Such measures, together with beaurocratic hurdles required to selling their crops in local markets threaten not only their existence but an entire tradition of agrictultural knowledge.

A Peasant Meeting

EcoRuralis were extremely pleasant and generous with us. We immediately signed up as members and over the weekend they invited us to a member-meeting which took place in Calimenste (a 6 hour bus ride south of Cluj-Napoca). Not only were we welcomed in no-questions-asked, they also covered all the expenses in getting to and partaking in the meeting. We had a wonderful time and met inspiring people.

It is so exciting  and comforting to know that we have access to everything we need (from knowledge to seeds) to create up our own farm. Though we are currently focused on the construction aspect of our home we are also on our way to becoming peasants and taking up healthy traditional farming.

Another interesting shared interest is hemp-construction. Hemp was once a popular crop here in Romania and we hope it will be again. Everyone was very curious to hear more about hemp construction. We can’t wait to invite them all to see when the house is actually built and then to be our guests and experience what a wonderful quality-of-life it can afford.

Everyone was so kind and so generous. With some translation help I said to them that after almost 40 years of life I am for the first time beginning to feel I am at home.

Choosing Land

We are going to buy land – a special piece of land where we will make a home. What should we look for when buying land? At first we didn’t know how to begin answering this question. But by now we have a better idea of what we want and we put together this list of wishes we hope to balance together:

  • Designation: land that is designated for both construction and agriculture – the majority of which is for agriculture. Sometimes there is one part of the land where the house is built and the agricultural lands are separated. We are looking for land that is a combination of both. In Romanian this is called “intravilan” – land that is “inside the village” – meaning the housing area. We have plans for additional structures on the house – including a birthing center.
  • Orientation: North-South orientation – with a view in the south. That way we can enjoy both the view and passive-solar energy by having south facing windows (the north wall will be fairly closed to insulate from cold winds. It is preferable that the house can be placed in such a way that the entrance is from either the south, east or west (as the north is an uninviting fron).
  • Fertile Land: We want land that is easy to cultivate for diverse crops. Preferrably without stones, comfortable summer climate (not too cold so we can grow crops like wheat which suffer from cold weather) and ground that is not too acidic or salty.
  • Water Table: We expect to pump our water from a well. The water table should be between 4 and 10 meters. A water table that is too high can damage house foundations. A water table that is too low can be more difficult to pump and is more likely to dry up in dry seasons.
  • Flowing Water: Hydro-electricity is one of the most reliable and affordable green-electricity solutions. We hope to find land with running water with enough head to generate eletricity.
  • Near Water: If there isn’t running water on the property then we would like to live within walking distance from a body of water.
  • Proportions: We prefer land that is well proportioned – not too elongated. It should also be at least 50 meters wide to accommodate the potential length of our house (15-20 meters) with additional space on both sides (10-15 meters on every side).
  • Accessible: We prefer a town that is accessible by public transportation (bus or train) to and from a near city. Our land should be within a short driving distance from the town – preferrably even a short walking distance of ~ 20 minutes.

There are also a few things we know to look out for. Thanksfully this list it small and we hope it stays that way:

  • Altitude: If the area is prone to be flooding then our land should be located at a higher altitude so that water can easily flow away from and not accumulate on it.
  • Quiet: The land should not be situated on a main road.

Where to Place a House?

So you purchased some land and you are wondering where and in which direction to place your home?

We currently know of three considerations which pretty much answer this question:

  • We sleep with our heads in the east and our feet in the west.
  • We’d like to benefit from passive-solar heat – which means most of our windows (and thermal mass considerations) will be facing south
  • We’d like to have a great view

The order they are in is not random – it reflects our priorities. It’s hard to enjoy a nice view from a cold house. It’s also hard to enjoy a nice view in a warm house unless we sleep well. So sleep, warmth and view is how it goes.

Once that is set it can be useful to get more specific about the actual position of the sun over the months and seasons of a year. You can then place the sun relative to other natural elements in the landscape (hills, trees,etc.) and then decide where is best to place windows to make the best of what sunlight is available.

One way to do this is to actually be on-site for a year and make measurements. When this is not possible there are solar calculators to do the trick for you.

To do this you will need a solar map calculator – a few of which are available online:

  • I think the easiest and friendliest calculator is at PVEducation – where you can easily shift the time of year to see the solar path change.
  • A simple and useful charting tool I found (so far) is SunPosition Calculator which has basic free functionality and extended paid options.
  • A more complex and elaborate tools can be found at SunEarthTools.

To use these tools you will need to find the latitude and longitude of your site location. You can do that here or just search the Internet as there are many freely available online options.

Heating Resources

We want to have a really pleasantly warm house when it gets cold outside. Building with hemp insures that we enjoy a wonderfully insulated home. Now we need to deal with heat – which includes both environmental heating and water heating.

In typically built houses which tend to be cold when it gets cold outside it’s more a brute force challenge. With an ecological house it is actually more complicated because it’s easy to design a system that overheats the house. We still don’t have a clear picture or understanding of our heating needs – though we are working at it.

In the meantime I wanted to share with you some great resources that we are using to educate ourselves:

  1. Stoves Online (UK) – it s great resource for learning about the different elements that make up a heating system with a very rich offering of solutions if you happen to live in the UK.
  2. Boiler Stoves (UK) – seems like a sister website which specifically explains how boiler stoves work and can be incorporated into a smart and efficient heating system.
  3. Radiant Design Institute – though not an appealing website has a lot of really well-grounded and useful information I believe can be very useful especially to do-it-yourselfers.

You may also want to visit these two pages:

  1. An animated demonstration of a boiler-stove at work
  2. An article that debates whether radiant-floor-heating is at all appropriate in well insulated eco-buildings