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.

Growing is Forever

This beautiful work comes to us as we prepare to manipulate trees and other natural resources to make a home for ourselves so that we too may grow.

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.