Thursday, June 17, 2010

change ain't sexy

The past few weeks have been very busy for me. In addition to my normal activities- work, family life, harvesting the bagged leaves of my neighborhood- I attend a one day soil regeneration seminar and a 2 day ULI seminar on sustainable community design. Both of these events were remarkably informative and I'd go so far as to say inspirational. I love to learn and synthesis seemingly unrelated bits of information into programs that facilitate change. You might even call it a hobby. But one particular event of recent weeks has been much more rewarding. We had our house reinsulated. It would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated as much of it had no insulation at all.

Now you might think that's pretty strange, that someone convinced we're embarking on worldwide energy descent would have, up until now, lived in a poorly insulated house. To which I would respond that it's been on the list to do, but the list is long and the budget is far from unlimited. The real deal though is that my wife and I have been planning to build our own home for several years. Since day one of my architectural education at university I've dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I study alternative construction methods and fell in love with strawbale building. I read books, took classes and even worked on a few such structures. My wife and I were investigating a land purchase and organizing a few folks to help with the permitting process. But the situation has changed. The peak in global oil production is imminent and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I've become convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what we need is less building new and more making due. Several people have tried to convince me that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for 'Sheltering In Place,' and I'm starting to believe them.

But there's an equally compelling reason. My wife is expecting our second child in March and our daughter is almost 2 years old. At such a young age she can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn't yet learn that hammers are not meant for the destruction of anything with reach. The idea of my family building a new home during the next 12 months could very well be the uproarious inspiration for a new TV reality show. I'm not sure if we'd find it funny though.

I have not yet thrown out the idea of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons and I think we need more people using it to serve as examples. I'd like to be one of them in the future. But for now it looks like we are staying put and that means more closely examining our current conditions and making reasonable adjustments. Sounds prudent right? Well here's the thing, it's not at all sexy.

Over the past two weeks I've spent three days with a crew who are adding insulation to our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a blower door to our home and pressurized the whole structure to get a sense of how air tight our home was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch but then came hours of action like caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and was not my idea of fun. Another contractor used an infrared camera to find out where the big heat leaks were located. This too was pretty neat. But then it was back to the grindstone. The flooring in the attic had to be removed and then insulation was blown up there. The crawlspace below our home had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid below and insulation strapped to the underside of the floor joists. The best part, I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was when the crew cut 2" holes in all our exterior walls ever 20" or so and blew insulation into each cavity. It was necessary. It will make for a much more energy efficient home. We are doing our part! And yet the work itself was mundane. Some of it was boring and some of it was uncomfortable. 3 days of regular old work. And the mess!

In contrast my time spent at the soil seminar was great as was my sustainable community design seminar. But neither of those actually accomplished anything tangible. They were useful experiences. The knowledge I came away with will certainly come in handy, but neither accomplished as much actual change as did my 3 days of insulation. Part of what I've been sensing in the community of people who are interested in issues of energy and the environment is that many are ready to move on from the arena of talk into the arena of action. It's fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change and track the progress of these occurrences. That is important work for some to do. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more about getting dirty and less about talking about getting dirty.

Having said that, I did film the whole transformation of my home- about 5 hours of raw footage which will be edited into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar changes. There's no reason to stop sharing our progress with other people. In fact I think we have an obligation to do so. But as much as possible I think we need to get to work; not online but in our own homes and in our own communities. There is much to actually do.


Chile said...

We also would have loved to build our own super-efficient house but didn't for several reasons: budget, time, and, quite frankly, we felt we were getting too old to take on that kind of project. So we settled for buying a place and now trying to improve it.

While we haven't had anyone come in to pressurize the house - manufactured house - we can see work that needs to be done. The first round of weatherstripping has gone on the door frames and more will be added to deal with a warped door. The missing and torn window screens will be replaced to allow us to use passive temperature control when possible. The insulation under the house is hanging in places but will be shored up this weekend. We were looking at painting the roof with an elastomeric "cool coat" white rubberized paint to reduce solar heat gain but the interior ceiling is not any warmer to the touch than the walls.

Our biggest temperature problem comes from the windows. While they are dual pane, they are not keeping out the heat (and we suspect won't do much to keep it in during the cold winter months). We can't, unfortunately, afford to replace the windows but we can improve their efficiency with a low-tech low-cost option. Here's our plan:

Cut Reflectix insulation (think bubble-wrap with foil on either side, like auto shades) to fully cover each window. Back with thin plywood. Frame it with 1x2 boards. Temporarily secure to inside window frame and drill holes through the insulating frame & window frame. Put permanent mollies or something in walls and use bolts to screw framed insulation to cover windows as needed.

In the summer, these will be put on east, south, and west-facing windows as the sun moves through the day. At night, they will be removed and windows opened for breezes. In the winter, they will be reversed with the plywood facing the window and the reflective surface facing in to keep heat in during the cold nights. Sounds like a lot of work, but, properly built, they should last for years, be easy to use, just as effective and far, far cheaper than the $5-10,000 it would cost to replace all the windows. With the blinds closed on the windows, they won't show from the outside so it won't look like we're lining the windows with foil either.

Sorry for the long comment, but I think this could be a workable and affordable solution for people.

Frugal Life UK said...

love the bog, in the UK houses are built from two courses of brick with an air gap in between. They then drill holes in the outer walls and blow insulation between the gaps. We then have 1 metre thick, insulation put into our roof and then extra insulation of thick, foil lined polystyrene or sheep fleece in some kind of packing if you can afford it, between the eaves in the roof. We have thermal blinds on our window and small windows on the north side and big one on the south side. Obviously we don't have to cope with the extreme hot and cold that some American and other homes do, it's never really cold and never really hot. I like the sustainable previous response about the blinds. North Europeans, such as the Swedes, have triple glazing on their windows.