No one said it would be easy to build the greenest house on the block. Scott Adams on perplexing energy bills, ugly lawns and the true meaning of ‘green’
Let’s say you love the Earth. You see an article in a magazine about a guy who built a “green” house using mostly twigs, pinecones and abandoned bird nests. You want to build a green home, too. So you find an architect, show him the magazine and say, “Give me one just like this.”
Good luck with that.
Your architect only knows how to design homes using materials that his local planning commission is likely to approve. But he wants the job, so he tries hard to talk you out of using twigs, pinecones and abandoned bird nests. He tells you that no builder will build it. He tells you it won’t get approved by the city. He tells you it won’t stand up to earthquakes, hurricanes or termites. But you persist. You’re saving the Earth, damn it. No one said it would be easy.
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.
No builder wants a risky project that could end his career. And how would he price it? He’d have to learn a whole new building method and find subcontractors willing to take on the risk. Amazingly, after a long search, you find a builder who is willing to tackle the project for about 25% more than the cost of a traditional house frame, which is reasonable given the extra business uncertainties. You’re OK with the extra costs because you’re saving the Earth, damn it.
Against all odds, you get the house built. But you can’t figure out why your monthly energy bill is the same as your neighbor’s. That magazine article assured you that twigs, pinecones and bird nests are excellent insulators. Where did you go wrong?
One day you run into an engineer who, unlike yourself, actually knows something. He listens to your whining about your energy bill and speculates that perhaps the walls weren’t packed densely enough. Or maybe there was too much moisture in the mix. Or maybe magazine articles are a bad way to learn about the science of insulation. Or perhaps, he speculates, while choosing his words carefully, you were too ignorant to realize that the majority of your energy loss is through your windows and roof.
My point is that being green is hard. My wife and I recently built what is arguably the greenest home for miles around. OK, stop. This is a good time to define “green.”
The greenest home is the one you don’t build. If you really want to save the Earth, move in with another family and share a house that’s already built. Better yet, live in the forest and eat whatever the squirrels don’t want. Don’t brag to me about riding your bicycle to work; a lot of energy went into building that bicycle. Stop being a hypocrite like me.
I prefer a more pragmatic definition of green. I think of it as living the life you want, with as much Earth-wise efficiency as your time and budget reasonably allow. Now back to our story.
When I started researching the field of green building, as part of the planning for our own home, I learned that, in many cases, you can’t get there from here. Allow me to share some of the things we learned. It’s California-centric, but I think you can generalize from my experience.
As a rule, the greener the home, the uglier it will be. I went into the process thinking that green homes were ugly because hippies have bad taste. That turns out to be nothing but a coincidence. The problem is deeper. For example, the greenest sort of roof in a warm climate would be white to reflect the sun. If you want a beautiful home, a white roof won’t get you there. Sure, you could put a lovely garden on your roof, because you heard someone did that. But don’t try telling me a garden roof wouldn’t be a maintenance nightmare. And where do you find the expert who knows how to do that sort of thing?
Second, the greenest sort of home would have few windows because windows bleed heat. In particular, if your lot has a view to the west, forget putting windows on that side because your family members will heat up like ants under a magnifying glass. Try telling your architect that you don’t want a lot of windows on the view side. He’ll quit.
Remember to skip the water-wasting lawn. White pebbles are the way to go if you want to save the Earth. I was born with almost no sense of style whatsoever, and even I hate looking at pebble lawns, although I do respect the choice.
Realistically, you’ll need to find a middle ground between green design and aesthetics. We chose roof tiles that are lighter colored than a typical roof, but nowhere near white. We used artificial grass in the side and back of the house, which is great for playing, while leaving a small patch of natural grass in the front for appearance. We have relatively few windows on the hot west side facing the street and most are shaded. The greenest number of west-facing windows would have been zero, but that would poop all over the curb appeal.
The next problem you discover when trying to build green is that there is no way to model the entire home’s energy efficiency before it is built. It’s as much guessing as engineering. Every home is unique. You can’t be sure if, let’s say, a whole house fan in the attic is worth the extra expense, assuming you do everything else right. We opted for the fan, which is designed to efficiently draw in the cool evening air. In practice, we don’t use it because it makes a hum that I barely notice but my wife doesn’t want to hear. I did not see that coming.
We have a photovoltaic system for generating electricity. That’s the most visible sign of a green home, and probably the dumbest. I expect the system to pay for itself in nominal dollars, perhaps in 15 years. But if I compare it with the most obvious alternative, it makes no economic sense. The smart alternative would have been to wait until the costs for systems like this drop by 50%, which will probably happen in a few years.
I confess that we put in the photovoltaic system partly for psychological reasons. I heard great stories of energy meters “spinning backwards” and I wanted in on that. But thanks to our local power company, PG&E, I’ve been unable to determine if the system is working at all. I know for sure that during the first four months I generated power for PG&E, gave it to them for free and then bought it back at full price. It had something to do with a delay in PG&E getting the right kind of meter installed.
Now we have the right meter, but no backward-spinning anything that I can detect. And I think I’m getting billed full price, but I can’t decipher the impenetrable documents they send me.
The biggest energy drain in a home is for heating and cooling. We opted to heat our home with a system that runs warm water through all of the floors. The system is energy efficient, I’m told, and wonderfully comfortable, but it’s powered by gas. So while our photovoltaic system will someday help during the summer, it will never help much in the cold months when the sun is wimpy and we’re burning gas to heat the floors. Worse yet, the heated floors are so pleasant that we probably overuse them compared with a forced air system. That’s a classic unintended consequence.
Conclusion: Photovoltaic systems are a waste of money. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because I love the Earth, damn it. In my defense, the price of your future photovoltaic system will never come down unless idiots like me pay too much today. You’re welcome.
Throughout the building process I picked as many expert brains as I could to figure out what energy-related aspects of the house would be the most bang for the buck. Opinions sometimes varied, but here’s what came out at the top.
Heating and cooling are the biggest energy thieves. And roofs and windows matter the most for heat transfer. Focus your research and budget there. Most of the information you find will come from manufacturers who have a financial interest in misleading you, and also of course from cartoonists who write opinion pieces after being misled by those same manufacturers. Good luck with your research.
If your local building code doesn’t already require a radiant barrier—a type of insulator for the roof—then look into it. I’m told that should be on the top of your list, at least for warm climates. This would be a good time to point out that nothing you learn about green building materials will be supported by relevant data that is in the proper context for your particular home. But the rest of your life is probably a mess too, so you’ll get used to it fast.
If you’re thinking of buying a home that has lots of windows on the wrong side for your climate, you should pass. Few things make a home less liveable, and more of an energy hog, than improper orientation to the sun. I’ve lived in two homes with that issue, and it causes a variety of problems. For example, all of my dreams involved trying to extinguish fires using nothing but my ingenuity and a full bladder.
A classic energy mistake is to put in an oversized heating and cooling system. Consider hiring an independent engineer to recommend a system size. That way you can elevate your problem from not knowing what size your furnace should be to not knowing if you hired the right independent engineer. You’ll be surprised how good that feels.
Attic fans, and whole house fans (which are different), get good reviews for homes that are not otherwise well designed. If you do everything else right, the fans might not make that much of a difference. But from experience I can tell you that everyone who knows a little bit about green building will ask if you have a fan system. A low-cost alternative is to simply tell people that you have a whole house fan that somehow makes your energy meter spin backwards.
If your budget allows, it’s good to include a lot of stonework in the interior. The thermal mass of the stones is a natural regulator of temperature. The same goes for a solid slab foundation. And obviously when you build your own home, your entire body will become tense and calcified from the process, which probably helps keep your couch at a good temperature year round. A lot of this is just common sense.
Kidding aside, I do love the Earth, damn it. And if my only contribution to its well-being is joining the early adopters (OK, idiots) so that those who follow have better information and lower costs for green building, I’m OK with that. I just hope it’s enough to make up for the squirrel I ran over this morning with the minivan.
Scott Adams is the creator of ‘Dilbert.’
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704868604575433620189923744.html