Design – Reality first

Okay, so I haven’t posted in a while and for several very good reasons.  For one I have had some life changes with my working situation that has thrown me off a bit – I am starting to get back on top of that and getting back to moving forward with this.  Second, it is spring and lots of planting and garden work needs to be done – I have been busy trying to get things prep’d and ready.  Third, I have been stumbling on the design aspect of the living building challenge and that is what I want to talk about today.

So I have been going at this with the standard commercial design process in mind – concept – schematic design -design development – construction ready.  In this standard process the idea starts out fuzzy and get’s refined to reality.  I have come to the reality that this process is severely flawed and doesn’t create a sustainable balanced product.  So I am rethinking the process and going to go at this a little differently – I seem to do things differently from others anyways so why not the design process.

I have noticed that one of my key elements that I need to address before proceeding with the design is my energy budget.  Where am I going to pull my energy and resources from, what is my theoretical maximum limit and what safety or fluctuation factor am I going to have.  This is important, it determines how and what types of systems I have in the building.  Of course I am going to stick with my base premise of making sure the base living systems are simple and manual at the very least with powered convenience layered on top as available and supported by my power budget.

Also, I need to develop a resource budget – for things such as water, material for the methane generator, light, garden, etc.  These play into how the structure gets designed.  If I have limited heating resources then I need to boost my envelope performance until I can break the basic minimum with fluctuation factor.  If I have limited water storage capacity then I need to design for water conservation – for example I have been toying with a simple shower water filtration system that would allow for a minimal amount of water to be used by recirculating it through a simple sand filter – this would also help to conserve energy as it would minimize the amount of heat needed to bring it up to temperature since we are not heating fresh but just reheating.

One thing I have going for me is that I am doing this in three stages – the first stage will be to compare the operation of conventional and non-conventional sustainable techniques.  So I don’t need to have all of this accomplished by the first stage since I will be doing minimal changes to the existing structure.  The second stage will be to evaluate the operational characteristics, make some functional changes as needed to run smoothly and fit real life.  Third stage where I need to have all my information ready and complete will be the final push – that’s where I take what has been working, what has proven itself and match it to my budgets to finish the structure and create a sustainable living environment.

So back to the drawing board in a sense, time to rethink the process.  The whole owner – designer – builder relationship just isn’t ever going to be feasible or reasonable in designing sustainable homes.  I have read about the integration already, but it is going to have to be a whole team effort with everyone putting in effort.  The engineers and architects will be there to help define system limits and the contractor there to define functional construct ability limits, the owner helping to make decisions on what he prefers.  The engineers will most definitely need to take a stronger stance, actually embrace the role of protecting the public as they should and inform the owner and other team members what basic systems need to be in place, sustainable, and simple – water, air, heat/cool, shelter, etc – basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

When considering energy and resource budgets, I am further convinced as to the inadequacy and ignorance of our standard commercial construction practices.  They lack the diversity and robustness to be sustainable and functional for a progressive world, they are a drain and blight on our community and future – these buildings should be stopped from being constructed, existing structures should have to be converted to support themselves, and the design community be reeducated to develop naturally adaptive self sustaining buildings that are a positive attribute to the community and the natural surroundings.

My design is going to take a bit longer than I expected, but I think I will have a better chance of reaching a realistic goal than I would if I just tried to rush through it like all the other standard construction projects out there.  I know this was long, had a little ranting in it, but in the end I hope you got a little out of it and wish me luck as I continue forward.

Rainwater collection

I ran across a great site tonight, it uses google maps and a simple roof tracing tool to give you a conservative estimate on how much rain water you could collect within a year.

My home came up to be able to collect 30,000 gallons just from rain water off my roof.

Last year my water usage was ~ 38,000 gallons with my garden doubling my overall usage.  Meaning my overall yearly can be cut almost in half by just reusing greywater as my primary watering method for the garden.

What is exciting about this is that as I balance my water usage with my supply I see that I am going to be able to have a surplus of available water, which I will discuss how I plan to achieve this – those of you doing the math right now realize that is about: qty 120 of 250 gallon containers, qty 545 of 55 gallon drums.  Astounding yes I know, how to contain all of this, staggering concept and yet I will get into how this is achievable as we get into the grey water and rain collection systems later in the year.  Have fun with this for now.


Site water collection estimate - 30,000 gallons

Forced Air Furnace – Out!!


As part of my goal to eliminate natural gas usage, this weekend I removed my natural gas fired forced air furnace and associated duct work.  The heating system was replaced with oil filled electric heaters located in the bedrooms each 1500W operating at low, with one 1500W in the entertainment room operating at high and low depending on the ambient temperature needs.


If you are not already aware of my goals for 2012, one of them is to eliminate natural gas usage.  I have several appliances that are currently using natural gas – clothes dryer, water heater, and forced air furnace.  Around August of 2011 I replaced my dryer with an electric dryer – removing one gas fired appliance from the list.  This weekend I removed another, the gas fired forced air furnace.  I hope to have the water heater replaced within the next few months, but that is going to take a bit more work to incorporate the change properly.

Heating System

I replaced the forced air furnace system with oil filled electric radiant heaters, which are located in each of the bedrooms and one in the entertainment room.  The front living/dining area and the kitchen do not have any heaters – they are supported from the excess heat from the bedroom units along with any heat from cooking.  I tested the electric heater system for several months during the coldest days here and found it to be highly functional and comfortable.  The change in system has several advantages aside from not using natural gas.  One of those advantages is offered in selective controlled heating of space – I can isolate individual rooms and heat or not heat as needed reducing my overall energy usage.  For example during the week there is only one bedroom that is in need of heating and the other two are not, which translates into significant energy savings over time – my forced air furnace would have attempted to heat the entire home even if only one rooms was needed.  Second, the electric oil filled heaters are more efficient at using the energy to heat than the forced air furnace – air is a poor method for conducting heat and so it is one of the most inefficient methods for heating a home.  Third, I can feel good about the energy I use since I purchase wind energy from the utility at this point.

Overall Goal

To help give a snap shot at a small portion of the overall vision, specifically in relation to heating I can tell you that the electric oil filled heaters are just a stop gap.  The final arrangement will consist of a radiant heating element that allows selective methods for heating depending on the most abundant and available fuel source, which will be discussed in more detail as the projects are taken on so keep tuned in.


I want to start my first post off with something I feel is and should be considered to be the core of sustainability as it should be in our own lives.  This core concept is of course balance and should in no way be confused with other terms such as efficiency, net zero, green energy, or other colloquial term that have little to do with actual sustainability since they focus in on singular aspects of situations and neglect to view the entirety which sustainability would encompass.

To provide an example, when seeking balance you would need to consider from “cradle to grave” meaning you need to understand where things come from, how they are acquired, how they get used, what happens when they are done, what effects are there across this entire process, what changes and is balanced achieved for all of nature involved – not just humans, which this is a subject for a later post since that very comment is a short sighted viewpoint that neglects long term impacts for short term gains.  Balance is basically the viewpoint and goal of integrating with nature and the natural processes, it doesn’t seek to always leave things as they are but to integrate to a point that you are part of nature – there is a balance in the situation.

Efficiency does play its part, but should not be the key focus it appears today.  First and foremost balance should be sought and if for some reason using basic techniques and practices it is not achievable to reach balance then we work towards some efficiency changes to reach that goal.  As an example, a wood stove may not be a very efficient method of heating if you look at it from a purely heating efficiency standpoint – but when you take a wider view of the picture and see it from a balance standpoint it can be a highly sustainable method of providing the basics of heat and so much more.  It can be carbon neutral by burning waste materials, can be used for cooking, can be used for drying clothing, can be used for drying food for storage, can provide light, can heat water for purification or general use, can provide entertainment, non-dependent source of energy – you do not have to pay someone to use it, manual operation, requires very basic an limited instructions to use, requires little to no maintenance to operate, is a long proven technology.  Now when you introduce this technology into areas that are a little more dense or have less available natural fuel then this is where efficiency would play a role – you would seek to maximize the fuel usage or limit the stack output.  However, if neither of these are issues meaning there is adequate renewable fuel source available and no health issues associated with the smoke then there is no need to introduce efficiency measures.

You can take most all other terms associated with sustainability and discover a similar parallel and how they are actually measures to help achieve balance or should be used to help achieve balance.  In the end, any goal of sustainability should be a goal for balance.  We have the knowledge, abilities, manpower, resources and so much more to not only achieve balance of humans with nature but we are also capable of offering so much more to the natural world to provide far reaching benefit and growth.  First though, we have to seek balance with nature and not try to force nature to balance with us.