Thoughts on Building a New House, Part Two: Sustainability

What does it mean to be “sustainable” when you’re in the building business?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  To build anything requires more “stuff” and energy.  Architects are trained to make things and things require energy and materials.  The most sustainable thing we could have done would have been to stay put in the ranchburger or renovate an existing house instead of building new. 

Clearly, we didn’t do the most sustainable thing.  But given that we were going to build we were committed to doing so with as little impact on the world as possible, as much as our budget would allow—not easy.  Though I am LEED accredited, I didn’t have the time or desire to do paperwork so we opted to simply do everything we could, within our budget, to “build green.”

Some primary goals we worked towards:

1. We researched energy efficient ways of building the shell: earth blocks, insulated concrete forms, straw bales, and structural insulated panels.  SIP’s won in the end due to the advertised ease of construction (not so, in our case) and because the factory is located two hours away (next door in West Texas).

2. An efficient, zoned, HVAC system.

3. Water saving features.

Some things we included in the house:


1. Across from our office (see photo at right), the two owners of a house built in 1901 were tearing it down themselves, board by board.  I asked if we might buy the lumber.  They were thrilled and so were we.  As I type this, I look down at our longleaf pine floor boards from the house (originally the shiplap interior siding in the rooms) that date back to the time of Jefferson and Washington.  I counted 223 rings on some of the boards—so I come up with 1779 as the date of the pine seedlings.  The floor is beautiful, dense, and lustrous not like the quickly grown wide grain pine wood of today. Not to say there wasn’t work involved in the reclaiming.  We planed and sawed and tongued and grooved.  Overall, it ended up costing about $9/sf.—pretty good

Additionally, the soffits above our patios came from the floor of the old house.  Glue from old carpet still stains them—we left all the “history” on them even though our workers begged to sand and finish them. 

old floors.jpg

Finally, we bought all of the old studs from the house. They were straight as an arrow and hard as nails.  All the lumber used in our house ended up being reclaimed.

2. We installed a white PVC roof (Durolast) that reflects the heat away in our desert like climate.

3. Installed a 10,000 gallon water cistern to catch rainwater off the roof.  This feeds our large grass lawn that leads down to the creek.  All other landscaping is xeriscaped.

008 Kinney House.jpg

4. We installed low water flow fixtures and used a continuous loop that circulates hot water to fixtures only when there is activity in the house.  This has been one of the things we like most: no wasted water waiting for a shower.

5. Installed insulated Low-E glass with thermally broken window mullions.

6. We carefully positioned windows so that they rarely receive direct sunlight and so that, during the day, we rarely turn a light on.

7. Used a high SEER rated air to air heat pump, zoned.  When the kids are at school, we turn their systems off.   During temperate months, we try not to use the system at all, using natural ventilation and ceiling fans.

8. We tried to minimize trips to the dump by creating a dumping ground of our own for discarded building materials.   Below the extensive fill used to create the slope up to the house we encouraged the tradesmen to dump scraps of lumber, stone, cmu, and other non-toxic materials.  This was the PHOTO donated fill saved from the dump.  The SIP panels, to their credit, had little waste due to their being built (to our design) in the factory.


9. Lastly, we reused a great old fifties globe chandelier that was pulled from a dumpster—it used to hang in the local Junior High School Library and was thrown away(!) during a renovation.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 3:11PM