Making - and writing - 'the carbon-free home,' with author Stephen Hren
Pittsburgh City Paper
By Bill O'Driscoll
June 12, 2008
They thought they were doing it right: When Stephen and Rebekah Hren went off the grid, back in 2003, building their own solar-powered adobe house, it seemed like the biggest favor they could do a warming globe. But the house was in the woods 30 miles north of Durham. That meant that Stephen, a carpenter, and Rebekah, an electrician specializing in solar energy, were each burning up to three hours a day of gasoline to earn their livings.
"Even though the house was sustainable, we were not living sustainably at all," says Rebekah, by phone from Durham. "It was not a very good example to be setting."
Their solution blended the past and the future. They bought a 1930s duplex in central Durham, made it as energy-efficient as possible, then retrofitted it to meet their dialed-down needs entirely with renewable energy. And they wrote about it in their new book, The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, from sustainability specialists Chelsea Green Publishing.
The 320-page book categorizes the projects by skill level, time and cost required for completion, and energy saved. Illustrated with photos and diagrams, it shows how, on a budget, they stopped contributing to global warming and resource depletion, and also saved money.
The Hrens, both 33, did 30 of the projects at the two-story, 1,500-square-foot wood-frame place they bought for $150,000. The efficiency quest began with easy steps like turning off and unplugging unneeded appliances, switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs and line-drying clothes; then came blown-in insulation and storm windows. They now use about 150 kilowatts of electricity a month -- roughly 19 percent of the national household average.
The retrofitting was a little more complex. Their refrigerator, lights, computer and stereo run off a small photovoltaic array they installed. The sun also powers the pump that circulates water to the roof for their "passive solar" water heater. The house is heated by wood stove, and with circulated air from a built-in greenhouse; cooling includes stuff like simply closing the blinds in the afternoon. "We do a lot of daily management of sunlight," says Rebekah Hren.
Meanwhile, the couple's most outré strategies involve cooking. Tools include the woodstove, a solar oven (a crockpot-style outdoor device) and an ethanol stove that burns plant-based fuel. Baking is problematic. "We haven't really figured out the oven part," Rebekah Hren admits. What to eat is less troublesome: They're gardening enthusiasts, and Stephen has a sideline in edible landscaping (fruit trees, etc.).
Carbon-Free Home has projects even renters can do, says the Hrens. And denizens of relatively cloudy Pittsburgh shouldn't fear all the reliance on solar, says Rebekah: "Germany is way ahead of us" on solar, even though that Northern European country gets less sun than most U.S. locales.
Meanwhile, the Hrens still grapple with fossil-fueled transportation: They recently unloaded their car, a Mercedes converted to run on waste vegetable oil, and are exploring new ways to get around.
"It's going to be extremely hard," says Rebekah Hren.
"It'll be a good motivation to get us to learn all the bus routes," says her husband.
Read the whole article here.
By JUDI KETTELER
Kermit said it best: it's not easy being green.
An eco-conscious lifestyle often means going the extra yard. But what if you're not quite ready to make that leap? Well, consider this.
"Making small adjustments to our habits can significantly reduce our wastefulness and have a positive impact on the planet," says Jodi Helmer, author of The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference "When it comes to going green, small changes are easy to make and the benefits to the environment really do add up."
Take a closer look at the green benefits (and consequences) behind some of our daily activities. The numbers are mind blowing (and might give us a good kick in the pants).
Watch the Slideshow
Durham household totally kicks the carbon habit
The Durham News
Elizabeth Shestak, Correspondent
May 16, 2009
In the yard of a rambling 1930s bungalow on Trinity Avenue, a "food forest" grows: Asian pears, peaches, blueberries and a slew of vegetables including lettuce, artichokes and asparagus.
In the backyard sits a solar oven, where you'll often find beans, or another slow-cook meal simmering in a porcelain Dutch oven.
And on the roof -- yes, the roof -- kitchen herbs abound near the large solar panels that make much of what Stephen and Rebekah Hren do possible: live without carbon.
The couple bought the house in 2006 and has since outfitted it to operate purely on solar panels. The panels are tied to the utility grid of Duke Energy, which allows them to sell excess solar power to NCGreenpower, a nonprofit that pays renewable energy producers.
"For the first two years we were here we weren't tied to the utility grid, and functioned off a battery bank and solar power for electricity," Rebekah said. "But it is more efficient, and better in general for the planet, for us to be able to sell our excess solar power, so it feeds into our neighbors' houses when we aren't able to use all of it."
Rebekah, 33, is a certified electrician specializing in solar power, and Stephen, 34, has been restoring old homes for years.
Both enjoy gardening but have received a lot of expert help from their friends and tenants Keith Shaljian and his partner, Kyra Moore. They're the founders of Bountiful Backyards, a group that plants edible gardens. They live in an apartment off the back of the house, which is nearly carbon-free as well.
"I put the first garden bed in the very first day I moved there," Shaljian said. "Beauty is a really important element."
The Hrens wrote a book about their endeavor titled, "The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit." It was published by Chelsea Green in 2008.
On Sunday their home is open to the public for free tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Signed copies of their book will be for sale for $35.
The couple built a solar home from scratch in Person County years ago but realized they were hardly helping the environment with their commutes. Durham appealed to them with its central location (in-fill is friendlier to the earth than new construction), as well as the vibe of the community.
Caddy corner to the home is an apartment complex, and just blocks away sits the ghost of one of downtown Durham's industrial hubs.
The Hrens chose the Trinity Avenue house because it's close to the Durham Farmers' Market. Stephen serves on the board of the Durham Central Market, a planned neighborhood cooperative grocery that hopes to establish a place in Durham Central Park akin to Carrboro's Weaver Street Market.
They also wanted to set an example.
"I think what we are doing is important because it is in such a high-traffic urban area, not way out in the sticks," Rebekah said.
"All the projects we have done are on a totally normal house, not some fancy 'green built' home that cost $500,000," she said. "All the energy efficiency projects we did cost about $40,000, and we got tax credits of nearly $15,000 off that initial cost."
Plus, she said, "our solar panels will last at least 25 years!"
Most of the home's carbon-minimizing tweaks relate to the solar panels, but the superficial changes were done with environmentally friendly materials whenever possible.
"The structure's the same," Rebekah said. "We haven't really modified it."
The funky wallpaper in the living room is 50 percent recycled, the built-in shelves that line one entire wall were made by a local carpenter, and the tiles lining the wall behind the wood-burning stove were reclaimed from a home in Hillsborough.
The kitchen sports the most innovative changes to the home, they said. They use the top of the wood-burning stove as a griddle -- it stabilizes around 400 degrees, and they know which areas are cooler and which stay hot.
They also use an ethanol stove as seen in boat cabins, as well as an induction burner that runs off the solar grid -- they have to use copper-bottomed pots, but the burner boils water quickly.
They love the solar oven in the backyard, but Rebekah admits she misses an indoor oven. They take a tremendous amount of energy, however, and she has learned to embrace the toaster oven instead.
Their other appliances are all Energy Star, a government-backed efficiency program, and like the rest of the home they use solar power.
The wood-burning stove provides much of the home's heat, and they simply do without an air-conditioner in the summer, instead using passive cooling methods such as planting trees near windows that provide shade in the summer and let sunlight through in the winter.
The garden is still a work in progress, they said, but it has come a very long way. The Bountiful Backyards team has helped install rain-water collecting systems and does not use any chemicals in maintaining the plants. They instead grow other plants that repel pests.
"We've slowly been conquering parts of the yard," Stephen said.
Their friend and tenant, Keith Shaljian, said he's really not all that inconvenienced using mostly solar power -- namely, shorter hot showers from time to time.
"The sacrifices are pretty small," he said.
Going green by the book
Posted on Wed, Feb. 4, 2009
Looking for new ways to go green around the house in 2009? Get out of the house - and into your local bookstore.
Books on eco-friendly living are sprouting up all over, offering tips on remodeling, gardening and shrinking your home's carbon footprint.
"We've been doing green books for the last 25 years and feel like we've been wandering in the wilderness. Now the culture has finally caught up, and every publisher is doing green. It's grown a lot in the last few years," says Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vt., which publishes 25 to 30 green-themed titles per year.
Green topics include growing your own food, building a sustainable home and simple ways to go green. These include recently released popular paperback titles "Living Like Ed: A Guide To Eco-Friendly Life" (Clarkson Potter, 2008), by actor Ed Begley Jr., Hollywood's premiere green guru. As well as "Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life" by Sophie Uliano (Collins Living, 2008).
And Chelsea Green's latest 2008 release, "The Carbon-Free Home - 36 remodeling projects to help kick the fossil-fuel habit," by Stephen and Rebekah Hren, was hailed by "Publishers Weekly" as an "endearing mix of down-to-earth practical solutions and funky DIY projects."
The book features carbon-reducing tips like how to create edible landscaping and even build a solar oven out of cardboard and aluminum foil to cook stews, soup, bread and cookies.
"A lot of people want to do something about these problems, but they are unsure of what to do or maybe how to do it," says Stephen Hren, who lives with his wife, Rebekah, in Durham, N.C. "Hopefully we can shed some light on this, especially the fact that you can get to work where you are living now, even if you're just renting."
New gardening books due out this year include "Gaia's Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture" (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009) by Toby Hemenway, who is also an adjunct professor at Portland State University.
Read the whole article here.
Life after (peak) oil
by Gerry Canavan, Jaimee Hills
Rethinking priorities and kicking the fuel habit
Oil no longer springs up from the ground like it does in the opening credits of The Beverly Hillbillies or in the halcyon 1900s of There Will Be Blood. And according to proponents of Peak Oil theory, which was seemingly confirmed in the early 1970s by the rapid drop-off in domestic oil production, the fuel crisis is bound to get worse. But the emergency arrives sooner than when the last drop of oil in the earth puffs out a tailpipe; in fact, it may be starting already.
More than 50 years ago, geologist M. King Hubbert theorized that the rate of petroleum extraction follows a recognizable bell-shaped curve. When the top of the curve is reached, approximately half of the world's oil has been extracted. More important, the maximum rate of extraction has been reached: After hitting the Hubbert Peak, you will never extract as much oil in a given year ever again.
What's worse, you've picked all the low-hanging fruit, the oil nearest the surface and in the largest fields. What's left in the ground after hitting the peak is harder to extract and more expensive to refine. There's oil in the ocean and in the tar sands, and there will be for decades—but from now on we'll have to dig farther and deeper.
Worse still, the demand for oil tends only to increase. Given that the world economy depends on the availability of cheap gasoline to fuel economic expansion, a relatively small shortfall in demand would mean the difference between continued growth and a deep worldwide recession.
Worst of all, from a climate change perspective we've already burned too much oil anyway. What remains to "drill, baby, drill," however much there is, will only add to the growing carbon crisis.
How close are we to Peak Oil? Too close for comfort, according to the best predictions, with some of the world's biggest oil fields already showing signs of depletion. We're entering the post-carbon world, one that has varyingly been depicted in science fiction either as an ecological Utopia or, more commonly, a dystopian Road Warrior apocalypse.
For those in North Carolina who take the Hubbert Peak seriously, and who see it as occurring not only within their lifetimes but in the next few years, neither future seems likely. Rather, they are preparing for a world without oil by steeling themselves for something in the middle, a world after cheap gasoline and the conveniences that come with it.
When Stephen and Rebekah Hren learned about Peak Oil, they geared up for the apocalypse. "Like most people do when they understand the gravity of the situation," Stephen says, "we had a Peak Oil freak out." They bought 10 acres of farmland about 30 miles north of Durham, built an off-the-grid house with solar power and passive solar heating—a "hideout," Stephen calls it now—and waited for the end to come. And waited, and waited.
"After two years we thought, 'Maybe this isn't such a good thing,'" Rebekah remembers. "We're way out in the middle of nowhere and gas is going to get more and more expensive. It became obvious to us that we couldn't really feed ourselves if it came right down to it. We were always going to need support from a community, and we were in no kind of a community at all."
This epiphany was the impetus for the founding of NC Powerdown (www.meetup.com/NCPowerdown), a group that meets about once a month to discuss the transition to a post-oil economy in the context of community activism and shared resources. Rebekah explains the thinking behind the group: "NC Powerdown can do a couple of things. It can publicize peak oil, and it can also be a skill-sharing group and a resource base for people with ideas about how to transition to a lower fuel economy and lifestyle."
"A lot of people at NC Powerdown had the same thought we had: 'Oh, I need to get my acres and grow all my own food," Stephen adds. "We were passing them the other way and saying 'No, no, no, don't do that.' There's no way to get through this transition to lower oil supplies without having a community network—a support network."
And so, as they recount in their recent book, The Carbon-Free Home, the Hrens decided they needed to move back to a city. They sold their country hideout and moved to Durham, citing its transportation, community and culture as pluses for the low-energy, environmentally friendly lifestyle. They bought an older 1930s home on Trinity Avenue to retrofit and refurbish, possessing the necessary carpentry and electrician skills to do much of the work themselves.
"If you want to be energy efficient and have a green house, you don't have to build a new one out in the country," Rebekah says "You can take the house you're living in now and make it energy efficient."
In fact, they went one step further. As the title of the book suggests, the Hrens' house is (almost) carbon-free. "That's another reason why we moved to the city—to be an example," Rebekah says. "We're on a super-busy street, and people walk by all the time and ask about our garden and ask about the solar panels and ask about the house. And it's why we wrote the book.
"We're not saying, obviously, that everybody should try to [live completely carbon-free]... We'll obviously use fossil fuels for some things; you just have to use them wisely. It was sort of a radical approach to see if we could do it."
Read the whole article here.
Leave your carbon footprint at the door
A North Carolina couple aims for a 'carbon free' home and offers a do-it-yourselfer's guide to cutting household fossil-fuel consumption
From Friday's Globe and Mail
August 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
The 1930s house Stephen and Rebekah Hren renovated for themselves in Durham, N.C., is a hard-core environmentalist's dream: It is carbon-free.
That is, the systems in it consume no fossil fuels and do not emit greenhouse gases. The changes the couple made to their home and lifestyle are documented in their new book, The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit (Chelsea Green Publishing), a do-it-yourselfer's guide to cutting fossil-fuel consumption in the home.
Drawing on their experiences, the Hrens offer an accessible guide to dozens of projects, from simple to complex. Some are straightforward, such as insulating the hot water tank, while others require more work and, for most people, a bit of motivation — such as building a "biogas digester" to convert human waste into cooking gas. Not every project is for everyone, and even the Hrens haven't started making their own cooking gas, yet.
Most "green" homes going up today have better insulation and more efficient heating systems than older, conventional homes. The Hrens go a few steps further to cut out fossil fuels altogether.
They have a solar hot-water panel and a 1.2-kilowatt solar array on the roof to supply their hot water and electricity, and use a solar oven for baking and cook on an alcohol stove.
Their metal roof keeps the attic cooler than asphalt shingles. In summer, they use fans instead of air conditioning, and a vine trellis shades the sunny side of the house. In winter, they exchange the screens in their porch for corrugated plastic to capture more heat from the sun, and are putting in a solar heater. After all, even in balmy North Carolina, it gets chilly on winter nights.
Through a combination of changes to the house and their lifestyle, their home contributes virtually nothing to climate change.
While the Hrens' approach may seem extreme in some ways, their attitude about going green at home is pragmatic. They began by keeping an "energy diary" to figure out where they used electricity, oil and gas in their home. Then they began working to eliminate any excess energy use, unplugging appliances to cut the power used while on standby, for example.
"Do what you can when you have the time and money for it," says Mr. Hren, a 34-year-old restoration carpenter. "Anything that's not supporting the status quo is a step in the right direction."
Their book suggests that homeowners start with easy energy-saving changes, and leave the expensive ones, such as installing solar panels, for later. Which is ironic, considering that Ms. Hren, 33, makes her living designing and installing solar systems.
Their three-bedroom, two-bathroom Durham house was their second carbon-free house. It was while working on their first home project that she first became interested in solar power. Their first idea was to build an environmentalist's dream home in the country. In 1996, they bought a lot 10 kilometres from Roxboro, N.C., and built a cob house. (Cob is a mixture of straw and clay that makes thick, sturdy walls.)
Ms. Hren, a licensed electrician, was keen on solar power so she read a lot, assembled the necessary parts and built her own system for the cob house for less than $6,000 (U.S.). "We're very budget-conscious, and I was like, 'I can do it for less than $10,000.'"
But by the time they finished that house, they realized that by commuting nearly 50 kilometres to their jobs in Durham, they were doing more environmental harm than if they lived in a conventional house in the city.
So they rented out the cob house, bought their aging downtown digs in 2006 and got to work. So far, they have spent about $30,000 on the renovation, including about $10,000 for the 1.2-kilowatt solar power system, which provides all electricity for the house as well as a solar hot-water panel. Solar hot water systems are much more efficient than photovoltaic systems, making the solar hot-water heater one of the biggest savings in the house.
The Hrens, who do not have children, also figure they each put about a year's worth of labour into the house.
Ms. Hren says their most effective tool was their energy diary. They researched the consumption levels of all their appliances, large and small, and kept a log of how long they used each one. Then they could see where most of the energy was going, and work out which lifestyle changes they could make to reduce their overall carbon footprint.
The couple saw the biggest energy savings from the most dramatic changes. Blowing fibreglass insulation into the walls and attic cut their heating and cooling costs by an estimated 40 to 50 per cent. The house had an ancient boiler and rusted-out radiators (the previous owner told them it cost more than $500 a month to heat the house in winter).
They also upgraded the windows and installed insulated curtains.
"They cost money, but they're a good investment," Mr. Hren says of such expenses. "You're saving money over the long haul and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions."
The Hrens open their window blinds in the daytime to take advantage of the sun's heat. They use a woodstove for cooking and for heating on cloudy days, though they plan to install a solar air heater, essentially a box that mounts on the exterior of a house (preferably on a south-facing wall). Small fans pull cool air from the house into the bottom of the box; the sun warms the air, which rises and is blown back into the house.
Mr. Hren says their monthly household bills now total $40 for water and sewage, $15 for cooking fuel and, in future, about $150 for a cord of wood (so far, they've been using wood from an old oak tree they removed to improve the home's exposure to the sun).
The Hrens' other energy-saving moves cost little to nothing, though there's no question some would be challenging for families with babies and toddlers (think loads of diapers) or teenagers immersed in the Internet and Wii games.
Hanging clothes to dry was a key move for the Hrens, given that using a clothes dryer for an hour a day consumes about as much electricity as their $10,000 solar-power system produces.
Turning down the hot-water heater to 48 degrees from the factory preset of 60 degrees resulted in energy savings of 15 to 20 per cent, Mr. Hren says. And they unplug standby appliances and battery chargers when not in use; a television on standby uses more energy than watching it for two hours a day, he notes.
When it comes to solar-power systems, Ms. Hren says there are a couple of reasons to leave photovoltaic panels until last, because a number of changes must be made before installing them.
For example, the Hrens chose a metal roof because it's easier to collect rainwater from metal; asphalt shingles shed a lot and don't drain as easily. Municipal water systems use a lot of electricity, so capturing rainwater to wash clothes and water the garden indirectly cuts carbon emissions.
Most importantly, solar-power systems are expensive. Before looking at solar electricity, the couple recommends considering a solar hot-water heater, which is much less expensive. The one in their home normally costs $7,000, but government tax credits brought it down to about $3,000.
Many Canadian cities, including Toronto, also offer subsidies and financing that make solar water heating an attractive option.
Special to The Globe and Mail