Green Building Archive

Adobe Homes for All Climates … Really?

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Tristan Roberts at recently posted a book review of Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree’s Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques, in which he raised some legitimate questions about the book’s “all climates” claim.

Lisa Schroder was kind enough to respond to some of the questions that Tristan raised in his review. Is adobe really appropriate for all climates? Read on, and decide for yourself…

From the Building Green review:

Adobe Homes is filled with practical tips, gorgeous pictures, useful construction drawings, and step-by-step help for anyone looking to build adobe, whether a professional or a homeowner. There are tips on earthquake resistance for locations with seismic concerns. There is extensive guidance on the often-overlooked issue of setting up your site to mix, mold, dry, store, and build with adobe bricks. The book gets into finishes, integrating windows and doors, and a lot more.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t looking at the book with this lens. Before I could really contemplate setting up a site for adobe production, I had to be sold on adobe for this climate. I was looking for ideas on cozy earth building in a climate with 7,500 heating degree days (many of them cloudy, for days at a time), 500 cooling degree days, and a distribution of those heating degree days throughout 12 months. And an adobe structure in this climate will be an energy hog, because, as the authors note, adobe has a very low R-value.

In short, the “for all climates” tagline, which drew me in, is a stretch. Yes, there is a suggestion to add a layer of insulation in colder climates (mentioned in the inspiring foreword by Bruce King, and in a subsequent paragraph in the book). Yes, there are nice pictures of snow-covered Rocky Mountain adobe (which may be cold–at times–but gets a lot more sun, making adobe a better choice). But building an adobe wall and adding insulation to it for this climate requires at least a whole chapter (more than the paragraph currently devoted to it), and perhaps a whole book. Here are some questions that this “missing” chapter might help answer:

  • What kind of insulation works well with an adobe structure?
  • How much is needed?
  • Should the insulation be interior of the adobe, exterior of it, or both?
  • What are the benefits of building adobe and also a secondary insulation system? Why is it worth doing versus just using another construction system?
  • What construction and moisture details are necessary for adobe to be durable through a cold, wet, winter?
  • How does the addition of insulation affect the vapor profile of the adobe wall? Any issues to watch out for

I hope these will be considered in future editions or articles by the author. In the meantime, this looks like a great resource for natural builders in climates where adobe makes more sense–most classically, the Southwest U.S.

Read the full, original review at

Lisa Schroder responds:

Hello Everyone,

First of all, I want to thank you for an interesting discussion.  The topic of how to improve the insulation qualities of earthen walls has been in review for the past few years. My personal experience with adobe has been in areas where the sun does shine, even if just for an hour a day in the winter.  We often made bricks in the rain and covered them tightly with plastic to dry.  Adobe bricks don’t necessarily need the sun, but they do need to be protected from moisture and allowed to dry out.  However, when building an adobe home in colder, cloudy regions, insulation is often needed to make a comfortable home that uses the minimal amount of additional heating.

One great adobe mentor of mine is Quentin Wilson of the Adobe Association of the Southwest in New Mexico.  He states that “strange things will happen if you add insulation to the adobe.  The wall will perform better than the sum of the two R-values.”  He calls it phantom R’s.  This is because the adobe is not an insulator but a capacitor and conductor that mimics insulation in certain situations.  When you couple capacity with resistance you get more resistance than expected in a non-steady state situation.  Electrical engineers understand this as capacitive reactance or a band pass filter.

Considerable research has been done in many parts of the world on this topic and I am happy to share with you some of the conclusions.  Most importantly, the use of passive solar design is essential to utilize the sun’s energy to heat the home in the winter.  This may require reducing the eaves to allow the winter sun to enter the home.

Secondly, it is suggested that home owners insulate their adobe walls at least on the side facing away from the sun; this would be the north facing walls in the Northern Hemisphere or the south facing walls in the Southern Hemisphere.  One recommendation would be to attach 2″ battens, insulating with wool or another natural, breathable material, and cladding.  Many people also use 2″ of polystyrene with plaster over to increase insulation.  Dow Styrofoam Utilityfix xps is a closed cell foam and will not loose its R-value to moisture uptake.

Another good option would be to use conventional timber frame construction with insulation and cladding for the exterior walls and interior adobe brick walls for thermal mass.  These homes make use of all the good qualities of earth, such as regulating humidity levels and neutralizing airborne toxins.  The exterior walls do not require large overhangs, thus are suited for passive solar design.

Lastly, you can make adobe bricks with improved insulation values for exterior walls.  These bricks include light aggregates, such as untreated sawdust and paper pulp, and when combined with earth increase the insulation value.  The exterior side of these bricks walls require 3 coats of plaster for added protection against moisture.

Ultimately, what makes adobe homes suitable for colder climates is when they are designed for the sun.  The excellent thermal mass qualities allow the walls to slowly retain the heat and slowly release the heat into the home.  As for all green building products, some are more suitable to certain regions, and it may be difficult to acquire and produce the necessary adobe bricks in some places.  But studies show that adobe bricks made on site have the lowest carbon footprint of all building materials, and this should be considered with evaluating our building products.

I like the idea of including an additional chapter on insulating adobe where this topic can be discussed in depth with details and examples of the ideas mentioned above. Hopefully this information has shed some light on alternative ways to improve the insulation qualities of adobe brick homes.  I do believe that adobe brick homes can be suitable for all climates, when the appropriate design is applied.  Again, thank you for this lively and interesting discussion.

Lisa Schroder
Co-author of Adobe Homes for all Climates

Su Casa Magazine reviews Adobe Homes for All Climates

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Su Casa Magazine included this complimentary review of Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques, in a fall round-up of newly released building books.  Although Su Casa is based in the Southwest, don’t forget that (as authors Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree explain) adobe can be used in any region or climate!

The following review first appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Su Casa Magazine.

New Mexicans are so possessive about adobe construction, you’d think we invented it here. The truth is, as authors Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree point out, people around the world have built with mud bricks for more than 5,000 years, and earthen material for 10,000—remember Jericho? Today, they claim, half the people in the world occupy an earthen home, and with good reason. Adobe is cheap, dirt is plentiful, and building with bricks lends itself to construction by beginners—which also lures many first-time owner-builders to start laying their own walls. Further, Schroder and Ogletree contend, adobe isn’t just for arid climates, as the book’s examples in New Zealand and England attest.

Adobe Homes for All Climates aims to be an instructional manual for novices, owner-builders, and experienced builders switching to adobe or seeking to learn new techniques. Hoping to encourage and inspire, the authors include fairly detailed chapters about making and laying adobe bricks, installing lintels and making arches, putting in conduits and pipes, installing windows and doors, attaching top plates and putting on bond beams, and applying plasters and other finishes.

New Mexican adoberos, who might rightly claim to have experience with the material second to none, will find a few challenging—or at least different—approaches on these pages. The authors don’t typically insulate their adobe walls, while most New Mexicans now insulate the exterior. Schroder and Ogletree advocate an 11 ¼-inch by 11 ¼-inch by 4 ¾-inch brick versus the typical New Mexican brick of 10 by 14 by 3 ½, the thickness of which accommodates making them in a frame with standard 2x4s (which aren’t really 4 inches). Furthermore, the authors use a sand/clay mix augmented by 5 to 7 percent cement, and they only occasionally add aggregate or fiber like straw. Their bricks, however, will cure even when it’s raining—can’t do that with a pure mud/clay mix—and weather much better in a wet climate.

Maybe the most dramatic difference, though, is Schroder and Ogletree’s patented “Adobe Madre” reinforcement and scaffolding system. They mold their bricks into a variety of shapes, each based on the basic square brick but with cutout holes and channels. Some look like a U, some like a square doughnut, some like a squared C. When stacked appropriately, these shapes accommodate a reinforcing steel bar, plumbing, or electric wiring run vertically through the wall. A channeled brick works with scaffold pipes, allowing you to build up removable scaffolding as you work higher up the wall. When you’re done, you slide out the pipes and fill the holes. Way cool.

If you’re in the target audience—curious newbie or open-minded professional—you’ll want to add this to your reading alongside the other classic adobe books. You’ll find these on most mud-heads’ shelves: Adobe: Build It Yourself by Albuquerque builder Paul Graham McHenry Jr. (University of Arizona Press), which was the bible for a generation of new-to-adobe builders in the 1970s; the classic plan book Adobe Architecture, by Myrtle and Wilfred Stedman (Sunstone Press); Passive Solar House Basics by alternative energy pioneer Peter van Dresser (Gibbs Smith, Publisher); and the more recent Adobe Houses for Today, by Su Casa contributors and home designers Laura and Alex Sanchez (Sunstone Press).

Check out Adobe Homes for All Climates by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree today!

Q&A with Lisa Schroder: Adobe Homes for All Climates

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

We’ve got your burning questions about adobe home building covered in this Q&A session with Lisa Schroder,  founder of Adobe Building Systems LLC and author of our newest Green Building title -  Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques.

First things first: what exactly is adobe?
Adobe is an earthen construction method in which sun-dried bricks are made from a mixture of sand, clay, and sometimes a strengthening agent, such as straw, lime, cement, bitumen, or others.

Most Americans, if they think about adobe at all, think of it as a purely regional building material, limited to New Mexico and nearby southwest locales. But you began building with adobe bricks in New Zealand, of all places. How did that happen?
During my engineering studies at North Carolina State University I began an interest in green building. At the time (1998) there wasn’t much activity in the field, other than promoting more natural paints or carpets. When I moved to New Zealand to study architectural design, I discovered there was a renaissance occurring with earth building. I began working as a designer for adobe homes in 2000 and fell in love with the material and the process. It was fascinating to make bricks and build walls with local material from the nearby quarry. I knew I had found my niche in construction once I was introduced to adobe building.

How adaptable is adobe to wetter or colder climates?
Adobe is best adapted to wetter climates with the addition of a stabilizer. We find Portland cement to be the most user-friendly material to use, as it fortifies the bricks to be stronger and more resistant to moisture. We can make bricks in the rain and build our walls with more confidence in wetter climates. 

In colder climates, it is always best to use solar passive design, which allows you to use the sun to warm the inside of the building as best as possible. In more extreme climates, the thickness of the walls can be increased so that it takes longer for the heat to be released outside. The solid thickness of the walls have a high thermal mass, which improves the thermal dynamics of the home.

Does building with adobe impose architectural limitations?
There are certain limitations to adobe in terms of how high you can build. Building standards require that the taller your structures, the wider the walls have to be. But with a typical 12” thick wall, you can build up to 2 stories. There are, however, beautiful architectural elements of adobe that can be incorporated into any design, such as adobe brick arches, built-in niches in the wall, timber lintels, and a variety of finishes to the wall to suit your individual style.

In your book, you emphasize earthquake resistant construction. Why is that so much of a concern for you?
Unfortunately many lives have been lost during earthquakes from adobe brick homes that collapsed because they were not properly built This has given adobe an often unfair reputation since they can be built to withstand high earthquake zone regions. Rather than replace adobe construction methods with less sustainable construction materials that have a greater impact on our environment, we should educate ourselves how to improve upon this method of building, especially in areas where adobe is the predominant building material.

How can an adobe brick structure be built to withstand earthquakes?
Engineering elements, such as bond-beams, vertical and horizontal reinforcing, and proper foundations, need to be incorporated into the adobe home in an effort to protect the lives of almost half the world’s population that live in them.

What are the advantages to building with adobe bricks?
Adobe has one of the lowest levels of embodied energy of any material used in construction today. Bricks can be made by hand and on-site using unskilled labor, local materials, and easily obtainable tools. Due to the forgiving nature of the slightly irregular bricks, novices can become proficient adobe bricklayers in just a day. Sturdy, solid, and energy efficient walls can be achieved by all builders to create a home that will last for generations with little to no structural maintenance.

How easily can homeowners-to-be build an adobe home by themselves?
There’s often nothing easy about a labor of love. Any construction process will go through times of difficulty and hardship. The difference with building your own home out of earth is the feeling of satisfaction and pride in your walls. By choosing to build with adobe, we are making a choice that eases the impact on our environment for years to come. The bricks may be heavy to work with and more expensive than timber frame to construct, but you can rest assured the final product will be in a class of its own.

Check out Lisa’s book, Adobe Homes for All Climates, to learn more.

An Interview with Stephen and Rebekah Hren on Planet Green

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

On a recent trip down to Durham, North Carolina, I was lucky enough to stay with Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home. Their beautiful two-story house produces enough energy to fill all of their energy needs and is outfitted with all kinds of ingenious projects straight from their book. In front, a garden grows everything from artichokes to pomegranates, while chickens roam around in the backyard. They were gracious enough to talk to me about how we can become a more sustainable society.

What’s the simplest home project people can do to start towards having a carbon-free home?

Two biggies are phantom loads and hanging up clothes to dry instead of using an electric dryer. Phantom loads are things like TVs and computers and also battery chargers that often are on standby and therefore partially on at all times. Using a power strip or motion-activated outlet to turn these things on or off when not in use can often reduce their power consumption by three-quarters. By one estimate, if people in the US were more conscientious about not having phantom loads, that would save enough electricy to power the continent of Australia. Folks often say that solar power is expensive and only for the wealthy, but much of our book is focused on things that both renters and homeowners can do that gives them access to renewable energy and also saves them money. Probably our favorite is hanging up clothes to dry on a solar clothes dryer instead of using a fossil-fuel powered dryer. For a typical household, installing one of these solar devices is roughly equivalent to installing $8-10,000 of solar electric panels.

Read the whole article on…


The Carbon Free Home is available in our bookstore.

The Hrens’ new book, A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office, is available for pre-order now!

Divorce your Dryer and Court Your Clothesline!

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Behold the classic domestic duos of the past: Ricki and Lucy. Ozzie and Harriet. Bennifer. Tom and Jerry. Bush and Cheney. And most important of all, not to mention the most seriously detrimental to human society—um, make that second most serious—the washer and the dryer.

Readers may doubt the importance of separating the latter, but a divorce must be arranged. The dryer, as it were, is an energy-sucking, money-vaporizing, obsolete object that has served its last purpose. Feel free to recycle it, make better use of it, or fill it with water and use as a pleasant place for baby ducks to frolic in your yard. But seriously, if you want to save money this summer, you may have to part with your Maytag and those handy BounceTM sheets, and embrace other ways to dry your clothes.

According to Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, throwing out your dryer is a wicked way to save money this summer.

From the book:

Electric clothes dryers are a colossal waste of energy. They often draw around 6,000 watts. Six thousand! This is more than a typical heat pump or electric water heater, usually thought of as the hogs of the household. Simply put, you should not use this appliance. Gas dryers are more efficient because they use no electric-resistant heat, but they can still draw around 720 watts. That’s a lot, equivalent to about 60 compact fluorescents (not to mention the energy of the gas). You should plan on getting rid of electric heat dryers and hopefully gas-fired dryers as well if your climate allows.

Solar clothes drying shows this energy source at its finest. It’s a great example of simplicity combined with effectiveness. Hang up something wet in the sun, come back in a few hours, and voilà, it’s dry, clean, and fresh smelling. Like everything, having the proper tools to access this resource goes a very long way in making sure it’s effective and easy to do. Some of this depends on your climate and your own personal habits. We realize some parts of the country have very little sun in the winter, but if you set aside a bit of room, even in a closet or a spare bedroom, clothes hung on racks will dry fairly quickly in a heated house.

Just for the record, I am not an eco-psycho. I am a recent convert to the drying rack, and I choose to keep it covered in wet clothes, by a breezy window facing the sun. Actually, to be honest, I was sort of forced to shun the electric dryer—my boyfriend won’t let me turn the damn thing on. He’s a better man than I, with weightier morals. So yesterday while he was out of town, I cheated. I gathered together a bundle of cut-offs, sweatpants, and dirty socks and thought, Oh yes. Now’s my time. I’m gonna get my clothes real warm and dry. But as I began to open our dryer (which I’m about to get rid of), I caught sight of the indoor drying rack, waiting in the sun. I remembered the last batch of laundry, and how it smelled like clean grass. I thought of my electric bill. About my rapidly depleting checking account. The choice, in the end, is actually pretty obvious, and after a couple times using solar drying techniques (clotheslines included), my lazy reflex wore off. I now see it as meditating and investing in my solvent future. Out it goes!

Here are some tips on solar drying from The Carbon-Free Home:

  • Retractable clothesline: An excellent tool for the space-constrained. These come in a variety of lengths and are very simple to install indoors or out. Consider putting these inside near a passive solar wall. The sun will dry the clothes and raise the humidity of the room in wintertime, making it more comfortable inside.
  • Indoor drying rack: Avoid the cheaper models, as they can fall apart rather quickly. These are generally collapsible and can stand alone or be wall-mounted. I recommend having at least two. Being able to place these in sun or near a woodstove will greatly speed up drying time in the winter.
  • Outdoor drying rack: If you’ve got the room outdoors, a permanent outdoor rack is a very effective method for drying clothes, even when the temperatures barely get above freezing. It requires some time to mount properly, but it should function well for decades.
  • Clothespins: These are a necessity and come in two varieties: split or spring. Determine your preference and make sure you have plenty. Hanging clothes from pins rather than folding them over the line greatly speeds drying time and greatly reduces the odds that any clothing will fall off and get dirty. Folding clothes generally means two sides of the clothing are not exposed to the air at all. This more than doubles drying times.

The Hrens’ award-winning book, The Carbon-Free Home is available in our bookstore.

Check out a recent rave review in the Durham News!

Will Anderson: The Carbon-Zero House Builder

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Eco-builder Will Anderson (Homes for a Changing Climate: Adapting Our Homes and Communities to Cope with the Climate of the 21st Century) built a home that actually produces more energy than it consumes. Anderson modeled his home after the tree that forms its central pillar: the tree regenerated new solar cells every year and shut down every winter. In short, it was adaptable. As a young architecture student, Anderson challenged himself to build a home on the same ecological principles.

From the Telegraph UK:

The philosophy of my house is based on the tree that was in the middle of the plot of land and now forms the building’s central pillar. Trees are the most miraculous, sustainable urban structures. They make new solar cells every year and shut down in winter. They are completely adapted to the climate; that’s how I wanted my house to be.

Including buying the land, the house cost us £500,000, but we haven’t compromised on design: it really is a bespoke house. We have no energy bills so it’s very cheap to run and I’m not planning on selling up any time soon.

Read the whole article here.

Related Articles:

Not the Last Straw: Straw Bale Homes Come Back in a Big Way

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

They’re incredibly energy-efficient, fire-resistant, quiet, and have a cozy, organic feel to them. They’re straw bale homes, and though building them fell out of fashion in the 1920s, they’re making a comeback.

One of the most appealing aspects of a straw bale home is that the bales themselves are made of a naturally occurring recycled material. Straw is the waste by-product of crops like rice, wheat, and barley. Rather than burning them and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, straw bale builders are capturing and using the material.

From Mother Nature Network:

After carpenter ants literally ate Philip Higgs’ studio in Boulder, Colo., he decided to rebuild anew — only this time, with straw.

“I wanted to build something that was going to be efficient and use passive solar techniques so that it wouldn’t use a lot of energy,” says Higgs.

Higgs is hardly alone.

Straw has been used as an insulating material for many centuries, and many bale homes built in the 1800s still exist in the U.S. and Europe today. Though building with straw fell out of favor with consumers around the 1920s, straw bale buildings’ popularity has surged in the past 20 years.

The buildings are especially popular in drier areas such as California, Arizona and Mexico. They also can be built in more humid regions, with the proper precautions.

According to straw bale experts, the material is as pest-resistant and waterproof as wood framing. And, contrary to popular belief, straw bales are actually quite fire-resistant due to the tightness of the bales, which keeps out oxygen, a necessary component for fire.

One reason that straw bale buildings are incredibly energy efficient is because of their thick walls and tightly packed bales. One industry Web site claims that a typical straw bale wall is roughly three times as energy efficient as a conventional wall.

Building with straw bales also finds a use for what would otherwise be a waste material. Straw is the inedible stalk from crops like rice, wheat, barley and rye. Because the material doesn’t decompose quickly, farmers can’t simply plow the straw back into the ground, so instead they typically burn it, creating blackened skies and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Read the whole article here.


Celebrate the Winter Solstice by Using Windows to Heat Your Home

Monday, December 21st, 2009

By James Kachadorian, author of The Passive Solar House, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling Your Home

Most people think that solar heating involves some sort of complicated roof top add on feature to a home. In a passive solar home, windows are the primary means of collecting free solar energy. South faced windows are extremely efficient solar collectors. Clear dual glazed (double pane) windows allow up to 91% of the incident sunlight to pass through them. Once the sunlight is in the home and strikes an object, the sunlight turns to heat. The heat is then trapped in the house. This is referred to as the “greenhouse” effect. The greenhouse effect, as it relates to our planet, is written about extensively as a negative effect but the greenhouse effect is quite beneficial to a passive solar home. A passive solar home works without any mechanical assist; that is, a passive solar home collects solar heat and stores the heat for use when the sun goes down. The low angle of the winter sun “turns” vertical south faced windows “on” as solar collectors and the high angle of the sun in summer “turns off” south faced vertical glass in summer. Today is the winter solstice which means that the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky. At north latitude 40 degrees, a south faced window collects more than twice the amount of solar heat in December than it does in June. As can be seen in the solar home pictured, the low winter sun will penetrate the home 22’ at solar noon on December 21 and conversely will only penetrate inches in the same home at solar noon, June 21.

All the home owner has to is face the home true south and properly size the amount of south faced glass. Too much south faced glass will actually overheat a solar home in winter. Too little glass will make the home dark and cave like. The idea is to have just the right amount of glass for the size and location of the home.

We can expect a passive solar home to be about 50% efficient in northern New England and the 60 – 70% efficient in Virginia. This means that up to half the heat needs to come from another source. Recently wood pellet stoves have become a popular way to provide the balance of the heat needed in winter. Wood pellet stoves are an attractive option for several reasons:

  •   Wood pellets are made from wood products that normally go to waste.
  •   Wood pellets burn very clean and are a renewable source of energy.

The stove pictured has a rear hopper into which the pellets are loaded. The stove has two small electric blowers – One to circulate the heat and one to feed the pellets into the burn chamber.

Another nice advantage of the wood pellet stove is that it runs automatically. Slight disadvantages are that you can hear the small electric motors running and the stove does need electricity to run. A stove such as the one pictured will use about 100 watts an hour to run amounting to pennies a day in electrical cost. For those of you that are using my book, The Passive Solar House, to calculate the amount of wood pellets needed per season, select the wood back-up heat option on the included CD. Determine the number of cords of wood needed and multiply it by 2/3 to obtain the number of tons of wood pellets needed per season.

Malcolm Wells, Champion of “Gentle Architecture,” Dies at 83

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Malcolm Wells, a pioneer of underground building and natural design, has died.

Wells died of congestive heart failure in Brewster, Mass., home of the Underground Art Gallery where he resided. His theories of “gentle architecture,” influenced by an environmental awareness of the destructive footprints of man-made structures, would themselves influence generations of green builders to follow.

From the New York Times:

Malcolm Wells, an iconoclastic architect who tirelessly advocated environmentally responsible design and who promoted the idea of earth-sheltered architecture — that is, buildings at least partly underground — died Nov. 27 in Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 83.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Sam said. Over the last decade his father had suffered a series of strokes, he said.

Bearded, affable, self-deprecating and appalled by the destructive footprint that buildings, roads and parking lots can leave on the earth, Mr. Wells was dedicated to what he called gentle architecture, something that would, as he put it, “leave the land no worse than you found it.”

Writing in Architectural Digest in 1971, he set forth 15 goals that he said all new buildings should strive to meet. Among them were to use and store solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful.

To that end, his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, perhaps with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.

Read the whole article here.

Photo: Jay Elliott

Passive Solar Technique: Let Nature Heat Your Home

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Homeowners are increasingly worried about their dependence on fossil fuels. They’re also more and more intrigued by the information about solar energy. Why? Because it saves money, benefits the planet, and makes for a comfortable house that requires little in the name of back-up fuel.

James Kachadorian, civil engineer and founder of Green Mountain Homes, has all the information a homeowner needs in order to implement a passive solar house. Read on!

The following is an excerpt from The Passive Solar House: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling Your Home by James Kachadorian. It has been adapted for the web.

During the summer of 1973, the U.S. economy was booming. We were all whizzing down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the legal speed limit. Gasoline was about 39 cents per gallon, and the posted price of Gulf crude oil was $2.59 per barrel. That year, my wife Lea and I had purchased a lovely old Vermont farmhouse, heated by a coal-stoking boiler that had been converted to oil. The base of this monster boiler was about three feet by six feet, and when it fired, it literally shook the house. We tapped our domestic hot water directly off the boiler, so we had to run the unit all four seasons: Every time we needed hot water, the boiler in the basement fired up. We were burning about 2,500 gallons of fuel oil each year, and in the coldest winter months, it was not unusual to get an oil delivery every two weeks.

Since we had no other way to heat our home, we were entirely dependent on the oil-gobbling monster, and on our biweekly oil deliveries to survive the Vermont winter. Our only alternative source of heat was an open fireplace. Though aesthetically pleasing, the fi replace actually took more heat out of the house than it gave off.

At that time, I was the vice president and general manager of a prefabricated post-and-beam home operation. Like others, I shared the industry opinion that the heating contractor’s job was to install the heating system that the homeowner wanted. As designers and home producers, we were not responsible for that part of new home construction. Home building plans were typically insensitive to the position of the sun. Our prefabricated home packages were labeled simply “front, back, right side, left side,” not “south, east, west, north.” We offered little or no advice on siting, except that we needed enough room to get a tractor-trailer to the job site.

To give you an idea how little energy effi ciency was considered in 1973 in house design (an area of home construction that has since received enormous attention), our homes had single glazed windows and patio doors; R-13 wall and R-20 roof insulation were considered more than adequate. (“R” is the thermal resistance of any housing component; a high R-value means a higher insulating value. Today’s homes typically have much higher R-values.) Homeowners in the 1970s rarely asked about the R-values of their home components, and our sales discussions were less about energy efficiency than about how the house would look and whether it would have vaulted ceilings.

The point is, we were not yet approaching the task of design and construction in an integrated, comprehensive way. We had not yet recognized that all aspects of a design must be coordinated, and that every member of the design team, including the future resident, needs to be thinking about how the home will be heated from the first moment they step onto the site.


In 1973, an international crisis forever changed the way Americans thought about home heating costs. After Israel took Jerusalem in the “Six Day War,” Arab oil-producing nations became increasingly frustrated with the United States’ policy toward Israel. In the fall of 1973, these oil-producing nations began to utilize oil pricing and production as a means to influence international policy. In October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met and unilaterally raised oil prices 70 percent. The impact of this price hike on U.S. homeowners who heated with oil was spectacular. Fuel oil prices soared.

Then the oil embargo hit. In November 1973, all Arab oil-producing states stopped shipping oil to the United States. By December 1973, the official OPEC member-price was $11.65 per barrel—a whopping 450 percent increase from the $2.59-per-barrel price of the previous summer. Iran reported receiving bids as high as $17.00 per barrel, which translated to $27.00 per barrel in New York City.

In addition to giant price increases, oil supplies became uncertain and the United States, which depended on foreign oil for fully half its consumption, was facing the real possibility of fuel rationing for the first time since World War II.

Richard Nixon was president, and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, spent most of that winter in what was termed “shuttle diplomacy,” racing from country to country attempting to bring a resolution to the crisis. He didn’t succeed until March 18, 1974, when the embargo against the United States was lifted. It had lasted five months.

As the international oil crisis was played out over those five months, every oil delivery to our home was marked by a price increase, invariably without notice. Worse, our supplier could not assure delivery. My wife and I had two small children, an energy dinosaur of a house, and no other way to keep warm but to burn huge amounts of oil. We couldn’t even “escape” to a warmer climate, because there were long lines at the gasoline pumps. We had never felt so dependent on others as we did that winter. It was plain scary!

We have done a little better recently, as today only one-fourth of U.S. oil comes from OPEC. Most imports come from more stable Western sources, and are so diversifi ed that a full-scale war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 caused
no gas lines at home. However, we are still over 50 percent dependent on foreign oil sources.

All the concerns about energy seem to have reached a boiling point in September and October 2005. Back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf region of the United States crippled our refining and fuel distribution capabilities, and oil and propane gas soared to new record highs.


I have a background in engineering, and the energy crisis of 1973–1974 provided an incentive for me to investigate solar heating. It was obvious to me that as a country, we had forgotten the basics of good energy management. I just knew that there must be a better way to design and build houses that would capture the sun’s heat and work in harmony with nature. I also have a background in business, and I realized that the energy crisis had opened up a market ready for new ideas about how to heat homes. The energy crisis had shaken us all into action.

The years immediately following the 1970s energy crisis saw a remarkable emergence of new ideas about solar energy. Solar conferences were held, and the public was treated to frequent articles that described new solar home designs in popular magazines. The results of this collective effort were largely positive. Many new ideas were tested. Some succeeded, and others failed, but building specifications focused on energy efficiency developed during that time have now become standard practice. For example, double-pane high-performance glass is now used almost universally in windows and patio doors. Standard wall insulation is now R-20. That was previously the roof standard; standard roof insulation is now R-32. The science of vapor barriers took huge leaps forward, and highly effective vapor barriers are now standard. Exterior house wraps, such as Typar and Tyvek, are applied on most new construction to tighten up air leaks. Appliances are now more energy efficient. Heating systems have undergone major improvements. These days, it is even common for “smart houses” to monitor lighting and to turn lamps and heating equipment on and off according to need. In sum, we are now building better energy-efficient houses, in large part due to the wake-up call we got in the winter of 1973–1974.


Follow us
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By