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    Has your dream ever been to live in Alaska? Our aprox. 3075 square feet (1-3 bedroom) home on 2.96 acres is a passive solar, straw bale structure ten minutes from Fairbanks. This home is both a 5-star Alaska energy plus rated home and is the Alaskan home example (2004) on the homes-across-america.org website. This home […]

A Different Kind of HVAC Contractor – And the Book He Wrote

Trish Holder of GreenspirationHome.com Interviews Joe Gorman, Contractor and Author of From Contractor to Consumer

Joe Gorman From Contractor to ConsumerThe book you’ve got to read (or at least skim) before choosing an HVAC contractor!

Not long ago I ran across a book on the internet entitled, “From Contractor to Consumer:  The Truth about Heating, Air Conditioning, and Home Comfort Systems”. HVAC nerd that I am, I had to investigate.  After all, this was pretty out of the ordinary for a HVAC contractor to write a book – much less one that is actually geared toward educating consumers.  Frankly, I think a lot of them would like to keep us stupid.  So, I asked Joe to send me a copy of his book and he did.  I was so impressed with this easy-to-read little book (and Joe’s initiative to write it) that I decided to interview this rare contractor who happens to agree with me that what a homeowner doesn’t know about their HVAC system really can hurt.

Read the rest…

 

Site Selection and Analysis

Choosing a site on which to locate a new home is not a simple task. Countless factors – natural, man-made, social and economic – must be examined. Where we choose to build and how we build on a site have an impact on the local and global environments, ongoing costs (utility bills, maintenance) and our physical and psychological well-being. With today’s rapid growth, dwindling resources and increasing pollution threats, concern for human and environmental health are causing us to take a closer look at our building practices, starting with the building site. Whether selecting a site or working with an existing site, and whether the site is urban, suburban or rural, there are many aspects that can be examined with respect to how “green”, that is how healthy for people and the planet, the home on that site can potentially be.

Location, Location, Location

Selecting a building site close to work, schools, shopping, etc. will minimize travel distances and time. Short distances, sidewalks, bike paths and bus stops will allow for healthier modes of transportation and the avoidance of excessive costly, polluting automobile trips. A lot in an established neighborhood located close to town is a particularly good choice for many people. This land has already been dedicated to residential development, so more natural land does not have to be destroyed and the costly roads and utilities are already in place.

Avoiding environmentally sensitive areas helps protect some of the features that makes many areas so special – our creeks, lakes, aquifer, tree-covered hills, wildlife, native wildflowers & plants.  Flat to moderately sloped sites are preferable to steeply sloped lots, as soil erosion, loss of hillside vegetation and damage to waterways are more difficult to avoid when building on steep slopes.

“Site Repair” is a special approach to selection of a building site that can have economic and aesthetic benefits for the prospective homeowner while restoring the local environment rather than burdening it. This involves choosing a site that has been abused (stripped of vegetation, eroded, invaded by exotic (non-native) vegetation, etc.) for the location of the home. Placement of the new home on the “scarred” area often leaves the more beautiful areas to be looked out upon and enjoyed.

Design For The Climate, Flora, Fauna & Soils

The chosen building site can greatly affect the comfort and energy efficiency of the home built upon it. A south-facing slope or good southern exposure on a lot which allows for the long sides of the building to face north and south will facilitate the utilization of our prevailing summer breezes and desirable winter solar heat gain. A hot, bare site will require a greater investment in wide overhangs, shading devices such as awnings or trellises, and shade trees to keep utility bills down and comfort levels up.

Examination of a particular site’s unique characteristics is important. The top of a hill may be too windy, drying and exposed to the hot sun. A valley may be too damp, windless, foggy or subject to flooding. Location and type of trees should be evaluated for summer shading assistance, summer breeze channeling or blocking, winter wind blocking, and winter solar heat gain penetration.

A lot that allows for placement of the house on a relatively flat area and in a natural clearing will minimize disruption of the natural vegetation. This will avoid erosion, discourage growth of invasive exotic vegetation, and be less expensive than massive reconstruction. Minimizing disruption of natural drainage patterns is generally less expensive up front and avoids costly maintenance of elaborate constructed drainage systems. When native trees and vegetation must be removed, they can often be replanted elsewhere on or off the site. Respecting existing wildlife trails and habitat will enhance wildlife observation enjoyment.

Minimization of Raw Materials

One of the best ways to minimize the use of raw materials is to select a site that already has a home on it, and remodel as necessary. At times it makes sense to move an existing home to a new site. Some sites may offer sources of usable building materials such as wood, stone, clay and sand which, if carefully and thoughtfully considered, can be a sound alternative to importation.

One of the best ways to minimize the amount (and cost) of building materials required is to keep the size of the home reasonable. With thoughtful design a small home can be very comfortable, functional and respectful of privacy. Smaller, more affordable lots should not be overlooked.

Social/Psychological/Functional

How the site “feels” – inviting or forbidding, hot or cool, open or intimate – may affect how much the new homeowners take advantage of outdoor living spaces. Maximum use of patios, decks, natural clearings, or other outdoor rooms can result in the need for less indoor square footage that needs to be constructed then heated and cooled, not to mention the psychological and physical benefits of being outdoors. A prospective building site should be examined for existing tree groupings, landforms or structures that will aid in creating pleasant, usable outdoor spaces. Off site conditions which may affect outdoor livability or indoor living with open windows (such as traffic noise, odors or pollution) should be considered before selecting a site.

Many site selection and home design decisions that are good for the environment also have direct positive benefits on the occupants’ health, well-being and budget. Helping to preserve our environment through more thoughtful site selection and home design is one very important step toward a continued high quality of life.

 

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

New Free LEED for Homes Scoring Tool

Word on the street is it’s pretty well done: http://www.leedforhomes.org/OST/homepage.aspx

Did it work well for you?

Update: I got a chance to give this a spin. The “quick score” is straightforward and works well (the dream building I entered came in about half way between Gold and Platinum). The more detailed scoring gets into a few areas where making one choice takes several others off the table, but other than that and the time it takes to go through all the myriad details, it also works well. Give it a try.

Plant a Tree This Winter For a Green Spring

By Dick Peterson

Winter is one of the best times to plant a tree. Many excellent varieties are available at your local nursery, with some of the best trees available in the winter. Your new tree will use the winter dormant season to establish new roots. When spring arrives, your tree will be on its way to providing shade for generations to come. While it may seen obvious that planting a tree is a good thing, here are some reasons which may not have not occurred to you. Well-placed trees can save you money on your utility bills. In the summer trees shade your roof and windows and also cool the air around your house as they breathe. In the winter, evergreens can block cold north winds. By using less electricity you help cut down on emissions from power plants that contribute to the “green house effect.” Trees of course clean the air by creating oxygen, and they also keep our cities cooler by reducing the “heat island” effect. This is caused by concrete and asphalt storing and reflecting heat, making urban areas hotter.

Choosing a Tree

Ask your nursery professional to recommend a tree that is native or adapted to this area. Don’t ask for the fastest growing tree such as an Arizona ash, cottonwood, Chinese tallow or poplar. Their fast growth results in weak, brittle wood. They are also prone to freeze and insect damage, leaving you with the expense of tree removal just when you expect to be receiving shade. Excellent deciduous trees for this area include Chinese pistache, cedar elm, Drake elm, pecan, Texas ash, and bald cypress. These trees will lose their leaves in the winter and provide access to the winter sun to warm your home. Two of the best choices in this category are the burr and chinquapin oaks. Recommended evergreen selections include live oak, Afghan pine, deodar cedar, and cherry laurel.

Choosing a site

Survey your site and decide the best location for your tree. Choose the variety based on mature size compared to the space you have available. Most planting mistakes are made by placing a tree that will become very large in the wrong place; under a power line or too close to the house, driveway, or walkway. Don’t place the tree near water, gas, cable TV, telephone or sewer lines. In Austin, phone One Call (they’re listed in the Phone book); they will locate and mark all underground utility lines in the digging area. In other locations, call your utility or service supplier. Now dig a test hole. Be sure your location is not one large limestone boulder with a thin layer of soil over it. If you hit a large rock, move over a bit and try again. When you are sure you can dig an adequate hole, then purchase the tree. When you know the size of the hole you can dig, your original plan for a large balled and burlaped tree may change to a five gallon size. The smaller size is easier to plant, less expensive, and may grow more rapidly than the larger tree.

Planting the Tree

Dig your hole three to five times as wide as the container or root ball. The hole should be no deeper than the container. If you disturb the native soil below the root ball, the tree may settle and sink too low. The sides of the hole should not be smooth. Dig an ugly, ragged hole or even a square hole. Use a pick or shovel to break up the vertical soil surface. This gives the roots a chance to grow into the native soil. Carefully remove the tree from its container and place it in the hole. Large trees may require the aid of several helpers to avoid damaging the roots. If the roots have begun to circle inside the container, straighten them out from the root ball as you refill the hole. Most times a newly planted tree will stand on its own. If necessary, drive a sturdy stake at the edge of the root ball. Use an old nylon stocking to loop a loose figure eight around the tree and the stake. Fill the hole with the removed soil, not peat moss, compost, or bagged soil. It’s best to get the tree immediately accustomed to the soil in which it will be growing. Otherwise the roots tend to stay in the amended soil and never grow into the surrounding native soil. As you fill, compress the soil with your foot several times to prevent air pockets. Use the extra soil to build a dam around the edge of the hole. Water thoroughly and deeply. A liquid root stimulator may be used, but is usually not necessary. Cover the area inside the dam with 3-4 inches of organic mulch. In the absence of rain, a good soaking every two weeks is sufficient during the winter.

 

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Dick Peterson was City of Austin Xeriscape Coordinator.

Deter Pests and Use Less Pesticide With Good Home Maintenance

by Erik Bliss

For decades we have relied on chemical barriers to keep pests out of our homes, rather than trying to physically exclude them. As more people become concerned with the health and environmental risks associated with chemical pesticides, the focus of pest control has shifted towards a more “integrated” approach. Officially called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, this approach is a balanced, tactical approach that controls pests with the least risk to human health and the environment. Good home maintenance practices are fundamental to a successful IPM program.

Most people probably own homes that were not designed or built with IPM in mind. So, most homeowners must “retrofit” for pest control. Every home has identifiable weak points where pests are likely to enter or reside. Identifying and fixing these is an effective way to control pests.

The following list of common problem areas associated with pests can be used to do a quick inspection of your home’s exterior. Many pests are attracted to water or water-damaged areas. Pay close attention to any area of your home that may come in contact with water. It may not be feasible to fix all the problems you find but identifying them will make it easier to monitor for pest activity. Making a few minor repairs now can save you money in the future by avoiding costly damage done by termites, carpenter ants and other pests.

The Foundation

Problems are often caused by poor drainage. After a rain, check the drainage patterns in your yard. Water should not be collecting near or running under your foundation.

  • Downspouts Gutters often dump water only inches away from your foundation. Modify the downspouts to channel water farther away from the foundation (several feet if possible). You can purchase concrete blocks that will accomplish this or you can extend the gutter piping.
  • Flower Beds Raised beds sometimes act as dams that pool water near your foundation. Channel this water away from your home. It will not only discourages termites, but will also help irrigate your lawn.
  • Window AC units Check the soil beneath these units for dampness. Condensation can sometimes be the source of unwanted moisture near your foundation.
  • Leaking Sprinkler Systems and Faucets Make sure even small drips are fixed promptly.

Exposed Wood

Wood is subject to pest attack where it is exposed to soil or weather. Subterranean termites tunnel through the soil in search of wood to eat. When encountering an obstacle in the soil, your concrete foundation for example, they will build mud tubes upwards to continue scouting for wood. Tubing is hard and dangerous work for termites so they usually abandon the tube fairly quickly if they don’t find wood to infest. As a deterrent, keep any wood or cellulose building material at least 8 inches away from the soil.

  • Siding and trim Soil or mulch closer than 8 inches from your siding or trim can encourage termites. Brick and stucco veneer houses are at particular risk. If the seal between the frame and the veneer is broken, termites can tunnel undetected in the space, often doing expensive damage before they are discovered. Remove the soil or mulch and create an 8 inch space. Keep your home’s paint, stucco, or brick in good condition to avoid carpenter bee and carpenter ant attack.
  • Wooden beams or steps If these contact the soil, termites can tunnel right up into your home. You could monitor them closely, or replace them with metal or concrete. If you use concrete for steps, you must use a water proof spacer (such as metal or plastic) between the concrete and wood siding, since concrete will draw water to the siding.
  • Earth-fill porches Some concrete porches are filled with dirt and are often the source of termite access to homes. Have your pest control technician check wood near the porch carefully every year.

Roofs and Gutters

Roofs and gutters are designed to protect your home from the rain. When not functioning properly they can cause water damage and pest problems.

  • Tree limbs Limbs must be pruned away from the roof. The movement of the branches across the roof can damage the shingles and allow water to damage the wood supports. Insects, especially carpenter ants, use limbs as bridges to enter your home.
  • Clogged gutters Gutters that hold water are mosquito breeding sites. Clearing them of leaves periodically will reduce this risk.

Attics and Crawl Spaces

Attics and crawl spaces are built with vents to reduce moisture build-up. It is important to keep these vents to the outside open and operating, especially in humid areas like Austin. Remove newspaper or cardboard that you have placed in your crawl space. These materials are made from wood pulp and will attract termites.

  • Blocked vents Keep plants and shrubs pruned away from foundation vents.
  • Painted-over vents Many homes have vents under the roof eaves. These vents can be small and are frequently painted over by mistake. Remove any paint that may be clogging the vents. Do not plug the vent if wasps or other insects are using the vents to get into your attic. Instead, use window screening as a barrier.

Kitchens and Bathrooms

Kitchens and bathrooms are common sites of pest problems because of the presence of plumbing and associated water.

  • Unsealed entry points for pipes Many times the areas where pipes enter the house are not properly sealed. Insects like roaches and termites are attracted to the dampness and can crawl right up the pipes. Make sure the entry points are closed with an appropriate sealant.
  • Leaks Fix leaks, even small drips, promptly. Toilets may have hidden leaks at the base caused by a failure of the wax seal between the toilet and the floor. This will cause the floor in a pier and beam house to rot out and attract termites.

Wood Piles
Wood is frequently piled next to homes or garages. These piles attract ants, roaches, termites, and rodents. Wood should be piled away from any building and preferably off the ground on pallets or concrete. Cover the wood with a plastic tarp for even more protection.

By taking care of these maintenance concerns you will lessen pest problems around your home, and more importantly, you won’t have to use as many chemicals. That’s better for your health and the health of the environment.

If you are planning to build a new home, there are many tactics that you can take during construction that will deter pest problems. Call your city’s building department for more information on building practices that deter pests.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Mr Bliss was with the City of Austin Drainage Utility.

Logical Landscapes for Green Living in Central Texas

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman in 1996 but is still relevant today.

by Dick Peterson

You bought a home–it cost a lot of money. Now you want a landscape that will enhance your home’s beauty, add value to your home, and be easy to maintain. Landscaping choices are an important part of the City’s Green Builder Program. By making good choices when you plant, you can save time, money and protect Austin’s beautiful natural environment.

Austin is unique; that’s why you live here, or got here just as fast as you could. But so are Austin’s soils–and not knowing your soil and the plants that will grow and thrive on your lot could be costly both in time and money. The Central Texas region consists of several soil and climate combinations which means that landscape decisions should be specific to your site.

Three distinct vegetation areas meet in Austin: the Edwards Plateau, the Blackland Prairie, and the Post Oak Savannah. Each of these areas has different soil types with different planting requirements. The native and adaptive plants (adaptive plants are non-native plants that thrive in this climate) that will thrive on these soils are also very different. Before you plant, take this tour of Austin soils types and choose your landscape to fit.

The Edwards Plateau is generally west of Mopac. This area features shallow soils with rolling hills and steep slopes. West Lake Hills, Oak Hill, and Rollingwood are representative communities. Commonly referred to as the beginning of the Texas Hill Country, the Plateau’s undeveloped areas are dominated by mesquites, oaks, and cedars (really junipers). When you choose a homesite in the Hill Country, take stock of the existing vegetation and develop a plan with your builder to protect it during construction. Avoid indiscriminate clearing of the land in this very ecologically-sensitive area. Limit fill only to that required to insure adequate drainage away from the foundation. Avoid cheap “sandy loam” fill. It is usually an infertile product referred to by landscapers as “red death.” Use a “landscapers mix” instead.

The majority of new plants in the landscape should be native or adaptive to the area. For trees, select Bur and Chinquapin oaks, cedar elm, Chinese pistache, Mexican buckeye, Mexican plum, Texas persimmon and Texas redbud. For shrubs, select Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly, nandina, mountain laurel, yuccas, and native bunch grasses.

The Blackland Prairie is generally east of the Balcones Fault. Soils in this area are mainly deep and the terrain is gently sloping. Sunset Valley and Manchaca are right on the dividing line. The intersection of the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific rails at McNeil is just west of the line. Undeveloped homesites in this area were once farmland. Fertile areas near Del Valle and Govalle were used as truck gardens at the turn of the century and provided early Austinites with fresh produce. Existing vegetation may include grasses and scrub brush. Existing trees may consist of oaks, pecans, and some cedars. Pecans, oaks, and Texas ash are excellent selections for new landscapes. Some shrub choices include cherry laurel, Indian hawthorn, oleander, and Burford, Chinese, or yaupon holly.

The Post Oak Savannah is generally east of Austin. Indicators for this area are sandy, slightly acidic soil with post oaks. Some references include this area in the Blackland Prairie or in a more inclusive area referred to as the Cross Plains and Timbers, so plants from Blackland lists may be appropriate for your specific site. Some landscape plans for this area may include some of the selections from both the Blackland Prairie and the Edwards Plateau lists. This may seem a bit confusing, but look at your actual site. A city by city list of regions is included in the “must have” book, Native Texas Plants – Landscaping Region by Region, by Sally and Andy Wasowski (Gulf Publishing Company). Sally suggests starting “with the city you live in or live closest to. Next read about the possible choices for your area. Then go outside, look at your soil, and match it as best you can to one of those described for your area. The plants listed under your soil description are the ones most characteristic of that region and can serve as indicators.”

Each homesite should be evaluated for the dominant soil type, not by its location on a map. The above regions and soil types are general. Your site may be slightly different from your neighbor, both in soil and climate. If you are unsure about the type of soil, consider getting a soil analysis. This is a free service at some area nurseries, or contact your county Agricultural Extension Service.

Create zones in your landscape according to existing or improved soils. Group plants that have similar soil and water needs together. Keep high water use plants to a minimum and group these together to make a miniature oasis. These small distinct areas can be easily maintained if they are near the front or back door. Be aware of microclimates that exist even on your own property. New Braunfels author Scott Ogden writes in Gardening Success with Difficult Soils (Taylor Publishing), “Even the smallest gardens offer a series of microclimates around the house or grounds that favor various plants and enable a wider variety to be grown.” For example, reflected heat from walls or patios can create pockets of warmer temperatures for more tender plants, while plants exposed to cold north winds need to tolerate colder winter temperatures.

Native and adaptive plants thrive the best and are low maintenance. Low maintenance alternatives to traditional landscaping are becoming the norm. In Central Texas, with our hot, dry summers, native and adaptive plants require very little water to thrive. In the 1980’s, the word Xeriscape was coined from the Greek word “xeros” for dry. Xeriscape is defined as “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” It is not a style of gardening, but a method of gardening.

Recently, a neighbor of an award-winning Xeriscape commented, “I’ve never seen a ‘zeroscape’ that I liked.” What he didn’t realize was that almost any landscape he found to his liking could be a Xeriscape. His neighbor simply preferred a more natural style. A very formal landscape, or even an oriental garden, could be a Xeriscape.

Xeriscapes depend on seven basic principles. By using these principles, you can reduce yard maintenance, use less chemicals and synthetic fertilizer, and spend more time enjoying your yard.

Planning and Design. Developing a plan is the first and most important step in a successful Xeriscape. Consider the regional and microclimatic conditions of the site; existing vegetation and topographical conditions; how you intend to use your landscape; and the zoning or grouping of plants by their water needs.

Soil Analysis. Soils will vary from site to site and even within a given site. Be aware of the acid/alkaline state of your soil and what nutrients are lacking.

Appropriate Plant Selection. Your design will determine the overall effect of the landscape. The actual selection of plants should come from those species that are native or adaptive to your site. Deviation from the appropriate selections creates the need for more soil amendments, more maintenance, and different watering schedules. Think low maintenance.

Practical Turf Areas. Lawn grass usually covers more of the landscape than is needed for entertaining or recreation. For a more interesting and manageable yard, use turf as a fill-in plant. Increase the area of decks, porous paving, paths, and mulched planting beds to reduce turf. Be sure to select drought-tolerant grass varieties such as Buffalograss and Bermudagrass in the sunny lawn areas.

Efficient Irrigation. Water infrequently, but when you do, water deeply. Plants and grasses develop deeper, drought-tolerant roots when forced to find deeper moisture. Frequent, light watering results in shallow roots, leading to water stress during periods of drought.

Use of Mulches. A 3″-4″ layer of organic material should cover all exposed soil areas. Replenish it twice a year. Mulch retains moisture, controls soil temperature, discourages weeds, and prevents erosion.

Appropriate Maintenance. You can’t totally eliminate maintenance, but by following the first six principles, you can reduce time spent on maintaining your yard. After they are established, Xeriscapes require less fertilizer, chemicals, and less water. Your neighbors will admire your landscape and may not even realize it’s a Xeriscape!

You can have a beautiful, efficient landscape that is friendly to the environment. Logical landscape choices will insure our children will have a cleaner, greener planet. The future depends on you. For more information about Xeriscape, call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505, or see the Xeriscape page on Sustainable Sources.

Concrete Foundations that Double as the Finished Floor

by Jill Mayfield

Not too long ago about the only place you saw a concrete floor was in a warehouse or industrial setting-not anymore. Concrete slab foundations finished as floors are becoming more commonplace in residential and in all types of commercial construction.

Gray concrete not your style? Today, finished concrete floors can be stamped to look like stone, tile or brick. They can be scored in a variety of geometric patterns. And, they can be just about any color or combination of color you desire. Color can be added at several different points in the process. Dye can be added to the concrete mix at the plant; it can be added to the surface and mixed in to the top layer of concrete while it is still soft; or it can be added at the end of the process through painting or acid etching.

If you suffer from allergies or asthma and are planning to build a new home, consider finished concrete floors. Carpets hold dust, dust mites, mold, and other allergens. Additionally, carpets and vinyl may be installed with glues and adhesives that give off irritating fumes. Cleaning a concrete floor is also very easy- it requires no harsh chemicals, only a broom and wet mop.

Because your foundation is in direct contact with the earth (which ranges from an average temperature of 68 degrees to 55 degrees, depending on your location), it can help the energy performance of your home. If you are worried about a concrete floor being cooler in the winter, place rugs in desired areas. While if may feel colder, its constant temperature helps in both heating and cooling your home.

If you are concerned about the hardness of a concrete floor, remember that tile is just as hard and that other types of flooring are applied directly to the foundation. Well-placed throw rugs in areas where you stand a lot will provide an adequate cushion.

The cost of a finished concrete floor can vary greatly. It depends on the types of patterns you include and how the color is applied. While you may pay more up front, this type of floor is so durable-unlike carpet and vinyl flooring-you will never need to replace it.

 

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman. At the time of publication, Ms Mayfield was with the City of Austin Green Building Program