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.

DOE Launches the High Efficiency Windows Volume Purchase Program

May 27, 2010

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced the launch of the Highly-Insulating R-5 Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program, part of a multi-year integrated strategy to transform the market for high efficiency windows. The initiative will facilitate the broader deployment of these windows by pairing manufacturers with buyers looking to purchase large volumes of windows and by setting performance expectations for two new types of energy efficient windows. This will provide support for window manufacturers to help overcome the initial costs associated with producing windows at an even higher efficiency level while connecting volume buyers with pre-cleared suppliers.

“The Department of Energy has played a key role in rapidly advancing window technology in the past few years. This program will help move these technologies into the marketplace, providing significant energy savings to homes and businesses across the country,” said Roland Risser, DOE’s Building Technologies Program Manager. “This initiative will help drive demand and increase the number of offerings available to builders and project developers.”

The program includes both Highly-Insulating R-5 (U value 0.2) Windows and Low-e Storm Windows. When replacing windows or building a new building, R-5 Windows can reduce heat loss through the window by 30 to 40% compared to a typical R-3 window available today. In situations where full replacement is not an option, Low-e Storm Windows, which fit over existing windows, can be used to reduce heat loads by up to 20%. The savings for both R-5 windows and Low-e Storm Windows are a significant improvement over products available today—and many meet DOE’s price premium target of less than $4 per square foot. With higher energy performance and lower purchase prices, windows can become an even more cost effective measure for building retrofits.

Volume purchasers of windows, including government agencies, builders, energy retrofitters, renovators, and weatherization providers, will gain online access to window sellers whose products are certified to meet the High-Insulation R-5 and Low-e Storm Windows specification. Buyers can review size and price ranges and then connect directly to the vendors’ Web sites to purchase. The program includes more than 30 suppliers. For more information, visit the Highly-Insulating Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program Web site.

The Volume Purchase Program received significant interest from manufacturers, the building industry, and other key industry stakeholders. More than 50 eligible proposals were submitted from suppliers; over 30 suppliers meeting all program requirements are currently listed on the Web site ready to sell windows products. Today’s launch event co-hosted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) will include participation from a broad spectrum of building industry stakeholders, including NAHB, American Architectural Manufacturers Association, the Alliance to Save Energy, Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Illinois (CEDA), and Habitat for Humanity.

Windows that are part of the program must have National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) thermal performance certification and minimum structural certification in accordance with the North American Fenestration Standard (NAFS). Additionally, all storm windows must have their glass type registered in the International Glazing Database created by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

To participate, interested suppliers and potential buyers can visit the Highly-Insulating Windows and Low-e Storm Windows Volume Purchase Program Web site.

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

Don’t Let Your Roof Take the Heat

Tips to keep your attic cool

By Marc Richmond*

Picture this: It’s a hot and humid summer day. You head for the indoors and some relief from your trusty air conditioning (A/C) system. Three hours later, you’re slightly cooler, but you’re wondering why your A/C unit hasn’t shut off yet. Here’s why: all day long, solar radiation has been heating up your home through the windows, walls, doors and especially the roof. Your attic temperature can easily reach over 140 degrees. That heat up there is working its way through your meager attic insulation into your home and through the A/C ductwork, located in your attic, into your cooling system. Your A/C system has to fight that added heat to change all that hot air in your home into cool air. You can install solar screens for the windows, porches around the house for shade, and plant trees around the home, but what do you do about the roof which accounts for a third of all the heat build-up of your house?

Here are a few options:

Ventilate your attic with ridge and soffit vents. Vents are louvers, grills, or screen materials which allow passage or air through them. They are typically installed along the top peak (ridge) of your roof, at the top of the side wall (gable), and on the underside of your roof overhang (soffit). Ventilation moves air through your attic by force of wind or by heat rising through natural convection. This leaves cooler air sitting on top of the insulation on the attic floor. Ventilation also has the ability to remove humidity which has built up in your attic and which reduces the effectiveness of your insulation. It is often best to hire a contractor to install these.

Insulate your attic to R-30. R-30 is roughly a 10 inch thick layer of insulation material above your ceiling. This is a job for any handy homeowner or it could be handed over to a contractor. When installing the insulation, be careful not to block your vents.

Install a radiant barrier between your roof and your attic insulation. A radiant barrier is an aluminum foil material which prevents 95 percent of the heat that radiates from your roof from reaching the insulation on your attic floor. It comes in a roll and is stapled to the underside of your roof rafters, or as a metallic paint. Radiant barriers are sold in most building material supply centers and can be easily installed by a homeowner. This system can save you up to eight percent on your summer cooling bills.

When it comes time to replace the roof, use roofing material which resists or reflects heat – typically lighter colors are best, though there are some new materials which are effective at reflecting infrared radiation (heat) with a more ‘traditional’ color.

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman and was republished by us in 1997. *We have since edited the article.  At the time of publication, Mr Richmond was with the City of Austin’s Green Building Program; he now is president of Practica Consulting.

ASTM Standard Guide for Earthen Wall Systems

A note from our friend Bruce King:

Friends and colleagues —

I’m very happy to tell you that ASTM International has approved publication of revisions to ASTM E2392, Standard Guide for Design of Earthen Wall Building Systems.

This has been a four year project for me and for the Ecological Building Network, and you helped make it happen! This building standard now provides:
– prescriptive guidance for affordable seismic safety,
– engineering guidance where it is practically available, and
– discourages the use of cement, especially applied as render over earthen walls.

Various industries tried to stop this project, and it has been a sometimes weird experience, but we are now done. It has taken four years but was worth it, for we now have a document that we can work with anywhere in the world.

If you already have a draft from any time in the past two years, then you have something pretty close to the final language. If you want the formal document, you must order it from ASTM International, where it will be ready with all final edits by late January. Upon request, ASTM will also translate it for any country holding a memorandum of understanding with ASTM (which is most countries).

Thanks, and warm greetings from cool California,

Bruce King

Austin’s Green Builder Program (circa 1994)

This article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle‘s April 1994 “Green” issue.

City Program Leads National Focus on Green Building

by Jeanine Sih

The Environmental and Conservation Services Department is located in a building at 9th and Brazos Streets, and in its reception area on the 17th floor there is a full size mock-up of various yard irrigation options. The coffee table nearby holds the real goodies, two books – Green Building Guide: A Sustainable Approach and Sustainable Building Sourcebook: Supplement to the Green Builder Program – put out by Program Coordinator Laurence Doxsey, Program Manager Doug
Seiter, and interns of the Green Builder Program staff.

In 1992 this Austin program was the only one in the U.S. recognized at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro with an award from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. “This gave us instant credilibility,” Doxsey says. With six to ten inquiries per day coming from outside of Austin, he says that the Green Builder Program is now more known outside of this city than in it.

Doxsey started the City of Austin’s Green Builder Program (GBP) three years ago, after his hitch with Gail Vittori, Pliny Fisk, and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. People building new construction seem to participate more in the GBP than those who are retrofitting and remodeling, though Doxsey points out that the Green Building Guide addresses the needs of both new and existing buildings.

The Green Building Guide [no longer in print -ED.] is a green education condensed into 55 pages. You get a (green) philosophy course in the first pages. The resource section focuses on four basic demands that each building puts on the environment: water, energy, building materials, and the handling of solid waste. You also learn how to rate your building’s efficiency in light of these demands. The final chunk has a glossary, references and a request for feedback. A larger database, the Sustainable
Building Sourcebook ($25) supplements the guide. Both books can be purchased through the GBP office (no longer available – Ed.). Participation in a free orientation course offered by the GBP allows you to get these books for less.

Doxsey says the Green Building Guide “is really a starting point for becoming green. When we look at a building we’re talking about a building in isolation. We haven’t really addressed the issue of relating to infrastructure – where you put the building. For example, if you build a straw bale building with rainwater catchment and have to drive 30 miles one way each day to go to work, you miss some of the thinking that goes behind green building. You should be thinking of the total context of transportation, infrastructure impacts…”

The Green Builder Program is offered to those who live in the City of Austin’s power and light company service area. In the true spirit of sustainability, the program is funded by the power company’s surplus moneys, based on predicted savings from several energy conservation programs. Participation in the GBP is voluntary.

These days Doxsey oversees the GBP’s development of guidelines for commerical building needs. HEB, Apple Computer, developers, and the city’s public works department have all expressed their desire to participate in the program.

Though a big budget comes in handy when improving your building, it’s not always necessary. Austin Habitat for Humanity and the American Institute for Learning (AIL) are collaborating with the GBP to develop low-cost, green housing in East Austin; the partnership is called the Green Habitat Learning Project. The partnership displays a praiseworthy grasp of green thinking by improving the futures of everyone involved.

Doxsey explains that AIL “is taking at-risk youth and using them as the constructors for building. They’re getting an opportunity to develop marketable skills and complete GEDs… plus exposure to environmental approaches that should become more and more in demand as the practices become more accepted. We’re hoping to get a prototype established so that Habitat for Humanity can say `this is going to work for us, we’re going to use this in subsequent buildings.’ ” There are two homes currently scheduled for construction by this partnership.

The first house built from the ground up by the Green Habitat Learning Project is located at 809 Nile Street. Construction on 809 Nile was on its last day when a licensed plumber accidently set attic insulation on fire while installing a hot water heater with a propane torch. Though the 100% recycled cotton insulation (Insulcot, R11) was UL listed and billed by the manufacturer as “flame-proof,” something clearly went wrong on March 21.

“We were lucky to save all the exterior walls, all the kitchen appliances, the bathroom fixtures. We lost the heating system,” says Judith Clements, executive director for Austin Habitat for Humanity. “The family [waiting for this house] was just devastated.” She estimates the damage at $20,000. The house was insured, but repairs should take about five months.

“One of the reasons we were using Insulcot as opposed to fiberglass,” says Clements, “is that fiberglass is dangerous to handle. One of our goals in building a green home is that we’re building a house that’s environmentally safe.” The attic insulation to replace Insulcot has yet to be chosen, she said.

The 809 Nile house was designed and built by volunteers using sustainable building practices. It was, nay is, a green house. The damaged parts of the steel roof can be recycled into new steel (try that with composite shingles). Its floors are of recycled materials indistinguishable from the ordinary. Natural light pours in through ample, double-paned windows.

Its exterior walls are made of Faswal, a composite of fly ash blocks and concrete. They did not burn, and ultimately saved the house from extensive fire damage.

Judith Clements: “The concept of green building is sound. The design of the house, the overhangs, the double-hung windows, the vaulted ceilings… all the design features are sound features. All the products that we substituted in this house are off-the-shelf, safe products. The cork linoleum does not have the offgassing of plastics.” Paint, glues, and caulk were also chosen for their safe, non-offgassing properties.

I ask her if green building is any more expensive than conventional practices.

“We don’t have the bottom line yet, but it’s real close to what we spend on a Habitat house,” Clements says. “A typical, stick-built house with no special environmental stuff is $39,750. I’m waiting for our accountants to do the printout, but the last time I checked we were at $36,000 [for 809 Nile]… I gave a workshop at a regional conference and they asked `What did you give up?’ and I said `We didn’t give anything up. We not only didn’t give anything up, but we have a better house.’ The city is going to monitor the utility bills and they are estimating 20-30% savings in

Doug Seiter, the Green Builder Program Manager, says that the building community is not altogether enthusiastic about green building – unless it means greenbacks. Builders often feel that green building is not worth the financial risk. Green technology, sustainable building practices have a reputation for being wonky and exotic – houses made of dirt, geodesic domes – but Seiter stresses that the reality is not all so unconventional: “We encourage products off the shelf; we’re not interested in experimenting with anybody… they’ve been using Faswal in Europe for over 50
years now.”

A bonus resulting from the Green Habitat Learning Project is the immediate importance of mathematics to the six young work crew members from AIL. Clements says that teaching math was never made easier: Nile Street “was their first classroom, hands-on experience.” Chester Steinhauser, a longtime Habitat volunteer who now teaches at AIL, noted his students’ progress. “He said that math is always the hardest course in the GED program… but these kids just ate it up
because the math concepts were practically applied to the construction of the house.”

Ah. Preparing for the future. Nice to have an economy of effort when you can get it.

Laurence Doxsey, Green Building Program Coordinator: “Any differences between this fire and other fires?”

Fire marshal: “Yes – no noxious burning plastic fumes…”

Does this mean that green-built houses have fires that are green too?

This article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle‘s April 1994 “Green” issue.

Sustainable Building Coalition (circa 1994)

by Jeanine Sih

[Editor’s notes: The Sustainable Building Coaltion evolved into Design~Build~Live and is still going strong. Lucia Athens spent a number of years in the Pacific Northwest, wrote a book, and as of June 2010 is Austin’s Chief Sustainability Officer. ]

The Sustainable Building Coalition is a collection of about 200 people who share a vision of what buildings of the future should be. Their membership is diverse: contractors, architects, business owners, engineers, professors, and folks who are in the planning and construction stages of building a green home. The group is a talent pool, a database, and many in it are now spreading the green gospel. Many of the people whose names appear in these articles[the April 1994 “Green” issue of the Austin Chronicle] are members.

Lucia Athens is a founding member of the Sustainable Building Coalition. “The Coalition has a community building effect, which is part of what sustainablity is to me. I look at sustainability on a lot of different levels. I look at what it takes to sustain community, and what it takes to sustain us spiritually, what our connections are to other human beings as well as what our connections mean to us, how we are either supported or not supported by the buildings we live in

“One of the things we have to reform is our economic way of defining what has value and what does not, like a habitat area, or visual aesthetics, or clean air. it is very difficult to assign values to these things. So far [the building community] calls these things `externalities.’ If you don’t assign some kind of cost to these things, it’s the same as saying that their value is zero.”

Ms. Athens is a Texas Registered Landscape Architect and runs her own sustainable landscaping business. She explains that there are plenty of ways to live smarter – planting deciduous trees on your property to shade your house from summer sun, collecting rainwater to use for irrigation. – “There needs to be a consciousness of minimizing dependence on the grid. I think that people who
live in West Austin, which typically is very shallow soils – a lot of rock and trenching has to be done to provide water – should be paying more for their service than people who are going east. There should be a way to have a utility fee structure that would encourage people to go east. That’s not where development is happening. That’s where the deeper, better soils and good flat building sites are. It’s where we don’t have a lot of problems with endangered wildlife habitat area.

“Everyone wants to go and be in the most beautiful area, thereby degrading it. You’ve got to get into this philosophy for development where you identify the most beautiful area on the site – that’s where you don’t build. The tendency is `that’s where I want to put my house – it’s gorgeous!’ There need to be incentives for [green building] in the city limits.” She also says that stringent city building codes sometimes marginalize the more radical green building projects (like straw bale constructions). She would like to see the coalition become more politically active in an effort to change these building codes.

Understanding of Sthapatya Ved Knowledge

Copyright © 1996 by Deepak Bakshi. All rights are reserved.

All people are influenced by the buildings in which they reside, work and
worship. According to the design of the structure, one will feel either
comfort or discomfort. In correctly designed structures, one experiences a
subtle sense of well-being and contentment. In improperly designed
structures, one feels anxious, stressful and despondent. A well designed
structure will produce a sense of bliss and calmness while poorly designed
structure will produce sickness and depression.

The ancient science of Sthapatya Ved provides extensive knowledge about
life supporting building and design principles. A Sthapatya Ved designed home
will promote harmony between parents and children, better physical health,
and more financial success. However a carelessly designed home or building
which out of harmony with the laws of nature will have the opposite effect-
promoting family disputes, health problems, and financial difficulties.

Unfortunately, the ancient science of Sthapatya Ved is not widely practiced.

Even in India were this knowledge originated, lately very few
building structures are properly designed with the principles of the
Sthapatya Ved.

Only in one area – the construction of sacred temples – can one
find authentic Sthapatya Ved design principles consistently
applied. Anyone who has visited the great temples of India,
especially the Minaxi temple, Tirupathi temple in southern India
and the Kayllas temple in northern India has experienced a sense
of inner happiness and fulfillment simply by being in the
structure. In addition to the spiritual activities at these
temples, there are precise mathematical and astrological
calculations, proportions of building plan, specific orientation
and the applied knowledge of subtle physical properties which
produces this feeling of well being.

What is Sthapatya Ved?

Sthapatya is a word from Sanskrit the language of ancient India, which
means establishment. Veda means knowledge. So, Sthapatya Ved
means the knowledge of establishing a relationship between the
owner, house and/or building and cosmic order. The same
Sthapatya Ved knowledge which was used to design and construct
these great temples can be used to design and construct homes
and offices. In addition, designing with Sthapatya Ved knowledge
can be done at little or no increase in cost – especially if the
fundamental principles are introduced early in the design

How can one achieve this?

We all know that the universe is in perfect order since its birth . If the
Architect can establish the relationship between building design and order
of universe, the life of an individual can be healthier, less stressful,
more creative and blissful. This ancient knowledge of India was in full
practice by the people of India five thousand years ago. Vedic knowledge is
divided in to twenty-seven branches. Sthapatya Ved is created out of the
marriage of two branches of Veda; Ayur-Ved and Jyotish sastra.
Ayur-Ved contains the knowledge of the science of health and the human body.
Jyotish sastra contains the knowledge of man’s relationship to the universe,
and the ever changing effects of the universe on man. Sthapatya Ved
encompasses both the needs of the human body and the environment in one
holistic science.

Ayur-Ved says:

As is the atom, so is the universe.

As is the human body, so is the cosmic body.

As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind.

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

Running parallel to this, Sthapatya Ved says:

As is the human body, so is the cosmic body.

As is the human body, so is the body (structure) of the building.

As is the body of the building, so is the cosmic body

As is the building plan, so is the cosmic plan.

So we see that from the level of the atom to the level of the cosmos the
same order and laws of nature are reflected. Likewise the human body, the
building body we live in, and the cosmos are all connected by the same order and
laws of nature. Sthapatya Ved knowledge provides us the ability of
achieving this connectedness through all levels of existence. Earth has been in existence for billions of years and
throughout its existence, time has maintained a perfect order in its
environment. In its natural state every inch of the earth is in harmony with
cosmic order. When we disturb a part of the earth, we disturb cosmic order
at that point. From this perspective we have no right to disturb the earth
by putting a building on it.

This raises a dilemma. Modern man needs shelter to live and work. How can we
achieve that shelter without disturbing the harmony of the cosmos?

Sthapatya Ved provides the answer. It shows how to incorporate
the naturally occurring cosmic order into the design of the
building. Thereby, Sthapatya Ved re-establishes the natural order that was lost by
disturbing the earth to raise the building.

Here are few generic principles of Sthapatya Ved knowledge:

  • The entrance to the house facing east direction will produce
    far more positive effects than a house with south entrance. 
  • Proper placement of each function in the house, (e.g. kitchen
    can be located in the south east corner – increases appetite and digestion
    quality improves.) 
  • Central place of the house called Brahma-sthana should be
    unobstructed with columns or walls. This space
    allows cosmic energy to flow evenly in the house. 

Use of these simple principles has major effect. There are even deeper
levels of Sthapatya Ved design which concern both the structure’s internal
layout and external proportion and orientation. The interior design must
respect energy lines called ” sutra”, and energy points called ” marma”.
There are specific rules governing the vertical proportion of each room and building. Externally, the
placement of house in relation to the land diagram, relationship of road to
the site, the configuration of the lot, the contours of the site, the
placement of vegetation, and orientation of utilities, and other homes and
buildings in the development will all have a strong effect. To fully
customize a home, the proportions of the house and room placements are
calculated according to the birth charts of the individuals, called Jyotish
orientations. Even incorporating a few of these principles will result in a
more life supporting environment. In order to achieve the wholeness of this
design, one need to incorporate all of the principles of Sthapatya Ved.

What is the difference
between twentieth century Architecture and Sthapatya Ved?

Throughout Europe, Asia, America, and in fact the world, architectural
design for the last 2000 years has been based on climate, available
materials, building method of the period, geographical conditions, and
prevailing style. Sthapatya Ved includes all these aspects, but goes beyond
them, by including detailed knowledge of both the human body and the cosmos.
As time passes other systems of Architecture become obsolete. This is not
the case with Sthapatya Ved, because Sthapatya Ved is not a simple fixed
system. It is a dynamic system of Architecture that changes to precisely
match current cosmic conditions. It is a timeless Architecture.

What is the most singled-out component in the design method of Sthapatya Ved
that differs most from the western design method of Architecture?

The most common tool that has been used to create a building
design according to western Architecture is to prepare a functional
program of the building and then find the best relationships
between them. The consideration of the orientation of the
building is based on climate and natural view of the site.

According to Sthapatya Ved , the knowledge of Jyotish sastra is used to
understand the natural cosmic order inherent in the land. It provides
necessary information to create a blue print of this order, which in
Sthapatya Ved is called the Vastu-Purusa-Mandala. The Vastu-Purusa-Mandala
reflects the cosmic order of the land and is specific to each piece
of land. Vastu means “form” or “building”, which from a Sthapatya Ved perspective is an
extension of the earth. This is because Vastu also means town, country,
Earth and all of creation. When the building is in a perfectly ordered state
it is conceived to be in the likeness of Purusa. Purusa means cosmic man. It
also means unmanifested ultimate reality or pure consciousness. Mandala
means diagram. So Vastu-Purusa-Mandala, or form-consciousness-diagram, means the manifest description of the
unmanifest intelligence underlying the structure of the building and all of
creation. The Vastu-Purusa-Mandala is also known as Cosmic plan. It provides
the guide for all the principles underlying the architectural form. This
cosmic plan is important in the designing a house, town, and or even a country.

According to Ayur-Ved, the human body has a direct relationship with the
cosmos. Jyotish sastra provides the knowledge that relates the human body to
the cosmos. Therefore it is the knowledge of Jyotish that links both the
individual and the building to the larger natural cosmic order. These
relationships are expressed in the cosmic plan (Vastu-Purusa-Mandala) and
are used to create the site plan and the blue print for the building as well
as the master plan of the town. This manifests the order and intelligence of
Purusa (pure consciousness) in the building.

How does time and space enter the cosmic plan?

The order of both manifest and unmanifest creation of the cosmos is reflected in
the cosmic plan. Within this we find the relationship between man and earth.
Time enters this cosmic plan through the periodic rotation of the earth
which gives rise to the seasonal pattern of sunrise and sunset. Space enters
the plan when the building is oriented to the cardinal points, which are
north, south, east and west. In its fixed position Sthapatya Ved considers
the earth to be four cornered. Two of these points are where the sun rises
and sets. If we take the sun to represent heaven then at these two points
heaven and earth seem to meet. North and south completes the four points.
Each building is constructed to be in harmony with both the cardinal points
and the seasons as they relate to the dweller of the building and the type
of activity to be performed in the building.

How does a building design according to Sthapatya Ved relate to the design
of a town?

There are similarities between design of a building and a town. As the
proportion of the house is important as per the dweller’s Jyotish
information so the proportion of a town plan is designed based on Sthapatya
Ved knowledge.

The cosmic plan is required for a design of a building and in the same way
it is required to create master plan of a town. As the orientation of
functions in the house design is derived from Sthapatya Ved knowledge so is
the orientation of different functional buildings decided by Sthapatya Ved
knowledge. The orientation of a road location to the house and road system
in the design of the master plan is provided by Sthapatya Ved knowledge.

What contribution does building material have in supporting Sthapatya Ved

In order to understand relationship of materials and building
spaces, we need to understand the relationship of spaces in the human
body and materials from which the human body is made. According to
Ayur-Ved the human body is made of five subtle elements: earth,
wind, water, fire and space. If all these elements are in balance
the human mind and body can experience very high states of
consciousness, which results in being blissful, calm and
increasing awareness. Human bones and flesh are considered
similar to earth quality. Wind is present in all moment of liquid
and food. The human body is made of 90% water and
99.9% space exists in the human body. The metabolism and digestion
(digestive fire) represent the fire element. If building body
(structure) incorporates all these five elements, the dweller can
feel the inner atmosphere of the house filled with blissfulness,
calmness and supporting higher awareness.

What are the benefits of using Sthapatya Ved knowledge for designing a

The benefits of using Sthapatya Ved knowledge while designing a residence
are as follows:

  • Improves the health of a dweller and his family.
  • Increases the power of creativity and intelligence.
  • Extension in the longitivity of life.
  • Quality of life will increase.
  • Growth in spiritual and material life will increase.
  • Family bonding will increase.
  • Respect for nature will increase.

What are the benefits of using Sthapatya Ved knowledge for designing a town
or a city?

These are benefits of using Sthapatya Ved knowledge:

Improves the health in general for people who live in the Vedic town.

Increases the power of creativity and intelligence, which becomes obvious in
the progress of town businesses, increase in growth of income per capital,
innovative ideas in new businesses.

Due to improvement in health of people, life expectancy will increase.

The Vedic town will stand out among others in terms of quality of life.

Due to support of nature, family bonding within each family and at community
level, will be more supportive, and spiritual and material life will grow

Due to increase in awareness among people, respect for nature will increase.

Copyright © 1996 by Deepak Bakshi. All rights are reserved.