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

Drought Protection on a Budget

This article first appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

by John Gleason

As the weather turns warmer,  landscapes are breaking their winter dormancy and waking up to a powerful thirst. Although the current drought has been especially tough on ranchers and farmers, homeowners are to feeling the pinch too. Many are turning to local irrigation contractors, who are scrambling to fulfill an overload of requests for sprinkler system installations and repairs. Used efficiently, automatic watering systems are a powerful tool for dry weather. However, you don’t need a sprinkler system to reduce drought-stress in your landscape. By following these tips you can conserve precious water and save money.

Be Water-Thrifty

Don’t make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. This type of watering causes plants to grow shallow roots that are stressed easily during dry or hot weather. Water less frequently, yet when you do, thoroughly saturate the roots of your plants. Then let the soil dry out again. This encourages a deeper, more substantial root system that tolerates drought better. Rather than watering on a set schedule, keep an eye on your plants, and let them tell you when to water.To saturate your soil without creating lots of runoff, use the “water and soak” method. Runoff is the water that “runs off” your property because it’s being applied faster than your soil can accept it. Most soils in Austin are clay, which admits water only very slowly. Slopes make the problem worse. To get the water deep down into your soil, use repeated short watering cycles, followed by a “soak-in” period. This method may initially be a bit more demanding, but less frequent irrigation overall means you save time, energy, and water in the long-term. Consider using drip irrigation in your beds since this type of system has a slower application rate than spray.

Good Investments

Purchase a moisture meter and soil analysis for your landscape. They will each provide you with valuable information. A moisture meter is tool with a soil probe and a dial which indicates your soil’s wetness or dryness. They cost about $15, and they’re available at many local hardware and garden supply centers. Use it frequently to monitor not only if there is soil moisture present, but if so, at what depth.An analysis of your soil will tell you about it’s texture and chemistry, and will recommend soil amendments that are important to your plants’ health. There are many good soil labs; the least expensive is offered by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, which has an agent in every Texas county. Costs vary from $10 to $30, depending on the level of analysis. Refer to your local Extension agent for instructions and a soil collection bag.

Mind Your Soil

Most soils could use the addition of large amounts of organic matter. A soil enriched with organic material has good water-holding capacity and encourages large, vigorous root systems. A good, cheap source of organic matter is home-made compost. If you’re not already composting, start recycling those kitchen and garden wastes into what organic gardeners call “black gold”.If you’re creating a new landscape area, till in lots of organic material to create a rich loamy soil. For existing areas of your yard, spread a thin layer of compost on your lawn and beds, then water lightly.

Go easy on the chemical fertilizers, especially during extended dry weather. Consider using organic alternatives such as ‘Dillo Dirt and compost. While lawns occasionally need to be fertilized to stay healthy, too much fertilizer means you have to water more. Do not fertilize prior to rainfall! That drizzle that you expected could turn into a thundershower and send the fertilizer into your local creek, pollute the water and harm wildlife. Use the “water and soak” method after you fertilize.


When mowing your lawn, use “Don’t Bag It” principles. By not bagging your grass clippings, you save time and add organic material to your soil. Mowing height and frequency should be set to cut off no more than one-third the height of the grass. Taller grass develops a deeper root system and shades the soil surface.Mulch can be any material applied to the surface of the soil to act as a barrier to retain moisture, insulate the soil, and control weeds. Mulching is the easiest and one of the most effective methods to slow down rainwater and hold it in your landscape. Mulch also keeps the soil surface cooler and reduces heat stress on your plants. Mulch aids in conserving water loss by reducing competition from weeds for available moisture. Organic mulch also enriches your soil as it decomposes.

With a little research, you may be able to locate a free source of mulch. Check with your neighbors or a local landscape contractor for bags of grass clippings and leaves. Some municipalities and homeowner associations offer the shredded wood leftover from land clearing.

Do the Math

Drought-tolerant landscaping conserves water, saves you money, and protects the environment . To learn more about these and other drought protection techniques, check with local landscape professionals and consider joining Austin’s Xeriscape Garden Club. Xeriscape is “quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment.” Call the Austin Xeriscape Garden Club at 370-9505 for more information. When you conserve water, you support a cause with community-wide dividends. It may seem a big jump to be talking of regional benefits in the same breath as how we landscape our property. But the two are intimately linked through our consumption patterns – and it is only by changing our own lives and habits that we can begin to protect our environment.

At the time this article was written (1996) John Gleason was a landscape architect with the City of Austin and was president of the Xeriscape Garden Club.

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

New Topic: Shipping Container Housing

One important guideline for sustainable building is to use materials which are locally abundant. Another guideline is that waste from one system can often be utilized as feedstock for another.

Shipping containers are abundant in the US due to current trade imbalances and are therefore inexpensive pre-built modules which some enterprising people have begun using to create residences, dorms, and commercial space.

Reza Pouraghabagher has written our newest topic area on Shipping Container Housing and will be adding more in the coming months. Follow the Resource links to see some completed projects.

Atlanta area rainharvesting microbrewer can’t use rain

In an unfortunately too common incident of bureaucratic lack of common sense, an Atlanta area microbrewer 5 Seasons had to switch back to city water after officials couldn’t find any regulations on rainwater use in their books and concluded it must therefore be illegal.

According to our source the brewery “could have dug a well on the site of the former stockyard without even having the water tested” but their rainwater, which has been tested and passed with flying colors can’t be used until they receive official blessings to do so.

Support these guys if you’re able. They’re trying to do the right thing.

Last we checked, they’re on Marietta St. 

Dick Peterson joins for Rainwater Q&A

We’re happy to report that Dick Peterson, a 15+ year veteran of Austin Green Building who spent a fair bit of that time advocating, educating, and advancing rainwater harvesting in Central Texas has agreed to join us in the Harvested Rainwater section.

Dick will be keeping that section up to date and is available for Q&A (scroll to the comments section at the bottom of the page… you must be registered and logged in to post).

You can also subscribe to the Q&A RSS feed at the top right corner of the Harvested Rainwater page.

Bale Raising Sept 12

Sustainable Sources founder Bill Christensen will be leading a straw bale wall raising in conjuction with on September 12th outside of Wimberley, TX (about 50 min SW of Austin). Hope to see you there!

(Originally scheduled for Aug 22)

Full and registration at