Friday, February 22, 2008

Green Building in Kansas

This is my first post about the green building scene in Kansas, home of the largest ball of twine, and the largest prairie dog in the world, and where the grass is always greener.
I would like to talk about the developments and materials that are available here and post my opinions concerning the difference between green, and green washing.
When I started in Architecture school in the seventies, everyone was interested in saving energy, living off the land, growing their own food etc. and the solar housing market was starting to really take off- What happened?
The oil boys saw it coming and started dumping oil on us, and cheap credit, so we would be dependent on them instead of saving our money and not be the sheeple they wanted us to be.
All this lead to more of the same consumer politics that we are used to, and everyone went again for the easy road, but now it seems as we have used up most of the easy oil, and need to look again for alternatives. This is the silver lining in the Bush cloud of doom that we have just now started to see materializing..
it is a very exciting time for all of us that have been promoting a better way to live for so many years, and for all of the people that want to get involved. For years I had the warning- "Downsize Now, avoid the rush" on my business card, and always got the feeling that people didn't want to know about it ,and if I said something, it would break down the system and we all would self implode.

Green building (it used to be called eco-friendly before it became profitable) is fast becoming the new black, and tak
ing no prisoners.

The greenest way to build is to make your
house with the dirt, rocks, straw, wood from the site itself, and build it with your friends that you helped the season before.

The second greenest way to do it is to use some of the mass array of products we have been discarding and reuse them to make buildings. Paper bales, tires, saw dust, bottles anything that has some bulk, is reasonably stable, and can be baled,chopped up and formed,or used as it is.
Most of this isn't very sexy for most of the people that are used to the hi-tech gadgets we have available, and the convenience, and organization of the materials we use to build with that may have a higher carbon footprint. Cleaner is not necessarily greener.
For those people we have the greenwashers. These are the people that understand that what they are doing is maybe not the best, but it is better than a mobile home, and it looks like it is doing the job, but it may or may not perform what is was proported to.
Some of these houses even cause problems instead of solutions.
Mold for one, which is caused by condensation when the inside air is trapped by a skin too tight, and no fresh air exchange locking you and your family in with all the contaminates that the building materials have in them, making you are what you breathe, a scary proposition.

What do you do? How do you know? We didn't have to worry about it before with the drafty old houses, and flimsy building paper, or oil skin as it was called, because when the wind kicked up we got new air, and also dust, heat loss, etc.
In fact, our house is a perfect passive solar design from the 1870's that performs very well, except on the windy days.

The best way is to build with a material that allows moisture to slowly permeate through the wall depending on the season.When the air is dry inside, wouldn't it be great if we could get some moisture from the walls? In Kansas it is very humid in the summers, and dry in the winter, so it would be great if the walls would soak it up in the summer,and release it in the winter. What could do this?
When I lived in Italy, the walls were so cold,that using propane heaters, there would be so much humidity on the walls, that the whitewash would pool at the floor, and deteriorate the area behind the mop board, if they were there, and the bottom of the wall otherwise. we always wore our jackets inside because it was so cold and dank. It was fantastic when the sun finally came out, and you could take everything out to dry.

So 24" of stone doesn't work, maybe straw bale?
Also bad when wet, and can be a haven for mold if saturated. What about Rammed earth? Maybe in the Southwest, where the air is dry, but not without insulating it from the outside, and what a shame to cover that beautiful material and all that labor up.
So what are we left with? Insulated concrete forms? To me they are like living in a concrete ice chest, but they are strong and have a long life cycle, but still, all that foam?
What about frame? I don't like the wood being enclosed in a cavity or cellulose, also dangerous when wet, sheet rock, and the thermal transfer, fast growth timber, harvesting problems reduced bio diversity etc.
The only thing I can feel good about on a commercial level, and it has its problems too, is RASTRA.

I like that you can put stucco right on it with no nylon or metal lath, and it has permeation, with thermal mass to slow the flywheel effect down to a daily cycle, and looks natural, and is 85% post consumer recycled EPS foam. The concrete part has a high energy content, but the walls should last hundreds of years.
Check it out.
I'll keep you posted!