Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture

Sustainable architecture is an exciting and important field, with many people reviving traditional methods of building and others creating innovations to established practices. Kelly Hart, webmaster of the popular website, posts text and photos featuring what he discovers from around the world.

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Location: Crestone, Colorado, United States

Kelly Hart has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built and consults about sustainable building design.

December 23, 2004

Thoughts on a Texas Energy Conference

I attended the Emissions Reduction & Leadership Summit held in San Antonio, Texas in mid December, since I had accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker on the topic of “Natural Building.” This event was primarily geared toward local agencies and companies, so I gained some perspective on what some of the local issues and concerns are. The city of Austin, Texas has been a leader in promoting sustainable architecture for over a decade, and the circle of their influence has been widening to other cities, such as San Antonio.

There is a real attempt to combine green architecture with affordable housing, so that people are attracted to be involved from both standpoints. It is a fact that even though an energy-efficient home might cost more initially, the savings in energy costs over time will quickly offset the initial cost of the home, often within just a few years of operation. It was pointed out that a small $80,000 home might only cost $2,000 to $3,000 more initially with greener options, such as better insulation and tighter ducting.

The representative from Austin’s green building program expressed the desire to eventually reach a balance of “zero net energy usage,” meaning that the home would produce as much energy as it consumed. To accomplish this the home would have to be equipped with renewable energy devices (such as solar electric or water heating panels) to offset other energy inputs. He indicated that this goal had not been met yet (at least as an affordable option), and I have my doubts as to whether it can be met, given the way houses are conventionally built.

In my presentation I emphasized the need to employ strategies for sustainable architecture that vastly diminish the use of milled lumber for framing houses and also ways to buffer the extremes of climate, such as with earth sheltering. In southern Texas, the greatest energy drain is during the summer when temperatures rise and air conditioning units are switched on. The sensible way of dealing with these conditions is to build into the ground and let the cooler temperature down there help make the home comfortable. When I mentioned this to a local Texan, he said he didn’t think folks were ready to abandon traditional house designs.

The main advice from various presenters at the conference focused on using fewer studs for framing, stuffing the walls with better, tighter insulation, and sealing air ducts so that smaller HVAC units can be used. While these measures will contribute to energy savings, the net effect would not approach the savings available from simple earth sheltering.


Anonymous Frank Williamson said...

Mr. Hart. I work for an award-winning national home builder out of Houston. I have been studying sustainable housing for a while. I was awestruck by your earthbag design with the tree integrated into the roof and a south-facing wall integrated into the earth. I would like to experiment with this construction on my own property with a serious end game of building similar structures in the North Texas area n of Dallas and west of Denton. I intend to purchase a plan soon and will start slowly on my present property with some wall perimeter construction and maybe reinforcing a barn. My objective is to offer an alternative living experience to the country people in North Texas... to live a simpler life. I enjoy your grit and also like your sunvee! Take care, sir.
Sincerely, Frank Williamson

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to have stumbled upon your post tonight. I am a (young and aspiring)facilities MEP engineer for a major engineering consulting firm in TX, and my passion is green design. Earth shelter design definitely has its merits, but with those merits comes new hurdles as well. For example, the relatively shallow depth of rock formations in the Austin area make basements impractical, so how would Earthen shelters be practical in similar light? Also, moisture control issues associated with typical (below-grade) interior spaces could offset sensible cooling load reduction with heavily increased latent load, correct?

1:05 AM  
Blogger Kelly Hart said...

In response to the above comment about the problems associated with shallow soils and earth-sheltered designs, I would say that when you can't dig down into the native soil for whatever reason, it should be possible to bring in soil to accomplish the berming or earth-sheltering and have the same benefit.

As for the possible adverse effects of moisture associated with below grade spaces, it is necessary to isolate the below grade structure with both an effective moisture barrier and adequate insulation to avoid interior condensation or the intrusion of moisture. If the water table is too high, then the previous comment pertains.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Kim T. said...

Mr. Hart:

I work for a non-profit about to build a large facility that will house homeless people and read w/extreme interest your thoughts about building green, a topic I have repeatedly put on the table for my superiors. Of course anything that will lower the large consumption of energy, thereby lowering cost of running this facility and enabling this entity to better facilitate its programming and budget are great considerations, so if you will indulge me, I have a couple of questions:

1) If you were in our shoes, what green building suggestions would you make? In other words, which/what green building incentives offer the greatest savings for the least outpay? And do you have any additional suggestions to its/their implementation(s)?

2) Can you suggest a means for finding/locating experts who would do a good job in building green as opposed to those companies who want to log up the experience so they can advertise they do this. We cannot really afford to be a company's learning experience.

3) Since South/Central Texas is so hot, how would YOU orient a building so to optimize heating/cooling bills. The facility we are considering would have a central hub and extending 'arms' or wings, however, since we have a say in the building's design, I was thinking that this conceptual design still could be oriented to take the rising/setting sun into consideration. For instance, we could plan so that all bathroom facilities were on the southern/northern exposure side. What is your view on this?

Thanks for your help.


Kim T

1:26 PM  
Blogger Kelly Hart said...

In response to the questions posted above by Kim T.:

1) To conserve energy and dollars you will want a well-insulated building that encloses lots of thermal mass (masonry materials). If this can be done either below grade or as a bermed structure, so much the better.

2) There are some national directories that might help you locate green professionals:

3) Even in Texas it can get cold in the winter, so I would suggest a modest amount of passive solar heating potential from south-facing glass, which is well shaded from the spring/summer/fall sun with natural overhangs or thermal curtains. This usually means orienting the building with the long axis extending east/west.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please check us out at We have an inexpensive way for a homeowner to use ambient hot attic air to heat their incoming water into their hot water tank. Our product is a ridge vent that harnesses the heat/radiation as it leaves through the ridge of the roof. It's less expensive than traditional solar panels and can not be seen from the street.

11:18 AM  

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