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.