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.

September 20, 2010

How Geothermal and Radiant Heat can Save Money and be More Comfortable

by guest blogger Pete Frank

There has been a lot of debate about which “sustainable” products are the best “value”. The answer to this question may be influenced by utility cost, natural resource availability, whether the building is new or preexisting, and the quality of the construction. The debate includes technologies like radiant floor heating, geothermal, photovoltaic (solar electric) and hydronic solar water heating systems (solar thermal), wind turbine technology, methane accumulators for septic systems and other biomass based energy collectors, etc. I am going to focus on what is the most prevalent “alternative” system for homes: geothermal and radiant heating systems. It seems that geothermal systems are the first building block that people are using with their sustainable houses.

At this point you may be thinking, “What is a geothermal heating system?” Geothermal heating systems use stored heat from the earth's crust in conjunction with heat pump technology to move and amplify heat instead of making heat. The crust of the earth maintains the average temperature of that location annually, usually between 42 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Now to clarify, I am not talking about active geothermal (often called geothermic) heating systems, like they have in Iceland and other areas where there is thermal activity right near the surface of the Earth's crust. Conventional geothermal is using latent heat stored in the crust of the Earth from the sun. Yes, I said it; the geothermal systems essentially use solar energy in conjunction with electricity to heat the house.

Why invest in geothermal? A geothermal system will save 50-75% of the heating bill per year (varies by utility rates), and in cooling it will be in the range of a 30-50% decrease in cooling costs. This turns into real money every year coming back to the buyer; we are talking thousands of dollars! The cost of a fully installed geothermal system can be $12,000 - $15,000 higher than a conventional heating and cooling system (vertical well systems will be higher, and it always depends on the size of the house). But when we talk about the return on this investment (ROI) we are generally in the range of 5-10 years. I have had instances where, based on the fuels available, my clients may come in at 3 years, but that is rare. From my research these systems have the most consistent ROI of any of the systems we deal with.

Geothermal systems are available in forced air or hydronic units, making them quite versatile for either a conventional forced air, ducted system or for use in a radiant floor heating system with forced air for cooling. Most people are familiar with forced air heating and cooling systems. Radiant is becoming more popular every year because it is typically about 30% more efficient as a delivery method when compared to forced air. The reasons for this are very easy to understand.

We have always learned that heat rises right? Well, yes and no. Hot air rises. Heat travels through convection, conduction, or radiation. If you are heating a room with forced air there is generally not a consistent temperature in that room. There are going to be warm spots and cold spots AND it will be warmest at the ceiling. With a radiant floor, there is more consistency in the heating because the “hot air” is not rising. You are heating the floor, which heats the objects in the room thus heating the space. Most of the heat is traveling via conduction and radiation and not convection (hot air rising). The heat is kept lower spatially, generally where the people are, and you can usually keep the room temperature lower and “feel” warmer because the heat is literally everywhere. It's a pretty easy concept. Radiant heating also incorporates the mass of the floor like a battery of stored energy. Although these systems are more expensive to install than forced air systems, people who have lived in a radiant house seldom build their next home without radiant. It is not about the money, it's about the comfort.

There are several different ways to put radiant heating into the floor. Tubing can go in concrete, a lighter gypcrete, over the floor with furring strips, or into a ready to lay product like The COMPLETE Radiant Panel ( . All of these types of radiant systems are generally compatible with a geothermal system. The general rule is that if the tubing is above the subfloor, it can be used with an “alternative energy” system whether that is geothermal or solar thermal. (Of course, always consult design software or a professional to be sure that your radiant floor can keep up with your heat loss). If you are putting the tubing in a “staple up” or below the sub floor type installation, there may be issues with meeting the heat loss through the sub-floor material with the lower delivery temperatures that the alternative energy systems can reach. Depending on construction type and room load requirements, you may have to choose the proper type of radiant based on the circumstances.

With the heat source, distribution, and controls for these systems, they can get a little complex. Companies like Radiant Complete ( are a good resource and can handle all aspects of your renewable project from planning to installation. Whatever you decide, find out all your options and weigh the pro's and con's. If you have questions, consult an expert!

Author Pete Frank is willing to answer questions from readers on this topic. You can visit to submit your question.

September 11, 2010

The Beyond Green High-Performance Building Awards

Green is Good, Beyond Green is Better
By Bud DeFlaviis and Tom Herron, MBA

Last year, during an event to promote energy efficient buildings, President Obama quipped that although the topic particularly isn’t a particularly “glamorous” one, it was something that he could “get really excited about it.” This light-hearted comment had the positive effect of reminding people that better buildings can, and will, contribute positively to the human experience. Such a claim may sound overblown, but when one considers that we spend approximately 90% of our time indoors, it becomes clear how important our buildings really are.

As the green building movement gains momentum, residential and commercial building owners strive to become better environmental stewards. This usually involves renewable and energy efficiency strategies. Certainly, these are laudable, but not sufficient to create a fully-functional building.

A Holistic Approach to Sustainability

The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC) and its members are committed to doing even more. That is why SBIC created the Beyond Green TM Awards. Since 2001, these Awards have recognized exemplary innovations and innovators in the sustainable building industry. The awards also encourage building professionals to develop a more holistic approach to design and construction – an approach that promotes energy, water, and material efficiencies, while ensuring indoor environments that are healthy, productive and comfortable. This kind of holistic approach fuels a self perpetuating cycle, triggering further advances and improvements, which lead to greener and more sustainable buildings all over the world. Additionally, the Awards provide a platform to showcase forward-thinking buildings and initiatives that embody the definition of a high-performance building. Such buildings, of course, provide greater accessibility, cost-effectiveness, functionality, historic preservation, productivity, safety, security and durability, and sustainability.

Beyond Green Awards 2010

This year’s 2010 program, just getting underway, will again recognize high-performance buildings and high-performance building initiatives. Entries will be accepted through the end of October and reviewed by a select jury. Once winners are determined, they will be invited to Washington, DC in February 2011 to present their projects on Capitol Hill as part of an educational briefing for lawmakers and the public.

This year’s program will also feature an additional afternoon session and expanded poster session held at Catholic University's School of Architecture and Planning. Area students and local building practitioners will have the opportunity to understand winning projects in greater detail, ask questions, and earn AIA CES credits.

Finally, winning entries will have the opportunity to post a case study about their project on the Whole Building Design Guide – a highly-visible web resource that has become the comprehensive source of information for high-performance building practices and techniques.

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen once wrote, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” The Beyond Green TM High-Performance Building Awards embodies this sentiment, and we hope the 2010 competition will continue to inspire others to embrace this holistic approach to buildings that will transform the American landscape, both figuratively and literally.

Details are available at the SBIC’s Website.

Bud DeFlaviis is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council. Tom Herron is the Communications & Marketing Manager at the National Fenestration Rating Council.

September 02, 2010

Please Help Pakistani Flood Victims!

I have been quite involved with helping to bring affordable, durable housing for people in need all over the world. Lately much of this effort has been focused on rebuilding in Haiti after their devastating earthquake. Now with the massive flooding in Pakistan there is a new area of concern.

I just got this email from someone on the ground there:

"You know about the flood disaster in Pakistan. I am from Tehsil Kot Addu. In Abaas Wala, where the fist river breached, there are many villages that are destroyed. They have nothing left. The southern side of Kot Adu city is also affected by the flood. I am doing work to help those affected as a volubteer with an NGo. My persional request is to please help those people. They need shelter. They are living in the open air. If you want to visit that place I can arange your visit. Help as much you can. I have just 1 request: can you please donate shelter to a few families ? If you can please contact me. Regards, Umair Murtaza Khan +92-333-6001782"

I am sure that any assistance would be greatly appreciated. You can contact Umair at