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Ecologically Sensitive Dwellings

Our need for shelter from the extremes of our environment should not isolate us from those elements of it that nourish us. Indeed, if we create our shelter intelligently, we will find harmony with nature.  Natural light, fresh air, clean water, even a pleasant view are essential for our health and well being.  We are creatures of the earth, and connecting to it feeds us on many levels.

The fundamentals have been known to man for as long as he has been seeking shelter. The most basic of these (in the northern hemisphere) is building into a south facing slope. During the short days of winter, sunlight floods the living spaces, beautifully warming them and you. As the sun gets higher in the sky toward summer, wide roof overhangs protect a cool earthen floor providing respite from the growing heat outside.

Perhaps the single most important feature of future homes will be solar access, for these homes will be able to harvest and/or generate their own power. Properly designed, in any style, a “passive solar” home can expect to collect over half of its space and domestic water heating free from the sun. Such a home also built slightly into the slope of a mountain, can expect to reduce or even eliminate its need for mechanical cooling. These design elements add nothing to the cost of the home; it makes no sense not to do them.

A well insulated home resists the temperature swings of the environment outside. Money spent on the thermal envelope has a quicker return than money spent on any other “energy saving” feature. So, “super insulated, passive solar” design and construction techniques are central to other aspects of the home.

Once the south facing site is attained, and a super insulated, passive solar home built, it makes sense to evaluate other energy reducing measures.

Refrigerators can run on propane instead of electricity, lighting can be very carefully designed for specific tasks instead of blithely illuminating an entire room. LED or compact florescent lights can be used instead of less efficient incandescent bulbs. These considerations can reduce the size and expense of a solar electric installation. A home that has taken extensive measures to reduce the need for cooling can then apply a very small and consequently less expensive geothermal cooling system run off the water in the well.  

Solar water heaters can provide almost 100% of domestic hot water in the summer, and about 80% year round. Solar electric or “photovoltaic (PV)” systems are generally categorized into “grid tied,” or “off grid” which require battery storage. There are federal and state tax credits to help pay for both solar thermal and solar electric systems. Because of net metering laws in North Carolina, electricity generated by a residential PV system can be sold back to the electric utility. These systems still have paybacks in the range of twelve to fifteen years, but costs might come down a lot in the near future.

The western part of North Carolina has been identified as having favorable conditions for the application of wind turbines. Micro-hydro electric generation systems are also in use on mountain streams.

Water is an equally important and sometimes more erratically available resource. Catching and saving rain and recycling domestic water can reduce dependence on a well particularly if irrigation is needed to enjoy the presence of particular vegetation.

The materials used to build a home, just as they always have, require effort and energy to attain. Those found nearby offer some economy. Timber is abundant in the mountains; we may even cut and mill trees on site. Stone and even the earth can be used. We find the native materials beautiful as they further connect us to our land.

The U.S Green Building Council has developed the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. It is a useful guideline for sustainable design and construction. For more information, see www.usgbc.org/LEED.

Applicable categories include:

  • Sites—reduced site disturbance, storm water management, light pollution reduction
  • Water Efficiency—water efficient landscaping, innovative wastewater technologies, water use reduction
  • Energy—optimized energy performance, renewable energy
  • Materials and Resources—construction waste management, resource reuse, recycled content, regional materials, rapidly renewable materials, certified wood
  • Indoor Environmental Quality—ventilation effectiveness, low-emitting materials, thermal comfort, daylight and views