A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement

My building career started in 1971.  Four years later I built my first house after being approached by a developer who wanted me to build a house in a development he owned.  He showed me the plans and I politely said no.  I said that if I were to build a house it would not be another dinosaur of which there were already too many.  At that time we were in the throes of the first energy crisis and I had joined a small movement of people that were looking at ways to save energy.

In hindsight, the worst thing that could have happened to this country was that this first energy crisis artificially went away. 

People were lulled into thinking they could go on using energy as they were accustomed to.  This interest in conserving energy in the 1970’s was the roots of what is known today as the “Green Movement.”

The owner of the housing development called me back a couple of days later and asked me what kind of house I would like to build—if I wasn’t interested in building the one he had plans for.

So began my career of designing and building passive solar/super insulated homes in Upstate New York.  That first house was pretty simple and really not too much different from the requirements for house construction today.  I was interested in orienting the home to take advantage of the sun.  The roof was pitched so that solar collectors for water heating could be added later.  The biggest percentage of glazing was on the South side.  The walls were 2×6 construction (unheard of at that time) and were insulated with cellulose fiber insulation.  There was thermal mass built into the floor system to absorb the sun.

By 1978 I was building walls with 2×8’s and the foundations were all Pressure Treated Wood systems.  It is the use of wood foundations that precipitated what, at the time, was considered a major breakthrough in creating remarkably energy efficient homes—at less cost than a conventional 2×4 house of the same size/volume.  This breakthrough largely fell on deaf ears but had the great fortune of attracting a few buyers that wanted just such a home.  I consider myself very lucky to have had clients that shared my dream of more efficient homes.

Syracuse University routinely brought students through these homes as part of their educational experience.  Some skeptics of what I was doing even claimed I was lying about the performance even while utility bills lay right there before them.

In 1979 one such house was a small duplex (800 sq ft on each side) that won a $10,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Administration (NYSERDA) grant.  This duplex was one of 17 awards given and was published in a book about those 17 houses.  The book was the 1979 NYSERDA Passive Solar Design Awards.

This is what that duplex looked like.

Passive Solar Duplex

Passive Solar Duplex

The following pictures are from the book.

Buell House, Oswego, New York

Buell House, Oswego, New York

Buell Passive Solar House

Buell Passive Solar House, Oswego, New York

There is one HUGE glaring inaccuracy in the information on this home however.  The published information says the home was heated by an oil furnace.  The actual heating system was a hydronic baseboard system with two zones on one 30 gallon electric water heater.

Part of the problem with trying to sell something “different” is that if industry cannot find a way to make money from it, they will greet the “advancement” less than enthusiastically.  In those days we saw it with active solar systems—both for air heating systems and photovoltaic systems.  Of course in those days the solar panel manufacturers did the hard sell on payback and how the technology would improve “soon” such that every house could afford them.  Now some 40 years later we are still hearing about how technology is “almost there.”  If the house is VERY energy inefficient the payback on these systems probably would pencil out.  In new construction, with proper levels of insulation and other design elements, they would never pay for themselves. This of course does not take into account the environmentally unfriendly processes of making solar panels.  While nuclear power has its advantages—dealing with the waste has proven quite difficult.

(If an active Solar Heating system costs $24,000 dollars and is able to achieve 75% of the house’s heating needs of $2,000 per year, the payback would take something like 16 years.  Now lets take a similar sized home and: 1, insulate the heck out of it; 2, orient it to the sun; 3, decrease the windows on the East and West side; 4, eliminate windows on the North side; 5, provide an insulated foundation system; and 6, put a $10,000 dollar active solar system on it.  We can now get 75% of our heating needs but our annual heating costs will be only $250.00 and the payback becomes more like 30 years plus the panels would likely have to be replaced adding at least another 10,000 dollars to the cost.  Now the panel manufacturers will love this scenario but I think you can see the point that the more efficient the home the less economy there will be in using technologies that will never pay for themselves.)

So the current beef I have with today’s “new” Green Movement is that it is the same as the “old” Green Movement.  We are attempting to fix something with technology that has very little real need for technology.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of what we need to do to create energy efficient homes in this country can be done “passively,”  with very little complicated technology, and more emphasis on “conservation.”  Houses don’t have to look “different” and most importantly they don’t need to cost more and in some cases could end up costing less.

What is the payback period for a house that costs less to build?

I am not going to fight with today’s “Green Movement,” but will instead describe exactly how we can move forward using existing construction techniques with readily available resources that are sustainable.  This approach does not increase greenhouse gases in the process of making the technologies necessary to go down the path that parts of the Green Movement would have us go down.

Please keep in mind that I am far from being against technology.  A lot of these ideas could be greatly improved with some of the technologies that we do have now and that are coming down the pike.   Appropriate use of technology will actually save us on this planet, but using it wisely is critical to not creating problems that were not there to begin with.

Let’s get down to basics. If I could show you how it is possible to get a house to the point where we need 75% to 85% less energy to heat and cool it, by simply utilizing conservation, super-insulation, air stopping, advanced framing techniques and house orientation, would it make you a believer?  Well my experience has proven that it is in fact possible.  In some cases, depending on where you live, it is even possible to eliminate heating and cooling systems altogether.

The basic principle is so simple that it makes high tech companies cringe and skeptics scratch their heads.  No gadgets—no gimmicks—just working with Mother Nature to get us to where we want to be:  cool in the summer, warm in the winter—and not having to sell our first born to do it.

Think of your house as an insulated bubble sitting on the ground.  Now take that insulated bubble and extend it far enough into the ground to be well away from the depth of frost—say basement height.  It is important that this basement wall be as heavily insulated as the bubble above ground is—or slightly less.  Inside this nice insulated bubble the ground temperature  of the concrete slab floor will be in contact with earth that pretty much stays a constant 50 to 55 degrees—depending on what part of the country you live in (of course once we add heat to our bubble, the floor itself will warm up a bit and won’t be uncomfortable once carpeted).

If the “light bulb” has not gone off in your head yet, you should be able to see that we only have to heat our little bubble from the constant ground temperature of 50/55 degrees Fahrenheit to our desired indoor temperature of 68/70 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of from whatever ambient temperature is.  If you live in Minnesota, that temperature might be minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit—a 100 degree difference instead of a 20 degree difference.  We can actually start to use some of the waste indoor heat from appliances, lights and human activity to chip away at that remaining 20 degree difference.  Adding contributions from solar gain and appropriately placed windows and we chip away at it even further.  This is how we are able to go from a heating bill of $2000.00 a year to $250.00 a year.  The dollar amounts I have been using in these analogies are accurate in terms of percentages and are only used to demonstrate the differences and do not represent “actual” situations—although they very well could.

In cooling, the same principles are at work.  With mechanical air conditioning system the goal is to have the indoor air at around 75 degrees max.  Even if we can achieve 80 degrees it will feel comfortable if it is 110 degrees outside because it is a dryer heat.  In the super insulated house because the house air when it is 110 degrees outside the floor temperature is still 50 degrees—we merely need to circulate the air throughout the house to easily maintain temperatures well below the target temperatures of the mechanical air conditioning system.

Passive Solar House Design

Utilizing the earths constant ground temperature to assist in home heating and cooling

Of course, we have to move away from the picture of the bubble we now have in our heads and show exactly what that bubble in real construction would look like.  The important thing to keep in mind is that it is a “system.”  The whole house must work together to get us to where we want to be.

How to build a house.

The first and most critical thing is drainage.  If the drainage for the system is not thought out and handled properly misery will be the result.  How often is drainage the first thing that is considered in today’s typical new construction home?

The building site. 

On the site we must orient the house so that it is going to take advantage of the sun and any other site considerations we might want to include.  It is not my intent to go into great detail about the dozens of site considerations that should be taken into account like: wind, nearby water, trees etc.  Also, at this point, I cannot go into the nuances of the details of some of the framing techniques described below, as well as air sealing techniques employed in the house system.

The house foundation.

The foundation will be Pressure Treated Wood framed with 2×8 studs minimum.  It sits on a 12” bed of pea gravel that extends the entire width of the excavation.  This excavation is drained away by gravity.

Frankly, if it cannot be drained by gravity it should not be built at that location.

Slab on grade type installations are possible as long as the insulation extends far enough into the ground to achieve the desired use of the constant ground temperature.  Sump pumps should never be relied upon for foundation drainage.  The house deck is constructed on the foundation walls and then the basement floor can be poured over a double 6 mil vapor barrier.  The concrete slab not only creates the basement floor.  It is poured against the bottom of the wood foundation to prevent the walls from kicking in after the wall is back-filled.  Typically excavated soils are not to be used for back-fill.  Crushed stone is preferred and the excavation is filled all the way up to finish grade.  This continuous bed of gravel under the slab and up the outside of the foundation provides adequate drainage and passively vents radon gases that might otherwise find their way into the home.  Unless someone plugs the end of the drainage pipe water would typically never approach the bottom of the foundation or the foundation walls—even though this particular type of pressure treated lumber is rated to be submerged/buried.

While I like the “idea” of concrete foundations, I have never been able to find a way to make them pencil out in the context of building super insulated homes.  Insulating a Concrete foundation to R-30+ is very costly and then there is the problem of interior wall finishes unless one is happy with the look of concrete and surface mounted wiring.  I like the idea of having all that thermal mass as a heat sink, but thermal mass can be added quite effectively by covering the walls with double 5/8” drywall. Wood foundation walls come already to wire and plumb and install finish materials as needed.

The house envelope.

The house walls are constructed with 2×10 top and bottom plates and the studs are made of trusses.  A typical stud for a one story house would be made by ripping a 2×4 in half and a plywood zigzag would be glued and nailed on both sides.  One of the big problems with conventional framing is that so much of the wall—up to 25% of the wall area is solid wood.  In other words 25% of your wall is crappy insulation to go with the windows that are also crappy insulation.  Current insulation requirements for side walls is about R-21.  With a truss type wall we can get up to R-40 with only about 5% of the wall being solid wood.  The headers can be made out of plywood glued and nailed on both sides of a 2×10 (1/2” ripped off to maintain framing lines).  These headers can then be blown full of insulation as well. It goes without saying that all interior windows will have insulated, folding-type, shutters with a minimum R-value of 10.

Supports for the headers are dimensional 1×10’s instead of 2×10’s—further reducing the amount of solid wood through the wall.

The roof trusses will be a raised heel type.  In other words a uniform thickness of insulation is maintained all across the entire attic space from eave to eave and covering the entire wall top plate to a depth of a minimum of 16settled-inches of blown cellulose insulation—R-60.  40 years later we are still stuck at around R-40.

Some will argue that this high amount of insulation will never pay for itself.  But these are the same people that want to sell me solar panels and other high tech gadgets that will truly never pay for themselves, or they are not seeing the cost of the home being a sum of the whole.  One more expensive component is offset by a cheaper component.  Insulation is one of the cheapest single components of the home and if it helps me eliminate the need for a 120,000 BTU furnace I will argue for the extra insulation.  In the first year of the life of the house the reduced heating costs will easily pay for the extra insulation.  I want to avoid using meaningful dollar amounts in these analogies because the costs of things change so rapidly, while the principles do not.  In a very real sense comparing older homes with super-insulated homes is a little bit like comparing apples and oranges.  Once you cross into the world of super-insulated we are in a Brave New World with its own advantages and rules and figuring out the cost benefits and comparisons with conventional homes is of limited value.

Cellulose fiber insulation is by far the most economical way to get us where we want to be in terms of thermal efficiency and minimizing air infiltration.  Fiberglass—regardless of type—should not even be considered in the construction of modern homes.  Newer Icynene foam insulation shows promise but the material’s expense will push the initial cost of the home a little higher.

When I was building these homes, the biggest headache was finding heating systems small enough to do the job.  Forced air furnaces in the 8,000-10,000 BTU range would have been ideal—but they did not exist—probably still do not exist.  Today we have so many great alternatives, such as individual room Heat Pumps. These types of units would have been perfect for these super-insulated homes that I built in the 70’s and 80’s that had heating requirements between 3- 5 BTU per square.  In those days I was pretty much stuck with 30 gallon water heaters and hydronic radiators—or electric resistance heaters.  To put this in perspective, a typical 1500 square foot home that is built this way comes pretty close to satisfying its heating requirements with a hair dryer and one kid chasing the dog around the inside.

Here are some actual pictures of the drainage, foundation and framing for these super insulated homes built in the 1980’s.

Passive Solar house foundation system

This gravel will be leveled to a depth of 12 inches for the house foundation to sit on.  The foundation panels can be seen in the background.

 

Passive solar house foundation with drainage

The drainage trench for the gravel under a wood foundation system.

 

Advanced framing techniques

Truss type studs and advanced framing methods for Passive Solar/Super Insulated House

 

Truss studs in a super insulated home

2×10 Truss Studs, Insulated headers, hollow corners, 1/10 jacks and cripples. 

So, yes it can be done.  Why aren’t we building houses like this all across America?  Because there is too much misinformation and disinformation about what it means to be truly energy efficient.  Also, as long as there is someone more interested in making money than in saving energy there will be charlatans that run around in green costumes.  As long as people want to live in 6000 sq ft homes there will be people around ready to assure them that their 6000 sq ft home can be built green.  “6000 sq ft” and “green” is, in my opinion, an inherent contradiction and only adds to the problem.  If we learn to save $1,750 dollars on our heating bills only to justify spending more money on a bigger house until we get back up to that $2000 dollar cost for heating—what have we really gained?  And this question is apart from the additional resources consumed to build that bigger and better house.  What we as individuals can “afford” must always be tempered by what the planet can afford.

The real green is perhaps jealousy. 

We are jealous of the person that has more.  The fact that someone has “more,” is all the justification we need that we are “entitled” to have more too.

The road to ruin is paved with green intentions.

****

Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector

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Comments

  1. Great stuff!!! Nice picture of you in the excavation as well 🙂 I’m still having a hard time getting my head around the treated wood foundation; I would be interested to see thirty five years later how they have done with regard to settlement, deterioration, and keeping water out in this neck of the woods. I have never actually seen one, so I guess I can only comment based on ignorance. Imagine what WSDA would say…..!

    • Charles Buell says:

      Darrell, thanks. It is our conversation at the ASHI conference that inspired me to finally get this thing put together. I think the problem with wood foundations in the NW is that we have all been witness to how “ground contact” PTW decays. There is a huge difference between this garbage and the stuff wood foundations are made out of. The guy that goes to home depot and builds himself a wood foundation is in a world of hurt down the road. Ground contact PTW does not have to be treated at the center. All wood for foundations has to be treated all the way through the material. The other key to remember is “drainage”—only under exceptional conditions would the foundation ever even see water.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more, on all counts. I built 64 wood basements in Minnesota between 1976 and 1986. The people that have them, love them. I didn’t do any of the heat comparisons you did, but didn’t really need to. Cold in Minnesota is cold and warm basements help. I like the truss-stud concept too and would like to build one more house some day.

    • Charles Buell says:

      I think the people that are scared of wood basements just don’t fully understand them. These same people however see nothing wrong with concrete block foundations—which has to be the absolutely worse way to build a foundation I can imagine—unless of course you are looking for a way to store water in your basement wall 🙂 Of course I am being facetious—there are ways to protect them from water as well. Any system is really all about the drainage.

  3. Great post, Charles. Growing up, my next door neighbor had a house built very similar to what you’re describing; almost all south facing windows, very few windows anywhere else. Wood foundation, closed-cell foam insulation in the wall, etc. The house performed very well, and heating costs were minimal.
    Do you subscribe to the Journal of Light Construction? It seems like they have an article about passive house construction in every issue. You would really enjoy it.

  4. fascinating article! So what can I do with my 1&1/2 floors plus basement (concrete floor) brick tudor (1930) to help improve insulation? I know that we could add cellulose insulation to the attic. Do the exterior walls in this era of home even have insulation? Can any be blown in to the walls?

    • Charles Buell says:

      Matt, unfortunately older housing stock is a more difficult nut to crack and they can almost never be brought up to what can be done from scratch—at least without great cost. With new construction the problem can be met head on with a “system.” It is very difficult to create a system out of something that never started out that way. Personally I think there should be more incentives to replace the dinosaurs instead of bandaging them.

  5. Great article Charlie! Of course I agree with your foundation wall drainage perspectives. No matter what, that is where it starts. And LOVE the idea that the basement is where energy saving starts. NOBODY thinks that way. My house faces due north, so not having windows out there would be a bit odd! (Not sure what my neighbors would think either!) Just put super-efficient windows north and east to take advantage of indoor light. Having to turn on lights everywhere it not so efficient either!
    Agreeing also about the fiberglass insulation. I think cellulose is the way to go. I inspected a house with the icynene foam in just the upper level and roof. It added $85K to the price of the house! It is very efficient, to be sure (there are fire hazards though), but they will NEVER save enough to pay back for that little installation!
    I wonder about the P.T. foundation. How long will that wood last really, especially a) underground for so long and, b) buried by concrete? Any experience with that? Just asking.
    I know you expect my usually-silly comments too:
    1. You have just made a case for incandescent lights, for indoor heating!
    2. I liked the radio in the window frame. No doubt you listened to Laura, Rush and Sean all day.
    Terrific overall. You are a real forward thinker. I loved reading it. Brevity is the soul of wit after all…
    Thanks for letting me know and encouraging me to comment.
    I’ll probably see you and the Julester next time I am out to Maple Valley. I haven’t been yet!
    Jay

    • Charles Buell says:

      Jay, for sure every site will have its issues—especially the way we lay out streets 🙂 As much as I like the idea of icynene, I just can’t see it “penciling out” in terms of keeping homes within the price that it costs to construct a “regular” house. There are applications where it might be better than other products. The PTW wood foundations at the time I started using them had already been in the ground in Alaska for 30 years. And of course we all know what can happen to concrete in corrosive environments. Ideally, when properly installed, no kind of foundation should ever see water. By “buried by concrete” I am guessing you mean where the slab abuts it? Should be absolutely no problem as the concrete is totally dry and separated from the ground by plastic. PTW is what is the normal sill plate on top of a concrete foundation and is routinely buried in concrete as form ties and other applications—such as driveway and patio dividers. Foundation grade PTW is designed to be submerged for life and is routinely used as pilings of docs/retaining walls etc.

  6. Sí Señor, but Alaska isn’t exactly normal! There are no termites I bet, and I further bet that fungi has a real hard time underground there. You’re the pest guy – do they have ants there? Carpenter ants? Your famous moisture ants? I ask because I don’t know.
    Yes, I meant the bottoms of the foundation studs buried by the slab, as you wrote. And I thought concrete was 15% or so moist, which is why we use PT wood for sill plates now so microbial growth isn’t encouraged. The sills on top of foundation walls are also separated by the spongy stuff they use as an air block. But no matter, I just wondered how it does over time. A concrete foundation should a couple hundred years I would guess. Surely with cracking and movement if not protected from water pressure, but concrete will last.
    Still, great article. I learned some things, and some more things about you! Ahead of your time!

    • Charles Buell says:

      Jay, even in Alaska most of the wood foundation would be at temperatures conducive to rot if moisture was adequate and there are plenty of carpenter ants present—again living in wood that is at appropriate temperatures. That said the grade of PTW used in foundations is impervious to decay/rot and insect pests. The expected life of this grade of PTW is certainly in excess of 100 years and, like concrete, if protected could last indefinitely. Remember too that the grade of lumber used as sill plates and other installations in typical house construction is not foundation grade so any problems one sees with that stuff should not be extrapolated to foundation grade materials. As a side note wood foundations resist hydrostatic forces much better than concrete foundations and why they work so well in the perma-frost of Alaska.

  7. Jim Quarello says:

    I have been interested in energy efficiency for a long time. This article really intrigues me, no inspires me to delve into this further. I would love to show this to some of the “green” builders around here that I have met. Everyone of them is doing the same old thing. Nothing new. Certainlt some fodder for our next conversation. 🙂

    • Charles Buell says:

      Jim there is no shortage of “same old thing” around—and if they can get more money for it, isn’t that the point? 🙂

  8. Jarod Strain says:

    I am all ears and I like what you’re doing. I do have some questions on the wood foundation regarding durability. I’ve seen a lot of treated material with rot after only a few years. In a deck, it’s expensive. In a foundation, that would be a disaster. Do you have more information or perhaps a followup?

    • Charles Buell says:

      Jarod, all I can add is that there is a huge difference in the wood treated for “foundation grade” and typical “ground contact” materials available at the big box stores. You have probably noticed it is not the treated parts that decay—it is the untreated center of these woods that decay.

  9. Once again, this was a great read, even another time!

    The green movement is, as you say, nothing new. Aluminum has been recycled in this country for, what, 180 years? Glass forever. Macadam recycled his roads! Asphalt is still recycled.

    But green really means more money. People spend premiums for what does not return that premium. And, to be cynical, years ago my home inspections included an “energy audit” of sorts, for free! Now people pay me to do one! That’s green! More green!

    I think Icynene foam used minimally, like 1/2″, along rim joists and exterior openings, and in garage ceilings, and then covered with the proper amount of batt fiberglass, is affordable and a terrific energy seal. In conjunction with bat fiberglass along rim joists and under floors it is a great long term insulation that will break even.

    And remember all the better mouse traps our generation has produced, without ADHD drugs and counseling at every turn! Here is a great mouse trap:

    http://jaysfreeenterpriseblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/better-mouse-trap-2.html

    Thanks for the opportunity to revisit this post! Always enjoyable.

    Jay

  10. Mark Bishton says:

    Charles,
    Revisited this very reasoned piece again today. I remember 1st reading it & feeling a great ‘kinship’. Our careers have taken amazingly similar paths for these last 42 years.
    There is nothing in your thinking here that I could disagree with or even question as it has all been evidenced to me all these thousands of miles away over all these years.
    Our youthful faith in our fellow man recognizing or wanting to create a better mouse trap has often bumped against the reality that in the free market treating symptoms can be a lucrative career whereas fixing problems fully is just a one time job.
    I’m so glad we both were also given hard heads:)

  11. Charles Buell says:

    One of these days we will have to meet, brother Mark 🙂

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