Contrary to what some might think, we impact our environment heavily, to the point that long-term damage ensues and a cascade of ill effects tumble with ever-increasing speed and magnitude. There is no question now that nations, organizations and individuals must begin (or continue) doing everything possible in order to minimize human impact on the environment.
If you already recycle, use efficient light bulbs and appliances, trim your lawn an inch or two taller and check for faucet leaks but want to do more, consider some of the following larger scale projects when updating your home or if building a new one. They diminish or eliminate energy consumption for heating and cooling, put grey water to use and significantly reduce a household’s impression on the ecosystem.
A bermed house is one that is covered on at least one side (but usually two or three sides on a rectangular construction) with earth. They are typically constructed by digging down into the plot, bagging the displaced soil and using the bags, rocks, wood and other native materials dislodged by the excavation to construct the frame, supports, foundation and façade of the home. In short, the site provides most of the materials for free without the transport costs of traditional items and fuel requirements on heavy trucks.
After plumbing and wiring, the shell is sealed within by a variety of eco-friendly materials and insulators, leaving a completely finished and modern interior that can be designed in whatever style the owner prefers. One side faces out, usually covered extensively with windows for light and internal gardens, set toward a view behind the house. From the front it is often hard to tell a house is even present, except for the possible presence of skylights, ventilation shafts and/or solar panels.
Covering a house this way can double the surface green space on your property, improving the water conditions, general aesthetic and habitat capabilities of your yard. See green roofs and roof gardens in the next section if you aren’t in a position to build a home underground but are interested in maximizing the green space on your property.
Ventilation is an intrinsic concern in these homes, but is generally engineered by the firm performing the construction prior to designs being approved.
A subterranean home is completely underground. Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole in “The Lord of the Rings” is a genteel example of this type of dwelling; however, ultra modern designs are also available. With subterranean homes, often all that is visible is the door and windows.
The benefits to these types of buildings are many. They completely eliminate the need for cooling in the summer, and require only 10 percent of the energy normally used for heating in the winter. They are much safer during tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural stressors. They are also engineered to weather flooding. They provide privacy and reduce almost all road and neighborhood noise. They moderate the home’s impact on the local environment and generally have a high resale value because of their individuality and charm.
Of course this style of housing isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of green options for building a home or making adjustments to pre-existing structures. There are even options for powering buildings in such a way that they generate 130 percent of the energy they require, meaning they actually put electricity onto the grid rather than taking away from it.
When building a home or updating the roof on a pre-existing structure, be certain to consult with a professional prior to committing to replacing your shingles with sod and plants. Once you do make the transition, however, you will have many of the above-mentioned benefits of a bermed home. The filtered runoff water from green roofs is much cleaner than that which streams indiscriminately off traditional roofs. The aesthetic of gardened roofs can be striking (adding considerable curb appeal in a real estate market glutted with ordinary homes) and green space is maximized on your property. By increasing the flora on your lot, not only do you contribute to cleaner air and water, you also provide a space for creatures that are often left homeless once your own abode displaces theirs.
Fresh water is that which comes from the tap and is used for consumption or cleaning. Grey water is that which has been used, but is not so contaminated that it cannot be recycled for watering plants or flushing toilets. Black water is that which must be reverted to grey water for use on the lawn, green roof or gardens or must be completely re-purified. This black water is typically the water sent out of your home via the kitchen, laundry or bathroom. There is technology available for capturing and reusing your grey water, and in some instances of cleaning your black water enough to be used as grey water.
Of particular note, there are now efficient waterless composting toilets. These commodes come in electric and non-electric varieties and eliminate 100 percent of the water used per flush by regular and low usage toilets. With a series of fans, the commodes dehydrate waste material, capturing the grey water for use outside and greatly reducing the remaining solids, which are sent to a septic tank for later use as composting agents. There are no residual odors a result of this process. Although the price tags on upper-end brands of these toilets may reach $1,500-$2,000, over the course of 40 years they save over 250,000 gallons of water per person (assuming that a person flushes a six-gallon toilet three times each day) while creating biological material safe for use in lawn composting.
At first glance it may seem like adobe, stone, straw, mud and wood are primitive resources that couldn’t possibly survive extended wear and tear. Yet it should be pointed out that these are the very materials used by people hundreds and thousands of years ago to create structures that still stand to the present day (in some instances, largely intact). Before turning your nose up at the possibility of building a home from these materials, consider that straw-bale houses are almost impervious to fire and all but eliminate allergens within the home. They also have an insulation rating higher than fiberglass. Any of these materials, or a combination of them, can be used to create modern structures that pass inspection protocols. Before selecting any of them, be certain they are appropriate for the climate where you will be building by consulting a professional who specializes in building techniques using the material of your choice.
For more information about materials, contractors, resources and designs, check out this story on Q-Notes Online (www.q-notes.com) for a listing of weblinks.
Jack Kirven holds an MFA in Dance from UCLA and a national certification in personal fitness training through NASM.
— Q-Notes’ “Health and Wellness” column rotates between physical fitness, spirituality, green living and medical wellness.
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