Jan. 15th, 2012

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Finished Your Green Home: A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly New Home by Alex Wilson (3/5). This is a must read for anyone building a home (it could also be useful for renovations, but it focuses on construction). It describes what a green home is and best practices for making a home green. This book deserves a better score than 3/5, and it would have given it one if I had read it a year ago; however, one year into building my own green home, I was already familiar with most of the material presented.

When you think of a green home, you might think of the visible things: solar power, low VOC paints, energy efficient appliances, green roof, etc. These things do make a home greener, but the largest environmental impacts of a home are energy and material use. A huge house that leaks energy isn't going to be very green no matter how many green features are slapped onto it. A truly green home is so much more. 

Before I go into details, a caveat. As Wilson emphasizes, a home doesn't need to have all these features to be considered green. A home should take into account as many features as is practical. Every house is, in many ways, bad for the environment. A green house is simply a house that is less bad for the environment, and any amount of less bad is valuable.

The first thing to consider is where and how much to build. Infill development is going to be greener than developing pristine land. Smaller homes are, due to their smaller energy and material use, inherently greener than larger homes. Homes in walkable communities are greener than homes that require you to frequently drive longer distances. 

Having decided where to build, the next most important thing is to build an energy efficient home that minimizes material use. There is an alignment in goals here. Material minimizing framing techniques, such as advance framing, use less wood, and less wood in walls generally means greater thermal efficiency. 

An energy efficient home should be well insulated and air tight (with a mechanical air exchange system). Windows should be efficient and placed so as to provide appropriate solar gain -- in the Pacific Northwest, as in many moderate climates, appropriate means getting as much sun as possible in the winter while trying to minimize solar gain in the summer. Of course, energy efficiency also means choosing efficient appliances, lighting, etc.

Energy efficiency is the single most important thing that can be done to make a house green. A "boring" traditional home with standard appliances, materials, etc., will run circles around a super modern house with all sorts of cool green features if the traditional home is energy efficient and the modern home is not. Over the lifetime of a home, energy efficiency trumps everything.

However, water is becoming an increasingly precious resource, and Wilson indicates that water conservation is soon going to be a big thing in green home construction. Water conservation techniques involve using efficient appliances and landscaping that does not require a lot of additional water. Wilson also mentions greywater, rainwater harvesting, and storm water management.

One of my favorite water conservation features is one that is invisible but increases comfort: decreasing the amount of time that people have to wait for hot water. When hot water has to push cold water out of pipes, the cold water is wasted. Adding to the problem, the hot water remaining in the pipes after use will cool and waste energy. This waste can be reduced by insulating pipes, circulating hot water (on demand is more energy efficient than constant circulation), or, for low flow faucets, having narrower pipes go directly from the water heater to the faucet.

As briefly as I have been covering the book's contents, I am going to even more briefly mention that Wilson covers renewable energy, green materials and products, and minimizing indoor pollution (e.g., from paint, mold, etc.). He also has a chapter on the cost of green building an d a great chapter on minimizing construction waste through a combination of reducing waste and recycling; given the amount of materials that go into a house, this is a vital part of making a house green. 

As I said, this is a really good book, and one that you should read if you ever are looking into building a green home. My learning curve would have been much less steep if I had had this book a year ago. As Wilson makes clear, a lot of the features that make a home more green also make it more comfortable and cheaper to live in (but not to build). Even if you don't want to build an explicitly green home, you could still get a lot of good ideas from this book.
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So I'm kind of 5 books behind on book summaries, so you'll kind of be seeing lots of book summaries over the next few days. Most of them shouldn't be as long as the last one though.

Finished The Right Color by Eve Ashcraft (2/5). This is a fairly shallow book that has some useful tips about using color in the home. As some of the Amazon reviewers have pointed out, the book reads something like an advertisement for the author's paint line. This is mainly due to the fact that about a quarter of the pages are devoted to brief descriptions and large swatches of colors from the authors (quite attractive) color line.

Despite all that, I am glad that I read the book. If, like me, you are rather intimidated by color, it is useful to see examples of color combinations chosen by someone who has an eye for color, and it cannot be denied that Eve Ashcroft has an eye for color (although perhaps not amazing enough to justify her self-congratulatory introduction). Although I came away from the book with very little increase in my knowledge of how to choose "The Right Color", I did come away feeling that color could be exciting and dramatic without being overwhelming.

Specific tips from the book that I found useful:
  • Dark grey / black can make for interesting interior window frames; these colors can actually distract from the landscape less than white.
  • Lighting should be part of your color plan.
  • Rooms can be seen from other rooms. This is an opportunity to layer colors.
    • In particular, you might paint a small, transitory space, such as a pantry or entry, a bolder color than rooms you spend more time in since your eyes catch them in passing.
    • Connecting spaces such as halls and stairways should connect the colors at either end.
  • Utility rooms can be livened up with a cheerful color.
  • If you want a punch of color without painting the whole room, try painting inside a closet or the inside / back of bookshelves or painting the ceiling.
  • Use color to distinguish or blend architectural features such a lowered soffit or a column. I particularly like the idea of painting a lowered soffit a different color.
  • Keep a catalog of all the colors you use in a home including name, brand, date, paint chips, room, finish, method of application, and contractor. 
  • Keep a touch-up kit for all of the colors in your home. This should include small mason jars of paint with the brand, color number and name, finish, room, and date. Store in a cool dry place. Use a q-tip to do touch-ups.
Specific things that I want to remember:
  • Satin black could be an interesting choice for our stairs
  • I am currently leaning toward teal blues, wine reds, and greys for a unifying color scheme. Comparables in Ashcroft's line are, from darker to lighter:
    • Teal blues: tide, marine, glass
    • Wine reds: pomegranate, tulip
    • Greys: wool, urn, chalk, mouse (?)

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Erika RS

May 2012

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