Tiny Homes and Green Neighborhoods

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I’ve been thinking of a few distinct models of tiny homes and green neighborhoods. First, consider a new development on raw land. You’d have the ability to cluster all the homes on the most appropriate part of the property. That probably means close to the nearest street, but might also mean the worst land for gardens, the area with the fewest trees that would need to be cut for home construction, and so on. This first video shows a good example of a small, new home. It’s actually a laneway home stuck into an existing neighborhood, but you could build a new neighborhood on this idea.

Is it time for “the commons?”

I think it would be ideal to have a variety of home plans of 250-500 square feet on small lots. The rest would be common land for recreation, wildlife, and gardens. I’d go so far, in relatively warm climates, to forget about streets with curb and gutter, and create simple gravel paths. For residents with cars, have a parking lot at the edge of the development. Most people in this neighborhood would bike for transportation, but there would be room for small vehicles to reach each home for delivery of big items.

Here’s architect Ross Chapin talking about a “pocket neighborhood” and homes he’s designed. Very nice homes built in a similar way to my idea.

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Chapin and developer Jim Soules have built a few “cottage home” developments, such as Conover Commons. With 12 homes of 1,000 square feet on 1.5 acres, this project is a good example of how it works. I like the small lots and fine craftsmanship of the homes.

I’d love to see a real neighborhood of several hundred homes built this way, replacing the large-lot suburban model we see all over the country. Including town homes in the mix would probably add some diversity, too. Maybe grandma and grandpa would like to sell the big family home and join the kids and grandkids in a funky, walkable neighborhood like this. You could house just as many, if not more people, yet use less land.

It would be interesting to build all this as owner-occupied homes, with common land owned by all. I can also imagine a variation created from existing neighborhoods, too. Detroit, of course, comes to mind, with its thousands of abandoned homes and empty lots, and it’s already happening. Any place with more homes than people would be a candidate. It sounds a lot like an intentional community, actually.

An updated trailer park

Another idea is a rental community for moveable tiny homes. They simply rent out a lot, much like a trailer park for tiny homes. Codes and zoning are probably the greatest challenge for this idea. Here’s a long discussion about the subject. If all that can be sorted out, this seems like a feasible version of tiny homes and green neighborhoods.

 

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Can You Build A Straw Bale Tiny Home In Just A Day?

Here’s an example of a low-cost and fast straw bale home. The author, in the comments, mentions how you can get all the walls up for a small structure or a tiny home in a day. Cob, another low-cost and sustainable method, would take days or weeks for the same size structure.

More about straw bale building.

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And a longer video. Fast and really cheap where straw is available. This method, like earth bags, also reduces the amount of wood needed.

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And one about building a yurt.

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Are Handmade Homes Better Than Prefab Homes?

A few days ago I read a blog post by Richard Olsen, who’s a former editor at Architectural Digest. His book, Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, celebrates the funky and creative in homebuilding.

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The author is critical of modern and post-modern design, including works from Le Corbusier to new iterations like those in Dwell. I can see his point, as homes such as the Clark House in West Vancouver are the ultimate example of a work of art you can live in, and celebrate both design and craftsmanship.

Olsen wrote in his blog about Le Corbusier’s ideas for “…a house free of idiosyncracies, a house in celebration of standardization, one made of parts not crafted by an artisan aiming for one-of-a-kind character but, instead, fabricated by an anonymous factory somewhere—capital-‘I’ Industry.”

And Dwell, he says, continues with that direction. Are handmade homes better than prefab homes?

Is Dwell really that bad?

However, I don’t feel so critical of Dwell homes and modern design. It would be nice if we could all have a handmade home, but I think we need better homes more than we need handmade homes. We need healthy, efficient, durable, and attractive homes, even if they’re factory made.

I’d like to see more variety in design, and more of a vernacular approach, too. Now the hot design motif is Mid-Mod; in the suburbs it’s the McMansion with a dozen gables. And so on. A factory-built home can have style—much better than a nostalgic suburban box—along with solid workmanship, a lack of artifice, healthier materials and construction techniques, and great reduction of waste. Not to mention better design, that is easier to heat and cool, and that will be more durable over time.

The handmade idea is great, but there’s no way to get that to the majority of people, so let’s go with prefab and factory-built in whatever style. The mass market can have dramatically better homes, and I see the prefab innovators dragging the industry toward better homes.

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Low-Tech and High-Tech Homes—At A Low-Cost

Substandard housing is a worldwide problem—and opportunity. Some places face natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, that wipe out peoples’ homes. Other places face huge population growth, with more and more people packed into crowded slums every day. How do all those people provide shelter for themselves?

As we’ve always done, many people build a home themselves, in the vernacular style. You also see plenty of creative options for healthier, more sustainable housing. Some make use of new technology, such as re-working shipping containers. Others use manufactured materials in creative ways. And still others use mostly low-tech methods with a dose of technology. But all over the world, people are building low-tech and high-tech homes—at a low-cost

Examples of Low-Cost Homes

This one is called The $500 House.

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Masonry Homes in the Vernacular Style

Locally made bricks are used all over the world.

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High-Tech But More Expensive

This M.I.T. project has been built. It looks good but the cost came to $5925.

 

Here’s a very impressive shelter made from a shipping container. With two fold-out wings, it goes from approximately 160 square feet to about 480 square feet. Great engineering!

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Not quite as cheap, but uses standardized components and goes together quickly.

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Low-Tech and Slow But Cheap, Functional, Durable, and Sustainable!

Here’s info about poly bags for earthbag building. Just $.06 each!

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Are Earth Bag Homes the Best Low-Cost Housing Option?

Some friends of mine travel to Nicaragua a few times per year to provide medical care and other help to people near the city of Matagalpa. Some volunteers build homes, too. The current home-building project builds small concrete-block homes at a cost of about $4000 each. Donations cover the cost.

Here’s an example of the existing homes:

Exterior view of a village home in Nicaragua.

Exterior view of a village home in Nicaragua.

Interior view.

Interior view.

And here’s an example of a new concrete block home.

nica new home exterior

A new concrete block home.

Would earth bag homes be better?

I haven’t investigated earth bag and cob homes much, but I wonder if those methods would be appropriate for a project in Nicaragua. It seems that earth bag homes would be much more sustainable and far cheaper than concrete blocks. It seems that you could ship a few truckloads of earth bags to a village and build several homes for the same cost as one block home.

 

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Here’s a method that uses earth bag knee walls with bamboo framing. Teaching the villagers how to build this way would be ideal.

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And here are some examples of pretty nice homes:

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We Need Cheap Green Homes

A Cheap Green Home is a right-sized, energy-frugal house made from materials that represent the greenest practical choice. With a hefty budget, of course, anything is possible. A tight budget, though, demands ingenuity. And an affordable green home—the “holy grail” for homebuilding in this land of bloated plastic McMansions, is now a reality.

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This modern home built from a shipping container solves multiple problems. Factory assembly is more efficient, faster, and thus cheaper than traditional on-site construction. The foundation can be anything from a full basement to a system of posts. If you need more space, add more modules.

What is “green” anyway?

I think of “green” in terms of design elements, material choices, and methods. A green house builds in green features that are hard to retrofit later. It’s easier to site a house for passive solar gain than try to capture solar gain with renovations later. In contrast, you can add a photovoltaic system later with little hassle.

The green approach can be perplexing at times. Adding insulation enables the house to maintain a comfortable temperature with less energy. Some types of insulation, however, contribute heavily to global warming in their manufacture. You can see that it’s a balancing act, as each building has an impact on the planet. How small can we make that impact?

We can follow some standard practices:

  • Make it the the right size.
  • Make it tight.
  • Insulate.
  • Ventilate.
  • Use passive solar heating and passive cooling as much as possible.
  • Use the most durable materials you can afford.

Here are some examples of different approaches to a Green Home—cheap or not.

The “Standard” Green Home

You can build a remarkably efficient house with mostly standard design, methods, and materials. The Bircher Home in De Pere, Wisconsin, is a fine example. The house design incorporates passive solar gain and passive cooling, but looks like a conventional suburban house, apart from a small PV system and a solar thermal system.

Standard framing with 2×6 studs and cellulose insulation yields R-20 walls and R-44 roof. The house is well sealed, using foam and caulk, an infiltration barrier, and vapor barrier. A blower-door test rated the infiltration rate at 765 cfm, about half the typical rate at the time.

The result? The home uses 40% less energy than a comparable home in the area, and the $100/square foot cost, in 1999 dollars, is reasonable. You can get a normal-looking, high-performing house for not a lot of extra money.

The Advanced Green Home

The easiest way to get into a green home, if you can afford it, is to simply buy one from an innovative builder like Carter Scott. You’ll get a very green home that will perform well. And even though some of the green features, such as photovoltaics, add to the cost, you may be able to get an Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM). This specialized mortgage increases the amount you’re able to borrow for a house that has energy-saving features that add to the up-front cost. The price? Market rate homes start at $289,900.

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Scott’s company, Transformations, builds zero energy homes in the Northeast U.S. They’re fairly small and a basic rectangular shape, with R-50 double-stud walls and R-64 roofs with spray foam and cellulose.

For heating and cooling, Scott has been using two mini-split heat pumps for the entire house. That’s a great cost savings over a furnace/AC system, and results in a simple, efficient, compact system. A photovoltaic system is sized to produce all the electricity each home needs. The homes are grid-tied, so excess electricity can feed into the energy grid.

What’s not green? His windows are cheap and they may not last long. The homes use vinyl siding, but you can go with fiber-cement siding for about $10,000 extra. Overall, Transformations is determining what works and what doesn’t in green home construction. And this approach is how we learn the most, from a production builder who tries new ideas and evaluates those ideas and the home’s performance after a year.

The Funky Green Home

The main floor of the NewenHouse.

The main floor of the NewenHouse.

Other ways to create a green home, cheap or not, I’ve covered with Jon Passi’s self-built, off-grid home, and with Sonya Newenhouse’s Passive House. Neither is actually cheap, but each is a functional and attractive way to a green, net-zero home. I can’t really evaluate how green they are from a materials standpoint, but Sonya’s house has a small footprint at about 25 feet square, so it’s definitely greener than a larger home. Jon’s home was framed with locally cut wood, which is a green choice. His house would be greener, in a way, if if were grid-tied, so his excess production could go to use and not to waste, but it’s very green as is.

Another approach is architect and builder Roald Gundersen’s “whole tree” building method. This approach uses unmilled, small-diameter, fast growing trees for the framing. Walls are often done with earth plaster, and roofs are often green. These are custom creations, but with extremely green materials choices.

A small, whole-tree building by Roald Gundersen.

A small, whole-tree building by Roald Gundersen.

roald bookend

Another of Roald Gundersen’s whole-tree structures.

Resources

Bircher home

Pretty Good House

NewenHouse

Passi Home

99K House

Carter Scott

Seattle’s first net-zero home

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Greener Cities Are the Future of Sustainable Living

You’ve probably seen some of the lists of “best places” compiled by various magazines. Outside, Money, and others compile their lists based on their idea of relevant criteria. You see a lot of repeat winners, with Madison, Wisconsin, as a perfect example. It routinely wins a place on both lists.

I like the Outside list, as it shows cities and towns developing new amenities for recreation. What’s especially interesting is towns like this year’s winner, Richmond, Virginia, that have cleaned up previously polluted land and rivers. The James River, for example, was closed to fishing for 13 years due to extreme pollution. After extensive cleanup work, it’s now a recreational hub.

 

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Another approach to list-making is evaluating and improving the sustainability of cities. As more than 80% of Americans and Canadians are now urban dwellers, it’s clear that cities have a major positive impact on the environmental health of our world, and on our people. Greener cities are the future of sustainable living

It may seem counter-intuitive that cities can be centers of sustainable living—in contrast to living on the land and growing your own food, and so on—but it makes sense when you think about it. When people live in dense cities, they need to drive less—or not at all—to reach all the places they need to go. Delivery of goods and services is more efficient when more people are clustered together. Housing is more efficient on multiple levels with shared walls, for example, than having a home with four walls losing heat to the outside. Food is grown where there’s room to grow a lot efficiently, then transported to the mass of buyers. Waste is a resource and can be re-used or recycled. And cities draw people from the countryside and lessen humans’ daily impact on some rural areas.

So looking beyond simple measures of what we like in a place, such as good schools, outdoor recreation, and short commutes, what makes a place sustainable? And what are the most sustainable cities?

Siemens Green City Index rates 9 criteria

One measure is the Green City Index, developed by Siemens Corporation and the Economist Intelligence Unit. They applied these 9 criteria to cities all over the globe:

  • CO2
  • Energy
  • Land Use
  • Buildings
  • Air
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Transport
  • Environmental Governance

In North America, the top four most sustainable cities, of 27 evaluated, were San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and New York City. This is a useful metric, but cities also have a huge negative impact on the natural world. Bulldozing an entire field and building apartments and offices, even densely, removes wildlife habitat, as well as plants that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. How do cities mitigate this destruction?

 

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

What’s missing from sustainability ratings

This blog at the Sustainable Cities Collective discusses adding more green elements to those sustainability scores, such as green-space percentage, natural areas, and biodiversity. Adding those elements to a sustainability ranking will add to people’s consciousness of their importance.

And why are they important? Green space not only makes our cities look better, people feel less stressed, the heat island effect decreases, plants clean the air of pollutants for us, trees add to property values, and provide a host of other benefits.

Green space, street trees, and natural areas can remediate pollution to create healthier, more enjoyable, more sustainable cities, while they also become the places where we play.

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The House as Machine

I found these two articles interesting, and have been considering a similar idea recently: the house as machine. One commenter even used the same phrase.

Shades of Green

Solar vs. Superinsulation

My point is this: homes of the past did a better job, in some ways, of adapting to the changing weather. Houses in hot climates incorporated high ceilings and transom windows, with multiple windows arranged to encourage breezes to flow. Homes in cold climates incorporated small rooms around the heat source, and sometimes were earth sheltered. Actually, earth-sheltering is an effective strategy in all climates.

Back before we had abundant and portable energy such as natural gas and oil, buildings were built to be heated and cooled without machines specific to those tasks. There was no machine to add to the house that would provide abundant cool air, for example, and an affordable heater was a wood stove. Most of those homes were quite small by today’s standards.

Homes of the past certainly had problems, as air-sealing and insulation were not well understood. They tended to be drafty, and therefore well ventilated. Many homeowners created a fire hazard by extending their wood stove chimney in all directions to capture the most heat possible before the smoke escaped outside. People who could afford one employed a metal pan called a bed warmer, often filled with hot coals.

In the last few decades we’ve replaced good, regional design with more machines. More machines require more energy, and that leads us to the energy-guzzling homes of today, with homes all over the country adopting a more-or-less standard suburban architectural style (McMansion) that wastes energy like mad.

A home in the desert southwest, for example, should minimize the number of windows that face the southern and western sun. Most homes built in suburbia don’t consider such ideas, though, and are oriented to the street, with a huge air conditioner blasting away much of the year.

As the two articles state, the oil embargo in the 1970s got the efficient-home movement rolling, with great advances made. Builders and architects used superinsulation and passive solar design to cut down on energy requirements. These remain two of the most important components of efficient homes today.

A funky passive solar home with shading, solar gain, and thermal mass. A machine that works. Creative Commons license.

A funky passive solar home with shading, solar gain, and thermal mass. A machine that works. Creative Commons license.

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This earth-sheltered, passive solar home with photovoltaics uses only a fraction of the energy of a normal house. Creative Commons license.

The house as machine. Now it’s the house of machines—energy sucking machines. That’s not sustainable, but it’s easy to do so much better.

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A Visit to A Zero-Energy Home

A few weeks ago I attended a class called “The Zero Energy House.” Jon Passi taught the class for the Driftless Folk School, and is the owner and builder of the zero-energy home we learned about. The house is located a few miles outside of Viroqua, Wisconsin, and was built over the last five years or so.

Jon did a bunch of the work himself, including installing the photovoltaic and solar hot water systems. He said he spent about $180,000 and the house is off-grid, so there is a fair amount of hardware included in that price.

 

Here's a view of Jon Passi's zero energy home showing the front door, the sun room, and the solar thermal system to the left.

Here’s a view of Jon Passi’s zero energy home showing the front door, the sun room, and the solar thermal system to the left.

Construction

Jon built his home mostly conventionally, with poured basement walls, two inches of foam insulation below the slab, two inches of foam insulation on the exterior, and three inches of foam insulation on the interior. The solar hot water system feeds into a preheating tank, and then into a radiant heat system in the slab. There’s also a propane-fueled water heater, a small inline pump, and a backup boiler for baseboard radiators that Jon installed on the main floor and upper floor. The backup boiler system has never been used, but Jon said he installed it in case he wants to leave for an extended time during the winter sometime in the future. Jon reports that the radiant heat in the slab does an excellent job of controlling moisture in the basement, and I can attest that it was clean, dry, and warm on a rainy October day.

On top of this relatively standard basement, Jon built the framing with locally milled lumber. However, he said he would not do so again, as the lumber was not uniform in size, so he ended up milling every piece to size. You can imagine how time-consuming that was. The walls are insulated to about R-30 with open-cell spray foam, and the ceiling is insulated to R-50 with cellulose. Jon used Hardyplank siding and has been very happy with its durability and low maintenance requirements.

Heat comes from solar gain in the sunroom, and a woodstove on the main floor, in addition to the solar thermal heat in the basement slab. As for electricity, Jon installed a 3 kW photovoltaic system, with panels installed on the roof and on a ground mount. He said he really would need only about 1 kW for his needs.

Here's a view of the ground-mount PV on the left, the solar thermal system farther on, and the recycled windmill in the distance.

Here’s a view of the ground-mount PV on the left, the solar thermal system farther on, and the recycled windmill in the distance.

Water comes from a well located 100 feet or so from the house, up a small hill. The windmill is an old model, perhaps 100 years old, and was refurbished and sold to Jon by an Amish man who specializes in old windmills. It feeds into a concrete cistern, which will be full in just six hours on a windy day. The cost for the windmill and cistern were around $8000, and Jon reports that they work well and he’s happy with them.

My impressions

Two main ideas are sticking with me about Jon’s house: how normal it seems, and how feasible the whole project seems. I think most of us could pull this off.

Jon’s house looks utterly normal inside and out, with just a couple clues that it’s not. When you enter the main floor, you might notice the thick walls; the window sills seem to be about 12-15” deep. And as you walk around to the back of the house, you’ll see the photovoltaic panels and the solar hot water system. That’s about it.

Jon’s house, at about 2,500 square feet, seems oversized for one person. But it’s a more flexible size than a tiny home of 500 square feet, and is roomy enough to easily accommodate a family. And it seems that most families could handle this house just fine, as long as one person is willing to learn how to run the PV, solar thermal, and electrical systems. A smaller house would be cheaper to build and easier to heat, but this one may be easier to sell for use as a full-time home.

The main floor houses the woodstove, kitchen and dining area, and sunroom. The sunroom can be opened up and closed off with glass-paned French doors. I have had a similar space in one of my previous homes, and can attest that a properly designed sunroom can provide a great amount of free heat in cold, sunny weather. Without doors to completely close off the space, though, the sunroom will drain heat from the rest of the house after the sun sets.

The kitchen is the heart of the main floor.

The kitchen is the heart of the main floor.

The built-in dining table anchors the kitchen area; french doors to the sunroom are visible beyond.

The built-in dining table anchors the kitchen area; french doors to the sunroom are visible beyond.

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The sunroom, with thermal-pane windows, warms up nicely on sunny winter days.

The second-floor has a bathroom and a couple large bedrooms, with a large open area that Jon uses like a living room.

The second floor houses two bedrooms, a bathroom, and this living area.

The second floor houses two bedrooms, a bathroom, and this living area.

I like the solar thermal-radiant floor heat system, as the basement was quite comfortable. In warm weather you can simply shut it down and let the concrete mass cool. In cold weather the system can provide a substantial amount of heat, then automatically store it in the slab. I wonder about the cost, though, and its effectiveness in warming the second floor of the house. I also wonder if it would be cost-effective to install a loop for a wood boiler. It would be a redundant system, but would be functional when it’s cloudy. That’s a discussion for another day.

My main question in living with this house would be cooling. Sleeping in hot and especially humid weather is pretty sketchy for me. The bedrooms are upstairs, and I wonder if the windows can provide enough cross-ventilation. Fans can help a lot, but when it’s wicked hot out they’re just not enough. Maybe a mini-split system system would work to just cool the sleeping areas at bedtime. I’ve seen systems that draw only 900 watts or so in cooling mode, but more in heating mode. If that draws too much power from the PV system, I suppose I could sleep in the basement.

Diagram of a ductless mini-split heat pump system. Creative Commons photo courtesy of 3tonairconditioner.net.

Diagram of a ductless mini-split heat pump system. Creative Commons photo courtesy of 3tonairconditioner.net.

The main ideas to remember with this house are these:

  • A superinsulated and methodically air sealed house can look conventional yet work very well for creating a net-zero home.
  • Superinsulating, air sealing, and passive solar design make heating the home much easier.
  • The solar thermal and photovoltaic systems are more complex to manage than grid power, but it’s not that complex; just about anyone can learn how to run the systems in this house.
  • Jon learned it all when he decided to build his own house! “I had no idea you could even run an entire house off solar ’til I did it, and the same with solar hot water. The alt-energy stuff still amazes me, because I used to think the kind of house I now live in was an impossibility, or that it only was for super-rich people.”

What would Jon do differently?

After living in a house, there are bound to be some features that could be tweaked. Jon said that he would make a few changes, as well, if he were to build again.

“I’d put a masonry stove in it to heat it, and I’d probably make it underground, or semi-underground, plus I’d put the well farther up the hill so I’d have better, free water pressure. I bought lots of lumber for the house from the Amish, because I wanted to use local wood, but I had to re-mill every bit of it, so I would probably not use local sawmill wood next time. I guess, other than that, I would probably do lots of things the same,” Jon said.

And now for another viewpoint

Jon’s house is efficient, comfortable, off-grid, self-built, peaceful, and livable. And since technology is changing year by year, and as more and more people are building zero-energy homes, I think it’s helpful to evaluate how the systems work. You’ll find different points of view, even amongst building science professionals, so many questions still don’t have definitive answers. But I’m going to include a couple of links that make me think about the options.

I still don’t know if the solar thermal/radiant heat idea is efficient or a good idea. The consensus online at Green Building Advisor is that a radiant slab is overkill in a superinsulated house; is that true with solar thermal heating it? What about the idea that circulating pumps are too inefficient so off-grid homes don’t use radiant heat?

What if Jon had built without the solar thermal and radiant heat, and instead had used a mini-split system with extra PV to power it? He would also have cooling with this system. His backup system is a boiler and radiators, fed by propane. Could he eliminate that, as well? What would heat the house if he were gone for two months in the winter, and it was cloudy for days at a time? I think one or two propane-fueled direct vent heaters would cost much less than the boiler setup, and would be fine as a backup.

Well, in Jon’s case, he’s already at the mercy of the sun god, as he needs the sun for power and for hot water. That’s why he has a wood stove for heat, as well.

Solar Thermal Is Dead

Heating A Tight, Well-insulated Home

Will One Radiant Floor Heat Two Stories?

My tentative conclusion after reading all these is that solar thermal and the radiant heating are not optimal. A better solution would be more PV and a mini-split system.

And finally, I’m waiting for interior photos and will post them when I get them.

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Here’s A Relatively Affordable LEED Platinum Prefab Home

Living Homes, a builder of prefab homes, now offers their C6 model at a cost of $145 per square foot, or $179,000 for the three-bedroom, 1,232 square-foot model. That does not include the lot, foundation, trucking from the factory, or installation, but is a relatively affordable LEED Platinum prefab home. The company has several designs priced at $145 per square foot, all in the modern vernacular.

The C6 model is Energy Star certified, superinsulated, and uses materials like fiber-cement or cedar siding, cork flooring, and low-VOC finishes. I think they’re attractive homes, and I’m impressed that the cost is dropping while the performance is improving. I wonder if they’re insulated well enough to reach net-zero status here in Wisconsin. I’ve inquired and will update this post when I find out.

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