Green Building Megatrends

10 Green Building Megatrends from the “Godfather of Green”

Jerry Yudelson, the “Godfather of Green”


Green building is facing a number of changes, according to “The Godfather of Green,” Jerry Yudelson. A LEED fellow and former president of the Green Globes rating system, Yudelson has recently written a book, Reinventing Green Building, in which he identifies 10 “megatrends” he believes will impact certification systems, markets, government rules, and green building technologies through 2020 and beyond.

Read more here.

Does LEED-ND Work for Established Neighborhoods?

image of established neighborhood; Does LEED-ND Work for Established Neighborhoods?

LEED-ND was developed jointly by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Congress for The New Urbanism, and the United States Green Building Council.

Does LEED-ND Work for Established Neighborhoods?

Similar in ambition and execution to GBCA’s Green Star – Communities program, LEED-ND provides a framework for “greener” development on a neighbourhood scale. Thanks to the different missions of the principles involved in its genesis, LEED-ND combines elements of green building, New Urbanism, and smart growth.

More about LEED:

Ohio Senate Votes to Ban LEED

Do Green Ratings Impact Affordable Housing?


‘Sustainable’ Doesn’t Have to Cost More





Becoming A Very Green City

Convergence. Synergy. Whatever you call it, many different organizations in my city (the La Crosse, Wisconsin area) are coming together to learn, teach, and practice sustainable living principles. And it appears that momentum is building. La Crosse is becoming a very green city.

So many different projects are interwoven that it can be challenging to remember them all. Some are well under way, such as Gundersen Lutheran’s projects, and some are still in the planning stages. In no particular order…

Creating a community food system

Hillview Urban Agriculture Center is building a community food system. This nonprofit group is working with Western Technical College, Mayo Health System, Organic Valley, the YMCA, and others to grow and distribute food for local people to eat, addressing food insecurity, food deserts, and healthy eating.

Western Technical College will build a new greenhouse system on campus that will provide space for Hillview, as well as for the college’s Landscape Horticulture Program. The college will build three Passive Houses on the former Hillview Greenhouse site. WTC students will help build one home per year, gaining invaluable hands-on experience, integrating the different elements of the Building Innovations program, and adding to knowledge of best practices for sustainable housing. The houses will be sold, adding to the tax base of the city.

This photo shows the old Hillview site, where three Passive Houses will be built by professional contractors and WTC students.


Western Sustainability Institute will be a regional resource

WTC is also building the Western Sustainability Institute, which is to be a central resource for the regional sustainability efforts of business, government, nonprofits, and education. The Sustainability Institute will be advised by the Mississippi River Region Sustainable Communities Consortium (MRRSCC), which includes members from regional government, planning, education, and nonprofit entities. The MRRSCC is being developed with funding from a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Gundersen Lutheran is nearly energy independent

Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center is a national leader in sustainability efforts through their Envision program, and will be energy independent in 2014. They’ve invested in conservation, tapped the county landfill for methane, invested in wind farms, installed a biomass boiler, and more.

And the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County have adopted The Natural Step, which provides a framework for ensuring that human activities are done sustainably. And many more projects are under way.

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Learning Center Built from Straw Bales and Whole Trees

Whole Trees Architecture and Structures.

Learning Center at Angelic Organics designed and built by Roald Gundersen and Whole Trees Architecture and Structures.

Whole Trees Architecture and Structures creates some beautiful, earthy buildings. They use unmilled, whole trees that grow quickly and are a renewable resource.


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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.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

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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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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.


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.


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

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

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.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

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Where Are the Neighborhood PV Systems?

I recently visited an off-grid, net-zero home out in the boonies of Vernon County, Wisconsin. The owner/builder, Jon, installed a 3 kWh photovoltaic system, and created a useable, comfortable home. It would have cost $10,000, he said, to hook up to the grid, so he skipped it.

It got me thinking, though. PVs are about $1/watt right now, thanks to massive excess production capacity, especially in China. The installed price will vary but should be $5-6/watt. If demand is less than supply, as is the case right now with PV panels, we should see low prices for a time, then production capacity (supply) diminish to meet demand. Now would be the perfect time for Jon, for example, to buy PV panels, hook up to the grid, and start selling electricity. Plus, there are still federal tax credits for these systems.

Even better would be a neighborhood PV system. In a new development just being built, it seems like it would make sense to put those rooftops to work with PVs on every home, all grid-tied. The PV system could be owned by all homeowners together, and maintained by the association. The PV system would be a valuable asset that’s part of the house, and the homeowners get the benefits of PV power with little hassle.

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I’ve also read about this project in Ithaca, New York, where a housing co-op added panels to their existing development, and self-financed the project. In this case, the PV project generates 55% of the electricity needed. I think it would be great to have developments and neighborhoods that generate a surplus.

For that to happen, it’s important that every state adopt net-metering, so that homeowners and developers are adequately rewarded for their investment. This idea is essentially a distributed power system that requires little maintenance and produces no pollution. An added benefit: the utility companies will need to build fewer new power plants in the future.

Where else is this happening? I have seen few examples besides these two.

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