Eco-House, Normal House
A Little Weblog Essay about Our New House, and its Various Environmental and Sustainable Features and Benefits
This week my family moves into a new house that we have just finished building — or rather, that the builders have just finished building, financed by the proceeds on the sale of our previous apartment (we sold it a year and a half ago, just before the financial crisis, and have been renting a little place since then). We have the additional help of a loan from our local bank, to whom we will be paying interest for years and years to come. But at the moment, looking at the now-complete physical realization of a dream, this financial commitment seems more than worth it.
The house is our design (drawn by my wife, Kristina AtKisson), from floor to roof, and we’ve tried think “eco” and “sustainable” every step of the way. At the same time, we wanted to build a “normal” house. This has always been our ambition: to demonstrate how normal it is to be sustainable.
So, from the outside, there is nothing about this house that says “green.” You can’t tell by looking at it.
What’s so green and sustainable about this house? Here comes the virtual tour …
A Good Piece of Land
We start with the lot itself. We chose a southwest-facing slope, which means we will get the benefit sunlight for much of the year. This will bring needed heat and light in spring and fall, reducing our energy costs. (Nobody in Sweden gets much sun in the winter.) You can bet we’ll be growing some vegetables, probably in terraced plots. And right behind our house, on the top of the hill, is preserved natural land. Our backyard is berries, trees, a small pond, and the little forts built by day-care and school kids who come there to play.
Efficiency in Overall Form
Then there is the shape of the house: cubic, with a peaked roof, which is close to spherical as you can get (a sphere being the best shape from an energy-and-thermodynamics perspective).
Sunlight Streaming Through the Windows
On sun-facing side, there are lots of highly-efficient triple-glazed doors and windows to let in that sunlight when it’s around, and hold in the heat when it’s not. Those windows are also “bio-clean” glass, which means we’re using a tiny bit of bio-mimicry in that product, as the structure of the glass will naturally shed a lot of the dirt that would otherwise accumulate.
The house is made of wood, and the wood itself comes — to the highest degree we could specify — from Swedish forests managed under Forestry Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards. Most of the framing etc. is FSC certified; other bits, like the floor, are from vendors who use FSC lumber, but have not bothered to get formal certification (which costs them money). About three-quarters of Sweden’s commercial forests are managed in this way.
Heat from … Heat
To heat the water for showers, laundry, and the heating pipes that run through the cement under the wood floors, we have a heat exchanger that pulls the warmth out of the air and wastewater and re-circulates that warmth into the house (and adds new heat as necessary from electricity). When we showed the specs on this unit to our builder, he was amazed: it has the same efficiency as a groundwater-based heat exchange system, which extracts heat from deep wells. We’ll occasionally add more heat to the air with an efficient, enclosed, wood-burning fireplace as well (also eco-labeled); and that heat will also get re-circulated through this system.
Not “Passive,” but “Active” — with Almost the Same Efficiency
We decided not to go for the increasingly popular “passive house” design, which means your home heating needs (though not your hot water) are covered by body heat and waste heat from the lights and machines in your house. For one thing, we don’t have so many lights or machines on usually; and the ones we have are highly efficient. We didn’t want to be dependent on these secondary heat sources.
But we do aim to achieve the same energy consumption levels of a passive house, by keeping the thermostats lower and generally thinking a lot about energy consumption. And our walls are extra thick, extra tight, and extra insulated. (Source of the insulation material: recycled glass.) The walls are not quite as thick as for a passive house, but that was a trade-off we made in order to increase the light coming in through the windows. (I confess: quite a number of decisions were made with aesthetics and comfort in mind first, and environmental performance second.)
Somewhere, a Windmill is Making our Electrons … but Someday the Sun Will Too
As our source of electricity, we purchase certified wind energy off the grid. We do this through a major supplier, rather than smaller, alternative wind cooperative (there are a number of these in Sweden), in order to add our voice to the “normal” market demand signal: “Make more renewable energy, please!”
But we’re thinking ahead, and we had the builders prepare the house for future installation of solar photovoltaic panels. The hookups are all ready; we just decided to build the house first, and take our time with studying the solar energy options and watching how the technology develops. (I’ve heard some really exciting things about new solar cells.)
A Green Kitchen
Actually, it’s white, and stainless steel … but all the cabinets, counter, the faucet etc. are officially eco-labeled (“environmentally marked” as we say in Swedish). So are the windows and the front door and anything else that we could find with an eco-labeled option available.
And All the Best, Efficient, Ultra-Normal Equipment
We installed the usual (for our part of the world) washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove — and they all have the highest energy ratings available on the Swedish market. The fridge has a futuristic looking “Save Energy” reminder built right into the door. The dryer we’ll use only when line-drying doesn’t work, and the dishwasher … well, I’m the lazy one in the family who wanted a dishwasher in the first place, and produced research data showing that the total energy consumption and environmental impact per dish was lower than with hand-washing.
Don’t Forget the Sweaters and Socks and …
Really, we like wearing sweaters inside in the winter. It’s cozy. It’s good for you. And T-shirt-temperatures inside a house just feel weird when there is eighty centimeters of snow outside your window. There are lots of other little tricks to reducing energy demand, and we try to use all of them, like not draining all the bath water out right away, but waiting until it gives off all its heat first. (The heat exchanger grabs even more heat from the room-temperature water before it departs the premises, re-circulating even more heat back into the house.)
So, What’s *Not* So Eco About this House?
Well, building a house is hardly an energy efficient, environmentally friendly affair. Trees get cut down. Rock gets blown up and rubble gets moved around with heavy machinery. Delivery trucks come, garbage trucks go, and workers come and go in their large, petroleum-driven vehicles.
And there’s plenty of stuff in our house that is not exactly on the approved list among hard-core greens. Take the aluminum roof: it’s durable, it looks great, but we don’t know where the aluminum came from — and we do know that wherever it came from, it had a huge environmental impact. (Industry people tell us the aluminum in the roof is from recycled sources, but we haven’t verified that yet.) Some folks would also scoff at the foam in the rear support wall, a petroleum product; bit it also happens to be a great insulator, and it’s keeping that carbon dioxide bound up for as long as the house stands.
Neighbors to us who built even greener used organic insulation; but we chose the ordinary mineral variety, scared off by one friend’s bad experience with rotting insulation, and pleased to learn that the source of the insulation fibers was recycled glass. “Organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.”
Of course the cement for the foundation has its big carbon emissions price. But really, the biggest climate criminal in our house-building story is not the house.
It’s the car.
I’ve written about our car before: an 85% ethanol-driven Ford Flexifuel. We made so many extra trips in that car during the building process — because we lived farther away from school temporarily, and because we had so many extra errands to run — that I suspect a serious analysis would show our increased car use to be one of the largest sources of increased carbon emissions, even compared to other parts of the building process. After we have moved in, and the house shifts into “use” phase (see below), the car is sure to be our biggest source of environmental impact, because the impact of the house itself — driven on renewable energy — will be pretty close to zero.
That’s why my wife wants to just get rid of the car. Again, I’m the resistant one, arguing (okay, I’m stretching it) that we at least need to able to respond to emergencies, get to the fairly-distant hospital quickly, etc. Maybe I just like knowing that I can go grocery shopping at 8:30 at night, when the buses are few and far between.
But we’re seriously looking at abandoning the car once we move back into our neighborhood and settle back into our regular routines of bus, bike, and walking transport. Or (this is more realistic, given my confessed laziness), getting a plug-in electric hybrid once they come on the market. In any case, we want our car-related carbon emissions, already reduced thanks to our Swedish-Brazilian ethanol, to go down drastically.
Because It’s the Use Phase that Really Counts
In life cycle analysis of consumer products, it’s very often the use phase — the many years of actual living in a house, wearing a garment, driving a car — that has by far the largest environmental impact. We’re going to estimate our climate impact for the actual building process, and take steps to “neutralize” it as best we can. But we’ll focus mostly on living in ways that reduce our climatic and environmental impact in the long run — not just with regard to the house, but also with what we buy, and what daily choices we make.
The distance to my office, for example, is going to be dramatically reduced … to about 15 meters. We’ve built a small free-standing cottage in back of the lot, by the forest, that I’ll use as my main office and studio. Wind energy will drive my computers and internet link (though not the internet itself, of course), and I’ll be running more and more of my trainings and meetings via the web, from there.
In Conclusion …
We’re not trying to be eco-saints; we’re trying to be eco-normal, in a suburban Swedish context. The whole point of building this house was to be able to live closer to the natural world (I love having a forest right out the back door), and closer to our sustainability values. It was a big investment, but we also think the overall running costs in financial terms will be the same, or lower, compared to where we were living before.
And of course, the quality of life will be higher. Our daughters are excited to have their own rooms for the first time. And I’m looking forward to waking up every day in my wife’s truly lovely architectural design, looking out at a giant old oak and a mature (tasty) apple tree, in a community of good friends and neighbors.
Both Kristina and I are well aware, maybe even achingly aware, that what is super-efficient “eco-normal” for us — a small-to-medium sized house by modern Swedish standards, in a normal Stockholm suburban area — is still super-luxury compared to most of the world. So this house, the dream that took over two years to convert into a reality, will be our “home base” for our continued work to try to help make that world greener, fairer … and hopefully, more sustainable.