4 Pointers on Making Your Dream Home a Green Home

To Dan Chiras, green home and dream home are one in the same.

"You don't have to live in a grass shack to live sustainably," says Chiras, author of The Natural House and The New Ecological Home. "You can live well while living lightly."

But to do that successfully takes some know-how — something Chiras definitely has a lot of. He's written 21 books and more than 200 articles on sustainable home design and related subjects. While the topic of green building is vast, here's how Chiras recommends approaching any eco-home project.

1. Find the right site and size.
"You want to choose a low-impact site," Chiras says. "Homes have an enormous impact on the environment. Don't think you're going to build something that doesn't have an impact. The idea is to minimize that impact."

  • Consider building within existing towns and cities. Chiras points out that a spot that's tucked away on a dirt road may damage ecosystems and require more fossil fuels for commuting.
  • Chiras also advises staying away from north-facing slopes. Even if you don't design your home for passive solar, simply orienting your house due South will lower your energy costs by 10 percent, he says.
  • Lightening your impact can also be achieved with a little foresight. If you plan to be in your home for more than 30 years, think about how it can be easily accessible if you become less mobile, or how it can accommodate a bigger family. You'll save resources in the long run by not having to remodel (or move) later.

2. Explore your green building options.
You'll also save natural resources by choosing building products made from toxic-free, sustainably harvested or recycled materials."Anytime you're looking at a product and wonder if there is a greener alternative, the answer is yes," Chiras says. "Everything from the foundation to the roof has more environmentally and people-friendly alternatives."

Chiras estimates that today there are more than 2,000 green building materials on the market. For example, TJI is a relatively new engineered-wood product that uses half the wood of a 2" by 6" but offers the same strength. It can be used for framing floors and roofs.

Straw-clay is another option that can be used in remodeling or new construction. It's a mixture of straw and clay that can be used to fill and insulate walls. Natural plasters made from earthen materials are another green option. When making your own, always use subsoil and make sure it consists of at least 5 to 7 percent clay. Natural pigments can then be added to create the desired color.

When deciding what building material to use for new home construction, Chiras says to consider your region's climate. "You need to choose natural building materials that work in your area," he says. Rammed earth and adobe are great in the Southwest, while cordwood is popular in the Northeast. Strawbale and straw-clay can be used anywhere, but are best in areas that need high insulation, Chiras says.

3. Incorporate passive solar heating and cooling.
No matter where you live, if your home gets unobstructed solar access from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can take advantage of passive solar design. Orienting your home to the south, putting most windows on your south-facing walls, using overhangs wisely to shade sun in the summer and placing thermal mass in your home (such as interior walls made of material that absorb and radiate the sun's heat) can reduce fuel bills 30 to 80 percent, he says. And, if you do it right, it "won't cost you an extra penny" on top of what you would already be spending.

"Conceptually, passive solar heating is very, very simple, but there are a million and a half ways to screw it up," Chiras says. "I see a lot of two-story south-facing glass walls in solar homes, and it's really not a good idea. Solar is great, but do it right."

4. Avoid common green building mistakes.
Chiras sees lots of other mistakes, and he's learned plenty from his own. These parting tips from one of the leading experts in sustainable home design will give you some keys to success with green building — and a taste of the thousands of pearls of wisdom in Chiras' books.

  • "The success of a natural home depends on a good roof." Chiras says no matter what building material you choose, you need enough overhang to keep your exterior walls dry.
  • "One of the best things you can do is get an engineer's sign-off affirming the structural integrity of your home." This will 'be worth its weight in gold' to lenders and insurers, Chiras says, because they may be less familiar with sustainably designed homes.
  • "Avoid the tendency to overglaze, and stay away from angled glass." Too many windows — as well as those that are angled — can turn a home into a solar oven. South-facing glass should be no more than 7 to 12 percent of the total square footage of the home. That ratio should be reduced to less than 4 percent for east and north walls, and less than 2 percent for west-facing walls.

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