Retrofitness and Thoughtful Building Design

Some of the fastest return on investment you can get is by retrofitting a leaky, energy wasting building with high R-value insulation and efficient appliances. Many estimates show that US buildings use close to 50% of the total annual energy in the country- so this seems like a natural place to start if we want to conserve. But what if you’re building a house from scratch?

Architects and developers have, boutique projects aside, been driven by lower budgets and short time-frames, which means cookie cutter patterns, uninspired design and cheap materials. This inevitably leads to soul-draining layouts and poor use of resources. In essence the concept is “save money now, and let the future pay for itself”. With a little ingenuity and investment, as well as support from local and federal governments, each building can be built to optimize its sited location and materials.

Take for instance the concept of “the passive home”. In the northern hemisphere this type of home has most of the windows facing south (if building in the southern hemisphere have them face north). The eaves are designed to block the high summer sun and let in the low winter sun, so the angle and length of the eaves are determined by latitude. This keeps the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter, functioning as a passive heater. By planting evergreens on the northern side of the house the cold winds of the winter can be blunted, and deciduous trees planted on the south side will block the summer sun. If it can be incorporated into the design, build a thick, massive Trombe wall in front of a south facing window- this wall will soak up the winter rays and radiate heat into the house all night long. Water is a great thermal sink- if you can figure out a way to use the wall to store your rainwater which is then reused in the garden or as greywater, even better! And with a south facing roof you also have a wonderful base for your photovoltaic array and solar water heater. All it takes is a little research and a contractor willing to work with you. An open-minded local inspector doesn’t hurt either.

I’m not crazy enough to think that everyone can afford these elements in a new house, but I bet if you cut the average new house size in half you’d have plenty of cash left over to implement some of these energy-saving, comfort-increasing designs. And you’d be helping get the numbers down on the United State’s biggest energy hogs.

Here’s a couple of recommended books and resources:

Energy Savers (gov’t website)

Federal Weatherization Program

The Passive Solar House – there are lots of books on this subject out there, all are good primers on this important subject.

A Pattern Language – a beautiful book that will captivate your imagination. Written by a group of forward thinking architects and designers who studied recurring patterns, problems and solutions of civilizations through the millennia. They point out the designs and patterns that consistently recur in thriving communities- elements that any city-planner, architect and home-improver should know about before starting an important project. Starts at the global macro-level and zooms down all the way to “a space that only children can access comfortably”.

Energy Retrofitting Article – discusses some of the benefits of retrofitting homes.

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