Book Review: Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet

Book Review: Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet

Posted on 09. Sep, 2010 by in Building Techniques, Heating and Cooling, Sustainability, Value of Green

Of all the green building guides for homeowners out there, here is one that should be on everyone’s shelf – owners, architects, builders alike. It’s called “Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet” by Ann V. Edminster, a Bay Area local. Everything I’ve been struggling so hard to explain to our Title 24 clients, even in a limited way, is presented in this book with clarity and accuracy, in a very readable and lively prose style. It’s backed by both the latest research and by personal experience and observation.

The Problem with Mantras

“They want it to be ‘green’…” Neither the client nor the architect had any comprehension or appreciation of “green” other than as a gimmick. The client was an Al Gore fan who had read “An Inconvenient Truth” and suddenly decided mid-design that the new house being designed for him and his girlfriend needed a “zero carbon footprint”. There had previously been vague feel-good conversations about “eco” and “green” but nothing tangible, no specific goals, performance measures, or standards to follow. Unfortunately, neither the client nor the architect understood how much work “zero carbon” actually entailed, and the client hadn’t selected this particular architect for his expertise in green building. He had originally envisioned a luxury home by a “design-oriented” (i.e. Modernist) architect.

I can’t tell the whole story here, but it seems that the client was shocked to hear that there might be re-design fees involved, plus a fair amount of additional research. (He and his girlfriend split up in the middle of the project, too – the project was subsequently abandoned.) Perhaps he felt that anyone calling himself an architect should already have the answers. That’s a bit like saying the architect should already have the house designed the moment you set foot in their office.

First, Take A Good Look in the Mirror

But choosing green can be daunting – as if shelling out several hundred thousand dollars or a few million for a custom-built home isn’t daunting enough. If you’re seriously trying to be green, there are so many competing standards and methodologies out there, it can seem overwhelming. And to be honest, there is no shortcut to thinking hard and seriously about it as an owner. You’re not just learning about technology, you’re taking an inventory of yourself, your habits, the real implications of those habits, and what you could do without. It’s also being very honest about what you can’t live without and sticking to your guns about it – even if that need might seem “selfish” rather than “green”. You can’t just engage with an architect, wave your hand like Captain Piccard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and say “Make it so.”

What we need is a simple guide on HOW to think about building green, meaning how do you go about deciding what your priorities are and then executing them to completion? How do you even define what’s green, or green enough? What kind of science is behind each of the green definitions, anyway? It’s an exercise in complex problem solving – and self-analysis.

Start With Home Energy Consumption

Measuring greenness according to energy consumption is fairly straightforward, and while that can’t capture everything related to embedded energy, building life cycle, etc., it is the sort of bottom line that anyone who can balance a checkbook can understand. And finally, we have a book that talks turkey about how do we get from being energy-dependent to a point where we’re more in control.

“Energy Free” manages to provide clear guidelines without being too dogmatic about any one thing. Edminster’s focus is on energy efficiency as a means to reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. Along the way, she exposes a lot of myths and misconceptions about what it really means to produce your own energy instead of relying on “the grid”. Although this approach is sometimes called Net Zero, she prefers to call it energy-free, because you’re freer, more liberated (to a point which YOU determine).  It’s both a manifesto and a guidebook for creating and enjoying a net-zero-energy home.

Determining That Net Zero Point

The first debunking is to explore what NZE means. For example, producing as much electricity as you consume onsite doesn’t take into account transmission losses from the power plant to your house. Also, you have to use different conversion ratios depending on the type of fuel you use (electric, gas, propane). In the case of electric power, the type of fuel used at the power generation plant can affect how “green” or “wasteful” that electricity really is. This forces the owner to confront his or her own principles at the get-go. How far are YOU willing to go and what will you get out of it?

Then there are practical questions about Net Zero. Will it actually save me money? Can I use the same builder? What are the real-world pitfalls and how do I avoid them? How do I manage the project? Who needs to be on the team, and when? Edminster does a superlative job of capturing the key drivers and human factors that can make your NZE project a success.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Our culture of instant gratification and ever-shrinking attention spans does not lend itself to complex, thoughtful, tailored solutions. But, after clearly defining your principles, goals, and budget, the next thing you need to do is realize that every solution is local and is dependent on context. What works in San Diego may not make sense in San Francisco. And, concerns that are important for surviving a Massachusetts winter might not matter in San Jose.

A radiant barrier won't help as much in Tahoe as it will in Death Valley. Different climates call for different measures.

Edminster’s approach is to treat it like a team science project, and to keep everyone focused on the performance goals. It’s one thing to say that passive solar designs are nifty, but it’s better to start with some specific goal (and location), and then identify all the different ways one could achieve that goal. KNOW what your goals are, and be prepared to read the fine print – like which measures actually make sense for your climate zone. But don’t forget your personal goals, or you won’t be happy with the end result. A happy home takes more than just low-flow showerheads, and everyone on the team should appreciate this fundamental notion.

Your Team

This is something that other Green Builders have said, but it’s worth repeating, since we say it to our Title 24 clients as well. If you want a high-performing home, think farther ahead to make the best design decisions possible, and get your experts all talking to one another during the early design stages. And don’t use a compartmentalized series of handoffs, which unfortunately is the standard way of doing business in the homebuilding and home remodeling industry. Make sure your team members can work well together (that includes you) and that everyone starts on the same page. This is referred to as “integrated design”.

Green building requires a long-range planning approach, rather than a moment-to-moment response.

The skill sets are also different. A typical, non-integrated team might have an owner, a builder, and an architect. Other consultants might be brought in as needed but they have limited influence over design elements not in their immediate purview. They probably don’t have any visibility, either.

A compartmentalized, "handoff" approach might look like this Gantt chart.

In addition to the owner and builder, an integrated team might have a mechanical engineer, an energy modeler, possibly a structural engineer, and a renewable-energy vendor. All of these individuals need to be part of the initial design process, so that they can understand the wholistic impact of each proposed design element – and the reasons behind that impact.The team must have a clear common understanding of the goals of the project, in order to determine whether a particular impact is acceptable or not.

Start by Scoping Down Energy Needs

It makes sense once you hear it. Minimize the home’s energy budget before sizing any renewable energy systems. You do this by a multi-pronged approach that includes building, appliances, and occupants. The building should be efficient and not oversized; appliances should be not just Energy Star rated, but top of the chart; and occupants should be educated on things like how much energy a plasma TV REALLY uses.

Downsizing on floor space might be a hard pill for some people to swallow, but it’s really only going back to what homes were like in the 1950s, when the average was 292 SF per person. Now, it’s more like 961 SF – a threefold increase. Do we really need that floorspace? Or could some of it be outdoor space, or transitional space that doesn’t need conditioning?

This rather cramped attic is actually from Lawrence Welk's childhood home. A far cry from McMansions!

This Time, You Should Sweat the Little Stuff

Next come the appliances, lights, and electronics. What can you scope down or trade for a more efficient model? What can you eliminate? What energy management systems are there to monitor usage and to shut off appliances when not in use? What about water heating? Do you need that spa, or would a compact steam shower do almost as well?

Almost every item in the house offers opportunities for reduction, from faucets to lighting fixtures. For energy nerds, the lengthy discussions of just how much extra energy is used by the heating element inside your dishwasher will be glorious. But actually, everything discussed is in response to frequently raised questions about things like whether a measure really saves resources or not.

The section on building efficiency goes on for pages about different types of insulation, but even better were the detail sections showing sheathing, insulation, and airtightness. Everything from mold prevention to stack ventilation to solar heat gain. Without playing favorites, there’s a huge section on heating and cooling systems and how to get the most out of each type. There are even piping diagrams for hot water delivery.

But the best thing? An energy-modeling chart showing how the influence of different building parameters changes by building type and climate zone. For example, window area and solar heat gain was more important on the “urban” single family home in Palm Desert, but of lesser importance on a low-rise detached home in San Francisco. Surprisingly, building orientation did not have as much of an effect as one might think, except for the urban home in Palm Springs.

Living Patterns and Appliance Use

One thing I liked about the chapter on integrated design was the emphasis on behavioral factors and living patterns. For example, an owner who is away from the house much of the time might have different preferences than someone who is there all the time. Some owners may be willing to change their behavior or their tolerances as well. For example, foregoing heavy air conditioning in favor of the old Mediterranean tradition of afternoon siestas, or wearing a sweater on chilly mornings.

Putting on one sweater on a cool day might be better than immediately turning up the heat. But, if you have to wear a parka and frosbite protection indoors, the house is probably too cold.

As with HVAC systems, the discussion on appliances and their use is exhaustive. Everything from induction cooktops to dishwashers (including when to hand wash and when not to), gardens, gadgets, and monitoring systems. The only thing missing was the obligatory rant on the mercury toxicity of CFLs. (I personally feel OK about them – I can see better and they cost so much less to operate than my favorites, the halogens.)

Quality Construction

Even the fanciest windows won’t save as much energy if the builder does a poor job of installing them. The same applies to everything else: walls, systems, plumbing, ductwork. Each part of the whole should be optimized and well-crafted. Unfortunately craftsmanship is not a given for all builders, although they’d like you to think so.

Post Construction Verification

Much of the information presented in this book came from the author’s direct experiences. Just because an energy model predicted a home that uses 25% less energy, does that mean that the actual owners will use less energy once they’re living there? What if it’s too hot, or too cold, because of some factor or complex interrelation of factors unique to the site? What do you do then? Usually, with good planning, remedial measures will be minor, and can be anticipated, to be used only if needed.

Please note that we have no commercial interest in promoting Ann Edminster's book "Energy Free" - we truly think it's a great guide to planning your home energy strategy.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet”

  1. Book Review: Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet | Green … | Go Low Energy

    09. Sep, 2010

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    23. Jun, 2011

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  3. […] home energy/green building consultant and author of the book “Energy Free” which we reviewed a few months back. She didn’t actually comment for this article, but she’s consulted […]

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